Okay, here’s my first attempt to cohesively write-up the rules. Since I settled on some of these points about 5 minutes ago, my usual “subject to change” clause is definitely in effect (though I want to get it nailed down so I can get it written up for the 7-day deadline).
First, some notes about how playing this game differs from most RPGs:
Voyage of the Damned (VotD) is a game about telling the stories of flawed individuals struggling against their own flaws and the tangled scars and betrayals that come from a small group of ambitious men and women forced into cramped quarters after months of viciously scheming against each other. There is also a tragic, haunting theme of death, judgment, humanity, and loss to the mix.
In many ways, VotD differs from most RPG’s. The card draws and corresponding “winning” and “losing” are completely based on luck of the draw. There are no skills, “hero points”, or bonuses and penalties or any kind, meaning also that there are no strategies or tactics that help you win. Instead, the players tell the stories of their characters and how they’ve interact with the other players in the past and the future.
That’s intentional–in many ways VotD is closer to improvisational theatre games, where outside elements and constraints are introduced and the actors must incorporate them–“no” is not allowed as a response to an imposed element. The card pulls introduce elements and constraints to incorporate into the narrative and the rules are all procedures for how the group tells interpenetrated stories and weave their individual stories into the story of the whole ship. It’s a strange but true phenomenon that those constraints tend to make creativity and powerful stories easier rather than harder.
The other thing that may feel odd is that your character’s emotional reactions are largely taken out of your hand. You can’t choose whether your character lashes out in frustration or if he handles the situation with cool aplomb. You can (and do) choose how you attempt to act, but (as often seems to be the case in real-life) our best intentions may fall apart in the heat of passions. In a way, it’s not so different from attempting to run your opponent through with a sword or convince the police officer to let you go with a warning in other games, but emotional responses have generally been firmly in the control of the player. Now, whether this is “realistic” (and I could make an argument either way) isn’t really the point. Whether it’s fun… well, it’s my hope that you will have fun and that you’ll remember the stories that emerge for a long time to come.
Now for the rules:
- The entire story is divided into three Stages, representing both the character’s returning memories and humanity and the struggles as the Seas of the Dead resist letting them escape to carry their mysterious cargo back to Queen and home.
- Each Stage is made up of one or more Challenges, which are threats or obstacles relating to the Stage that have to be overcome to keep sailing (note: the rules are such that the players will go through all three stages until the End-Game, and so they can’t technically “fail” to overcome any of the Challenges…).
- Each player gets to take a single turn for each Challenge–each is opposed by another character through flashbacks
- There can be any number of Challenges per Phase; a Phase ends after a Challenge when the majority of players choose to move to the next. It’s certainly possible to set a mandatory number of Challenges per phase before beginning (such as one each to run a game in a single session), but I like the idea of a more fluid, organic approach based on the flow of the narrative.
- The last Stage ends in the End-Game, in which the final fate of the ship and the characters are narrated.
The Deck of Cards:
- Separate out only the face cards and Aces for each of the four suits. The resulting deck will have 16 cards.
- The meaning of the cards is dependent upon the context; in some cases they are an Oracle, introducing elements into play, while in others they have a value and are used in conflict resolution–in the case of conflict resolution, they still act as a color oracle, introducing elements to be incorporated into the narrative.
