Last night, I played “Ghost/Echo” by John Harper with some friends. The video is embedded at the end of this post, but I’ll explain a bit about the game first, because it’s not what most people might expect.
The actual Ghost/Echo page says:
GHOST/ECHO is presented as an ‘oracle game’. It provides only a starting point and a resolution mechanic. You and your friends fill in the rest of the details as you play.
Let’s talk about what this means.
The game text consists of only two pages. The first page lists some names of Crew, Places, and Other, plus some minor suggestions about Wraiths and loot. From the flavor and layout, we can infer that the game has some pretty strong grounding in cyberpunk tropes. The names feel vaguely British to me as well.
Page two introduces the mechanics, and now we get some interesting stuff. First, roll dice when the players do certain things:
- Act under pressure
- Infiltrate or steal
- Suffer harm
- Commit to violence
- Manipulate or hold steadfast
- Channel the ghost field
- Listen for echoes
Notice that the mechanics here contain a bit of setting information: there’s a “ghost field”, which (if the name hadn’t done it already) gives us a sense that “Wraiths” might mean something more than a code name.
The dice mechanic comes from Vincent Baker’s “Otherkind”: build a dice pool consisting of 1d6 per “goal or danger”, plus an extra die if they’re “especially well-prepared”. Every action listed above suggests some goals and a danger; every action always has at least one danger (otherwise, why are they even rolling?). The GM or player can each add one additional danger, which add dice to the pool as well.
Then when you have the results, the player assigns each goal or danger one of the dice. A high result means that they accomplished their goal or avoided the danger. A low result means they didn’t accomplish the goal and the opportunity is gone, or that the danger came true. Just like in “Apocalypse World,” the interesting results are in the middle results, where “the goal is partially achieved and the opportunity remains” or the danger comes partially true and also remains.
Any dangers that remain get added to a pool of dangers, and when a future action happens that requires a roll, the player or GM can use one of them as the added danger mentioned above.
After the list of suggested goals and dangers for each action, Harper drops the bomb: this game is intentionally incomplete. He gives us a starting situation involving an ambush during a heist and questions to answer as we go, including “what powers and talents does your particular crew member possess?”
“Ghost/Echo” has no specific character mechanics. Answer that question, establish the fiction, and use it to inform the action rolls. The rest of the setting similarly has nothing firm: decide what the ghost world and real world are like, and decide what Wraiths are.
This puts page 1 back in perspective: are these names just individual handles? Do they correspond to “powers and talents”? Each group will decide this differently and for themselves.
This game provides a lot of freedom, but sometimes that much open design space can cause people to flail about looking for structure. It took us a few rolls to get the hang of it, but eventually we did. In play, it worked like this:
As the GM, I would describe the situation and ask, “what do you do?” If the player said something that didn’t really match one of the above actions – including “act under pressure” – then it just happened. Open a door, check a message, look around, whatever. If there was a question about what the world was like, I’d either tell them or (much more frequently) ask them the question. Having only three of us meant we could workshop almost everything like this and make sure that the fictional elements we had in our heads matched up.
Then, when they described an action that, in the context of the fiction at that moment, matched the list, I asked them what they specifically wanted to happen (set the goal). Usually this came from the suggested list on page 2, but occasionally they had something more precise in mind: not “terrorize with savagery”, but “rip somebody’s arms off to use as a threat to the next enemy”. We’d normally use the suggested danger, although occasionally we’d use one of the other suggestions if it fit better. Then we’d decide whether to add dangers. The players did so with gleeful abandon, including in situations where I really didn’t think they would because it did not help them out. But they’d fully bought into the ethos of this sort of collaborative storytelling!
Often, one of us would pull in a danger from the list, stored in a shared Google doc so we could always have it in front of us and edit it as we went. That’s where assistance comes: if your friend is in danger, describe how you help them, and pull that danger into your action. If you get a high result, you can narrate how you made that danger go away!
No roll ever results in “nothing happens”. If you assign a low roll to the goal, that means the opportunity is lost for now: so how does that look? What made it go away? If you assign a high roll to the danger, it goes away for good (although somebody could later add a similar danger to the fiction).
In other PbtA games, the GM/MC has some list of moves: here, that move is basically “add another danger to the roll”, plus we all shared in defining the world. I had maybe a little more “authority” on that than the players did, but that was counterbalanced by the fact that they had full reign over everything about their character: if they said their character had a particular ability, or had done something in their past, then that became an established fact immediately. Just as I never used my role to humiliate them or make them look incompetent or take away their agency, they never used their roles to overpower their characters or try to rewrite major chunks of the fiction.
Partly, this is why I wanted a small group: if you only have two or three players, they’re likely to negotiate an appropriate power level between them. Obviously, they could set whatever goal they wanted, but the bigger the goal, the bigger the danger.
I love ending sessions or even one-shots on cliffhangers: sort of like The Lady, or the Tiger?, we end with uncertainty about what happens next. In this case, we’ll probably play again to resolve the new ghost field that one of the characters created.
Even if we don’t, I’d like to hack on this a little more. We talked about some ideas at the end of the game: maybe give a little bit of structure around their skills, which we’d use as one of the ways to get the extra die without having to decide what it means to be “especially well-prepared”. I like the idea of an open list on these things: here are a few suggestions to choose from, or add your own. That way, players with existing ideas in mind have that freedom, but those who feel like they have gotten themselves a bit lost have some guidance available.
You could change the setting entirely with a new set of names and rewriting a few actions. Maybe you want a high fantasy game and so you channel the Weave instead of the Ghost Field. Maybe you want a game about hunting monsters and so you consult your storehouse of knowledge about a monster or look for indications of your prey. (These might not work in practice, but implementation and replacement is cheap when it just means re-writing a line or two of text.)
We also talked about adding a bit of crunch to harm: by default, the game encourages the group to describe the fiction of the harm and then use the “suffer harm” move when that becomes relevant to the situation. Try to walk on a broken leg or use the ghost field while you have a concussion, and you could find yourself incapacitated or worse.
It strikes me that this could provide as much fodder for game design as “Lasers & Feelings” or “Searchers of the Unknown”. This game released in February 2009, so maybe it doesn’t reflect where the community has gone, but I don’t see that as a reason not to explore it.
If any of this sounded interesting, watch below. Or, ask me and I’ll run another session. I love to make new friends this way. Also, if you like what John Harper is doing, he has a Kickstarter running right now for a game called “Agon” – take a look!