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Downfall: Revolution

The only thing I love more than making intricate, fascinating worlds when I game is making intricate, fascinating worlds and then watching them burn.

Which is why I love Caroline’s game, Downfall. I love making the world and fleshing out all the traditions, and I love the tight personal tensions. And I’m guessing a lot of you do too, because you are wise and savvy gentle people with exceptional taste.

Downfall is great, but if there’s one thing I’d change (and to paraphrase Tolkien’s own criticism of Lord of the Rings), it’s that the game is too short! It’s a really good fit for one-shots, but I want some multi-session Downfall where we really get to spend time in this tragically flawed society we created.

So what if instead of exploring the life of a single hero, we had a whole revolution, with new heroes rising to carry on the cause…?

The Hero May Fall, But The Revolution Goes On

Part of the premise of Downfall is that there is only one Hero, the person who recognizes that the Flaw at the root of society is exactly that: a flaw. The Hero fights to save society but ultimately fails, because, hey, the game is called “Downfall” right? It’s very much the Hero’s story.

For this “Revolution” hack, you would start off with a single hero just like normal, but other heroes would emerge as you play. Maybe they’re people who were inspired to follow in the hero’s footsteps — or maybe they think the hero was a failure who wasn’t willing to do what needed to be done: they’ll do it right.

When you introduce new heroes, it’s best if they have some connection to the old hero, directly or indirectly, even if it’s just that the rising hero watched the old hero’s trial on TV. That ties all the stories together. A new hero could have their own new Fallen and Pillars or we could keep using previous Fallen and Pillar characters if there’s a strong connection there.

The first Fallen was an official who worked with the Hero before the Hero turned his back on the system, but the new Hero is that Fallen’s estranged daughter. The new Pillar is the new young Hero’s best friend, who loves her but doesn’t understand what she’s so fired up about.

Or maybe we don’t even know who the next hero is until the old one falls or gives up. Maybe it’s the rising star we expected… or maybe it’s someone totally different. Maybe the person we *thought* was going to follow in the hero’s footsteps turns around and embraces the Flaw instead… dum dum dum!

Each round the story is always about just one hero: the scenes are all about them. If another hero makes an appearance, they’re a secondary character, not the focus. At the end of each round you could switch to a different hero as the focus, weaving back and forth between their stories, or just keep playing the same hero all the way to their destruction. Either works.

In the end the society is still going to fall — yes, it’s still Downfall! — but I think telling the story of multiple heroes would shift the focus to the society’s issues instead of the life of just one person. It gives us more time to explore different facets of the culture, and also dig into all the different ways our heroes can fail: one might go down fighting, another get worn down and give up, while another turns into the very thing they hate…

Greater Than Three Games

I think some groups haven’t played as much Downfall as they’d like because it is designed for exactly three players. If you’ve got four people at the table, Downfall is off the menu. Which is a crime.

So as long as we’re turning everything topsy-turvy, what about playing with more than three people??? The turn order and player balance are crafted like a fine Swiss watch, so hacking it like this will doubtless lose some of that grace, but I think it’s a worthwhile trade to let people play Downfall when they otherwise couldn’t. I also suspect playing with more than three works particularly well with this Revolution hack, because there are more characters to go around. You’ve got new Heroes and their related characters, etc.

The simplest approach is just to go around the table exactly as you normally do. If you’ve got five people, for example, the first three are the Hero, Fallen and Pillar and the remaining two don’t have a role at the moment. When you play scenes, the scene-maker can decide to have them play other characters and assign the role that fits that character. So the Hero might make a scene talking to the Pillar and then have one of the “spare” players take on another Pillar in the scene, or play a rising Hero, for example. But only the players who were “officially” in those roles would be able to use the special powers, like the Fallen calling for consequences, etc.

Eventually everyone would play every role, but if you switched Heroes between rounds some players might never play particular Heroes, but I think the payoff of playing some epic Downfall would be worth it.

That’s The Hat’s Job

And yeah, Caroline, the creator of Downfall, is doing a Kickstarter right now for an entirely different game, Fedora Noir. Go back it!

