Storytelling Meta-Roles in “Downfall”

Moments Lost

“Moments Lost” is a blog series where I deconstruct a single moment from a narrative game, of any vintage, and talk through how and why it works.

The Game: Caroline Hobbs’ tabletop storygame Downfall (2015) asks three players to imagine a flourishing society based around a fundamental flaw, and then discover the events that lead to its collapse. Each player has equal narrative power: there’s no gamemaster or pre-prepared story. It’s one of the most beautifully designed storygames I’ve ever seen. From the crisp layout of the rulebook to the mechanics that each feel tested and polished to a Zen-like perfection, it’s an absolute joy to both read and play.

Downfall is packed with good ideas. To create a society, for instance, each player secretly picks an Element from a list of evocative words like Air, Empire, Music, or Swarm. These are all revealed simultaneously, and their connections and contradictions used to inspire your civilization and its setting. One idea in particular, though, helps structure stories that focus on the human cause and consequences of your society’s downfall.

The Moment: Downfall is designed for exactly three players, and focuses on a story about three characters. But rather than playing a specific character, all three are designed together, and ownership of them rotates from scene to scene. Each character is invented to fill a particular archetype. The Hero is someone who stands up to the Flaw and fights against the fall of their civilization. The Fallen fights for the Flaw, strengthening (knowingly or not) the forces leading to downfall. Finally, the Pillar represents the ordinary people and the status quo, trying to keep things as they are.

What makes this idea shine is that each of these meta-roles comes with a specific storytelling job which it’s your responsibility, while playing that role, to enforce. The character sheets, passed around from person to person, highlight these responsibilities. For instance, the Pillar’s sheet says:

“You are one of many ordinary people in the Haven. Apologize for or ignore the harm caused by the Flaw. Reflect the average citizen.”
The top of the Pillar’s character sheet (courtesy Downfall’s official site).

So in a scene where you’re playing the Pillar, you’re thinking about the specific character that’s been created and how they would react in the ongoing situation, but you’re also thinking about that character’s function in the story. The beauty of this is that it divides this kind of plotting responsibility between players. No one is thinking exclusively about how to ensure the story reaches a satisfactory climax. Instead each player rotates between thinking about pieces of the narrative machine, and how the tensions and conflicts between the three central characters allow it to function.

I wrote in my Lovecraftesque column how difficult it can be for a compelling story to arise out of a GM-less system when no one has arranged a tidy narrative in advance. Downfall solves this problem in a different way than Lovecraftesque: by letting the structure emerge through the inevitable conflicts that roleplaying each character according to their archetype will produce.

This concept of meta-roles is not without precedent — another game that does this beautifully is Ben Lehman’s Polaris— but it’s still under-explored given how effective it is. In my game Archives of the Sky I also wanted players to be thinking together about how to make the story dramatically compelling. To encourage stories about holding onto one’s humanity against the overwhelming immensity of the cosmos, I created two meta-roles, the Epic and the Intimate, which are assigned ideally to players without characters in the scene. These roles rotate between players, but aren’t attached to specific characters as in Downfall. Rather, they provide players with temporary jobs to focus on parts of the story that tend to get neglected in spontaneous play: the Epic looks for ways to inject a sense of scale and grandeur at the vast cosmic mysteries the characters contend with, and the Intimate focuses on senses and emotions, adding details of smell, texture, and emotion, or asking players what their characters are thinking about or feeling.

Cards tracking characters, traditions, and the Haven during a game of Downfall. Image courtesy ConTessa.

It’s interesting that nothing in either game actually imbues the meta-roles with additional power. Rather, they give permission to take certain kinds of actions that players might otherwise be hesitant to take. Speaking up in the middle of somebody’s scene can be intimidating; playing your character in a way that causes conflict for another can feel socially awkward. Downfall’s meta-roles give players blueprints for how to enact conflicts pushing the story towards its inevitable climax, and permission to think about how that structure works and makes the story what is.