It isn't everyday you get to play a game with its designer. Originally Downfall's game was to be facilitated by me, but after Caroline asked to join my table there was NO way I'd feel confident enough to facilitate a game for its own designer. We were joined by another story game veteran and friend of mine, Tim.
Now, for those who haven't seen my first encounter with Downfall or saw my video play of it, Downfall is a game about societal collapse. Society has a cancer at its heart called the flaw and this flaw is gunning to take the down the world as we know it. One hero rises to the occasion to get society to see this problem for what it is and save civilization from itself, but tragically will fail. This is a game where the hero loses.
Like all games of Downfall, the first thing we do is come up with a flaw and describe what it means. Since my previous two games were Nationalism or Pride I was hoping for something different. Immediately Tim and myself jump to the same flaw: Complacency.
Caroline is excited as well and begins to ask us what we think complacency means. This quick discussion was incredibly important. We settled on complacency not necessarily being okay with the status quo, but being fine enough to not want to change it. Complacency implies a certain threshold of dissatisfaction, but the effort to make the change is perceived as too great or costly for what is gained. It has a lot in common with Tradition so far that "because we've always done it" is the same icing on this flaw cake, but Complacency is made with the ingredient of "because changing what we do requires too much effort" instead of "because our way of life is deserve of being protected/repeated because it is a part of what makes us who we are culturally."
Design note/opinion: Starting with the flaw first, before anything else is done is a very deliberate idea. I think talking about the flaw, not in a contextual/setting format (yet) allows everyone to really explore and flag what they want in the game from a thematic angle. Everyone sharing what they think the flaw means, to them, allows for each of us shape the game in a way that's fun for everyone and hits the right notes!
The next part of the setup of Downfall was coming up with our game's elements. Elements are the creative seeds or palette which inspire us and our setting. Our three elements for defining our culture were Rain, Wheel, and Ink.
The combination of all 3 of these yielded a lot of discussion. We weren't entirely sure how all three of these things would work together. My first idea seeing Rain, Wheels, and Ink was Mad Max post-apocalypse with Ink clearly being an analog for oil. Caroline suggested in a similar post apocalyptic vein that we do Waterworld instead. Tim had this idea of waterwheels from rain for power and I immediately began thinking of steamer ships/gambling barges with waterwheels. We began to composite a form of all of our ideas. We're looking at this hive of ships lashed and pulled together stuck in a sea of oil which relied on rain. It was a really unique setting!
Design note/opinion: Elements are probably an unspoken hero of the design of Downfall to me. Seriously, the choices in the book for elements just OOZE flavor and ideas on how to twist these concepts shape our world. The decision to use three elements instead of one or six is about the right size to ensure us as players of this game DELIVER on these elements in the game. I think the moment when the Flaw and the elements are decided on is one of my favorite times of this game. It's that "okay so how does this all fit together?" moment.
It vaguely feels like that time as a Dungeon Master when you roll on a random encounter table and are stumped when you get THAT MONSTER in THIS RANDOM LOCATION and are forced to be like, "so why is THAT here?" only now three people get to experience that at the same time. I found out that Caroline's husband Marc played a big part in the creation of Elements so big shout out to Marc!
So how do we start putting the pieces together in our setting and haven? Traditions. In Downfall we select 6 traditions total to be eligible sacrifices to the flaw in our haven. Let me tell you-- Complacency is HARD to represent in flaws. Our traditions became a hodgepodge mix of "old ways of doing things that probably should be fixed, but never gotten around to it." I unintentionally came up with the reason why. Our society's justice system emphasized Duels. Serious disputes were settled on the dueling grounds. It was strongly emphasized to settle matters beforehand or before they get this far. Because dueling for your life and belief was how things were secured in the life of our haven, people were reluctant to have their voice heard. Our society was left with a decrepit monarchy ruling from the largest steamship overseeing a society where shoes were assigned to you from birth and everyone is named after one of the 12 founding names.
I really loved Caroline's addition in our game that families stay together. Divorce is an EXTREMELY rare occurrence. I loved her take on complacency in relationships and how her mind jumped to that during the first round of traditions. I never mentioned it at the table, but that was like tasting chocolate for the first time. I immediately CRAVE to do that in my games from now on. As a player and gamer I should pay more attention to that lens and explore that space more often!
Design note/opinion: I think the physical symbols of the traditions are important in this part of the tradition building because these symbols become interactional items in fiction. These symbols are props for us players to use to establish routines in our game that occur and use as foils and juxtapositions over the course of the game to see how our society is changing! I thought, at first, that the symbols aren't very necessary, but now after the third game I definitely see their reincorporation throughout the game should be stressed. They are an excellent tool.
With our haven and setting established, it was finally time to make characters. Our hero was Boots, a lowly orphan-like girl who worked as a Cobbler. Cobblers in our setting were a nice term for the person responsible for gathering the dead from duels, disposing of the bodies, and storing of their shoes for reuse by others. We all agreed that we kind of were after a "vs the empire" kind of story so we had our hero Boots be against the Monarchy. Our Fallen and primary antagonist would be Boots best friend, Zephyr. Zephyr grew up alongside the same social status as Boots, but would be promoted to become a distinguished member of the monarchy's government. In fact, she was married into the royal family because of Boots giving Zephyr some fancy shoes one time as a gift! Ouch! (Yay reincorporating elements!) Last but not least, our pillar was Spoke. Spoke was an older lady who was in a rough marriage and took pity on boots. She was a sort of parental/guardian figure for Boots.
Our gameplay and scenes were completely on point this game. Tim, Caroline, and myself brought some really, really good ideas to the table. Our abilities to keep recycling and reincorporating fictionally established elements (foreshadowing Zephyr's rise), discovering how Boots dreams of a bigger life and it being framed as her being just "unhealthy and can never appreciate what she has", and the ultimate Downfall where Boots lead a revolution against the government who ultimately escapes on their self-powered steamship was just amazing. Caroline forced me near the end, as the Hero, to make a choice. Boots was pressured as leader of this new band to return to a method of government that requires the application of force and fear to rule. She became what she hated. Beautiful stuff. That's why I play games!
Design note/opinion: Each "round" the pillar describes how the flaw is progressing and corrupting a tradition as a sort of primer for scenes. Then the hero makes a scene and then the fallen returns the favor with a scene of their own. Having erroneously skipping the pillar's description of the corruption before, scene framing was much easier this time around.
So in summary, I love this game. Please, please, please check out Downfall if you ever get a chance. It's an amazing game.