Today’s game was inspired by Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days. This is what I came up with in about forty minutes, so please don’t expect this to be playable. It’s just a thought about what a game that focuses on narrative recapitulation and parallel storylines might look like.
This game is a pen-and-paper roleplaying game inspired by Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days.
The game explores:
- narrative recapitulation
- poetic resolution
- thematic unity
- parallel storylines
The game requires three players and takes four sessions. The first session is spent setting up the game, reading poetry, and creating the game’s world, while the following three sessions are active play.
To begin, the players agree on a favorite poet – for example, Louise Gluck. During the first play session, the players read through the poet’s works and choose words or phrases that will become a part of the game. Each player may choose up to a dozen of these, though the number will depend on the length of game desired.
Phrases should be formed into one of two things: an object or a question. For example, consider the Gluck poem “The Wild Iris.”
The Wild Iris
At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
Hear me out: that which you call death
Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.
It is terrible to survive
buried in the dark earth.
Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.
You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure sea water.
A player might draw objects from the poem, such as “azure sea water” or “pine branches.” Alternately the poem could be used to form questions. Questions are of the form “Who will … ?” So, for example, “Who will return from oblivion?”
All players write their objects and questions on cards, then pool them to form an object deck and a question deck. The object deck will be used for player-environment conflicts, the question deck for character-character conflicts.
Next, each player chooses a setting and a character. The setting should be specific (for example, “New York in the 1880s”) but the character should be archetypal. These may be demographic archetypes (”the young boy”) or narrative ones (”the mentor”). Tarot cards would be an excellent source of commonly understood character archetypes.
If one or more players have chosen sci-fi, fantastic, or alternate-reality settings, they should now explain their setting to the other players in enough detail that they can be agreed on the details of the world. The player who chose the setting has the final say over all setting details, but they may take any suggestions they like from the other players.
The game then moves on to play.
In each session, play will happen in one of the three settings that the players picked. The setting farthest in the past is the setting for the first session; the setting farthest in the future is the last setting used. In each session, the player who picked that setting plays their own character. The other two players switch characters with one another.
The central player (the one who chose the setting) describes how their character is instantiated in the world. For example, the young boy in 1880s New York might be an orphan or a child of privilege, a baker’s boy or a thief. The two other players then decide how their characters relate to the central character for that session. For example, a player who chose “The Fool” might explain that their character is the boy’s eccentric aunt. The central player then begins the first scene.
Conflicts are resolved by drawing a card from the deck.
If the conflict is against the environment, the card comes from the objects deck. The player must choose whether they wish to succeed at the challenge or keep the card. If they choose to succeed, they narrate their success and return the card to the deck. If they choose to fail, they narrate their failure and how the object in question is key to it. They then take the card into their hand.
If the conflict is against another character, a card from the questions deck is placed between the two players. Each player must make the case why their character can better answer the question in a way that relates to the challenge at hand. Poetic reasoning is fine! The third player serves as the judge for the challenge. The winning player succeeds at the challenge; the losing player receives the card.
Once all cards have been taken into a player’s hand, the game mechanic changes. Players must now lay down cards to succeed at challenges. For a challenge against the environment, the player narrates how they use the object in question, then discards the card. For a challenge against another character, the player may play a card to narrate their opponent’s behavior, so long as that behavior answers the question on the card. (”Who will return from oblivion? You will, even if you don’t like it!”)
When no player has any cards left, the central player summarizes the session and narrates a brief conclusion.
At the end of the third session, the deck of cards is ceremonially burned.