I just spent the last two weeks watching the first season of Lost. I’ve always been a huge fan of drama where the nature of reality itself is something of a mystery: Lost, X-files, Foucault’s Pendulum, Kafka, Marquez, Illuminati, and so on. So I started thinking, what’s a good set of mechanics for existential mystery drama?
The characters’ lives are entangled with the unexplained. Things happen around them that should not happen. The characters struggle to fulfill the deep inner needs that drive them and to make sense of a world that seems to thwart their efforts to come to grips with it.
Each character has one role, two pillars, and three drives.
The role is a short descriptor of their place in society and defines what the character is automatically good at. Examples include: doctor, lawyer, spoiled brat, rich kit, slut, fugitive, cop. A character is automatically good at everything that their role requires.
The pillars are two core beliefs that define how that character interprets the world, one about people (or themselves), and one about reality. Examples include: there’s a scientific explanation for everything, everyone is just out for their own good, some things can’t be explained at all, I have a special destiny, people should always do what’s right, there are standards of morality that must be observed.
The drives are things that drive that character forward. Examples include: I must find out why my father disappeared, I must try to save everyone, I always look out for myself, trust no one, cling to the one’s you love, never give up an advantage. A character is always more likely to succeed when they do something that accords with their drives. In fact, if no one’s opposing them, they always succeed in following their drives.
In a conflict, a character may invoke one of their pillars for a bonus in the conflict. If the character succeeds in the conflict, they get to interpret events, or create some clue to the deeper meaning of them, that matches their pillar. If they fail in the conflict, their pillar becomes “shaken”. A shaken pillar can still be invoked. In fact, a shaken pillar provides an even greater bonus. But if a shaken pillar is invoked and a the conflict is lost, the character is incapacitated until the next major scene break.
When a player becomes incapacitated, they have the option of resolving one of their pillars or drives. This means that a pillar or drive is removed and replaced with a new one, based on the events that led to the character being incapacitated.
When a player wins a conflict, they can interpret the events that precipitated the conflict or offer a clue as to the deeper significance of events. The scope of this narration is closely defined by the conflict itself, however and limited to one fact of importance to the character.
The game also defines some area of overarching mystery that is not open to narration (though it can be hinted at) in the scope of a session of scene. The reason for this is simple: this game is about the characters and their conflicts, not about the unexplained events that surround them.
This game might or might not have a GM, but in any case, the GM’s job is to create situations where the characters’ drives put them into conflict and to give them events to interpret using their pillars.