Saturday, May 5, 2018

Five or So Questions on Archives of the Sky

Hi all! Today I have an interview with Aaron Reed on Archives of the Sky, which is currently on Kickstarter! Archives of the Sky is a GMless game with collaborative story telling, set in the broader reaches of the universe where characters seek purpose in the epic galaxy. It seems pretty nifty, so please check out the interview below! You can also peek at at a play example here.

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Kickstarter video for Archives of the Sky.


Tell me a little about Archives of the Sky. What excites you about it?

Archives of the Sky is a tabletop storytelling game that uses epic science fiction as a stage for stories about very human conflicts and values. I love sci-fi and roleplaying, but most of the existing games I know of in the genre focus more on its external trappings: spaceships, laser guns, and so on. There are a few rare exceptions that focus on the more human, philosophical side of sci-fi-- "Shock" by Joshua A.C. Newman is one of my favorites-- but I wanted a system that also took inspiration from GM-less improvisational games like Microscope, Fiasco, and Downfall. After a lot of iteration and playtesting, Archives is the result.

What excites me about it is that it really evolved into a great vehicle for supporting a group of people to collaboratively create an amazing story together. The mechanics of the game really work to provide a structure for a plot, and to ensure that plot is based around a conflict between beliefs. The characters are then forced to resolve this dilemma somehow, which means they need to get down to the heart of why the believe the things they do and why they're worth defending-- and that tends to lead to some great roleplaying.

four people in a semi-circle around a table filled with index cards, paper, and writing instruments.
A group of people playing Archives of the Sky. Index card tents! yay!
How do you set up a game of Archives of the Sky - who has input into the story, the characters? - and how do plot hooks happen?

Everyone's involved with setting up the world and telling the story-- there's a role called the Archivist to help facilitate, but everyone has equal creative authority. The first thing you do when you sit down to play is create a House together, a group of near-immortal wanderers who have been exploring the galaxy for thousands and thousands of years. You start by coming up with their core purpose, which becomes the game's first value. This might be something like "We preserve life," or "We learn truths," or even something simpler like "We hunt" or "We sing." It's something this House has sworn to pursue as their highest calling.

The rules walk you through fleshing out the House a bit more, giving them a few more Values and figuring out their place in the galaxy, and then each player makes their own character, someone within the House. Characters each have their own personal Values, which may or may not line up with the House's Values, or with each others'. These are the seeds of stories-- think of Captain Kirk in the early Star Trek movies, who has sworn to uphold the Federation's mission of peace, but will also "never forgive" the Klingons for the death of his son. Clearly, he's going to have to face this conflict sooner or later. (Sentences starting "I always" or "I never" make great Values, by the way.)

Once the game begins, players take turns staging Scenes that advance the plot. Each scene is based around a Question which that player has about where the story is going. So if a mysterious transmission was detected in the previous scene, the next player might ask "Who sent the transmission?" as their Question-- or might introduce a new complication by asking something like "Why can't we find the source of the transmission?" Everyone then collaboratively plays a scene around answering the Question, both playing their character as well as making things happen in the story world (like a GM).


Some "trove" cards, created by the players to support storytelling - the words are machines, magnitude, nightfall, prisoners, absorbtion, decaying, and disturbance.
Some "trove" cards, created by the players to support storytelling.
What are the basic mechanics like for social and other conflicts, and how do they engage players emotionally?

Players have the option of resolving conflicts through roleplay, but there's a mechanic that provides a bit of randomness and an uncertain outcome that can be used by any player who wants it. Another thing you do at the start of play is create a deck of index cards called the Trove, each one with a single word on it. (The rules encourage you to pull these words from your favorite sci-fi novels.) When you want to resolve an uncertain outcome, you can draw from the Trove and let the word inspire the outcome. What's great about this is the interpretation can be anything you want: literal, metaphorical, even tangential. So the word "fire" might inspire one person to narrate a catastrophic explosion, while another might read it as the fire in someone's eyes as they pull off a wild maneuver.

Where emotions come in is when the story gets to a Dilemma, a conflict between two Values. This is a situation where the characters need to decide on a course of action, but either decision would threaten one of the Values in play. Say the players have created a House with a core Value of staying hidden; but one of the characters has a personal value to protect the helpless, and the House has a chance to save a lot of lives by coming out of the shadows. Can that character convince the others to change their minds and go against their House's highest value? Or will she find a way to live with betraying what she believes for a greater good? It's not an easy decision, because any character who acts against a Value they believe in might have to Adapt at the end of the session, making a permanent change to their character.

An example of a Value, "We Always Show the Truth" with one in the background reading "We Record Tragedies."
An example of a Value, "We Always Show the Truth."
What was your playtesting process like? Tell me about any realizations you had, and how you dealt with necessary changes.

I've been making digital games for a long time, but this is my first fully finished and released tabletop roleplaying game, and one of the things that surprised me was how much more playtesting and iteration tabletop takes. With digital games, you spend some amount of time thinking of ideas, a hellishly long amount of time programming them, and then some amount of time playtesting: ideally throughout the process, but often closer to the end. With tabletop, almost all of your iteration time is spent actually playing the game and seeing how it works, with a few hours here and there to think through problems people are having and revise the rules.

Archives morphed a lot as it went through close to twenty fairly significant revisions (i.e. not just tweaking wording) over about two years. It accumulated more and more rules as I tried to get all the parts to work the way I wanted them to. The downside was this is as you went through a game, you kept bumping into new rules, and needing to stop to explain them. Finally I sat down and counted up the number of individual rules and mechanics in the game, and there were something like 27 of them. I challenged myself to try to make a version of the game that had only 10 concepts that needed to be explained. I think the simpler version that came out of that was when I really cracked the code of how the game worked, and from then on everything was just refinement.

The biggest two realizations I had were A) the game was really about Values, not the plot events (in the original version, you did a lot of writing down plot points on cards, moving them around the table, taking special moves to revise them, etc.-- in the final version, all that focus is placed on the Values in play instead). And B) A bunch of separate mechanics in older versions could be combined into the simple rule "Ask a question to begin a scene." So at certain times of the game that's a fixed question; at some times there are some questions that make more sense than others; but it's only one rule to explain, and everything else follows naturally from that framing, which simplified things a lot.


How do you put the "epic" into the game, with mechanics, narrative, and structure?

I wanted all players to get involved in telling the story: contributing details to scenes, helping build the world, and so on, but in practice people were often afraid to contribute when it wasn't their "turn" to stage a scene. So I added the concept of two meta-roles, called the Epic and the Intimate, that people take turns playing. Your job when you're the Epic is to look for opportunities to make the story huge and awe-inspiring in scope... so if someone mentions a spaceship, you might jump in with "It's three miles long and made from some incredibly black material that totally swallows up the starlight." By contrast, the Intimate looks for moments to keep the focus on emotions and small human details: they can ask a player what their character is feeling at any time during a scene, or add small touches of detail, like a texture or a significant glance between two characters. This system works really well to give players "permission" to tweak the story, and having those two things to focus on help make the stories feel like the kind of sci-fi I want to emulate.

The Archives of the Sky cover, reading "Archives of the Sky, a tabletop storygame of galactic scope and human ideals, by Aaron A. Reed."
The Archives of the Sky cover.
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Thanks so much to Aaron for the interview! This was a real cool game to learn about. I hope you all enjoyed the interview and will check out the Archives of the Sky Kickstarter today!


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