Blood Tragedy is an entry for the 2011 Game Chef competition. My inspiration was the desire to not rewrite Measure For Measure. It also owes not a little to MC Lars’s “Hey There Ophelia” from the This Gigantic Robot Kills album. Thanks to the Librivox Shakespeare players for a crash course in the tragedies.
This is a game about not getting out alive.
At its simplest, Shakespeare’s comedies end in a wedding, and his tragedies end in a bloodbath. In this game, your character will and must die. Your primary goal is to frame the story so that that after the cataclysmic destruction of the main characters in the final scene, your character’s goals are achieved.
On the way to inevitable death, each character lives through a series of scenes. A player who dominates a scene creates Plot Elements, used to frame the final conflict. Successfully framing the final conflict gives the player the right to act as narrator for the story’s epilogue.
Character and setting design
All characters are courtiers, generally in a medieval setting, as negotiated by the group. It’s possible to play games set in other times and places, but even these, beyond certain props and aesthetic elements, resolve into a medieval court. Ceasar’s Rome, the Duchy of Milan, and Cleopatra’s Egypt all look surprisingly like the English court, complete with mechanical clocks and gunpowder.
The game is set in the royal court of a kingdom which faces some sort of strife. The players as a group select the nature of the crisis. Popular choices include
• imminent invasion
• recently defeated invasion
• disputed succession to the throne
• civil war
• rule by an evil prince
Your character is going to die in an interesting way. Choose an interesting method of death now. Remember that if your character does not die, you lose, and if you choose a convoluted method of death and pull it off, you gain extra points. Choose only the method, not the perpetrator, of your character’s death.
Simple suicide is not a sufficiently complicated cause of death. Elaborate suicide is permitted only if it meets two conditions.
• It must contain a trigger that other players may prevent with story events. If a player chooses “Suicidal battle frenzy after all family members die”, for example, other characters may whisk a younger sister to safety, for example.
• It must be strongly tied to the character’s Nature, described below. The character’s Nature is a virtue that, taken to extreme, becomes a character flaw which leads its possessor to doom. A proud warrior who choses “Falls on own sword after lost battle”, for example, is fine.
Choose a trait which seems a virtue, but which, driven to extremes, contributes to your character’s death. Hamlet’s clever enough to act mad. Timon’s so generous it destroys him. Coriolanus is so patriotic that when his people disappoint his high opinion of them, he destroys them and himself. Don’t choose a Nature based on combat: this is Shakespeare, not a dungeon crawl.
Your character’s Nature is his greatest source of strength during the game. It begins with a score of 10.
As a group, the players select roles in the court for each character. Popular choices include
• Cross-dressing noblewoman.
If two players want a role which is usually singular, like ruler, then these characters are contesting the role and are enemies.
The game is played through five acts. Each act contains one scene per player character, but the Fifth Act has an epilogue. During any given Act, each character has a duty which must be performed. Failure to perform the character’s duty during an Act makes the character Forsworn. Forsworn characters may be treated as NPCs by the remaining main characters, and although they may survive, the player of a forsworn character cannot win. Indeed, the winning player may use the forsworn character to deliver the epilogue, if he or she wishes.
In the First Act, each character must formulate and express a plan to deal with the crisis. If all of the characters have plans which mesh without conflict, all of the players lose. At this point, it is traditional for the players to pelt each other with hazelnut shells, if they have them handy.
A character who expresses a plan must speak it aloud. This speech may, however, take the form of the character speaking to himself. The expression must be at least two sentences long, and include an action which other players might thwart. Given that in the next act, the plan must be challenged, it is in the player’s interest to give more information that this, to allow other players to hook into his or her scenes.
In the Second Act, each character’s response to the crisis must be challenged. If the challenge is due to internal conflict within the character, this irresolution must be prompted by the actions of another player character.
The character does not need to overcome this challenge to avoid being Forsworn. If the character’s can modify his plan to make it succeed, he must express his revised plan. If the character’s plan is completely obstructed in this Act, then this fulfils the Act duties in both this and the Third Acts, and the character need not express his new plan until the Fourth Act.
Players should conspire to ensure they threaten each other’s plans. It is in each player’s interest to have his or her character both kill and be killed by other characters in the Fifth Act.
In the Third Act, each character’s plans must approach failure, or fail. Players should conspire to ensure they threaten each other’s plans. If the plan fails, the character must express a new plan during the Fourth Act.
In the Fourth Act, the characters muster resources for the Final Act. Each must have an expressed plan by the end of the Act, and must indicate what their hopes for the future are.