And of course since I’m hacking Downfall to have more than one character have the same role, I should make a joke about doing the same with Fedora Noir just so I can say the Detective wears many Hats…

Ben Robbins | July 29th, 2021 | , | 1 comment

Evergreen

Names are hard. Except when they’re extremely easy. Some names just fly out of the ether and can’t be avoided (Microscope, Kingdom). But more often you have to sit and fiddle and poke and prod.

So it’s always an important step in game design when a project gets a proper codename. A name that feels like it is going to stick. A name that fits like a glove.

Today’s name: Evergreen.

And that’s all for now (tease!), because I’m closer to the beginning than the end, and I don’t generally talk about projects until they’re ready to roll, except to say: Happy Birthday, L! The greatest of oaks grows from the smallest of sprouts.

Ben Robbins | July 18th, 2021 | , | 5 comments

Feelings > Actions

When I’m playing a role-playing game, I’m much more interested in hearing what someone’s character feels about a situation than what they do.

If we understand the character’s feelings, even taking no action is informative. And if we don’t know their feelings, any action remains a mystery. Why did they do that? We don’t know.

And if you ask a player what their character feels about something and they can’t answer, all the more reason to slow down, dive in, and let them figure that out. Take that time! Understanding your character’s feelings makes deciding what they would do a whole lot easier.

There’s a very old school tendency to tunnel vision on problem solving: there’s a situation, so our characters have to fix it. That’s our job! In the worst case, the characters just become tools doing what the situation demands, without ever showing us what they personally want or think about things. They become interchangeable troubleshooters rather than people with their own desires or biases.

I want to hear if your character is passionate about finding a cure for the Duke or thinks it’s a fools errand or is just doing it for the money. Maybe you wind up doing the exact same thing, but I want to know how you felt about it. That’s what makes it a story.

Ben Robbins | July 9th, 2021 | ,

A Careful Balance of Agreement & Disagreement

Any role-playing game is a careful balance between agreement and disagreement.

We need agreement because the game world only exists in our minds. If we can’t agree about what’s true, we’re going to contradict each other. If you think there are walls around the city and I don’t, our game will crash.

Since agreement is so important, you might think disagreement was the enemy, something we want to avoid at all costs. But that’s impossible. Players come to the table preloaded with disagreement. We all have different tastes, interests, and viewpoints, so it’s completely natural not to want exactly the same things.

And not only is disagreement unavoidable, it’s actually beneficial. If we agree about everything that happens, there’s no tension or surprise. We play with other people—instead of scribbling a novel in our lonely tower—precisely because their contributions surprise us. Our conflicting ideas about what should happen are what makes play interesting. Can we save the city from the invaders? Will that character fall in love? You may think so, I may not, but ultimately we don’t know yet. Let’s play and find out!

But disagreement has to be managed. That’s what good game rules do: they help us navigate this social/creative minefield. Good rules tell everyone where we need to agree and where we can disagree. Then they help us resolve our disagreements at the right time and turn them into satisfying new agreements about what is true.

This is an excerpt from the new edition of Kingdom, so the next line is “How does Kingdom do that?”, followed by a discussion of how the Kingdom itself is the core agreement that builds consensus and then each Crossroad is an invitation to disagree.

But the core principle is, I think, true of all role-playing games. Disagreement is not the enemy. It is unavoidable and actually beneficial, if the rules are designed to handle it.

Ben Robbins | July 3rd, 2021 | , , ,

K2: Books Are Shipping!

Kingdom books have arrived and are shipping!

If you pre-ordered, keep your eyes peeled! Soon it’s time for Summer Kingdoms…

Ben Robbins | June 28th, 2021 | ,

K2: Start the Presses

Ahh, the age-old tale of getting a book ready for print! It goes a little something like this:

Send the file to the printer. They ship you the print. Make some adjustments.

Do another test. Make some more adjustments.

Do another test. Love the test. Approve the test.

Start the presses.

K2 print test

And isn’t that a good looking cover? Kudos again to my artist, Al Lukehart.

Ben Robbins | May 25th, 2021 | ,