Down the River Styx - System Concept (for Codex Submission)

This is my current sideproject, which I’m submitting to the codex as a pitch for publishing. I’d love to get some thoughts on it.


Down the River Styx

Play as lost souls in a metaphorical Grecian afterlife. The PCs have no memory of their past lives, all they know is that they are venturing down the River Styx. Things aren’t quite as we’ve been told on this River, it isn’t a cozy passage to the realm of the dead. Your journey down the River Styx will be filled with trials and choices. How you deal with them will determine your final destination in the afterlife.

System Highlights
Simple Core
Characters start dirt simple, blank slates perfect for drop-in play.

Memories are Progression
Discover who you were in life as you play. Experience points are literal, unlocking memories that provide you with new skills and abilities to use in the game. These will be determined by rolls on random tables. Discover you were a Mad King, losing mental stats but gaining the power to command others, or a Vicious Murderer that knows her way around a knife.

Character flaws are also Attributes
Tests of character are literal. Players will have stats for various character flaws, inspired by the concept of Hamartia - the term used in Aristotle’s Poetics to describe the tragic flaws that bring about a hero’s downfall. Hubris, Cowardice, Greed, etc. Players will be asked to test against these flaws to see if they fall to weakness or temptation, and these flaws will become more serious or reduced based on their choices throughout the game.

Grecian Horror on the Oregon Trail
The game’s structure is more in line with a videogame like Oregon Trail than a linear campaign. Players will roll random encounters to determine the tests/trials they encounter on the journey, as well as other passengers. This series of events, encounters, and choices will leave their mark on their characters as they try to reach the river’s end having comported themselves in accordance with the virtues that will earn a glorious afterlife… Or at least avoid doom in tartarus. The system will provide a table of example encounters, each structured to work like a simple miniature adventure, which will also be useful for any GM wanting more tables of cool encounters to run into while travelling in spooky settings.


Is this something you’d be interested in personally? Is there anything that jumps out to you as a cool opportunity? Are you familiar with any similar games I should look to for inspiration?

8 Likes

sounds like a good idea

couple of thoughts that come to mind

do the characters on the journey have a past together, or total strangers? because this feels like abit of self discovery, which is a private solitary journey if they have never met

also with self discovery comes emotional drama, and i’m not sure a large party would suit this premise, so i’d limit the game to 2-3 players.

3 Likes

Thanks for the thoughts. The players would not have any connection by default. This works better the more unpredictable outcomes of the life experiences of each hero, and I think there’s some cool drama of a former king having to work with a former beggar they’ve never met before. Naturally I’ll slip a few memories into the random tables, where one player suddenly remembers they did know one of the other party members in life; perhaps as a friend, lover, or enemy. However, it’s not the default - it’s a special thing. My goal is that the player’s lack of setting/other-character-knowledge mirrors the lack of knowledge of the PCs as well. This should create more immersion. I also really like the idea of strangers having to work together in the afterlife, a former king working alongside a beggar.

I think 2-4 players (not counting the GM) is a good number, depending on the group size. The players will naturally view one another with suspicion at first, and the revelations about their past may test their bonds of trust further. I’ve found that this light inter-party tension tends to work best in groups of 3-4 (because PCs can gang up on someone causing the whole group trouble, but it also gives individuals the chance to shine). They must work together to survive, but the setting and mechanics will tempt them to do otherwise. Players (and thus their characters) that overcome these temptations will earn a better afterlife.

2 Likes

This definitely sounds interesting and it’s something I’d be intrigued to play. The setting is fun, and the “blank slate character” is something I’ve seen attempted a lot, but I’ve never quite found the various incarnations satisfying.

I really hope you can pull this off. It sounds tricky. If both the game’s setting and its mechanics tempt players into conflict with each other, what remains to tempt them to cooperate?

Another thought: What is the role of the GM in a game like this? I’m completely spitballing here, and I don’t know how fully developed your idea already is. But from your description it sounds like the game is about personal trials, revelations, reflections, and facing down one’s own demons. These themes might lend themselves well to a GM-less game where challenges, once generated, can be resolved and represented by other players. That would also give you a new source of player interaction for what could otherwise become quite an inwardly-focused game.

Instinctively I’m with @BlakeRyan that the smaller the group, the better.

1 Like

This sounds like something I’d be enthusiastic to play!

I really like Penny for Your Thoughts, which also starts players out with blank character sheets and is structured around recovering memories—though it’s much more of a storytelling game than this will be.

Am I right in thinking that it’s primarily how the PCs behave while travelling to the afterlife, as opposed to during their actual lives, which determines where they end up?

Will there be any played scenes of the PC’s lives?

I really like the idea of discovering my character as I play (as opposed to the more usual creating them, either before or during). I wonder, though, how connected my past self and my afterlife self will feel? Perhaps that alienation is a feature: being in the afterlife gives you a more objective perspective on your life. That could be really cool.

This sounds intriguing! Definitely take a look at @Jmstar’s The Skeletons if you haven’t already, it’s got ‘remember your life’ emergent play that sounds like what you’re aiming at.

3 Likes

Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll have to check out Penny for Your Thoughts.

