My Life with Games (part 29)–Showdown

I’ve lived with Showdown for over six years now, so I forget that many of you reading this may not actually know what in the world the Showdown project was about. For that matter, it’s been a fairly tumultuous stretch in my life, and there are a number of you who didn’t even know me when I started to work on Showdown. So, for all of you, let me tell you about my new game Showdown.

Here’s the basic pitch from the book:

Showdown is a roleplaying game about two people locked in a bitter struggle that can only end with the death of one of them. It’s for two players and should take between 60 and 90 minutes to play. Over the course of play, you and your opponent will be fighting over two things: the outcome of a climactic duel between these two foes and the history that led them to that duel. Win the duel, and you get to choose who lives and who dies. Control the history, and you get to shape why they fought in the first place. How did it come to this? Who’s the hero? Who’s the villain? And who’s left standing when the dust settles?

Raise your weapons and prepare to face the truth.

When I designed Showdown, one of my goals was to create a roleplaying game that would fit into a boardgame-sized social footprint. Most roleplaying games are events, requiring multiple sessions of 2-4 hours. Even back then, my life didn’t really afford the opportunity for much of that sort of thing, and the demands on my time and energy have only increased. But most people can find 60-90 minutes of time to play a game.

I also wanted a game that made creativity easy. Instead of presenting the players with a wide-open canvas, I used the rules to hold the players by the hand by asking specific questions of each player. “How do you attack your opponent?” “Who exactly was there with the two of you?” “How did she succeed against you?” By asking small questions, the game makes it easier to create a compelling story. “Say anything!” is hard, but “say this” is a lot easier.

I also wanted a game that gave some thought to the user interface of the game. As I’ll discuss in a moment, players are already tracking two parallel stories in their heads. I wanted the game to remember as much as possible for the players, freeing them to focus on their developing narrative. Thus the special Showdown cards, helping to track information for players.

So, what’s gameplay like?

Each game is composed of two entwining narratives. The first narrative is that of the unfolding duel to the death between the two characters. In this narrative, each player is describing the ways that their character is attempting to win this final confrontation by killing the other character. Success in this narrative represents your character getting the upper hand over the other character, and ultimate victory in this narrative gives you the right to decide who survives the duel and who is killed.

Because, for certain, one of your characters will die.

So, why wouldn’t you always choose for your opponent’s character to die?

Because of the second narrative, which is composed of a series of flashbacks, stepping through the history of these two characters. The first flashback of the game shows the first time these two characters met, and the succeeding flashbacks unfold their history of these characters’ interactions, which we know must lead ultimately to this climactic battle. Success in this narrative represents your opponent’s character being revealed for who he truly is.

See, as you make your character for this game, you create four Qualities that complete the sentence “I think I am [a]….” For example, “I think I am a generous person” or “I think I am next in line for the throne.” When you succeed in a flashback, you take your opponent’s character sheet, cross out a Quality, and replace it with something that finishes the sentence “…but really I am [a]….” The replacement has to subvert or diminish the original Quality in some way. So, for example, “I think I am a generous person, but really I am a manipulator who uses money to get ahead.”

Qualities are privileged by the rules; any narration has to be consistent with them. So, you start the game thinking you knew who your character is, but in reality, you have no idea.

Another way of putting it: you have two kinds of hit points in this game, and one of them is your self-image.

By the time the game comes to an end, you may discover that your character is so vile that you’d be happier seeing him dead than alive.

So, on each turn, the two of you set up what you’re trying to do in the duel and then what you’re trying to do in the next flashback. Then you both choose the dice you will roll to attempt to come out ahead. Higher numbers are better for dueling, while lower numbers are better for the flashback. So, if you really want to get ahead in the duel, choose your d12, which is the highest die. If you want to get ahead in the current flashback, choose your d4, which is the lowest die. You then roll two dice of the kind you selected, one for the duel and one for the flashback. This means that a lucky (or unlucky) die roll can still let you win both the duel and flashback…or lose both.

Lose the duel, and you lose the die you played. Lose the flashback, and you lose one of your Qualities.

Play until someone is out of dice.

That’s essentially the game.

I’ve noted in the past that my life has tended to reflect whatever game I’m working on. There’s a weird “life imitating art” vibe that turns up for me. That has certainly been true for me with Showdown. This stretch of my life has possibly been the most painful in my life, in part because my ego was laid bare for me to see, and I didn’t like it very much. God has exposed so much in my life and in my heart which was bad for me and those around me. And I guess it’s been good, but I know that it has hurt. A lot.

It’s hard to discover that maybe you haven’t been the hero of the story, the way you thought you were.

When Showdown was in playtest, my friend Ralph Mazza commented that he really wanted to see a variant where Qualities had a third statement, something like “…but now I’m becoming [a]…” with a redeemed version of the negative Quality. Something like “I think I am a generous person, but really I am a manipulator who uses money to get ahead, but now I’m becoming a wise investor in other people’s dreams.” He wanted to see a way for Qualities to come through the fire of revelation and be redeemed. It wasn’t the right choice for the game, but I’ve thought about that suggestion a lot over the last year as we’ve been finishing up Showdown. Because it certainly feels like what God has been doing in my life.

It’s good that life doesn’t always imitate art.

So, yeah, that got kinda deep. I should also say that Showdown is a ton of fun. Ordinarily, by this point in a project, I should be tired of playing the game or even thinking about it. But I haven’t. I’m proud of all my games, but I think that Showdown is the most fun of all my games. At least so far!

Showdown is available at DriveThruRPG. I’d love it if you would check it out, maybe pick up a copy, and then spread the word.

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2 responses to “My Life with Games (part 29)–Showdown

  • Joshua

    I am very interested in the premise of your game. At this price point, I would like to see more reviews or sample play sessions first. It is a big investment (hey I don’t make much money) in an complete unknown. Is there a play session somewhere I can have a look at?

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