By the end of the Fifth Act, the character must be dead. Remember suicide is only permitted if it is triggered by the actions of another player character, and suits the character’s Nature.
Each player frames one scene in each act. To determine the order in which scenes are framed in an Act, roll a ten sided dice. The winner selects the order of play. The player framing a scene is called its Prompt.
A scene begins with the Prompt describing the location briefly, and the characters present. For each named non-player character, or group of characters, in the scene, the prompt may add one sentence about them, giving their objective, location or any other detail. At this point any other player may add their character to the scene before it begins.
The prompt frames the course of the scene. Any player who has a character in the scene from its beginning may challenge the course of the scene. Players may negotiate, but if they cannot agree, each rolls a ten sided dice and adds the character’s Nature score. The defeated character loses 1 Nature and the control of one Plot Element (see later), as selected by the loser. If, as the Prompt outlines the scene, a player whose character is not present wishes to challenge, he may do so, by demanding the character enter mid-scene. For this d10+Nature roll, the character has a -2 penalty. The defeated character loses 1 Nature and 1 Plot Element, as selected by the victor.
If a player character supports another player’s challenge, then +3 to the challenger’s roll if they were in the scene at the beginning, and +2 if they entered mid-scene. The Plot Elements of assisting characters are fair game to the victors of challenges, but assisting characters do not lose Nature.
After a challenge, the victor must narrate the transfer of control of the Plot Element. If they cannot weave the transfer into the story, the plot element remains with its previous owner. Similarly, the victor must choose an affront to the loser’s Nature, which is woven into the story.
Players whose characters are not present during a scene may speak through non-player characters, but a player character can dismiss an NPC from a scene at any time with a simple command suitable to the evolving story. If a player’s character is in a scene, that player may also speak through non-player characters, but may not speak to his own, primary character. A player cannot add new non-player characters to the scene without the assent of all the players whose primary characters are already present, unless the NPC is a Plot Element controlled by that player. Plot elements can still be dismissed, but only after they say at least one line.
If a player character is in a scene, but says less than six lines, it really is stage dressing, and loses 1 Nature.
The Prompt may veto the participation in a scene by a player character if that character, by appearing, will ne in more than half of the scenes of an Act.
Creating Plot Elements
A Plot Element is a thing in the game world which, when used in scenes, increases the controller’s chance of success. They arise out of success in challenges, and must have a connection to the narrative events which surround the challenge.
If a Prompt runs a scene to his outline, he may create one Plot Element, which remains under his control unless used given to another player, or lost through a Challenge. If a Prompt with a plot element gains another, he or she may choose to instead increase the bonus of any currently existing element. If a Plot Element is lost in a challenge, it is transferred to its new owner with all bonuses, not +1 per loss.
If a challenger defeats the Prompt, he or she creates or improves a Plot Element, as above.
If players negotiate an outcome, a Plot Element is created if all players consent to its nature and location. No player has control of this element until at least the Fourth Act, when they may claim it by actions within the narrative.
Using Plot Elements
A Player using a Plot Element during a Challenge adds +1 to his or her character’s Nature roll, but this extinguishes the Plot Element. In the game world, the item may be destroyed, but it may also simply lose its narrative power. A secret letter might be burned, or simply opened and read, for example. A player may only use a plot element if they can weave it into the story.
Plot Elements and Scoring
Each Plot Element exhausted in the Fourth and Fifth Acts adds its roll bonus to the player’s final score. Plot Elements which remain unused at the end of the story reduce the controller’s score by their bonus.
Exile and Soliloquy
A character whose Nature reaches zero is though to be without virtue, and is banished from court until the final Scene of Act Five. Characters can restore their Nature by Soliloquy. A character may only make one Soliloquy per game. This costs a Scene, which cannot be in Act Five. Declaiming a soliloquy restores one ten sided dice roll’s worth of Nature, up to a maximum restored score of 10. After the roll the player may sacrifice plot elements, raising the character’s Nature by 1 per plot element, again to a maximum of ten. The scene in which the Soliloquy takes place must be described, and cannot be interrupted or challenged, but cannot alter the plot markedly.
Player characters cannot be permanently killed before Act Five. They can be horrible tortured or maimed, but if they appeared to die, they may return on any unlikely pretext which the player cares to nominate.
If your character dies in the way described at creation, add three points to your final score, unless you described a particularly unlikely death, in which case add five. “Being drowned in a vat of wine” or “Being stabbed after eating own children” for example, are unlikely deaths.
If you kill a character in the way described at their creation, add two points to your final score, unless their death was by a particularly unlikely method. Then add five.
The player with the highest final score narrates the ending of the play, concluding the story as they wish.