Voyage of the Damned – Playing Card Mechanics Thursday, Sep 3 2009 

This is not a complete mechanic, but I thought I’d jot it down (for one thing I’m curious if it’s been done before–I’ve seen a fair number of games, but by no means all or even most).

The Deck

A standard 52 card deck of playing cards.  For now I’m assuming the Jokers are taken out, though maybe I’ll decide to keep them if I think of a use for them.

Divide the deck into two piles.

  • All the face cards (K, Q, & J) plus the Ace – 16 cards (4 cards x 4 suits)
  • All numbered cards (from 2-10) – 36 cards (9 cards x 4 suits)

Numbered Deck – The numbered cards (2-9) are used for conflict resolution.  Flipping a card is basically the same as rolling a d10 (well, 1d9+1 technically :-P).

In addition, each suit acts as a minor oracle introducing color into the scene.  These are more color or flavor and don’t have any mechanical impact.  I’ve started toying with what each suit would introduce, but it’s still really rough (I’ll put it up in later posts).  I’m leaning towards having two or three categories:

  1. The Court: This is what the suits mean in the flashback scenes.  There would be an emphasis on intrigue, and all of the options would be fairly negative (betrayal, threats, theft [of ideas, credit, etc.], and so on).
  2. Connection: This is what the suits mean in the present, during the attempts to connect.  They would either be tied to the four stats (symbolically–Silence equates to fear, withdrawal, secrets, etc.), to the thematic ingredients (Desire, Seabirds, Death, the Star, etc.), or to both.  Probably to the stats and corresponding reactions, unless I don’t have “The Journey” as a separate category
  3. The Journey:  This is what the suit means in relation to the journey through the Seas of the Dead, the curse, judgment, etc.  It would probably be used in conjunction with the face deck (see below).

Here are my initial rough ideas on the four suits:

  • Spades: Power (it’s strandardly the strongest suit, it’s black, which pairs with violence for clubs, and because the Hearts and Clubs seemed obvious)
  • Hearts: Connection (because, you know, it’s a heart)
  • Clubs: Violence; the Court (because the clubs symbol looks like the fleur-de-lis, which is tied to the queen and faith, and so the court, and clubs as weapons connects with violence)
  • Diamonds: Silence (mostly because it’s red, like Connection and the Connection-Silence and Power-Violence connections make sense to me), which means it will also be fortifying, webs of lies, etc.

Face Deck – The face card deck acts as an oracle; a card is drawn and it colors the following scenes.  Each card represents something.  Also, the suits have meaning here as they do in the numbered deck (see above).  This is at the Journey level.  It might be drawn once per cycle of player turns, but I think it more likely it will be drawn at the start of each player’s turn:

  1. Face Deck oracle draw (introduces the threats and events in the journey–narrated by GM, plus represents characters that the players need to weave in to the flashback narratives)
  2. Flashback draw (number deck) by target player for the flashback scene
  3. Present draw (number deck) by acting character to resolve whether connection made or failed 

Also, the specific face card has meaning, obviously.  In the flashback scenes, they are people or other elements that have to be woven in.  In the present, they may also be characters–though the Captain, the zombie Crew, the Seagulls, the other PCs not involved, etc.  The below associations are rough and likely to change.  The characters listed first are in the flashback and the characters listed second in italics are in the present:

  • Ace: The object of Desire (the subject of the brief Desire image–pulling this requires that Desire to be examined on a bit in the flashback); The Star–it represents your Desire and the overwhelming animal need for what it represents that was strong enough to keep you trapped and damned on the ship instead of passing on–it is a reminder of your need and desire, driving you on.
  • King: Another player character in an allied role (almost certainly temporary and for that character’s own interest–after all, the rules of the game will almost certainly turn them against you in an upcoming scene if they haven’t already back-stabbed you)–that character will be woven into the story (they won’t have a narrative impact, unless I do something with the face cards impacting resolution–see note below); The Seabirds–they represent the impulse towards humanity, connection, and self-judgment; their touch is painful but it helps lift the fog of amnesia and confusion the characters arose with.
  • Queen: The Queen herself (whether directly, indirectly, through her agents, etc.), also her favor; The Queen, again, as well as the original goals and schemes of the voyage–this draws you back into ambitions, jealousies, etc. of your time in court, it helps you remember the other characters and your past, though that tends to galvanize you towards anger, hate, revenge, etc.
  • Jack: Another player character in an opposed role, scheming against you and likely helping the target character (though also likely opposing you both)–that character will be woven into the story (they won’t have a narrative impact, unless I do something with the face cards impacting resolution–see note below); The Crew (if your Violence is higher, the Captain notices you and draws you in, while if your Silence is higher, the crew begins interacting with you and pulling you into their mindless actions–I’ll post more about my ideas for the crew and captain in a later post)–they represent your potential damnation and the pull away from any sort of redemption–if they get their way, you’ll be part of the crew (maybe even replacing the captain) forever…

