This is my SRD (system reference document) for producing ‘retrospective games’. A style of story game where you are looking back at the lives of the protagonists and exploring their relationships, successes, and failures along the way.
What are Retrospective Games?
These are games where you play characters who are at a crucial turning point in their lives, and who are remembering how they got to this point. You start just before the very end, and you tell the stories of how you got to this place and time. There will be a series of chapters reflecting the main turning points of the story, and each player has a scene for each chapter.
Playing cards are used as prompts for the emotional content of the scene at each of those story beats. Each player has their own hand of cards, and each player might end up with very different stories as we work through the game.
At the close of all the story sections, there is finale, an opportunity to find out what happened next, and for each of the players to influence someone else’s finish to their story in a positive way.
The first of my Retrospective games was A Cool and Lonely Courage, a game of women spies in WW2 France. Expect Three Visitors is a Retrospective game inspired by the Dickens story, “A Christmas Carol”.
The key elements of a retrospective game are characters, chapters, scenes, supporting characters, cards, and finale.
What kind of characters are appropriate for this particular Retrospective game? It is important to provide guidance that will allow the players to generate genre-appropriate characters.
These characters can normally be described in just a few sentences. We don’t use numerical values to define characteristics. It is useful to help people think about questions such as
- What do they look like?
- How do they dress?
- Why have they got involved?
- What are their strongest capabilities?
- What are their weaknesses which can let them down?
If your game has a historical setting, this is the place where some historically appropriate information or tropes can be provided to give examples that can be used directly or act as a springboard for inspiration.
The chapters in a Retrospective game represent the key points in the stories you are going to tell. They may have positive or negative emotional beats to them and by progressing through a number of chapters you discover the life of each character.
The choice of chapters will reinforce the themes of your game. Even in action stories, chapters of quiet reflection can be used to bring respite and introspective moments that add richness to the stories.
Each chapter should have an introductory paragraph or two to display the main themes, and to indicate the kind of supporting characters which would be useful to have in that chapter.
It is very useful to provide examples of each of the cards that could be played to whet the players appetites.
The chapters in A Cool and Lonely Courage are Arrival, Mission, Interlude, Capture, and Prison. A longer game can be played by inserting additional Mission and Interlude chapters. This emphasises the work with the French Resistance, but moves inexorably towards the prison which the story is being told from.
The chapters in Expect Three Visitors are Visions of the Past, Visions of the Present, and Visions of the Future. This reflects the story of Scrooge which is the basic form of the adventure.
The heart of the game are the scenes, the vignettes that form the role-playing backbone of the game. During each chapter, the players take it in turns to frame their own scene, giving the location and the key supporting characters that are involved. The other players may take on the role of key characters in that scene. The player frames the scene on the basis of the card they play for that chapter, and the theme of the chapter.
Because the game is looking back on what has happened, we don’t need some kind of additional randomiser to determine success in the moment. The card that is played for that scene tells us how it ends up, and we are interested in how we got to that result. We are particularly interested in the conversations that happened between the protagonist and the supporting characters at that point in time.
A scene may be any combination of narrative description and role-play. Sometimes it is sufficient to just use a narrative description. Sometimes a narrative is used to set the scene and then role-play the conversation which follows. Sometimes we jump into the conversation and then narrate the aftermath of it.
There are several ways of designing scenes:
- Individual Scenes: In some games (like A Cool and Lonely Courage or Expect Three Visitors) the characters are telling their individual stories, and so each of their scenes are independent. They are taking place at the same chapter in the story, but in different locations.
- Linked Scenes: In other games (like The Long Road Home), the characters are together as a group for most of the chapters, and so for a given chapter they can frame scenes where other characters are present and act as supporting characters in that scene (with their permission). Additional scenes for additional characters can make use of exactly the same setting and time for a scene but look at it from a different camera angle, or follow slightly after the previous scene, perhaps building upon it.
- Collaborative Scenes: When a group of characters are together, it is also possible to allow for collaborative scenes, where a number of players play their cards at the same time, and between narrative and role playing ensure that all of the relevant outcomes take place. This takes more care to do well, ensuring that everyone gets their time in the spotlight.
During a Retrospective game many supporting characters will be introduced in the chapters. They can be just made up on the fly as you go along. Supporting characters form part of the emotional core of the game, and should be revisited in successive chapters as the game continues.
