“Stalker is a literal journey that is also a journey into cinematic space and – in tandem – into time.”
Geoff Dyer, Zona
STALKER: The Sci-Fi Roleplaying Game is lovely but people I respect have called it ‘unplayable’.
This is harsh. As written, you’d run the game ‘old school’ with rulings in the hands of a GM. This works best with players you know well: you can kind of figure out what game they’d like to play before they do.
Stalker does, however, posit the possibility of shared narrative rights (p112). Doling out responsibility for what happens next along with the invitations to players to describe what their characters are doing wouldn’t be too difficult, particularly if it were in response to challenges the GM has set up.
- The Idea is how applicable the player’s solution is to the challenge.
- Roleplaying covers how well their course of action meshes with the scope of their character.
The two variables – Idea and Roleplaying – are given a numerical value between 1 and 5 and multiplied to produce a rising curve of possible results.
You can get round the necessity for a challenge by burning a point of one of your attributes when you want to engineer a success for your character. You then have to play the attribute at a lower level, possibly zero, for the rest of the session.
I think of this as the most important part of Stalker’s system: it communicates its source material, generates atmosphere and lends players volition over their characters’ role in the narrative.
This suggests three ways to play Black Dog Dérive:-
- As a character immersed in the action.
- As a storyteller framing scenes with your character.
- As a gamer expending points of your character’s attributes to achieve fictive effects.
“There is nothing more mysterious than a TV set left on in an empty room… It is as if another planet is communicating with you.”
Jean Baudrillard, America
1. As a character
Act up. Immerse yourself. That silly ‘Allo ‘Allo! accent will do nicely. It’s even better if you get everyone else to join in.
The player earns +1 Roleplaying if her portrayal,
- Includes a decent attempt at acting.
- Encourages teamwork on the part of other characters.
- Mentions an ability on her character sheet appropriate to the challenge.
- Uses a piece of equipment on her character sheet appropriate to the challenge.
- Refers to prior experience her character has of the Zone via the map provided.
If your roleplaying is great and refers to every possible aspect of your character, you might for instance score a 5 for Roleplaying. If your Idea addresses the challenge but doesn’t refer clearly to the game’s creative agenda, you might score a 3.
5 (for your Roleplaying) x 3 (for the Idea) = 15, which means you’re succeeding at a ‘difficult’ challenge but falling short of a ‘very difficult’ challenge.
2. As a storyteller
The GM has laid a lot of the plot and its challenges out beforehand, but this alters each time a player gets involved in the narrative.
The player earns +1 Idea if the description of his character’s action,
- Is conceptually credible.
- Reacts specifically to the details of the challenge.
- Adjusts the environment to suit the circumstances of the challenge.
- Refers to the dramatic arc of the story, which is existential tragedy.
- Uses the motif of the story, which is decay.
The player of the character lets everyone playing where they see the game going – whether by implication or by explicit reference to the story’s theme.
3. As a gamer
As mentioned above, attributes in Stalker act as a reservoir of points to burn when players want to circumvent a challenge.
In Black Dog Dérive players can also burn points to redirect events – as long as the attribute being burnt is appropriate to what the player wants to narrate.
Players may burn points of attributes to,
- Succeed in a challenge appropriate to the attribute.
- Add detail to the pseudo-scientific taxonomies of the Zone.
- Narrate a flashback useful to the dramatic arc of the story.
- Narrate a vignette that throws light on their character’s motivations.
- Frame a scene involving every player character.
Black Dog Dérive uses six pre-generated characters – two fixers, suited to negotiating entry and exit to and from the Zone, two stalkers, experienced at traversing the alien topography of the Zone, and two scientists, qualified to examine its strange physical laws and anomalies and collect data on its artefacts.
Players may also create a character from scratch. ‘The Donor’ character lacks the native abilities and background of the fixer, the stalker, or the scientist but once in the course of the story may spring a narrative surprise.
The player portraying the Donor may do this without burning an attribute point and without asking the GM’s permission.
This is the character to play if you want to affect the outcome of the story without knowing what you’re going to do before play begins. Your narrative options are the same as those listed above.
Maybe you’re a tourist curious about the Zone. Maybe you’re a spy, or a thief. In the film adaptation of Stalker, it turns out one of the characters has a nasty surprise hiding in his backpack.
We, as players, know you’re up to something. Our characters may be suspicious. But only the player of the Donor can decide what they’re going to contribute to the narrative.
Some say that you mix creative agendas at your peril. I sympathise, but I’m a greater believer in negotiation than I am in purity. Creative jeopardy is part of the experience. Conflicting anxieties about how the game might turn out may be exasperating but the same tensions could give rise to something wonderful and unexpected.
An experience as much frustrating as numinous would be as true to the spirit of Roadside Picnic as any film adaptation by Andrei Tarkovsky.