You’re correct that it’s primarily how the PCs behave while travelling to the afterlife that determines where they end up. However, discoveries about their lives will also bring with them adjustments to their character flaws (hubris/greed, etc). In this way, learning that you were a mad king in life will give you new capabilities but also the spiritual flaws that come with them. As such, it’s both your actions on the river styx and your history in life that determine where you end up. The river styx is a soul’s last second chance in the setting, the “final exam” if you will before the afterlife.

There will not be any played scenes of the PC’s lives in this system. Sounds like a cool idea to add in, but I’m targeting a small page count for this to fit with Codex - and I want to dedicate as much space as possible to tables for the random encounters, character histories, and advice on how to run the oregon trail like experience as well as exploratory Grecian horror.

The alienation is absolutely intended. I wanted to lean into a situation where the players’ lack of knowledge about a new character and setting were both 100% in keeping with the world, which ironically can lead to deeper immersion. It makes sense you don’t know much about your character, because they don’t either! It make sense you don’t really know what you’re in for in the setting, because you’ve never died before.

Per your question about the incentives to cooperate, cooperation is vital to success in the game. Like most games, the system is designed to provide challenges so players can overcome those challenges - not simply fall to them. Monsters are provided so players can defeat or outwit them. Temptations are provided so players can resist them or redeem themselves after falling to them.

The main strategic tension in the game will come from seeking to perform heroic deeds (defeat guardians, slay monsters) while also staying about a threshold of spiritual corruption (taking virtuous actions, resisting temptations). Heroic deeds are “physically” dangerous, and being defeated on the river styx means you have failed to prove yourself worthy of a good afterlife. However, gaining the power necessary to accomplish those deeds is difficult - and many temptations will be offered to players in the form of power at the price of sin or similar. It’s a little like juggling the stamina/sanity dangers of a boardgame like Eldritch Horror. However, betraying your allies will not go well for you in two clear ways - fewer allies to help you overcome the trials and you likely sabotage your spiritual side in the bad action.

This is a long way to say that players will have strong needs to work together and weaker temptations to conflict, mainly so they can enjoy some RP scenes and experience the pull of temptation to a wrong action. I plan to write a guide to GMs on handling the theme of temptation to sin in this book, you can handle it with a very light touch or make your whole game about it. Depends on what your group enjoys.

As for why the GM at all, the goal is for the group to be in this together. It would be quite possible to create this concept without a GM, with each player on a personal journey and RP mechanics encouraging other players to present them with moral quandries and offer temptations. It’d work well, but it’s not my goal. My goal is to hit the themes of heroic but sombre challenge, a group of lost souls banding together in a strange setting to make their way down the river styx. The GM’s role is to play the role of ferryman, ushering them into the world of the dead. I also want a consistent tone for the players to interact with. A landscape as weird-rich as the river styx benefits from consistency within its strangeness.

I might just be getting derailed here, but the Grecian afterlife does contain a river that causes the souls of the dead to forget their lives (the Lethe) as well as a river or pool which could restore memories and grant knowledge (the Mnemosyne).

Given the above, could you create moves about forgetting and remembering that involve the characters actually drinking from different sources as they become available? Experience might come in the form of flasks of water from these two rivers.

For example, characters might want to remember useful facts, friendships, skills, etc. but might instead remember traumas, sins, or failures (or vice versa). I really like your idea but to me making it a two-way street is potentially more interesting (for example a character dealing with hopeless odds would have the choice to struggle to overcome them, or give in to oblivion).

Anyway, now you’ve got me imagining all these possibilities so I think you have a great idea!

2 Likes

That’s a great point! I was inspired by the Lethe in connection with losing the memories of your life, but I completely forgot about the Mnemosyne. I’d love to tie regaining memories directly to exploration and that’s a beautifully thematic way to do it. Flasks from each river would be great treasure.

I definitely agree that remembering should come with unexpected negatives. I like the “+2/-1” formula for random systems like this. You gain a significant boost, but it comes with a minor drawback, or you gain two minor boosts and one minor drawback. For example, you gain memories of your time as a heroic soldier - gaining combat prowess but increasing your Hubris as well. A merchant might gain persuasion abilities but suffer an increase in greed. A philosopher might suffer a -2 to their physical stat, but gain +2 to both mental and spiritual.

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Fantastic! As the aim is to alienate the lives of the characters from their afterlife selves - which I’m keen to try out - then I think having played scenes of their past lives might actually undermine this.

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Along similar lines: I had always thought the Styx was only for crossing since it was the border between the real world and the underworld (life and death). My sense would be that it encircled Hades…

My premise is that not everything is exactly as you may have heard in the myths. In my premise, the River Styx turns out to be perfectly set up for a my target gaming experience more in common with a journey down the oregon trail, complete with various islands and obstacles. Things won’t line up 100% with the myths, because I want to take inspiration from them but still do what’s best for the gameplay. I also rather like the urban-fantasy-feel of “so you’ve heard the stories, and they’re about 60% true… Now here’s how things really work”. It’s a fun mix of familiarity and discovery.

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This seems very fun. I love the building up from a blank slate aspect. An unusual approach to characters that could really stretch role-playing muscles.

You might want to check out my game The Great Soul Train Robbery. It similarly blends classical motifs and the American West, and it involves intensely morally-coded character arcs since your two stats are Lover and Sinner and they’re constantly shifting in tension with each other.

Thanks. I’ll definitely check out your game. Sounds like some great inspiration. :slight_smile: