There are stories that require a different approach than the traditional party-based RPG. Epic stories, with scales vastly larger than just the four to six people in an adventuring party, have proven difficult in this format, though many have tried. A story-game approach can give the flexibility for telling big stories; that was one of the thoughts behind Ben Robbins’s games Kingdom and Microscope. Now, there is a new designer entering the space: Aaron Reed has created a story-game of epic science fiction stories, Archives of the Sky.
Archives of the Sky tells the story of humans who have moved out into the stars, carrying their stories, beliefs, and knowledge with them. The galaxy is large, and there are many mysteries to be explored, but a key setting assumption is Nothing Moves Faster Than Light. With travel being slow and deliberate, the organizations which persist in this world are ones with strong values. To reflect this, the players of Archives of The Sky will create a House, a group that is driven by their values. These values can be a range of statements, like “We always help those in need” or “We never give up hope”. One of the values is fixed: “We will always remain human”. So while there is a breadth of stories to be told, all of them will be bound together by the notion of humanity venturing slowly across the stars.
In addition to values, players create Others who exist in the world. Of equal power, the three Others represent forces that are durable in the universe, possibly moreso than humanity itself. The Ally is an ancient supporter, the Opponent is an upstart rival, and the Mystery is growing in importance. With Values and Others, the players can name their House and begin to create characters.
One interesting difference between Archives of the Sky and other story-games like Microscope and Fiasco is that there is a GM, kind of. The Archivist is expected to lead the group through the process of running the game, and in most cases doesn’t have a character of their own (in the event that the group has 3 players, the Archivist needs to create a character to keep the cast large enough). This is made more interesting by the fact that, on a broad level, Archives of the Sky and Fiasco have a lot of similarities, with the group putting together a story by linking a sequence of scenes together which employ some or all of the characters at the table. Characters in Archives of the Sky are a bit more freeform than those in Fiasco; instead of setting up a web of objects, locations, and needs, each character merely has a name, a role, and two personal values. Having both the personal values and the house values is what establishes the potential for conflict, much like how the objects, locations, and needs establish that potential in Fiasco.
Like Fiasco, each Episode of Archives of the Sky plays out over scenes, with each scene making its way incrementally towards a climax. The structure of how this plays out, though, is quite different. At the middle of the action is the Dilemma. The Dilemma is a difficult choice that plays out over the Episode, and is defined by placing two of the Values (either a House Value or a Character Value) in opposition to each other. As the game progresses, these three elements (the choice and the two values that are opposed) are defined, and only once they’re defined does the Episode reach a climax and begin towards resolution. After the Dilemma is defined, each player gets a chance to vote, and there are a limited number of tokens which can be spent on new scenes, or skipping a turn without voting. Once the tokens are exhausted, the course of action is set, and there are two more scenes for the resolution.
Each individual scene plays out around a central question, posed by the Narrator. The Narrator may also choose to “Drive” if they have a specific conceit or scene in mind, which means that they run the scene almost as if they were a GM. Beyond the Narrator, two of the players are also given special roles: the “Epic” is responsible for keeping the scene grand in scale and description, while the “Intimate” is responsible for keeping the scene grounded to the characters. These two roles play from opposite sides to help give the scene depth and scope. Overall, the goal of any scene is to move towards answering the central question, and the Narrator is responsible for keeping the group on task. Like in Fiasco, the scene ends whenever the outcome is clear and the question is answered. After every scene there is a Reflection, this is both a time to keep notes about new story elements as well as for players to consider either their own or their characters’ reactions to the events that have transpired.
So a full session of Archives of the Sky is a sequence of scenes, based around questions, that all feed into resolving a broader Dilemma. Whereas Fiasco ties it off there, Archives of the Sky can be used for campaign play. The Others defined at the beginning stay, as do the characters. But what makes a longer set of games interesting is the Adapt mechanic. Each Dilemma requires choosing between two Values, which can either be House Values or Character Values. Whichever Value doesn’t win is compromised, and depending on if the compromised value applies to a character, that character may need to Adapt. To Adapt, a character can either Let Go of a personal value, discarding it forever, or Resolve a Value, holding it even closer. Once a value is resolved, the character can’t Let Go of it later, and can’t vote against it in a future Dilemma. If a character can’t Adapt, because they can’t legally Resolve or Let Go of a value, that character’s story is over. As characters leave (and enter) subsequent sessions, there are opportunities to define a longer arc, and how the broader plot resolves.
Archives of the Sky is a highly flavorful game, which seems to be a must for a successful story-game. To add to this, Archives of the Sky has a mechanic called the Trove, where each player gets a sci-fi novel and writes a number of evocative words from within the novel. The Trove can be used as a randomizer during the game, both to drive the story forward and to add flavor. The Trove is how uncertain events are resolved, with a player drawing a card and using the word to build out how the event happens. As a mechanic, the Trove both manages to be much less arbitrary than dice and much more directional than the broader Fiasco choice of “does this end well or poorly”. I like the mechanic a lot, though it does mean that in order to play the game I’m going to need more epic sci-fi novels.
Archives of the Sky looks to be an interesting game. Built on a scene structure that’s well understood, the game pulls back from the very strict film structure of Fiasco and gives the players more freedom to figure out how long it takes to build to their chosen dilemma and resolve it. The moving parts require a bit more understanding than in Fiasco, but Reed has done a good job keeping the number of interlocking pieces down; Microscope, in contrast, is more difficult to learn because of the number of options and types of events. If you’re a fan of epic science fiction, or are looking to dip your toes into the emerging genre of “like Fiasco but more serious”, Archives of the Sky is a good place to start.
You can get the free version of Archives of the Sky on DriveThruRPG. Archives of the Sky is also currently gathering funding for a full-color sourcebook “chock full of examples, play aids, breathtaking art, and ideas you can mine to help your stories come alive” on Kickstarter, and has reached its goal! Also check out Aaron Reed’s site and the Archives of the Sky homepage.