Note that the acting character is the focus of the scene, so any reference to “the player”, “you”, etc. refers to the acting character.  The target character will also be developed, but their function in that scene is in relation to the acting character.

I mayalso have some other significance that interacts with the number deck resolution system.  I’m not leaning that way, but I’m leaving the option open (maybe letting the audience of the other players assign it or something like that?).  If I did, it would probably be a way for other players to give bonuses to one player, likely based on who they feel is telling the best story or something like that.

 Suits and Stats

The last thought I thought I’d throw out in this post is that the suits correspond with the four stats.  I might do something with that, where if it matches your suit, it does something (a bonus, changes the stakes, etc.).


And that’s my initial thoughts on cards as resolution mechanic, major oracle, and minor color oracle.  I have to say that I really like the idea of splitting out the face cards into an oracle deck and having just the the number cards in the resolution deck, with the suits spreading across both decks.

-John B.


Voyage of the Damned: Flirting with system Wednesday, Sep 2 2009 

You were murdered… by someone else on the ship, or perhaps by your own hand?  You can’t remember.  You remember the Queen… whether you loved her, hated her, or (more likely) both, you still remember her.  But your last thought as you died was of something else, something you can’t quite remember.  That elusive memory that won’t come is what brought you back–you need to remember and you need to find it.  It’s not just a need, but a NEED strong enough to bring you back.

You come back to the strangely muted sensation of seabirds pecking at your half-rotted flesh.  You brush them off and stand.  The seabirds perch around the ship or circle overhead, cutting the still night with forlorn cries.

There are other bodies on the deck.  Some may have risen before you and others are just rising.  You know you should remember them and all kinds of strange, muted feelings and half-memories flutter through you as you look at them.  One of them murdered you, you think, and you think you murdered one or more of them first.  Why?  You can’t remember.

Around you and your… companions?… is the crew, all half-rotted, too.  You don’t remember if they are the same crew, but you suspect not.  Unlike you and the other newly risen, the zombie crew silently goes about their duties, paying little attention to you.  Looking at them fills you with a nameless dread, so you look away.

There’s a star in the sky.  It’s the only star in the sky (you don’t think that’s the way it should be, but you can’t quite remember), but it burns bright and baleful… and alluring.  The star stirs up your longing, your NEED.  Somehow you just know that the star is pointing the way back home (whatever that is), back to where your NEED can be satisfied.

And so begins play.

Some Notes on How Play Will Look…

What CHARACTERS are doing in the game is recovering their memory and all the HUMANITY, DESIRES, and traits that go along with it, then trying to remove the curse (or perhaps turn it to their own ends).

What PLAYERS are doing is simultaneously building new relationships between their characters and the other characters on the ship in the PRESENT while using FLASHBACKS to create often contradictory relationships from the past and to create their past DESIRE. 

Basically, a “relationship map” and the character’s driving goals are discovered in play–and they will often contradict with what has been played out in the PRESENT before that.  It’s likely (and fun) that two characters might be becoming friends, then right in the middle of a cooperative bid to get a mutual goal, one of them remembers that they hated the other character and that their “friend” murdered them in cold blood….

Flashbacks as Conflicts…

It’s also worth mentioning that your character’s past is not completely in your hands.  All flashback scenes are conflicts with other characters and those characters benefit from twisting your character in a way they can use (more below) while you want to to make your past most useful to yourself.

It’s established that their old characters were bad people.  Part of the question of the game is what happens when their zombies (who are more than just a continuation of their pre-death selves) begin recovering those memories.  They have a lot to feel guilty for.  It hurts.  But at the same time, remembering and dealing with those is central to play (and how you gain narrative power in the game and how you resolve the curse ultimately).

