This is a small, complete role-playing game I wrote for the launch issue of Epidiah Ravachol's e-zine Worlds Without Master. You can buy Worlds Without Master #1 here, for $3.99 (US), as a PDF file including, among other things, swords & sorcery tales by Vincent Baker and Epidiah Ravachol, and a print-friendly version of this game.
An EPUB version, known as the "Libre Edition", is also available thanks to Chris Sakkas and the FOSsil Bank. Scroll to the bottom of the page to download.
A role-playing game of swords, sorcery and vengeance.
To my late brother E., whose untimely
death cannot be avenged,
Write on five blank cards: “Avenger (1)”, “Narrator (2)”, “Suspect (3)”, “Judge (4)”, “Retribution (5).” These are the player roles. Give one player the Avenger card. For the whole game, this player can hold no other role. The player to the left of the Avenger is the Narrator. To their left is the Suspect, the Judge, and then Retribution. If there are less than five players, the Narrator doubles as Judge; or, if there are only three, give the roles of Narrator, Judge and Retribution to the same person.
If there are more than five players, some will begin without a role—do not worry, they will have one soon enough. Keep a stack of additional blank cards and a pen handy.
From a regular pack of playing cards take the four aces and two jokers. Shuffle these six cards thoroughly and put them on top of the deck, face down. Put the deck in the middle of your play-space, comfortably in reach of everyone.
“I am,” the Avenger declares…
…or something else of the player’s invention.
“By which name are you known?” the Narrator asks. The Avenger speaks their chosen name. “And,” they further declare, “I’m out to avenge the untimely death of…”
…or any other character the player cares to invent.
A warning: do not go into the game holding any preconceived notions about these characters, apart from that which was just spoken aloud. You will have to play to find out who the Avenger really is, and what will become of them.
Avenger (addressing the Narrator): “In order to exact my due vengeance, I will travel to…”
…or any other wondrous place of the player’s invention.
The Narrator then describes this place and the people there in as much length and detail as they like. They do not yet include the Avenger in the scene. Then, as soon as the Narrator stops and turns to them—or sooner by interrupting the Narrator anytime they like—the Suspect speaks. They introduce, by name and description, a new character the Avenger intends to investigate, and possibly exact revenge upon, for this character might actually be responsible for the untimely death to be avenged.
The Suspect goes on, describing how this character acts before the backdrop the Narrator set, possibly including interactions with other, secondary characters. The purpose is to establish this character—make them come alive, and maybe impress the other players with expectations about their guilt or innocence (which may later turn out to be wrong, mind you).
Meanwhile, The Judge writes down the character’s name on a blank card. The Narrator says (interrupting the Suspect at any time): “Enter the Avenger.” As they say so, the Narrator takes a playing card from the pile, without looking at it, and hands it to the Suspect, who glances at it discreetly, then gives it to the Judge, who secretly looks at it and keeps it. It is especially important not to show any cards to the Avenger.
While other players are handling cards, the Avenger describes their entrance into the scene with as much detail and as much fanfare as they like. Hereafter, the Avenger and Suspect freely play out their interactions, each talking in the voice of and describing the actions of their respective character—up to and including the full consequences of said actions. The Narrator also participates in this as much as they like or are needed, by narrating any changes in the background, the actions of minor characters and crowds and talking in the voice of extras.
There are but a few limitations to what the three of them are allowed to enact: neither the Avenger nor the Suspect’s character may be killed, and the Avenger cannot be conclusively overpowered by the Suspect (if held, imprisoned, or wounded, the Avenger will nonetheless always succeed at regaining the upper hand). While playing out the scene, it is most likely that the Avenger or Suspect will talk about the untimely death, its victim, and the facts surrounding it, as well as the background and past deeds of any character. In doing so, they can freely invent pieces of truth—or falsity!—as they please. This is how we all find out about those things.
Eventually it will come to the Suspect either affirming their innocence or declaring their guilt (truly or otherwise). When this happens, the Judge addresses the Avenger thusly, speaking as their inner voice and power of intuition:
…or something of similar content.
In saying this, the Judge is not, in any way, bound by the truth of the matter as shown them by the card. At their discretion, the main character’s perception may as well be mistaken!
The Avenger and Suspect and Narrator go on playing as before, with the implication that the Avenger is going to act on their perception of the Suspect’s guilt or innocence somehow. The Avenger is under no obligation to believe their inner voice as delivered by the Judge. They may as well second-guess it and decide their intuitions were wrong. But now, unlike before, as soon as the Avenger describes initiating actions whose consequences target or include the Suspect’s character, they have to stop and defer to Retribution. Note that simply walking away is also an action whose consequences affect the Suspect. The Avenger is leaving them alone. Under most circumstances this would be the kindest thing to do, but sometimes it can actually spell their doom.
