Transneptune Games

warm games, cold nights

Et in Arcadia Ego: the basic mechanics

Et in Arcadia Ego is our game of Regency-era magicians. It owes a lot to Susanna Clarke, Jane Austen, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley. It has also been a fickle beast. We’ve been hacking at it, tweaking it, revising it, overhauling it, again and again for the past few months. It’s very much been a case of the tenth point of the Ten Wings.

But we’ve settled on something that seems to be at least in the right direction. Last night, we tried it out, and a few interesting points arose.

The game is a game of Austenesque manners and society laid over a seething mass of Gothic, Byronic horror and fairy madness.1 A lot of the aim of the mechanics was to make something in which you had to hit a sweet-spot. Success, particularly in a social conflict, which the game is slanted towards, is only truly valuable if your actions are commensurate with those of your opposition—making your point too strongly is just as bad as failing to make it at all, but in different ways.

For reasons to do with flavor, the magic system, and that ever-important unity of effect, we also had decided to use a very marked mechanical basis: cards. And not just playing cards, but tarot cards. So the system we tried last night looked like this:

Players each have a hand of cards, 7 to begin with but certain actions can make it shrink. This represents, more or less, their character’s emotional control, and ability to act within social strictures. The four suits map to the four humours and the four temperaments, so if you can act in accordance with a temperament that matches the suit of the card you play, that’s good. If you act in a different way than the card, you’re letting your emotions have free rein, and that degrades your hand size (temporarily) and brings you closer to getting more magic. (Magic, of course, being a thing of fairy, thrives on emotionality.)

In a conflict, the players narrate freely, but put a card face-down indicating how vigorously they will make their point. The high card wins the stakes, but if it is too much higher, as determined by the character’s stats in the relevant humours, then the loser gets to impose some consequence—a compromise, a cost, or a condition.

And so, we tried this in a toy situation, and it worked. The particulars of the system didn’t make consequences common enough, which is something to tweak, but generally, it worked. There were three things in particular that seemed clear from the playtest, though:

  • Situation is crucial. Not just initial situation, which we have a good system for, but continuing foment and development of situation. Consequences are probably the best mechanism for making this happen, so they need to be more frequent. The numbers on this will be hard to work out—I can talk more about those particulars in the comments if anyone’s interested.
  • The gradual loss of cards leads to a gradual loss of player authority over their characters. This is actually good, in that the game is, in part, about madness, and a lessened ability to control your own actions, swinging wildly between extremes, is a very Regency conception of madness.
  • The fact of having a hand made us think much more on the “game” end of “story-game”. The mechanics, thus, ended up distracting from the fiction sometimes. We tried to put our hands down and not think about them most of the time, but it was hard to go sharply between game-mode and story-mode.

This last point is probably the biggest issue to iron out; everything else works, if we can find a way to make the hands not make it feel like poker. Any thoughts on this front would be much appreciated!

Soon, I’ll talk about magic, when we’ve playtested that!

Edited to add: I’ve run the numbers on the current “how high a card is too high” system, assuming people play randomly, and they actually look really good. But the problem is precisely that people don’t play randomly—they can and do read each other. So the problem is an interesting one: player skill gets used to reduce the interestingness of the game. I think that’s an interesting general lesson to take away: always make the best interests of the players push towards complexifying the situation.

  1. I can hear Austen spinning in her grave, but Gothic fiction is just too fun. []