Monday, March 28, 2016

Amnesia and Working it into a Game

So between playing Bloodborne, reading the newest Call of Cthulhu and Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules, and hearing about the newest Pathfinder adventure path, I've been really getting my mind in running more psychological games. That is, games that really dwell on madness, horror, and the occult. All things I love reading about and they can be awesome to game in with the right group and the right mindset. In particular, I read that Strange Aeons, the next Pathfinder adventure path, was going to start with the players locked in an asylum and suffering from amnesia. I think that's a pretty interesting way to get a group together that can work with the right player buy-in, but I wonder, how would I do that.

There are some ways I thought about doing it that has their pros and cons. The first is more from the GM. The players slowly are revealed their different, disparate backgrounds as the game continues, and learn more about their characters. This style of interaction is more exploratory and focused on discovery. With this method, the PCs are defined more by what they do in this adventure rather than who they are(or were), which I feel is a really interesting way to run a character. Also, players can really jump right in from the beginning and get to the game. Of course, the drawbacks are aplenty. With no backgrounds, there aren't really any bonds between players' characters, and then really isn't anything keeping them together after the asylum breakout. What's worse is that you might give them a background that's underwhelming, mediocre, or something that the player simply doesn't like. Granted, that's true for pretty much anything you do as a GM, but with giving players their background, you are building something a bit more personal to them. In a way, you are dictating who their character is/was and some may not like that.

The second is more random based. I have the players write down on cards different events in a life that could or couldn't be theirs. Then, at the moment of revealing, you shuffle the deck and have that player draw, revealing something about their past. This has pros, as it is purely random and doesn't have the GM forcing a backstory onto the player. And with the random chance, everyone is surprised with the event. Some cons remain that the player may still really dislike the hand they've been dealt. It's always interesting how we are okay with randomly rolling for stats, but something as personal as character background is a no go. Also, now the GM has to try and fit that event change into the current game, which can be a bit hard if you don't know how to improvise. And the biggest problem I see is getting a set of cards for one person that may not really mesh together into a coherent backstory.

The third method is having a set of events, locations, people, and items introduced in each game. At some point, a player can attach themselves to one of those and describe what it means to their character and what background is revealed. This keeps the background creation with the player, allowing a more expressive style of interaction, rather than discovery. And the player will generally be happy with what they come up with. That player agency with the character you make is nice for them and still allows them to be creative, albeit in a different, more on the spot method. The problem can be if you aren't good at improvisation, or simply don't have the mental energy to make up something about your character that day. Also, it does seem to go against the idea of the players not knowing their backstory if they can still come up with it, but later. But, I think this idea might be good to revisit.

Ultimately, the points of disconnect seem to be a) who reveals the backstory, b) when is this revealed, and c) what is the goal of revelation. The who could be the GM, the player, or random chance. The when could be triggered by the GM, the player, random chance, or perhaps other players. The goal could be character discovery or player expression. Should there be a barrier to entry, like a "save to remember"? And finally, what is the in-game goal to discover your past? Would you try to right a wrong you did before losing your memory, or go back to your old life as it was, or even try and avoid who you were now that you know?

Wracking my brain while prepping at work, I think I have something I like. It's a bit of a combination between the second and third ideas. Because the only reward for this is player discovery or expression, there is really less of a concern of players rushing to unlock their backstory to 'win'.


When a player decides to make a character with amnesia, they essentially have no backstory. No name, no history, no nothing. The player can give them a name or have the GM or other players name them. Depending on how recent the amnesia is, they may not know their class abilities consciously, but will be able to do them reflexively. The GM should spend the first session or two giving chances for the PC to discover their abilities. So if they are a fighter, throw them into combat to showcase how they know how to fight. Or cast spells. Divine casters still feel an unusual attachment to their deity or philosophy that comes to them first, showcasing the real strength of their faith.

After the character creation, each player gets five chips. These chips are used to activate Mementos.

Mementos are mental keepsakes and memories that trigger a memory of the PC's past. They come in five categories:

  1. Living Being - This can be a creature that played a big part of your previous life, living or dead (or undead or construct), sapient, sentient, or not, etc. People, animals, the ghost of a forgotten loved one, your pet robot.
  2. Location - This is a building or area that meant something dear to you in your past life. Your ancestral home, the school you went to, an old battlefield you fought in, etc.
  3. Event - This is something that happens or happened that was important to you. A holiday celebration, or a date that is your birthday or anniversary, or something that has already happened, like The Great Elf Human War or The Dwarven Pogroms. 
  4. Item - This is an object that holds great meaning to you, or at least looks like it. A holy symbol of a god you once served, the ring of a partner to be, or an old toy from your childhood. Seeing swords could remind you of your service in the militia.
  5. Concept - An idea, knowledge, or sensations that help you remember what you knew or believed in. The smell of food your parents made for you, or seeing knowledge you once knew, or the feel of rain reminding you of an event that happened when it rained.
Whenever the GM mentions anything that falls into those categories, the players can throw a chip in to claim the memento and trigger a memory coming back to them. The player can either improvise what memory is attached to the memento, or they can roll on a table to see what they get and build from it. When the player gives up all five of their chips, their character remembers everything.

Knowledge, Skills, and Amnesia
If using a system that has skills like Knowledge, the character with amnesia doesn't have full access to them yet. They can be unlocked when a memento is claimed and background relating to that knowledge. If the player wants to use it before unlocking it, they can make a DC 10 Intelligence check to use the skill for that specific thing. Success means they can use it for that specific thing and can use it again for that for free. So, rolling Knowledge (Arcana) to see what you know about basilisks would require that Intelligence check first, then rolling the skill. Success on both mean you remember permanently what there is to know about basilisks.

Most other skills happen reflexively. Acrobatics can happen during combat or a situation that requires it. Perception is the same way. These don't require Intelligence checks. They just happen.

Limitations on Remembrance
The pacing should be left up to the GM and players, but generally you don't want to reveal more than one memory per two sessions per person, and generally keep it to one or two people per reveal. For something more long term, the players can only trigger a memory once per one or two levels. Alternatively, they can bank a portion of XP every session (say, 10%). When they reach a certain amount, they can cash in the XP to claim a memento (the XP would go back to them so they could level up). The amount needed to claim a memento would increase as more are unlocked. Look below for values

  • First Memento: 250 XP
  • Second Memento: 500 XP
  • Third Memento: 1000 XP
  • Fourth Memento: 2000 XP
  • Fifth Memento: 4000 XP
You can still keep the limitation on one reveal per level or two.

I think tomorrow I'll work up a little table for rolling.

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