- For conflict resolution, each card has one of two Strengths (the higher strength wins in a conflict) depending on which color is Dominant (determined at the start of the player’s turn–see below)
- The higher suit (based on dominant color) wins, with the face value (A beats K beats Q beats J) breaking ties
- If black is dominant, Spades beats Hearts beats Clubs beats Diamonds (i.e. A♠>K♠>Q♠>J♠> A♥>K♥>Q♥>J♥> A♣>K♣>Q♣>J♣> A♦>K♦>Q♦>J♦)
- If red is dominant, Hearts beats Spades beats Diamonds beats Clubs (i.e. A♥>K♥>Q♥>J♥> A♠>K♠>Q♠>J♠> A♦>K♦>Q♦>J♦> A♣>K♣>Q♣>J♣)
- I will have a chart on the character sheet giving each card a value from 1-16 for Black and Red for quick comparison (I will also make Avery labels that can be printed and stuck on the cards to make it easier)
Each suit has a general meaning (thematic; challenge type):
- Spades (♠): Power; physical obstacle
- Hearts (♥): Intimacy; emotional obstacle
- Clubs (♣): Violence; physical threat
- Diamonds (♦): Silence; emotional threat
Each face has a general meaning (Noun; method):
- Ace (A): Place, object, or goal; pursue desire obsessively)
- King (K): Man; use hierarchy or personal power)
- Queen (Q): Woman; use relationships or debt)
- Jack (J): Child; reveal vulnerability and openness)
Finally, each of the 16 cards has it’s own unique meanings (mixture of suit and face, plus imagery evocative of the setting:
- They’ll also be printed on the character sheet and on Avery labels (along with the Red and Black Strengths, see above)
- Potentially I’d create a deck with artwork and the like, but certainly not for the rough draft stage of game Chef (it would get me the POD medal…)
I have pages of notes and thoughts on the specific cards, but I’ll have to post them later (it isn’t critical to understand the rules and also it’s still pretty rough)
There are three Phases, always in the same order:
- The Sea: As the characters awaken, the Seas of the Dead try to keep them from remembering their Humanity and to keep them from escaping; Challenges include things like violent storms, rocky reefs, sea monsters, alluring sirens, etc.; Help comes from the Seabirds, who show the way and spur the characters to remember, no matter how painful
- The Star: After regaining much of their memory, humanity (and grievances), the characters remember the reason for their journey (though not yet the results or what is in the mysterious, locked cargo hold), but the divisions and conflicts between the characters intensify; Challenges in the Star phase include the need to work together to overcome a challenge while old feuds and wounds resurface with increasing power–generally played out a bit like a soap opera–also the desire to get home and the urge to discover what their cargo is intensify (though they can’t succeed at discovering the cargo until the next phase); Help comes from the dreadful zombie crew of the ship, who begin noticing and interacting with the players for the first time–their disposition depends on the overall scores of the Ship
- The Gates – The ship reaches the Gates to the Seas of the Living and the chance to escape death and take their cargo to queen and home is tantalizingly close, but the discovery of the nature of the cargo along with full memory of what they had to do to get it will likely be painful at best, and the nature of the zombie crew is at last revealed–they wish to have the characters join them to sail the ship through a damned eternity; Challenges in the Gates phase come from the zombie crew who do everything in their power to push the characters to become bound by fear, hate, anger, and regret so that they can’t escape, and the cargo hold can finally be opened (bringing with it memories of the end of their journey that cursed them and brought them to the Seas of the Dead) and that discovery will be tainted by the total ship scores–finally, along with the nature of the cargo, the End-Game is played out and the final fate of the ship and individual characters is played out; There is no help in this Phase–their damnation or redemption is being played out
Playing the Phases:
- At the start of each Phase, he GM sets the stage–in the first Phase, this is the characters rising, then in the later Phases the GM caps the last Phase and explains the new Phase to the Players
- Then each player draws a single card–this is an Oracle draw (using the Oracle definitions for that card)
- Each player describes their character remembering something related to that card, but only a fragment (as always, the cards are vague and evocative, so what it means is up to the player)–this becomes their Desire for that Phase, what they are driven to remember (and possibly avenge)–there is not system impact of the Desire, it is an element the player should incorporate into their character and focus on that Phase
- Then the GM begins the first Challenge…
Framing the Challenge:
The GM flips one or more cards to setup the Challenge (players are welcome to make suggestions, but the GM makes all final decisions and has final authority of what is included).
The GM flips a card and looks at the the oracle descriptors, the challenge type (see suit above), and any other factors. They should begin describing the Challenge. They can continue flipping other cards to add clarifications, complications, etc. until they feel they have the conflict clearly defined. Reshuffle the deck.
