Indie RPG fans familiar with Jack Harrison’s previous games are likely to be surprised by the big twist in the latest project he’s designed. His Zine Quest hit Bucket of Bolts is a solo game about designing a spaceship in the spirit of beloved space-going rustbuckets like Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon or Firefly’s Serenity. His other Kickstarter minigames, Orbital and Artefact, have players designing a space-station setting and a magical item, respectively. But his newest project, funded on Kickstarter the day it launched, asks players to craft something much more elaborate and abstract: a conspiracy of intrigue and betrayal, leading to a final act of cathartic revenge.
Harrison’s new game, The Slow Knife, is designed to walk two to four players through the process of setting up and telling a story in the vein of Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 novel The Count of Monte Cristo. In the words of the game, a “promising young soul” has their life “ruined by a handful of grasping scoundrels,” then returns to plot an inevitable vengeance. Harrison tells Polygon that the impetus behind the game came from his love for Count of Monte Cristo’s brand of slow-burn political intrigue, and from the difficulty of enacting it in most mainstream RPGs.
“I’ve found that you get a lot of stories of brutal action, both in media and in role-playing games,” Harrison says. “You know, where everybody tries to take down the boss in a big action sequence. But there’s not a lot of social intrigue in role-playing, especially in games like D&D. They aren’t necessarily geared that way. So I started out thinking, ‘How can I tell that kind of long-term social-revenge story?’”
The Slow Knife invites gamers into that kind of intrigue, with each player answering card prompts to craft a villain who harmed “The Knife,” the game’s protagonist. Then the players flesh out the story of The Knife’s successful revenge campaign against them. The game is built around a deck of cards split into four acts, which structure the players’ scheme of betrayal — complete with a literal conspiracy board, tracking connections and important events. Yes, you can make your own yarn board to connect the dots, though Harrison says his playtests have also used washi tape, or corkboards and pins.
“I love artifacts of play, generally,” Harrison says. Indie RPGs that encourage players to create drawings, maps, or other physical elements to assist in storytelling have become more common over the last few years, especially with the rise of solo journaling games built around these kinds of physical creations. But with The Slow Knife, the string board is also meant to help the players keep a complex story straight, and remind them of which plot threads are still available to develop.
“In a more straightforward John Wick story, you can keep the characters in your head — you go from point A to point B, it’s quite straightforward,” Harrison says. “Whereas with a social plot, it really does help to see all the complex connections and who you’ve introduced over the course of the game, which lets you try to close the loops and tie it all together.”
Harrison says The Slow Knife is expressly designed to help first-time role-players or group storytellers find their footing — or by the same token, to help experienced players tell a specific story — because it asks inviting questions and creates clear boundaries for the shape of the story. Like other GM-less prompt-based RPGs, such as For the Queen or Carolina Death Crawl, The Slow Knife guides players through a specific plotline, while asking them to personalize it and define it for themselves.
“The thing I really like about prompt games is that they give you a skeleton for the action,” he says. “They tell you something true about your character, or about the world, then ask you to make that thing interesting, to expand on it and integrate it into the story yourself. You’re not ever being asked to come up with something from whole cloth, you’re always telling just a little bit of story.”
But while the shape of the Slow Knife story is pre-defined, it can take place in a wide variety of settings. The game leads players through creating their own setting, or they can try out one of the three optional playsets that answer those questions in advance. One sets the story in 19th-century France. Another is a sci-fi story of health-obsessed aristocrats aboard Arcadia Prime, a luxury space station orbiting an environmentally destroyed Earth. The third places the story in a high-fantasy court, “the premier dominion of the high elf elite.”
In all cases, though, the story leads to the same place. In playtesting, Harrison says, he sets out the game’s final card at the beginning, revealing the prompts for The Knife’s revenge, and what the players’ villains do afterward. “Everybody knows where the story is leading, and what they’re aiming toward,” he says. “That empowers people to steer the story toward The Knife’s revenge, while giving them enough flexibility to tell the story they want to tell with their character.”
Harrison says the completed game will have safety guidelines for making the villains “fun-bad” rather than evil in a way that might make people uncomfortable at the table. “Evil isn’t necessarily fun to play, or fun to witness,” he says. “But when people set up these real bastards, it’s really satisfying to plot their downfall, and to be responsible, with complete dramatic irony, for walking them into these situations where they’re going to be setting themselves up for bigger and bigger failures, and less satisfaction. There’s a comedy in there that has been really satisfying in playtesting, watching these villains build themselves up for the fall.”
And in The Slow Knife, that fall is — as the description says — inevitable. “I decided fairly early on that I wanted the idea of the villains winning to be off the table,” Harrison says. “It just wasn’t a story I was interested in telling. I think it’s it’s important to close that loop, and to pay off all the evil things they did early on in the story — even if that doesn’t always reflect what happens in reality. I can’t speak for everyone’s politics, but the idea of taking down a load of evil rich people has a lot of appeal to me in the world we live in. Even if it is a bit of a fantasy!”
The Slow Knife is currently on Kickstarter, with a campaign wrapping up on March 21.