FLASHBACKS are always a conflict between you and at least one other character.  I’ll talk more about the details later, but they stand to gain by twisting your background into giving them handholds to control or manipulate your character (such as weaknesses, griefs, sources of guilt, phobias, etc.) while you want to turn the flashback to give you the same kind of handholds to control them.  This is played out in the FLASHBACK, but has mechanical benefits in the PRESENT.  It also has mechanical benefits in further FLASHBACKS.

Those benefits in the PRESENT are important because you have to overcome other characters to take many types of actions.  The standard types of actions you can take against another character are “Gain Power” over them to get what you want, “Hurt/Repel” them to keep yourself safe from them, or “Connect” with them to try and change those handholds and relationships from the past into something different.


Some Facets of the System…


Every player has a NEED.  At the start of play, the players decide on a single, brief image of a person, place, or thing.  That’s it.  You don’t say what it means or how it fits in yet.  It’s fine for the players to have some rough ideas of where they think their NEED will go, but they should stay flexible becasue play can take the story in interesting directions.  Below are some examples of NEEDS:

  • A young girl playing in a garden
  • A gem-encrusted golden chalice
  • A humble, but well-maintained cottage in the country
  • A simple golden band
  • A beautiful man laughing
  • A cold fireplace

The NEED itself is a palpable force within the character and is separate from the object of the NEED.

The NEED will develop in play (for example, the first time the NEED is brought into a FLASHBACK, there’s some benefit to the character invoking it).  Over time, it will be fleshed out.  It’s important to note that the starting image isn’t necessarily the NEED itself–it’s often an image.  (For example, the gem-encrusted chalice above could be a religious symbol showing a deisrefor faith, something the character saw through a window as a starving child that became the symbol of his drive for wealth and his dedication never to be hungry again, or it could have been on the mantle place and it stuck in his head the first time he made love to his now-dead wife, representing that lost love).  That’s part of the reason to avoid getting too locked on what it means early on.


But the NEED is a mindless, gnawing thing.   In order to have the volition to act, the characters need to develop and remember their DESIRE.  This more goal-oriented, specific, focused wanting gives the characters the volition to act.  It’s their power in encounters.

DESIRE is gained both through flashbacks and through the emerging relationships being developed in the PRESENT.  I expect DESIRE to be a score that changes over the course of the story.  A higher DESIRE score gives significantly higher narrative control (specifically, a higher chance to win cnoflicts).  It is also used to help get your way in both the FLASHBACK timeline and teh PRESENT timeline.


Like I mentioned above, the characters don’t have most their memories yet.  They have to earn and recover them in play (through flashbacks).  As they recover memories, they also recover their HUMANITY, which in this case is not their “innate goodness” or anything like that, but rather all the complexities, memories, relationships, fears, desires, and failures of the past.

In fact, since the events that took right before the start of play are the players murdering each other, it’s pretty clearly not going to be pretty as they begin to remember.

But regaining memory and the resulting HUMANITY is the only way to take any kind of action–the other players, the crew, the seabirds, even the possible off-ship encounters all require memory and HUMANITY to know how to act, how to get a fingerhold on another character, how to manipulate, beg, or persuade others, etc.


Now that I’m getting a feel for how I want the game to run, I’ll start working on the actual mechanics….

Note that all names of facets of the system are working names and subject to change.  Also, all systemnotes above are rough and likely to change signficantly when I start working out the details of the system.

-John B.

Voyage of the Damned: Of queens, intrigue, and faith Tuesday, Sep 1 2009 

The Queen and her kingdom were the Defenders of the Faith, so much so that the symbol of the Faith and the symbol of Her Majesty’s royal house were the same–the Fleur-de-Lis.

It was an age of splendor.  The queen’s court attracted the brightest and best the world had to offer. 

It was an age rotting from within.  The queen’s court attracted the worst and the most corrupt the world had to offer.

The wars defending the Faith made Her Majesty’s kingdom into a voracious beast, always hungry for more, cannibalizing itself and devouring everything it could.

