Sorry Business (2018)
No one does fieldwork in the Wet. The Top End becomes one vast swamp: outstations are isolated for months at a time. Yet something drew Penni back to Maningrida. Something powerful. Something she could not speak of.
Our Penni is missing. And we in empty grieving fall now broken.
Five southern women, balanda, clueless about Country, clueless about themselves. Sisters, lovers, friends. Sick with worry. Searching for Penni. Uncovering secrets. Glimpsing a darkness that is neither present nor absent.
The most terrifying thing of all is the human heart.
A ghost story. A love story. A Law story.
By John and Philippa Hughes
What’s the game again? A ghost story set in someone else’s Country.
What level of seriousness is it? Pretty damned serious, in a human way: haunted and driven, with interludes of friendship and understanding.
What genre/setting is it? Contemporary psychological realism, with an invitation to dive deep. An exploration of the eerie.
What system (if any) does it use? Systemless, with a focus on character-led storytelling.
What movie rating would it get? (MA to R+, decided in advance by players). Supernatural themes. Elements of horror, racism and past trauma.
Pia, the younger sister: ‘Penni and I were always fighting, but I thought we could depend on each other.’
Beth, the older sister: ‘Penni has a history of colossal fuck-ups. I’m done picking up the pieces.’
Li Jen, the partner: ‘Penni made me whole, and then she left me. She was always too good at keeping secrets.’
Kristin, the lover: ‘Penni wanted excitement, she wanted risk. She wanted to live an entire life in three months.’
Gerde, the student: ‘Penni was a rare white face in a black town. Like me, an outsider. A partner in crime.’
A systemless unravelling for six lost women.
Pip and I have been working on a new game for a month now, and I thought I would try to capture the initial design process, and return to it as the module progresses.
Let’s call the game ‘Sorry Business’. It is the story of five balanda (‘white’) women searching for Penni, an anthropologist who has gone missing in the Northern Territory’s Top End during the Wet Season. These women are sisters, lovers, and students of Penni.
The initial inspiration was John’s: it appeared at 3.00am a day or two after Pheno 2017, and was sketched out by 3.30: the basics haven’t changed much.
Plotwise, I’m going to be a little vague (’cause, game spoilers), but the module has three main dimensions.
We want to explore the notions of haunting and being haunted: that complex mix of longing, grief, loss, fear and desire that can sometimes dominate our lives. Penni is a constant presence, Penni is an absence. In one sense, our game might be a ghost story, but haunting is a concept much wider than traditional ghosts.
Secondly, we want to highlight the unfamiliarity of most white Australians with Indigenous settlements like Maningrida, a strikingly different and often confronting environment. The module is not about Indigenous culture, it is about outsiders attempting to understand Indigenous culture, and getting a lot of it wrong.
Finally, we want to present a framework where both men and women can use the game to explore gendered notions of identity and communications, and of the bonds between sisters, partners, and friends.
Each of these aspects present design challenges.
The challenge of haunting is to produce a game of mystery, atmosphere and uncertainty, one which might in parts produce a genuine shiver down the spine.
The challenge of the unfamiliar environment is to spotlight preconceptions, and honestly deal with the mixed emotions an initial encounter often generates.
The challenge of five women as PCs is to take gender seriously.
So, what structures and formats to use for the game? Sorry Business will be an adult drama, grounded in a sense of psychological realism. Characters have to be emotionally honest, they have to feel with their bodies, and move with their emotions. Mechanical challenges are unlikely to be more complex than, ‘Can you drive a 4WD in the mud?’ We’re going for systemless.
The question of gendered roleplaying is more complex. Most stat systems ignore gender except in the most overt way. A lot of convention play effectively brackets issues of gender (I’m using shorthand here): we play ungendered agents of story with an occasional ‘roll for romance’. The challenge for Pip and I will be to highlight gendered (though not stereotyped) patterns of behaviour and communication, to spotlight the gendered reality of the player characters. All PCs are courageous in their way, all have broken walls of expectation and custom. All too, are trapped inside a patriarchal culture that is changing only slowly.
So, its character time. Me, I’m in reading mode: stories of sisters, stories of gay women and couples, looking for insight and ways to capture these in a character sheet. Pip is more directly grappling with the limits of gendered behaviour.
Will men be perceived (and therefore portrayed) as more threatening, more confrontational? Will encounters be spotlighted with an aim to defuse or avoid rather than confront? These are not just gendered behaviours – they exist along a continuum – but are much more overt for a heterogeneous group of women a long, long way from home. And how does communication change amongst women when there are no men present? (And how do we account for the fact there may be men playing women or a male GM in the room).
The relationship worksheets have been drawn up, the ‘Jacinta-grams’ of pentagram and triad and dyad (samples attached below) for us to fill in as the characters take shape. In a systemless game, characters will be largely defined by their relationships. So these come first. The key questions, too, are beginning to form.
This is going to be a challenge, and shared insights will be most welcome. We’re even thinking of making final character creation a pre-convention, shared process with input from potential players.