The time has come to present the PbtA story game I’m currently developing to the public. In this article I would like to give you an idea of what the game is about, share with you some design elements, where I currently stand in terms of development and what I have in mind for the future of the game.
PbtA stands for Powered by the Apocalypse which is a roleplaying or story games design framework by V. and M. Baker on which I have based my design.
Atitlan Riders is a game about the dramatic lives and emotional struggles of a group of friends, young men and women living in the largest indigenous Maya town of Central America, Santiago Atitlan. Life in the pueblo is ruled by large families, the churches, Mayan tradition and rapid changes brought by modern life and better education. Players incorporate the role of every day young citizens living through a time in which every decision could give their life a new direction. But as a secret identity they are also tuktuk racing drivers, the popular three-wheel vehicles cruising as taxis through town day and night.
|Skyline of the town|
As young people, they love and admire, they hate and revolt, they dream and rock hard. The over-the-top concept of secret tuktuk races frame the characters’ world with a vision in which life and race become metaphorically connected through fast and furious drama.
It’s a world of fast & furious road action, of social drama and the challenge of staying truthful to one’s ideals. In short:
Central American Indigenous Tuk Fast & Tuk Furious Social Drama
|Kids procession through town|
This game and its context isn’t coming out of nowhere for me. I’m actually living since 2016 in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. My family and I left Germany to have a time off before my son starts going to school in Germany. We quit our jobs, put our stuff into a garage and moved here since we love the people, the climate and how we can live here differently than in Germany and offering our son a different perspective in life. We are connected to the place since 2005 and have friends here for many years. My wife has for many years helped to build the cooperation between a cooperative from town and a German association to export fair trade coffee.
If you want to know more about Santiago Atitlan, the beautiful landscape of Lake Atitlan and the surrounding volcanoes San Pedro, Toliman and Atitlan, you can consult the introductory pages of the game material which are linked below. There is also a gallery with photos I took to be found here.
Here, it should suffice to say that Santiago Atitlan is one of several towns around a large lake on 1,600m altitude in which predominantly people from Mayan descent live. Nowadays, most people also speak Spanish but the native language here is Tz’utujil which is spoken by a community of around 100,000 people. Many traditions from the ancestors are preserved here, the traditional clothing, the skaf and the huipil are still worn by many in daily life or at least on special occasions.
|The design process|
For me, this game design hence meant for me a way to explore my own understanding of the world around me. Talking to young parents I meet at my son’s school, visiting friends’ homes and hearing stories about their life and their families. For me, game design is a fantastic way to express all these experiences. Playtesting in town is a wonderful way to start to talk about personal stories. So each of the steps so far has been integral to being where I am. But from the playtests I had so far with outsiders, I gained confidence that the game can also be relevant for people unfamiliar with the place itself. But there is still a lot to learn. I would be grateful for everybody who offers to enter a discussion with me about the game, its approach, its relevance and its impact.
Designing Atitlan Riders
In the next couple of paragraphs I would like to talk about some design elements. It’s written for people familiar with PbtA games, story games and game design. If that is not your cup of tea you might want to skip over this part.
Since this is a coming-of-age game, Monsterhearts and Masks were two important and natural starting points. Monsterhearts though is such an elegantly slim and perfectly trimmed design that it mostly served as a philosophical reference point for me. Masks has so many fantastic design ideas that it much of the terminology is still visible in Atitlan Riders. Most importantly, there is Influence. By now, it works quite differently than in Masks but I think the path I took is still identifiable. Similarly, Conditions work as hit points, significantly lowering success probabilities and forcing characters to get closer to each other than they might like.
From Spirit of 77 (and recently also in Alas for the Awful Sea) I took over the split between role in the story and role in the world. As one of my favourite PbtA games, Sagas of the Icelanders had quite some influence on the game. It can be seen in the Trabajo and the Epilogue Move.
The Strings mechanic from Monsterhearts was very tempting to take over. However, although we might talk about teenagers or young adults in both games, Aitlan Riders characters are much less about the ups and downs of power dynamics. Influence as I called it as in Masks, is something more gruesome.
Each character has four Hearts of Influence. Each represents the entanglement of the PC with something or someone in the world. No matter if you have influence over somebody or they over you. It’s a toxic thing, something which keeps you from growing, from becoming yourself. Your goal is to resolve this entanglement.
The respective Move allows you to create a moment where you and the other person or institution let each other free. This can happen in many different ways. You get rid of your marihuana addiction. You and your rival agree on working together for the greater good, the guy you bullied might be already dead for long but only now you understand what was wrong with you at that time. You quit the job at the mayor’s office.
