Infernal Desire Machines

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Infernal Desire Machines hacks a game called Psychosis (Charles Ryan, John Fletcher, 1993) to adapt The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter.

We’re mad, you see. Hallucinations fire with magical speed in every brain.

The truth of what’s happening is negotiated via the symbolism and imagery of the Tarot. Cards may refer to your own hallucinations, those of other players or those that result when different versions of reality interact. A notionally psychoanalytic paradigm indicates characters have ‘unspoken issues’ best explored through play.

Doctor Hoffman thinks he is setting humanity free from the humdrum tyranny of Time and Space:-

First theory of Phenomenal Dynamics:
The universe has no fixed substratum of fixed substances and its only reality lies in its phenomena.

Second theory of Phenomenal Dynamics:
Only change is invariable.

Third theory of Phenomenal Dynamics:
The difference between a symbol and an object is quantitative, not qualitative.

Divide the Tarot deck in two: the first part contains major arcana, the second suits and minor arcana. Each player chooses one of the major arcana to symbolise their character and is dealt four further cards to divide as they wish between their Trace (ie conscious mind) and their Hand (ie unconscious desires).

Cards in your Trace include the major arcana you chose at the start of the game, and lay face-up in front of you. These:-

  • Define you
  • Display your personality
  • May be re-used throughout the game

Cards from your Hand stay ‘close to your chest’ until you a) burn one or more of them in play, or b) narrate the self-realisation that adds a card to your Trace. These:-

  • Spring surprises
  • Withhold your secrets
  • ‘Burn’ when used in play

There is a maximum of five cards per player. This maximum decreases by one each time you ‘lose a life’.

Cards are dispensed during play according to a) the preference of a GM, b) the agency of the Ambassador, or c) the general approbation of other players. Anyone who draws an Ace during play may choose to swap it for a draw from the major arcana.

There are six moves in the game:-

  • Challenge allows you to conduct numerical contests based on the suits of the Tarot against other characters, non-player characters or situations.
  • Phantasm awakens an unconscious desire and adds it permanently to a symbolic location.
  • Augment uses the imagery of a specific Tarot card to complicate an existing scene.
  • Evoke taps the imagery of a specific Tarot card to create a new scene.
  • Inrupt retells a scene from the point of view of your character.
  • Rewrite lets you in on the Epilogue of the game.

There are three levels to the game:-

  1. The Symbolic is connected to the former identities of the characters and the city which they inhabit, and is concerned with hidden meanings. It includes the moves Challenge and Phantasm.
  2. The Imaginary expresses the unconscious desires of the characters and encourages players to narrate a version of the world their character wants to see. It includes the moves Augment and Evoke.
  3. The Real offers the people at the table a chance to edit the story. Players choose between retelling a scene (Inrupt) and adding a coda (Rewrite).

The introductory version of the game suggests playing rounds of the SymbolicImaginary, and Real sequentially – these rounds being bookended by the generation of characters and the Epilogue.

This allows those playing to get a sense of the playstyle they’d enjoy most. In fact, there’s likely to be a lot of flipping around between states of play. For the most part this will happen informally, but players can fall back on a simple paper-scissors-stone mechanic if they get bogged down in the Real:-

Imaginary trumps Symbolic trumps Real trumps Imaginary

If you’re running a version of the game led by one person (GMed), call this as needed; you might have one eye on the clock, or think a certain scene has gone on long enough. In an ‘all for one, one for all’ version of the game (GMless), any player can call this when they’ve had enough ‘blah’. Reach an agreement or move on. Cut if necessary. Discard unwanted cards. If in any doubt, frame a new scene.

Infernal Desire Machines Playbook 2

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