Then the bright new Star appeared over the far western horizon.  Her Majesty’s priests, oracles, and magicians (of which she had many) bickered about what this protent meant, but all agreed it heralded a great opportunity for Her Majesty and the Faith.

An expedition was planned.  Many clamored to control the destiny of the voyage, to ensure their own agendas.  Did they seek personal glory? Perhaps the glory of the Faith? A chance to explore a new world? Simply to foil a hated rival? Were they driven by love? Hate? Revenge? Family duty? Perhaps they sought to sabotage the voyage to weaken the Queen?

The answer to that question is up to you.  The players will create one of the men and women who schemed and intrigued to shape the voyage and who accompanied it in person.

Not only will you discover the motives and agendas of your character, you will also struggle with the other players and others who seek to twist or stop your plans (played by the GM).

Of course, things did not go quite as planned….

When play begins, each of you along with the entire crew of the ship, have been cursed into a wretched half-life as zombies.  And you can’t go home until you lift the curse.

What was your Transgression that brought the curse down upon you?  You’ll discover that together in play.

What is the meaning of the Seabirds that travel beside your ship now?  You know that you follow them home, for your compasses and instruments failed you and only the now baleful star fills the sky.  But are they friend or foe?  They lead you to many strange, terrible, and wondrous islands which seem intimately tied to your own sins.  And do you really hear them whispering to you sometimes…?

How will you lift the curse?  Or will you be damned to wander the sea forever without rest as zombies?

Come play and find out together.

-John B.

Voyage of Damned (simmer the ingredients for 20 minutes…) Monday, Aug 31 2009 

So while waiting for some queries to run at work, I had a flash for my game based on all the ruminating in my last post (…bring-the-heat/).

Premise: A ship full of zombies trying to remove their curse so they can return home

Structure:There are three time periods of play and three major Events.  Play starts in the PRESENT (sailing towards home and working to remove the curse), with flashbacks to the PAST court intrigues that led up to the voyage, and all building towards the CONCLUSION when the curse is resolved… or the crew is doomed forever.  The flashbacks (PAST) will begin in the courts full of intrigue and lead up through the destination of the initial voyage and the TRANGRESSION that led to them being cursed.  The voyage home (PRESENT) will begin with the voyage home already underway and will go through the struggles of the voyage (sort of like Homer’s The Odyssey) and will end with their HOMECOMING (tied to the TRANSGRESSION structurally).  The CONCLUSION of both other timelines will play out the TRANSGRESSION and HOMECOMING and will determine whether they remove the curse and go home or are damned forever to wander as a ship full of zombies.

The Characters: The player characters are not the crew of the ship (though the crew shares their fate), they are powerful people who intrigued to get the voyage launched in the first place and then led the expeditions personally, whatever the reasons.  The reasons for the voyage, the characters’ role in the voyage, the cause and source of the curse, and the resolution will all be created in play.  At the start, only a handful of pertinent traits will be defined (likely as simple as an archetypal role–The Priestess, The Conqueror, The Explorer, etc.).  None of this is to say the crew is irrelevant.  Instead they are expendable, literally.  As the quest to remove the curse and get home is played out, crew members can be EXPENDED for some system or narrative power (no idea what yet, but thinking of Homer’s Odyssey and the “expendable crew” trope has me really wanting to make it a mechanic).
As for the ingredients…

Intrigue will tie very heavily into the Past/Flashbacks portion of the game.  I see the first portion of the Flashbacks being an in-game contest as different characters scheme to shape the voyage to their own goals.  Similarly, in the Present/Voyage Home, they’re still going to have different goals and reasons, though they’re also forced to work together to succeed and get home.

Dividers as used to measure divide a path into segments 9easy to correspond with legs of the journey)–I think I’ll do something with the scene structure and switching back and forth between the present and flashbacks based on that).

The Fleur-de-Liswill probably tie to the initial court intrigues and setting up the voyage and  transgression that causes the curse.  I have some very rough ideas, including some I’ve posted before, but it’s all pretty vague at this point.  Then again, I’m leaning towards the details being worked out in game, so it may be presented as a vague ingredient that the players have to work in to the flashbacks… we’ll see.

The Seabirds will probably tie into the voyage home, and be tied to the curse intimately.  As such, they’ll be tied intimately to the present voyage home portion of play.

