Sorry Business (2018)

Sorry Business (2018)

penni-crossing Phenomenon 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

The Game

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. Intimations of sexual trauma. Grief. Elements of racism.


Download the Maningrida Fact Sheet (159K A3 PDF)

Download the Module Timeline (29K A4 PDF)



Pia, the younger sister: ‘Penni and I were always fighting, but I thought we could depend on each other.’

Download Pia Character Sheet (635K A3 PDF)


Beth, the older sister: ‘Penni has a history of colossal fuck-ups. I’m done picking up the pieces.’

Download Beth Character Sheet (653K A3 PDF)


Li Jen, the partner: ‘Penni made me whole, and then she left me. She was always too good at keeping secrets.’

Download Li Jen Character Sheet (510K A3 PDF)


Kristin, the lover: ‘Penni wanted excitement, she wanted risk. She wanted to live an entire life in three months.’

Download Kristen Character Sheet (518K A3 PDF)


Gerde, the student: ‘Penni was a rare white face in a black town. Like me, an outsider. A partner in crime.’

Download Gerde Character Sheet (677K A3 PDF)

A systemless unravelling for six lost women.

Game Conventions

In the Australian convention tradition, systemless or thematic games are about internal as much as external exploration. They try to balance inner and outer, and bring both into active gamespace. They have particular conventions.

Stories make us human. In telling stories, we make our humanity. In retelling stories, we recreate our values, our beliefs, our sense of what is important and what is not. In telling stories, we make ourselves.

Systemless gaming, for me, is about providing a series of storytelling tools to explore who, what, and why we are, to understand the range of our common humanity, to understand more about ourselves. That experience is memorable. That experience is emotional. That experience can be confronting. That experience is good to think. It is good to feel.

The wisdoms gained in our character journeys are satisfying achievements, and they resonate with our personal journeys.

The characters in Sorry Business are survivors. Into their compromised world comes Penni, a symbol of their failures, their regret: their inability to connect, their fear of honesty, their sterile relationships. There is darkness and despair in this turmoil, but also moments of hope, joy and kindness; the affirmation of love and the possibility of transformation

In playing Sorry Business, please consider these guidelines:

  • You are a team. Even if your characters dislike each other, as players you need to encourage and draw out each other in play. Trust is important.
  • Build, don’t block. Follow the Roleplaying Contract.
  • You are not character actors – if you play a shy character by huddling in a corner, you are not contributing to the game. Use your roleplaying skills – self description, inner monologue, conscience debate with the gm – to bring your inner world into shared gamespace.
  • The module comes with a trigger warning about traumatic past events and possible racism. It touches on some dark places, externally, but also internally in the darkness that can overwhelm us all as humans. Follow only paths you are comfortable with – signal if the game is pressing against boundaries.
  • The module is essentially an atmospheric mystery. It is about finding and understanding Penni – the characters have little in the way of external agency. However, the characters will grow and evolve, and on reading the Wound template you as a player should consider where you want your character to end up – what their story arc might be. Will they change? Will they find hope? Will they learn?
  • Take an aspect of the character and make them your own. We need to know their thoughts, feel their feelings. We also need to know their vulnerabilities. Remember though that your character has flaws, but flaws are not your character. Round them out.
  • Have fun. Discover new things. Share your own insights and wisdom through the characters. My hope is that it will be a thoughtful and memorable experience, and that you will surprise and delight fellow players and gm  with your interpretation and play.

Design Notes

30 July 2017

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.


Relationship Worksheets (PDF 31K)

Sample – Penni relationship charts (PDF 41K)</p?

Design Notes

23 September 2018

Character arc: Putting more system into systemless

When the term ‘systemless’ was first used in the late 1980s, it was in the context where all Australian convention games used a published system. It made more sense then. We all know (occasional tiresome debates aside) that systemless games use some sort of system – even non-convention players are now much more used to the concept of story games. (Personally I prefer the term ‘thematic’ but that’s an other topic).

What ‘system’ though? Many systemless games use the concept of character arc, catharsis, or emotional resolution to guide play. For Sorry Business I am experimenting with a character template that highlights a major character flaw, based around concepts of Wound (Flaw), Lie & Scar (behavior and attitudes flowing from Flaw) and Healing (possible ways to overcome Flaw). It’s based on a series of books for writers by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, especially ‘The Negative Trait Thesaurus – A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws‘.

I’ve given an example below. Before I do however, its worth noting the guidelines I offer to players in a systemless convention game (see above).

This is the Wounds Template for Gerde, one of the player characters. It offfers an overview of the character’s main flaws, both their present reality and capacity for change. There is plot-related description as well (not included here):


Gerde’s Wound: Withdrawal

Gerde is detached from others, having retreated inside herself because of her asexuality* and vulnerability.

Possible Causes

Being a highly private person, low self-esteem, shyness, past abuse at school, high intelligence, guilt or shame, fear of being hurt or rejected by others

Gerde’s Scar: Avoidance

Avoiding people and social activities, needing few friends; being highly independent, living on the fringes, focusing on work or projects, not calling attention to oneself, introspection, not paying attention, difficulty participating in conversations, feeling misunderstood, exhaustion, difficulty maintaining eye contact, thinking too much

Gerde’s Lie: Isolation

“Because I am asexual, lacking sexual attraction to others, I should permanently remain distant from close relationships, friendships and social activity. People always pry and this hurts me. I have little reason to be social.”

Associated Emotions

Anxiety, depression, disappointment, guilt, overwhelmed, sadness

Positive Aspects Gerde can easily tune out everyone else’s noise and avoid unnecessary drama. Preferring one’s own company to others, Gerde often has deep insight into who they are, far beyond what most people will ever discover about themselves.

Negative Aspects

Gerde’s withdrawal has taken isolation and introversion to a point of dysfunction, allowing social fears and phobias to form. When Gerde finds herself unable to cope with the outside world, it potentially puts her in danger; should she ever need help, they may not be able to reach beyond their self-imposed walls to get it.

Healing: Overcoming Withdrawal as a Major Flaw

For Gerde to fully engage as a friend and companion, or to enjoy her romantic inclinations, she would need to feel that it was safe to do so. Learning to trust someone who truly values her would help her open up and develop a stronger feeling of self-worth. Being accepted for who she is may cause Gerde to want to stay connected with others and balance her need for sanctuary with a desire for enrichment through relationships and experiences.

Traits in Other Characters that may cause Conflict

Extroverted, friendly, pushy, needy, nosy, melodramatic, reckless, uninhibited, verbose

* Asexuality: Gerde identifies herself as ‘ace’ or asexual. She has never experienced sexual desire towards another person or engaged in sexual relations with others. She can feel non-sexual romantic attachments and experience deep friendships. She does not openly self identify.

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