As each supporting character is introduced, name them and put an interesting or significant detail on a card in front of the players. As they turn up in future scenes, add additional details to make their character richer as more is discovered about them and their relationship to their protagonists.
Successes and failures, love and loss are made manifest in the relationships with these supporting characters. The supporting characters will grow and become richer as the game progresses. In games with a serious theme, supporting characters can be written out of the story, even dying as a result of the story and the fall of the cards. Whenever supporting characters are written out of the story, a new supporting character should be introduced who is part of the fallout of this.
There can be recurring antagonists who turn up, and who may be voiced by other players. These can be considered as supporting characters who can have dialog with the player characters, but they are never normally written out as a result of a spade (unless development to this point has resulted in that being a negative experience for the protagonist)
A standard deck of 52 playing cards is used (without jokers). Players will have one card per chapter, plus one spare.
The suit of a card indicates the emotional content of a scene.
There are several choices for how you manage your cards, and the choice may depend upon the kind of game you are designing. You may offer any or all of these methods during your game.
- Open hand: You can see your hand of cards at all times, and choose which card to play at each scene, and which card you have left for the finale. This gives you the maximum control over your story. Within the constraint of the hand that they have been dealt, the player can arrange for a climb towards victory, a descent into tragedy or anything in-between.
- Hidden hand: You don’t see your hand of cards, and draw blind from it each time. This gives the maximum randomness to the story, and the unexpected twists can be very fruitful for your storytelling.
- Stacked hand: You give your cards to another player, and ask them to arrange the order of the cards. You don’t know what is going to turn up for each chapter, but you are trusting one of your other players to arrange your cards in an interesting fashion.
A heart is used to represent love, friendship, intimacy, care. Either received or given. A positive relationship with either a new or existing supporting character.
A diamond is used to represent success, achievement, a positive outcome. It might reflect a change in the way that people view the character. A positive relationship with either a new or existing supporting character.
A club represents conflict, fear, mistakes. A time of battling for something significant and the aftermath of failure. A negative relationship with either a new or disappointed existing supporting character.
A spade represents death or loss. Someone significant to the character is written out of the story forever and we explore the aftermath of that (and introduce new supporting characters as a result). In serious games this will be the death of a supporting character, or a supporting character turning into an antagonist. In gentler games it might indicate the permanent breaking of a relationship, or a separation that is voluntary or involuntary.
Once all the chapters have been played through, the characters have reached the ‘present day’ in the game, and the question is... what happens next.
At this point, each player will normally have one card in their hand. This card can be used to determine how their life goes forward from this point. It may be success, it may be sorrow. There are three particular options that can be considered
- Individual: use the suit of your card as-is to determine your ending
- If you have a heart is it great
- If you have a diamond it is good, but...
- If you have a club it is bad, but...
- If you have a spade it is terrible
- Collaborative: each person can secretly determine whether to keep their card or donate it to another player, on the basis of their story so far. The ending is determined primarily by the number of cards held
- if you have two or more cards of any suit, it is great
- if you have one red card it is good, but...
- if you have one black card it is bad, but...
- if you have no cards, it is terrible
- Corporate: everyone places their remaining card in a pile in the centre of the table, and your destiny is determined together by the overall pattern of cards
- If you have mostly red cards it is great
- If you have the same number red and black cards it is good, but...
- If you have mostly black cards it is terrible.
In the basic game the value of the cards, whether numeric or face, doesn’t necessarily have any meaning. However, it is valuable to provide genre-appropriate prompts which can be attached to certain card values. This makes it easier to pick up the game and inspire new players as well as reinforcing the themes of the game.
The contents of the SRD are available for use under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license. This is the most liberal of licenses, and is the one used by Fate and Blades in the Dark for their SRDs.
Use of this license will simply require that you make a clear statement that your game is based on our material. Unlike some other Creative Commons options, you don’t have to make your derived content open at all.
Wherever you put your own copyright, add the following text:
This work is based on Retrospective Games (found at http://planesailinggames.com/), product of Plane Sailing Games, developed and authored by Alex White, and licensed for our use under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/).
One of the license requirements is that all the text has to be the same size as the rest of your copyright section.
You can use the Retrospective logo, either colour or black and white, as follows