The Starwill probably be tied to both the intrigue portion and the initial voyage up to the Transgression (in other words to the flashback).  Structurely I’m seeing the star in the flashbacks/initial voyage and the seabirds in the present/voyage home playing contrasting but complimentary roles.
Obviously still pretty rough, but I’m getting excited.

-John B.

Which ingredients bring the heat? Monday, Aug 31 2009 

I’ve been going over the theme and ingredients to figure out which ones to use.  My first reaction was luke-warm, but I’m warming up as I dig in.  I’m not decided on anything yet, but some ideas are percolating.  To start, I’m assuming I’ll use all the ingredients and the theme (though I may cut one or two as  I go).  Oh, and “protagonists as zombies” jumped out at me when I began getting into the mariner headspace… so protagonists zombies, here we come 😀

  • Theme: Intrigue – The first thing I told myself going in is to be careful not to get too caught up in setting or premise until I figured out what the game would be.  It’s not  just supposed to be pretty or fascinating (though those sure aren’t bad things), it’s supposed to be fun and playable and it’s supposed to belong to the group playing instead of me.  Well, “Intrigue” helps tell me what the game’s going to be.  The players are going to intrigue (probably their characters will, too, but that’s still to be seen).
  • Ingredient: Fleur-de-Lis – I started with the Wikipedia link in the Game Chef site.  I’m not interested in the obvious French associations (though I reserve the right to change my mind).  Instead, the religious components jumped out at me, particularly it’s association with feminine virtue and spirituality.
  • Ingredient: Dividers – This is the ingredient I think is coolest for some reason, but I don’t really have a lot of ideas yet.  Measuring distances by walking the dividers across a map… I’ll figure outa way to make it work.
  • Ingredient: Seabird – Keeping with the sailing motif most the ingredients have, and digging into the Wikipedia entry again, the relationship between sailors and certain seabirds (especially albatrosses) jumped out at me.  The superstitions against harming certain seabirds and following seabirds to food or shore seems cool.  Keeping intrigue in mind, opposing religions or maybe sects within religion came to mind.  Sailors as men and the women playing some other role (based on the fleur-de-lis) also is gurgling aroun in my head.  I’m not sure what will float to the top yet.
  • Ingredient: Star – My first thought is to tie this to the seabirds in religious symbology.  But like the divider, stars are heavily tied to the mechanics of early navigation.  Those aren’t exclusive uses.  Hmm.  I’d like to do more with it, though.  Stars also evoke astrology or meteors, bright new stars, and other signs in the heavens that suggesst portents to travel in a certain direction (like over sea…), etc.  Possibly portents read in different ways by different groups… or even hinting that certain events in the near future could determine the destiny of nations (something worth intriguing over, for sure :D)
  • Extra Spice: Zombie protagonists (Archeological and Zombiological Sciences medal) – Mariner zombies are cool to me.  So how do zombie protagonists tie to an intrigue game involving sailing, portents in the heavens, and competing religions?  A bunch of ideas are percolating.  I like tying zombies to seabirds. It feels sort of evocative of stories like the Crow movie, with a nautical flavor.  Also, seabirds that migrate over the sea and back has a lot of cool potential for traveling back and forth between the worlds of the living and the dead.  Alternately, seabirds could be oposed to zombies–we’ll see what shakes out better.  As for the other group(s), do they have zombies, too?  Most likely.  Going back to the Fleur-de-Lis… raising from the dead done by “virtuous” women figures is intersting and there are some twists I could do with that.  the other variant is that virtuous, spiritual women become zombies with the fleur-de-lis tied in symbolically or literally.  Hmm, I’ll have to see how everything else shakes out.  So… why zombies and why zombie protagonists?  The three ideas that come first to mind are: a) if zombies raised from the dead are “chosen” with religious overtones (both the “seabird zombies” and the “fleur-de-lis zombies”), but competing religions or sects, then they could be in leadership roles (whether overt or more hidden) and be the intriguers, b) zombies are the “cannon fodder” on both sides of the conflict (maybe as the sailors–the don’t get scurvy, they just rot), or b) the entire setting takes place in the land of the dead (or rather the seas of the dead).

All of the above is (obviously) just ramblings and early musings.  I may do something very similar to all of that, or go a different direction.  But I’m liking what I’m seeing.

-John B.