These are the moments I play RPGs for and since I want to see them and consider them as central to growing up, resolving Hearts of Influence are the most relevant pathway to gain XP. More so, resolving Influence is the only way to reach a happy ending for your character.
Which brings me to the Epilogue Move. Epilogues are a beautiful way to end an RPG story, letting a character go – especially after short campaigns as Atitlan Riders is most suitable for. Inspired by Fiasco, I wanted to have an element of randomness skewed by events in the actual story as a story prompt for your epilogue.
So before a player tells us their epilogue – what happens to their character in the (not so) distant future, they roll. However, the number of unresolved Influences goes negatively into the roll. Each player though can give a +1 to one other player representing whom they support to live a life free of manipulation and external pressure.
The last and not 100% serious twist is that on a miss the character’s story isn’t over yet. For me, it turned out to be a surprisingly deliberating turn: let’s take the compassion for our characters serious. We as players had been there for them, we had joy together, we suffered together. Are we really allowed to just leave them behind by our will? What if they had something to say on the cause of ending a campaign? Play until you find happiness for your character. Or live with the truth that you let them down.
As I said, this is not to be taken all too literal. But give it a try for a moment. Like in a roleplaying game (or you go reading the Neverending Story once more).
What is the Epilogue Move for the end of the story is the Trabajo Move for the beginning. It isn’t as different as beginning of session moves in other PbtAs (like The Man’s move in Sagas of the Icelanders) or Rumours in Urban Shadows. Trabajo is your daily work and how well it goes and this is there to get the story going.
The interesting bit is that each player secretly decides which other PC they want to help in their business. You then reveal your choice at the same time and describe how you help each other. The number of PCs helping you is the bonus you get on your role. So on average everybody rolls + 1 but how it turns out who is helping you and who not is a wonderful starting point for group dynamics.
Playbooks as roles in a clique
There are currently six playbooks available in Atitlan Riders: The Joker, The Tinkerer, The Thief, The Rebel, The Leader and The Righteous. For me, they represent archetypes in a clique of friends. They might all have moved on into other social circles. But they kept the roles from the late childhood times. Each of the playbooks has an Extra – that is something on which their story arc can be focused around. The Thief has a secret which gives them leverage, The Joker a truth everybody else wants to ignore etc.
Professions as role in the world
|Petrol station with |
Next to the playbook you choose a Profession for your character which provides you with one more Move and a couple of ideas what your day job could be. There are 8 Professions to pick from, from Body over Education to Entertainment.
The Professions aren’t a very important part of the game. They might go out or be reduced in weight. What they currently offer each is one Move with a purely fictional effect (no dice, e.g. the International: if you get to know a stranger, state what cultural misunderstanding they bring with them). The other Move is only available as an advancement (level up) and is a typical stat replacement in specific situations move.
Stats to Interact
It might be because I’m a mathematician that while designing stats and playbooks, keeping symmetries was an important creative constraint for me. There are four stats: Corazon (Heart), Fe (Will), Manos (Skill) and Loco (Weird). Each is rolled for two different Basic Moves (i.e. eight Basic Moves).
The stats have Spanish names although the local language here is Tz’utujil, one of the 23 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala. However, since I only speak a couple of words in Tz’utujil (my wife and son are better in it) and because it’s the common language between the different Mayan people Spanish I considered Spanish as more appropriate for what I’m doing with this game (until now).
The playbooks are designed that for each, two of the four stats are most relevant and vice versa that for each combination of two of the four stats there is one playbook highlighting these two stats.
Drawing your tuk tuk
Part of character creation is drawing the front of your tuk tuk. Your tuk tuk is your friend or companion. You give it a name and you are responsible to give it a decoration according to its personality. When you go on magical tuk tuk races with your friends and rivals, the tuk tuk is there to express yourself.
|Our online tuk tuk drawings|
The culture in Santiago Atitlan doesn’t value self-expression a lot. There are status symbols (from the very expensive traditional clothings to smart phones) for sure, but people don’t dye their hair or wear tattoos. You don’t dance or sing in the streets unless you are loco (drunk). But you can express yourself, through your tuk tuk.
After each player has decorated their tuk tuk, the other players agree on what they see in it and assign you two of four possible badges: furious, faithful, cool or honest. These are the Unforgetable badges you need to trigger the Unforgettable Move.
When you trigger any (Basic) Move you can spend one of your badges to alter the resulting fiction accordingly. The dice outcome doesn’t matter, depending on the circumstances you, your friends or everybody in town will keep what you were doing in memory – you can make the resulting fiction unforgettable with the flavour of the badge you used. So you might have rocked out with a 6- by being just extremely honest on the ride. Or you comforted somebody with a 10+ and were just so cool and inspiring your friend might have decided to fall in love with you now.
