We're starting a new roleplaying campaign tonight. It's being run by Oliver Johnson, co-creator of Dragon Warriors and Blood Sword, and he always brings a unique blend of innovative story background and palpable atmosphere to his games, so excitement among the players is high.
The player-characters will begin with no memory of who they are. That in itself isn't going to win any prizes for originality. I think I'll be playing in at least one other amnesia-driven game this year alone, and that's even if I can't get my hands on a copy of Alas Vegas, but when added to the GURPS character generation system, amnesia should make for a particularly interesting cocktail.
GURPS encourages you to flesh out the details of your character's backstory -- too much, in my view. I've seen much better (more interesting, more subtle, more convincing) characterization from players developing their characters from the inside, once the game begins. The design-at-start approach is a little too much of an authorial straitjacket. But how about if you begin knowing nothing about your past?
With Oliver's upcoming campaign, which is set in New Mexico in 1862, I originally had it in mind to play a gambler. But then I thought, well, how would I know I was a gambler? I'm dressed like a gambler, maybe. Perhaps I found a deck of cards in my pocket. But what does that prove? What if another player-character is wearing a tin star. He might be a sheriff, but there are other explanations.
Here's how Oliver himself put it:
"The more I sit here reading through the rules, the more I'm convinced that GURPS is the enemy of roleplaying, and only when handled in the lightest way can it aid rather than overwhelm the game. That was why I decided to start everyone as amnesiacs. I want people to interact and make up their stories on the spot and have some good roleplaying, rather than prescribe their characters through these arbitrary skills and advantages and disadvantages and overthought back stories -- which, instead of expanding the character, merely justify the aforesaid self-award of skills, advantages, etc."If GURPS allowed for a little more uncertainty, there might be some of those discoveries Oliver is talking about. As it is, I still have to know a little bit too much about my character -- those pesky GURPS disadvantages force you to join the authorial dots and end up with the usual cartoonish characterization. But in a different rules system with a little more leeway the amnesia could become a wellspring of creative improvisation.
One option would be to give each player say 80 points to spend on basic attributes, advantages, and disadvantages. Arguably you would know those pretty much right away, memory loss or not. But you don't buy any skills at the start of the game. When called on to use a skill, you roll 3d to set a brevet value X for that one roll only. You then roll in the usual way using X as your skill level for that one roll only. If you succeed, that sets a minimum value for your (still unknown) level in that skill. If you fail, that sets a maximum value.
For example, you attempt a Stealth roll. First you roll 3d to get your brevet value. Let's say you get a 12. So now you attempt the skill roll as if you had a Stealth of 12. Say you roll 9 - okay, that means you know your actual Stealth value cannot be lower than 9. Or say you roll a 14 - that's a failure, which means your Stealth cannot be higher than 13. Over time you'll nest in on values for all the skills you use.
This brevet system for discovering your unknown skill levels is not greatly different from the way James Wallis's Fugue system generates characters' skills in the course of play, as astute readers will have spotted, but I'm looking for something that's compatible with GURPS -- and, because we want to keep playing an open-ended campaign that could last years, we'll need a bit more detail than just having a skill or not having it. Also I confess a slight allergy to RPG systems that co-opt the tarot, simply because so many of them these days do that.
Starting a GURPS game with no memory naturally rules out giving character design points for Allies, Enemies, Reputation, etc. Those are things you'll discover or acquire in play. But that's a much better way to handle them anyway, just as in stories it's better to show than to tell.