Games Design - [Shipwreck] An Improved Version

Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: Apr 28th 2010

Thanks to all the comments in this thread, and discussions offline, Shipwreck is looking at lot better, although it's probably still no more than 50% of the way there in terms of mechanical design.

You'll find a v1.1 version of the game text attached below. It should be pointed out that this is till very much in the draft stage, with much of the text still as un-coloured, fairly bald instructions, rather than as written up rules and advice.

The next stage is, obviously, to give it a good, solid playtest and see how things work in the real world. However, there are some questions that it would be great to get input on prior to that:

  1. Does the confrontation resolution system seem robust enough? I have a niggling doubt about it and still feel that there is something missing from it that would give it a bit more pep and vigour.

  2. There's a question in the text: should the cards drawn by the winner (either numbers of suits) influence what the outcomes are? For example, if spades are highest, should violence predominate, hearts that social fracturing should predominate, etc? I'm not convinced at the moment that this is required, but I thought I would throw it out there.


Posted by: Simon C On: May 2nd 2010

Hi Malcolm,

Is this a game about how people get along under stress? Or is it about what people will do to survive? Both? I kind of get that impression from the tension mechanics. Maybe you could strengthen that? I don't get a great sense at the moment about what the characters do. Are they trying to get home? Are they trying to escape the threat? Just to survive?

Posted by: Joe Prince On: May 2nd 2010 edited

I think Simon's comments highlight the fact that the current game text is pretty confused. It's hard to know what the game's about.

If the answer is really shipwreck stories then I'd suggest breaking the game down into distinct phases of play. Tension could be used as an apt pacing mechanic.

Phase 1. Exploration phase. Showcasing PC's in an alien environment. The struggle to contend with this new existence and the battle for survival against nature. Need for food, water shelter etc.

Phase 2. New Threat. Now that some semblance of stability has been established by the remaining survivors an additional threat rears it's ugly head. It could be cannibals (Robinson Cruso) or schisms within the survivors themselves (Lord of the Flies).

Phase 3. – Escape/Rescue. With the threat still prevalent there now appears a glimmer of hope for the few brave souls still surviving. Who will manage to escape? At what cost to the rest?

Throughout all phases there should be the constant choice of whether to go it alone – putting yourself first or whether to work as a group, pooling resources.

This would become the premise of the game "Does the independent or the group triumph in the battle for survival?". Assuming you want Story Now play. If you don't then you need more gamey mechanics or a more satisfying means of exploring the dream.

As it stands, the setup is great with the random possessions and map etc. The conflict mechanics however are a bit flat. It seems very contrived that you must have a conflict with another PC every turn. It works better for Zombie Cinema in terms of genre emulation, but shipwreck stories predominantly feature people working together.

Hope this helps – I'm still up for a game tomorrow – just a wee bit concerned that there are mechanical gaps I could sail a frigate through…

Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: May 3rd 2010 edited

Simon/Joe: Thanks for the thoughts! I entirely agree: the resolution mechanics are somewhat flat and uninspiring at the moment. Hopefully that will be resolved (no pun intended) in the coming weeks.

Simon: I think the answer yo your question certainly is 'both'. As I see it, the game should be about how people get along in this situation AND what they do to survive. There does need to be a greater drive and imperative contained within the way the game works.

Joe: Strangely, defining the game in the same manner as a three act play was something I toyed with at the very start, then discarded. So, it's interesting to see that format reappear and a potentially method of pacing.

If taking a three act structure, perhaps the first act could be (as you suggest) all about exploring the environment, coming to terms, etc. Maybe this is the role of a set of introductory scenes comes in?

One thing that springs to mind is the idea that for play to progress to the next act, a certain number of conditions must be in play. So, this doesn't necessarily mean that any characters have to be dead, but that the effects of the shipwreck will be making themselves felt (Number of Players -1 conditions must be in play before we can progress?).

Another thought: if a three act structure is taken, perhaps Act 1 is where the possessions that will be vital later on are brought into play? The old 'Chekov's Gun' thing. Not all the vital possessions need to be highlighted here, but having a means of explicitly foreshadowing certain things might be good.

Thanks for the thoughts, they really are pushing the game in good directions. Any further input is also greatly appreciated.


Posted by: Joe Prince On: May 3rd 2010

I think having a certain number of conditions met for progression to the next act makes sense. In the first act it makes sense for the conditions that need to be fulfilled to be about immediate survival (food, shelter, X locations on the map explored). In the second act they should be about mitigating the threat to some degree. I don't think just needing X generic conditions will help the feel of the game.

I like the foreshadowing idea - perhaps this could be worked into the mechanics for possessions becoming key items in the escape?

I reckon you should check out Clinton Nixon's City of Brass - it deals with a lot of similar themes, although the competitive element is more overt.

Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: May 3rd 2010

Yep, the foreshadowing idea is something that I think resonates. Or, at the moment it does.