Finally, spending an Unforgettable badge brings you one step close to an Advance, in other words, you mark XP. The last way to earn Unforgettable badges is to go into tuk tuk races.
Tuk tuk racing
These races serve an important role in the story and deserved being treated as a separate rules element in the game. Any time in the story, if the tension is high you can demand that the issue is being solved by a race. It doesn’t need to make much (realistic) sense in the fiction. You decide what the winner of the race will get or get to decide and suddenly everybody is in their tuk tuks with the MC throwing in one or two opponents.
A race should usually not take longer than 15 to 20 minutes of play time. This is fast & furious. Each player describes one obstacle on the course and who has it easier or more difficult to pass by. Depending on your rolls, you gather or lose a currency called Flow. When the finishing line comes closer, each player secretly writes down a number which stands for their Speed. Reveal it at the same time. Then your roll 2d6+Flow and need to hit your Speed. If you don’t, you need to mark a Condition to be allowed to roll again. Among those who make it to the finishing line the one with the highest Speed wins the race. The winner not only gets what the race was about but can also resolve Influence they have with somebody.
|Online racing table|
What was important for me in the design of the race was that it wasn’t an orgy of dice rolling but still could offer the exciting back and forth of a racing duel. Describing the obstacle and how everybody reacts to it takes care that we are still with our characters. The dice rolling is meaningful since in the end your Flow is a significant bonus you roll with to win the race. Still, until the last roll, everybody could still be the winner. Carrying over wounds in the form of Conditions from the race connects the race back to the actual story.
The racing game is also available as a standalone game called tuk fast & tuk furious. Find the link below.
Creating a story
To be able to tell a story in a place you might never have been in, I put some emphasis on set-up creation. Like in a Fiasco playset, at the beginning of play players pick categories and then topics from these categories. My goal is to write index card like infos about each of these elements. You pick a place, a group of people, an annual event which is close and a public threat. For example, you could have the market hall as a relevant place in your story, and the local radio station of some importance while the annual city saint’s funfair is approaching.
Each playbook has prompts on it in a typical "circle your choice" fashion to give you an idea how to start the story with. Since family is of utter importance in Santiago Atitlan, an important part of character creation is deciding what your family is known for and how you perceive your family. You also start with some Influence over or from others and have respective prompts.
What is happening with Atitlan Riders
Design wise, I feel comfortable where Atitlan Riders stands right now. I have been playtesting locally and at the international game design conference Metatopia, New Jersey. I have played it with the Gauntlet Community and will offer so more game on the calendar in May or June. From the mechanics, I have a medium long list of minor things I want to change and a shorter list of significant things I want to bring into a different direction and see how they work there. The basics also need some refinements. It's also tempting to melt the game down to a very short and simple form for players more into freeforming. That turned out to be especially relevant for the non-RPG players among the playtesters.
|Playtesting at Metatopia, drawing tuk tuks|
I don’t have exact plans where to bring Atitlan Riders to. I was having very good feedback locally by friends and institutions. But so far I was quite careful with discussing my game since I still feel unsure about what my role in this community is and if I’m at all already at a point I can make statements about the community. I have been living here now for a while and will take more time to understand just basics, I feel. I had some very helpful discussions about topics like cultural appropriation, respect and humility here but also with international friends and other game designers who work on similarly sensitive topics.
In the end, the most important thing is to stay curious and open minded, being able to listen to mistakes and to correct them. As goes for many games, talking about the game after having played is crucial to make this a valuable experience.
|Dramatic moments at Metatopia playtest|
If I ever decide to go publishing this game I want to have as many Ateticos, as people from Santiago Atitlan are called, on board. There is so much knowledge, so many interesting anecdotes about life here that needs to be written down, that that alone would make the effort of publishing worth it. Also, there NEEDS to be a Spanish version of this game, better even a Tz’utujil version of the game some time.
[The tuk tuk racing game is already available in Spanish, forgive my bad Spanish though].
Playmaterial (Basic Moves, playbooks etc):
These links will always contain the latest version. I promise to put serial numbers on the material from the next iteration on.
Online character keeper:
(also contains links to tuk tuk front creation and racing template)
Tuk tuk racing stand alone game (Spanish version):
Session 2 - part 1:
Session 2 - part 2:
Thanks toThanks to people having contributed to my design process
Mark Diaz Truman
The Gauntlet design community
The Gauntlet design community
Thanks to my playtesters - for feedback and the joy of playing: