The Origin of “Archives”

Archives of the Sky, my new tabletop storytelling game, began as research for my PhD in interactive storytelling: attempting to resolve a contradiction I’d seen in certain GM-less roleplaying systems. Often the lack of a single storytelling authority (the gamemaster) led to less coherent and satisfying narratives. Some systems (like Microscope, or indeed my own digital game The Ice-Bound Concordance) resolve this by dropping the notion of playing a character embedded in the story, pulling back to see a bigger picture. I wanted to see whether with the right mechanics, a player could be both immersed in a story while also thinking about its overall structure and direction. In the next few posts, I’ll be talking about how I arrived at this design and how it works.

Archives had its genesis when I first read the incredible book House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds. It’s one of the only books I’ve ever finished and then immediately re-read again. Among many other reactions, I definitely remember thinking, “Damn, this would be such an amazing world to roleplay in!”

The book kept rattling around in my head, so one evening, I sat down just for fun to try to figure out what a game inspired by it might look like.

One of the many incredible concepts in the book is shattering. Long before the story begins, a woman named Abagail Gentian decides to make a thousand clones of herself to spread out and explore the galaxy. Every hundred thousand years, they reconvene in a “Reunion” to share stories of the wonders they’ve seen — for a thousand and one nights, of course. The original Abagail is herself one of these wanderers, and all of the clones have her memories up to the point she was “shattered.” One of them is the original, but none of them know who: not even her.

While the shatterlings all start out as identical people, as they wander for countless eons they each diverge into unique individuals based on their lived experiences, and drift apart in appearance and ideology. And in my first draft of the game, this was the concept I latched on to: what if everyone’s character was once the same person? You’d start by building the “original” together, creating stats, a backstory, a worldview… and then each player would take that template and define how their character had changed since they’d all split apart.

This concept did not survive for long, though it could be an amazing basis for a different game. I especially love the idea of using shared memories as arguments or justifications for behavior among a party: “Of course we have to save them, just like Auntie Dinora saved us from falling off that cliff when we were six.”

Instead, I went back to House of Suns to try to understand what worked about it beyond the details of its plot and setting. I re-read it once again, taking detailed notes about character motivations and plot beats. One of the things I noticed was that most of the tension comes from characters struggling to reconcile conflicted beliefs.

An example of a Dilemma in “Archives.”

The two main characters, both shatterlings, have become lovers despite this being a huge taboo. They meet a character who has reason to hate robots, and then a robot acting suspiciously but in need of their help. When the Reunion makes a decision they disagree with, will they betray their compatriots or trust their own instincts? And bubbling around all this is the constant question: what does it mean to be human? Can a technological civilization go too far and lose its humanity? Can a race of non-humans ever earn that label? What should we hold on to, and what should we let go of, in pursuit of the things we treasure most?

So this became the new bedrock of Archives: the concept of Values and putting them into conflict. I’ll talk more about this in my next design post — but in the meantime, go read House of Suns if you’re a sci-fi fan and you haven’t, and thank me later.

Archives of the Sky is now on Kickstarter. A link to a free version of the rules can be found on that page (and an older, much different version of them can be found as an appendix in my dissertation).