Designer Diary: Down the Rabbit Hole

So, Frax and I are working on a new game. We want to create a game about characters who cross over from the mundane world into a strange world of gods and faeries, or secret masters and conspiracies, or maybe magi and vampires… you get the idea. Universes like Neverwhere, Sandman, or the World of Darkness, Nobilis, Immortal, the X Files, all fit into this broad category.

But we’ve had some bad experiences with games like that. Playing those sorts of games, we’ve often found we were stumbling around, not understanding how the world worked, and outmatched and manipulated by NPCs with vast powers and vaster influence. Running them, we found that we would be required to invest hours of time creating the giant conspiracy or sprawling nether world, to make it coherent and consistent and to be always on top of the complicated, interrelated facts when the players began poking around at the tapestry we had woven. Of course, the two feed each other: all that effort means the game has to be about what we the GM have created, not about the players.

We want a game that delivers the conspiracy game experience: mystery, confusion, complicated weird shit – while avoiding these pitfalls. Beyond that, we want a game that focuses on the characters and their personal journeys from naive and sceptical ingenue to being a part of the world beyond the veil, and even masters of it.

So this is the first in a series of designer diaries about the game. It isn’t a finished product – we’re designing it as we go. Some bits remain to be defined, and some bits will probably change. So without further ado…

Aim of design: To create a game in which ordinary people go down the rabbit hole into a mysterious world to which they are naïve and vulnerable, without (a) the players feeling like mere pawns, (b) a huge burden on the GM to create and drip feed the secret world to the players, and with (c) a focus on character development and how the characters come to terms with the mysterious world. The system will support these design aims.

From novice to master

The players move through a series of stages akin to the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). They begin with sceptical disbelief and slowly move towards integrating themselves into the mysterious world and becoming movers and shakers in that world. (Perhaps there will be an option to return to the normal world instead – but this would retire your character.)

The players are incentivised to move through each stage because every time they move through a stage they gain new supernatural powers and/or increase the strength of their existing powers. (They start the game with little or no powers.)

The players are incentivised not to move through each stage too quickly because every time they reach a new stage they refresh certain energy meter(s) (health, magical power, etc) which are eroded in play. Optimal play involves wearing down your meter(s) in scenes and then transitioning to a new stage when you are at your weakest.

Note: we might need a further brake on progression so players who transition very quickly don’t get too far ahead of the pack. Or maybe we do not need this.

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

8 thoughts to “Designer Diary: Down the Rabbit Hole”

  1. There ought to be a term for this kind of story. By analogy with ‘portal fantasy’ (which is where someone is unexpectedly projected into a strange other world), can I suggest ‘trapdoor fantasy’?

    1. Mo: we originally called it a “what the fuck?” game. But we decided that wouldn’t be appropriate as a title.

      Trapdoor suggests dungeons, which would be an unfortunate connotation. “Secret world” fantasy, maybe?

  2. Mm, iswym about trapdoor, that would be unfortuante.

    ‘Secret world’ maybe suggests a separate world (as in WTDIG), rather than ‘secret aspects of the real world’ which I think is what’s required?

    Behind-the-mask fantasy? Withdrawn-veil fantasy?

    (Actually WTF?! fantasy is pretty good. Hmm.)

  3. Mm, like it!

    Although I would style it ‘Veil-ripper fantasy’ with a hyphen, to avoid it sounding like a creepy person eg ‘The Veil Ripper… he haunts your bridal nightmares’.

  4. > Note pleasing resemblance to bodice ripper fantasy.

    “pleasing”? 😉

    But seriously; I’d have thought that resemblance was likely to lead to misunderstanding.

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