After the Avenger has declared actions which affect the Suspect, Retribution speaks. They describe the consequences of such actions, in full, as they concern the Suspect or any other characters, Avenger included. Such consequences can—but do not necessarily have to—include the death of the Suspect, at Retribution’s whim. There is only one thing Retribution is not allowed to do: render the Avenger unable to further pursue their vengeance. While Retribution speaks, other players have to listen intently and keep silent until Retribution is done speaking. Retribution concludes their part in the act by addressing the Avenger and asking them: “Are you satisfied, at last?” To which the Avenger answers either “Yes” or “No.”
If the Avenger is not yet satisfied with their vengeance, a new act will follow. The Judge still holds a playing card in their hand: they put it down on the card with the last Suspect’s name, face down: it can’t be looked at until after the game is over. Rotate roles other than the Avenger clockwise around the table, so that the former Suspect becomes Narrator, the former Judge is now the Suspect, and so on. In this rotation, though, skip the Avenger player entirely. Make them stand up from the table or otherwise occupy themselves. They are still the Avenger and they take on no other role. Or, if there are any players who have not held any role at all yet, make the first of them the new Narrator and go clockwise from there. In a three-player game, the Narrator/Judge/Retribution player and the Suspect simply switch roles. Follow through the same instructions as the first act again, beginning with the Avenger declaring: “And now, in order to exact my due vengeance, I will travel to…”
If the Avenger is finally satisfied, rotate roles as you would for a new act, but this is the last time you do. Exception: in a three-player game, do not exchange roles now, but give the Retribution role to the Suspect player instead of leaving it with the Narrator/Judge. Together, you will now create an epilogue for the tale, in which the Avenger’s future fate is described.
Narrator, declare “the end.”
Now that the Epilogue is over, do not hurry away from the table. Stay for a few more minutes instead, and talk about the story you just told. This is the time to step back from your various characters and roles. To signify this, remove the role cards entirely. Now, you all share the same role: that of the audience after a play. What kind of person did the Avenger show to be in the end? Were they correct or mistaken in their dealings with each Suspect? If you know of a terrible mistake the Avenger has committed, this is finally the time to say it aloud. There is no better time to finally look at the cards associated with each Suspect. What did you think of the various characters? Have you been able to form an opinion about the avenged and the actual circumstances of their death? These and more questions you are going to ask each other and each find, deep inside your heart, an answer to—before you finally bid farewell and part ways.
If the Avenger does not question a Suspect about their guilt or innocence, but maybe works with them to destroy a secondary character or otherwise trusts them beyond questioning, this may feel like stalling the game. Actually, the Judge is welcome to come forward and speak, regardless of direct questioning, as if the Suspect’s silence on the matter were an implicit statement of innocence. Maybe the Judge should simply instill doubt, like, “It does not feel ‘right’ to trust this person blindly.”
If the Avenger asks to revisit a location, alright; but the Narrator should highlight a different facet of it than before, making it almost a different place. A former Suspect character who survived retribution cannot be chosen as the Suspect again. Such a character can be present in subsequent acts as one of the Narrator-controlled characters, and thus beholden to Retribution’s whim as much as any extras.
Should a game last more than six acts, it becomes pretty obvious to everyone including the Avenger that they are sticking it to innocent people now. Not that they must stop because of it.
Game-design, writing: Rafu
Editing and proofreading: Eppy Ravachol, Brianna Sheldon
Artwork: Tazio Bettin
Games & game texts by Ben Lehman (Polaris, The Drifter’s Escape), Eppy Ravachol (Swords Without Master), Iacopo Frigerio (Ravendeath), James Wallis (The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen), Jeff Himmelman (Kingdom of Nothing), Jim Raggi, Jonathan Tweet (Everway), Jonathan Walton (KkKKKK), Matthijs Holter, Paul Czege (The Clay that Woke), Ralph Mazza (Blood Red Sands), Ron Edwards (S/lay w/Me), Simon Carryer (On Mighty Thews), Vincent Baker. Music by Black Sabbath, Blue Öyster Cult, Cathedral, Edge of Dawn, Igor Stravinsky, Johann Sebastian Bach, Manowar, Stone Temple Pilots. Fiction by Edgar Allan Poe, Fritz Leiber, Howard P. Lovecraft, Italo Calvino (Le città invisibili), Michael Moorcock, Robert E. Howard. Comics & illustrations by Hiroaki Samura (Blade of the Immortal), Möbius, Vaughn Bodē. Nonfiction by Erich Auerbach, Ron Edwards, Walter Benjamin.
And the sad facts of real life.
Agnese Sgarbi, Alex “il Mietitore” Isabelle, Barbara Fini, Carlo Bombonati, Dennis Cogo, Max Lambertini, Michele Manzo, Paolo Guccione, Patrick Marchiodi, Pietro Galiazzo, Riccardo Zulian.
Text: (c)2013 Raffaele Manzo, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Italy.
Artwork: (c)2013 Tazio Bettin, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Italy.
Buy Worlds Without Master, Volume1, Issue 1: