A history of Archipelago

Archipelago is the most played of my games. Probably because it’s one of the best – and because it’s one of the few that actually have a market potential. Many of the games I make are things that few people are interested in, and fewer actually play. Because, you know, I’m a fucking artist.

I say “my” – and for some years it was just my game; but without Jason Morningstar it wouldn’t be what it is now, as you’ll see from the history below. He’s an awesome guy. We’ve met for about 10 minutes, during which he mostly said “I’m ill and have to go to my room”, or “could you talk to this guy, because I’m exhausted from being ill”. Other than that, we know each other only via the internet.

Aaaanyway. Let’s go.

0. Earthsea

A million years back, I wanted to make an Earthsea role-playing game. I started out a campaign with the basic premise that we’d add rules as we needed them. We ended up with a ridiculously simple “roll 1d6 and see what happens” system for ship combat, I think. Other than that, everyone played several characters, and we more or less took turns focusing on each player’s major character while other people played support. The basic vibe from this game made it into Archipelago, and is still a vibe that lives on in some of my best campaigns. I can’t entirely describe it. I’m not going to try.

Since I and my group had no idea what we were doing (this was probably around 1992), we tried out some shared narrative responsibility and failed pretty badly. At one point, a bunch of NPCs hosed a major character for no reason, and we had no way to stop what was just simple player dysfunction. That problem followed me through several later GM-less efforts, such as Will the Emperor Fall?, which had a memorably stupid playtest session where the main focus was the branded buttocks of one of the characters. I wanted the rules to work, and didn’t want to arbitrarily veto stuff, so I sat there and endured while the other players giggled and made my epic fantasy game into a ridiculous parody. These players are still my best friends, and people I love to play with. They’re still stupid, too.

1. Archipelago

In 2007 I designed Archipelago. I do not recall how. A lot of it just came to me as a result of thoughts that had been going on for 10-15 years, and all of a sudden it just seemed to fit together. I had no idea this would be the game that worked. It did work, although not all the people in the first playtest liked it. I changed almost nothing from first playtest to publication.

Archipelago contained the famous “Do it differently” phrase, which was made specifically to make it impossible for my best friends to fuck up the game. It also contained “More details”, which was based on the writing style of Ursula K LeGuin, author of the Earthsea books. She sometimes jumps in and adds a lot of detail about some more-or-less random setting element, making it appear as if the entire world has depth and detail. She has explained that in reality, she knows nothing more about the worlds she creates than what is written in the books; it’s all just a clever trick. I like that trick, and it works in games.

Players could have ownership of different elements of the fiction. This was done to make sure that things like, for instance, geography or the nature of magic had some consistency – things in GM-less games can get pretty gonzo pretty quickly if everyone can just add to everything.

The first version of the game had a simple resolution mechanic, drawing cards from a standard deck of playing cards. That changed later.

There were veto rules, pretty much lifted directly from Dirty Secrets by Seth Ben-Ezra, which had just come out.

Destiny points were based on the idea that major characters had destinies. The technique of writing them down so people would play towards them was from Eirik Fatland’s fate play technique. The idea of having several destinies, and letting people choose from them, was based on another game where people could choose from suggestions – I think Penny For Your Thoughts, but I could be wrong.

2. Archipelago II

A few people I didn’t personally know played Archipelago I, and gave feedback. (Chris Bennett, Robert Earley-Clark, Willem Larsen and Chris Peterson). That made me think the game might have, as we say in Norwegian, “livets rett” – the right to live. In the summer of 2009 I suddenly decided to make a new version of the game, adding a few elements.

One new element was resolution cards based on impro theatre. These cards, labeled “Yes, and…” and “No, but…” and similar, were something I’d made & tried out for an Itras By campaign in 2007 (for more about the relationship between Itras By and Archipelago, see http://www.story-games.com/forums/discussion/18000/itras-by-and-archipelago-a-love-story/p1).

The other element was fate cards, based on the chance cards Ole Peder and Martin had made for Itras By.

These cards were just thrown in. I’d never playtested them for Archipelago, and I put the game on the internet with no further testing.

3. Last Train out of Warsaw

So I was pretty happy with the game – at least, the way the ritual phrases worked. I’d put some thought into it, and could see how they made groups work better, which was something I was thinking a lot about (I put an essay on group dynamics into Archipelago II). I was a little frustrated that people weren’t immediately picking it up, playing it, and carrying me through the streets on their shoulders while sacrificing goats and wine and chocolate to me, but that’s just how I am. A few people did play it, though, and it started getting a litttttle bit of buzz.

Suddenly, Jason Morningstar posted this on the Nørwegian Style blog:

“I really like the game and would like to hack it in my own directions, and wanted your approval before I started.”

And I went, huh? And sure, and what? And he’d written an entire game, an Archipelago hack with a scenario and ready-made characters. Completely not the generic game I’d made. I tried it out and he put it on the internet.

4. Crazy shit happens

For the next year or two, people started doing stuff with Archipelago. Jamie Fristrom designed his own cards, and made a hack combining Archipelago and James Wallis’ Once Upon a Time. Willem Larsen came up with new phrases, techniques and even ASL signs. Pablo Martínez translated it into Spanish, Maitresinh into French. Anders Nygaard made a Stormtrooper hack. Richard Williams made a game, Anarktica, expanding on the Archipelago rules. And Rafael Chandler made a hack using miniatures and dice. (Yeah, I KNOW!)

5. Love in the Time of Seið

While crazy shit was happening (the exact chronology can be pieced together from the post on Archipelago II, I think), I contacted Jason asking if he wanted to collaborate on a game. He did, and we made Love in the Time of Seið. It was partly based on a movie script I never finished, but I’m not sure if I ever told Jason that; anyway, he and I changed it a lot from its initial premises. He made a very tight web of relationships for the characters, and we made up a lot of cool locations. I think we actually used Google Wave to collaborate, moving to Google Docs after a while. It was very exciting for me working with Jason, who I have a lot of respect and admiration for.

The game had some innovations and changes, especially the use of location cards, the introduction of Themes and Events and theme guides. This was a continuation of the Fate cards in Archipelago II, only tied much tighter into the setting and characters. We also gave each characters some questions to answer, based on the Montsegur technique.

To make things easy, and because we’re such awesome human beings, we give the proceedings to charity. Jason has handled all the practical matters, and did the layout for the game.

6. Archipelago III

In 2012 Jason contacted me. He wanted to make a better-looking, better-edited & updated version of the rules.

We decided to add two new phrases to the official ruleset: “Help”, to get input from the group; and “Harder”, to encourage players to really push where it hurts. Both had been tried and found to make the game more fun. We removed the use of tokens to track location, since none of us actually used that, and we simplified the veto rules.

Jason worked on the resolution cards, adding some, changing others, to make a bigger and more varied set.

7. What now?

We’ve had two aborted attempts at sequels. Now, however, we’ve got a pretty-much-finished game, a sister game to Love in the Time of Seið, which I’m very happy with. It’s sexy, full of intrigues, and has interesting gender-roley stuff going on. We need to edit it more and get design for it, and then we’ll put it out there.

4 thoughts on “A history of Archipelago

  1. Interresting reading for a fan! Jamie Fristrom’s Archipelago/In a Wicked Age-mashup has been one of my main games for a few years now, and it’s still one of the first things I consider when I think about what game to offer on both conventions and at home. Looking forward to the new game!

  2. Pingback: 20.000 Little Islands | Nørwegian Style

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