Monday, June 17, 2024

Cathartic Play in Action: The Despair System

Yesterday, I was introduced to Shane, a game designer living nearby, who is working on a narrative (Forge style) role playing game that he calls The Despair System. As you would guess from the name, it's about putting your characters through Hell to see how long they can hold out against creeping doom and hopelessness. 

I don't want to give away too much about the system, as he's still play testing, and things are subject to change due to our feedback. But I do want to talk a bit about the experience. 

I addition to Shane and myself, Dustie and Scott who I have played with extensively online over the past few years, and Keith, who I met for the first time, were the other players. I only met Dustie face to face for the first time at Richard's last Call of Cthulhu game, and this was the first time for me to meet Scott face to face. It was still comfortable for me, since I have played with these two quite a bit, and Shane and Keith were both friendly and easy to get along with. 

For the game itself, it started off by making characters and getting some rules explained as we did that. One interesting bit is that Shane had told us to bring pens, not pencils. In this game, once something goes on your sheet, it might get crossed out, but it never changes. Things get added through play. 

The system is setting neutral, and I mentioned in my previous post that Shane had us vote on what sort of setting we wanted, and it was Vikings. We'd had time to consider what sort of character we wanted to play. I think I had given it the shallowest thought. Or maybe Scott. Dustie and Keith had much more detail in mind when we came to the character creation portion. 

My pre-planning, knowing only that it was "Vikings making one of the earliest voyages West" was that my character, Wehostan the Wanderer, had been to Gardariki (Russia) before with his uncles, and that his father was an iron miner (brothers, too) and didn't want his son heading out on expeditions, but mining was the last place Wehostan wanted to be. 

Shane gave us character sheets with six lines, each with a d6 die face, arranged from high to low, and told us the six attributes he was using for this game. The attributes might be different for other genres. In a previous play test with Scott, they had done a Wild West themed game, and the attributes were not the same. So you can customize it to fit the theme, genre, and mood. Players can arrange their six attributes as they like, putting one next to each die face. Each had a bonus of +2 (the six, four and two faces), +1 (the five and three faces), or 0 (the 1 face).

After that, each character got to select a pair of traits, one positive and one negative. My positive was Wanderlust, and my negative was Superstitious. These were each connected to one of the attributes, and if a roll on that attribute would be affected by it, it resulted in getting to reroll a die of your choice if positive, and the highest die if negative. 

The mechanics were a bit convoluted for this sort of story game. Not that any particular mechanic was difficult, but there are a lot of different types of checks (all checks are rolled with 4d6, and those +1 or +2 bonuses can be used to modify one single die that was rolled). The "game" part of this is basically bargaining your creeping Despair, which is signified by filling in pips on the die faces and the bonuses for attributes. The Referee is working to put the characters into situations where they are challenged, and have the potential to earn Despair points. The more Despair you earn, the easier it is to gain more Despair, so the game is basically build around the idea of the death spiral. Even if you succeed on a check, you might still earn points of Despair while doing so. There are a few ways to mitigate how much despair you earn, but no way to remove Despair once it's on your sheet. If a die face has all pips colored in (and the one face starts filled in), then any result of that number gives you a point of Despair. If you fail a roll, the difference in your highest number rolled and the target number is the amount of Despair you gain (in addition to any from "dead" dice). So the more Despair, the more dice will give you Despair.

The specific mechanics aren't so important to my analysis right now, though. What I found was that while the game itself is leveraging the various mechanics of your roll (or bargain to avoid a roll), the creeping death spiral of Despair is actually more effective than my recent experiences of Call of Cthulhu. Don't get me wrong, I'm having fun in our CoC game. And maybe Richard has been going easy on us. But we haven't had that much Sanity loss, and I don't think we've suffered a character death at all so far. The Despair System is designed to force Despair points on you, so that you can't escape falling victim to it if you play long enough. 

Narrative games like this aren't really my style of game, but as a one-off (or maybe two, Shane asked if we'd be interested in giving it another try), it was kind of fun. Because he was play testing, Shane skipped us through a lot of things. He would put us into certain situations, and not give us full freedom, but he did say that in a regular game there would be more player input and choice in the story, and more back and forth role play time. 

While it was a little off-putting at first to have him just dictating scenes and then making us roll (or test our abilities in other ways), after a few scenes I got used to it, and it actually made more sense. He needed us to test the mechanics, but also, the whole point of the game is to experience mounting despair in your character, as things that were easy to do at the beginning of the session get progressively harder and harder to accomplish, or at least harder to accomplish without adding more Despair points. We only made it half-way through the story line Shane had prepared, and none of us topped out our Despair, but I was pretty far gone, having lost the two, three, and four die faces, having taken on a second negative trait, and having crossed out two of my abilities (crossed out abilities could still have checks made, but at a penalty of removing the highest value die rolled on that check). Wehostan was not in good shape. 

It was an unusual experience, and I'd like to try this game again in a non-playtest mode before I make any final judgments on it, but it seems to me like Shane has put a lot of thought into how to make this game so that it provides the experience he would like for it to. Some more traditional, old school, or new school players may be put off by the game, but if you go into it knowing what it is, it can be a fun experience. And it was definitely more coherent in form and function than some other story games I've played in the past.

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