I'm wondering if there needs to be an economy within the game where, like Contenders, you choose different scene types from a short list, and the scene type you choose dictates (in some fashion) or helps along, what happens? Like the three act idea, this was something I had initially toyed with but discarded.

So, (just to toy around with the idea) scene types could be:

Survival - doing something to find food, build and shelter, work out where you are, etc.

Confrontation - A conflict with another character, perhaps allowing you to gain possessions.

Escape/Rescue - doing something to aid escape from the situation or to bring aid to you.

Each of the scene types could offer distinct outcomes, or choices of outcomes. Survival might allow you to add new possessions, for example. How Tension would come in to such an economy remains to be seen.


Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: May 3rd 2010 edited

Further to all the great feedback, I've been musing the morning on Shipwreck. As we're having a playtest this evening, it's probably best to get my thoughts in order.


When the characters have been created, each player must secretly write down which other character is the 'enemy' of their own character. This is then revealed and noted down. Characters who are enemies may NEVER help each other, they must always act against each other.

Enemies may be 'bought off' in a Personal Scene (see below), representing some form of rapprochment, a level of respect, friendship, accommodation under heightened tension, etc.

Conversely, people can become enemies through personal scenes.


The game takes place over three acts. Each act contains a number of chapters. Each chapter contains gives each played character a Personal Scene and a Survival Scene. Players choose which type of scene to take first.

Act 1 - The aftermath of the wreck

Act 1 only has one chapter, so each character has two scenes (one personal, one survival) in the spotlight.

Act 2 - Rising tension and the fight for survival

There are two chapters in this act, so characters get 2 sets of scenes. Characters may not take two of the same scene type in a row, i.e.: there must be one of each to make up a chapter.

Act 3 - Rescue, escape, or death

There is one chapter in this act, but it contains three scenes. There must be at least one of each type, but the player is free to choose which type the other scene is.


A Personal Scene must be a moment of interaction with another, or a moment of solitary crisis or introspection.

Potential Outcomes

Inflict a condition on another character -
Cure a condition on your character +
Stop someone being your enemy +
Gain an enemy -
Force a new debt on a character -

A Survival Scene must attempt to increase the chances of survival, escape, or rescue. It may be solo, or it can involve other characters. It may confront an external threat.

Potential Outcomes

Create a new possession +
Make a possession key +
Take a possession +
Lose a possession -
Inflict a condition -
Cure a condition +
Force a new debt on someone -

It should be noted that outcomes can also be inflicted on non-player characters who are present in the scene.

I have the feeling that the economy in Shipwreck might be a little skewed at the moment and may require refining in order to make it functional. Hopefully tonights playtest might give some indications of directions.

Any comments and feedback appreciated as always.


Posted by: Sebastian Hickey On: May 4th 2010 edited

(Edit: This is in response to 1.1, not the above post. I was writing this while you posted. These ideas may no longer be as relevant.)

I like the idea of a three act structure, but I'm not sure it has be so overt. What I mean is that the mechanics of the game should tend toward that kind of progression through play, but that the idea of labelling the acts might be a little clumsy (for me).

I think you can combine the scene type solution with the expected progression of the three acts:

  1. Give every scene a Threat score of X (let's say four, just for kicks). This means that whatever scene you choose, the Threat has a real chance of winning (assuming you're using the cards thing).

  2. If the Threat wins, anyone in the scene gets a Condition. Bammm! In the early game, people will have to scramble for gear.

  3. For each Possession you have, perhaps you gain X cards (let's say one) in every scene. Therefore the more Possessions you have (Dog, Gun, Beach House), the better you are at dealing with the omnipresent Threat. Possessions will naturally buffer against Threat, especially when people work together. That is, if you and me are in the caves with my torch and dog, and your sheep, rifle and rum, we'll have five cards to pitch against the Threat when either of us narrate a scene.

  4. Allow people to remove a Condition during a Confrontation scene (by inflicting injury on another). That means that early sufferers of the Threat have a chance to survive if they hurt other folks or steal their stuff. Yay!

  5. Keep the End Game explicitly won by the last survivor or any escapees.

  6. Any time anyone tries an escape scene, increase the Threat level permanently by one. The escape scene should let a player convert X Possessions into Key Possessions. If the player already has enough Possessions to Escape, he gets to write his Epilogue. The End.

So, I haven't thought this through completely, but the way I see it is that the presence of a continuous (and impressive) Threat early in the game is going to force people to team together and to look for Possessions. If they don't get them, they'll take too many Conditions and then die.

After that, in the mid game, as the Threat becomes less important, players will be looking for ways to fulfil the win condition. This will naturally produce rivalry if the resources are few enough.

Once a player does his first escape scene, the rest of the group will still have a chance to interfere before he leaves. Cue confrontation, barter, clique, backstabbing.

I think this might trend the threat from external to internal. It's a little brazen, in a sense, but hopefully you get what I'm poking at: Natural shifts in play versus significant acts.

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