Note that it’s perfectly appropriate to base challenges around cooperation or interactions between the characters (e.g. “As the storm rises, you all have to work together to keep the ship from crashing into the rocks–but something about the strange storm brings old angers close to the surface…”)
Creating the Player Web:
At the start of each Challenge, put a piece of paper with each character’s name into hat or bowl or whatever and have each player draw one. If any players drew their own characters, then redraw. Do not reveal who you drew. That is the character that your character will oppose this Challenge.
Except for not drawing yourself, there are no other rules (e.g. it’s fine to draw the same character twice in a row). Groups should feel fine to change or add rules to this (for example, it could work to have each player choose who they’ll oppose on the fly, but you’d have to make sure that the last character didn’t oppose themselves).
The Player Turns:
Each player gets a turn to have their character try to address the Challenge.
On their turn, the acting player draws a card–this sets the Stakes of the scene. The color of the card (red or black) determines whether connection (Connection and Isolation) or dominance (Cohesion and Strife) is at stake for the ship (see below) as well as determining the Strength of cards (i.e. the order of suits–see above).
The active player frames the scene on the ship, using the color (and any other details from the card that inspire them) they flipped as guidance. What actions they take are completely up to them, but need to be attempts to address the Challenge.
Due to the confined quarters on the ship, every character is present in every scene, so other players are welcome to make suggestions and have their character act. The rule, though, is that the acting player has final say and can decline any suggestion or action (declining another character’s action could mean they stop it in the narrative or could mean that they tell the player to hold off because it isn’t relevant to this scene or what they want to play out).
At some point after the acting player frames their scene, the opposing character steps up.
The opposing character draws a card. The person, place, or object represented by the face of the card and/or the thematic element must be incorporated. Also, the suit should influence, too. Using the card, they frame a flashback scene involving their character and the acting character. The idea is that the flashback will have bearing on the actions in the present, likely showing a weakness in the acting character or bringing up negative interactions that disrupt the acting player’s attempts to get cooperation or connection with another player.
Both players help tell the story of the flashback. Also, other players can make suggestions or have their character in the flashback. But the ultimate authority belongs to the opposing character, even to describe terrible deeds or failures of the acting character in the past.
(I don’t think the above description is quite right and I think the way flashbacks are played out needs a clearer write-up, but I’m running out of time and this is a rough draft.)
Finally, the acting character draws a resolution card and compares the Strength to the card the opposing character drew. (Remember that the color from the acting character’s first draw for Stakes affects Strength).
The results of the conflict will raise on of the ship’s four stats by one: Cohesion, Connection, Strife, or Isolation. All stats start at zero. Their only mechanical impact is in the End-Game. Also, only relative rank matters (5 vs. 2 is the same as 50 vs. 20… the length of the game will determine how high the numbers get).
If the acting character wins, then either Connection (if the Stakes are red) or Cohesion (if the Stakes are black) is raised by one for the ship. If the opposing character wins, then either Strife (if the Stakes are black) or Isolation )if the Stakes are red).
Then it’s the next player’s turn, and so on until all players get a single turn.
Then the next Challenge begins or the game moves to the next Phase.
During the Gate phase, bring conflicts to a head and resolve any dangling narrative threads. Once the group is satisfied, tally the total scores in the ship stats to see which is highest. If there is a tie, do a final “do or die” scene to break the tie:
- If Cohesion is highest, then the ship is successful
- If Connection is highest, then the ship is redeemed
- If Strife is highest, then the ship is damned
- If Isolation is highest, then the ship is chained
But that’s only part of the story. First, what “successful”, “redeemed”, “damned” and “chained” mean are intentionally vague. Also, note that it says the ship rather than the characters. The fate of the ship and it’s cargo must be narrated. The general assumption is that the GM describes the fate of the ship with suggestions form the players, but this can be changed.
Finally, the fate of individual characters is narrated by their player.
That’s it, game over. Hope you enjoyed it.
Yeah… that’s very rough, but I don’t really have time to revise much (plus it’s meant to be a rough draft). I’ll polish both the rules and the write-up in the next couple days, but that’s a start. Whew.