So, wow, Mirror kinda blew up overnight thanks to a fantastic article by Beth Elderkin over at io9 and the response has been incredible, it’s easily my most successful game so far, which is great! Especially since it’s the first entirely stand alone thing I’ve produced so far, outside of the board game’s I’d designed a while back.
I’d like to discuss some of the elements of the game that I find really interesting, particularly in light of some of the replies and responses the game has gotten so far.
Mirror’s opening move is one designed to put you in a state of vulnerability that isn’t often found in TTRPGs. Certainly not unique – Alex Roberts’s Star Crossed for one aims to create a similar sense of emotional rawness, but rare enough. You begin by writing what you believe to be 4 of your friends greatest strengths, and 2 of their weaknesses. There’s some important language there, but we’ll get to that in a bit. You can see right off the bat that this opens the game up to a certain level of, lets call it abuse. A player with the inclination could write something emotionally scaring in that box, they could reveal some dark secret to the table that their partner didn’t, couldn’t, prepare for. They could, but they won’t.
First of all, and most obviously, the player has already taken on the social expectation of a game being played, at least for the next couple of hours. Unless they’re a very odd sort of person, it seems absurd to imagine the game that could follow the intentional revelation of heart-breaking proportions, and so one can assume no one is going to, say, call you a slur at the table as a weakness, much as they don’t normally do so.
But more importantly, I think, is that the player writing the weakness, and the player hearing the weakness are both also engaged in the writing/hearing dynamic, and are in an equal state of vulnerability. There is a risk, of course, that you will hear something you didn’t expect, but are you not also being trusted not to hurt the person in front of you?
During playtesting, a curious thing would arise fairly often as I discussed peoples emotions and states post-game. The most common thing I was concerned with was the concern people would be hurt by the weakness mechanic but upon asking I found people felt that the weaknesses weren’t “strong” enough, or they were concerned their friends would soft-ball them. They were also worried about upsetting the other person at the same time. It’s very interesting from a design perspective to see that play out at the table. People want to hear the bad things as much as the good, especially the sorts of people looking to play a weird indie one page experimental RPG – curiosity is always a very powerful force and where do we see this more than when we ask how the world views us through its own eyes?
TTRPGs, and games in general, often excel at the power fantasy, granting us the means to be the supreme version of some aspect of ourselves – you play WoD to let your 14 year old gothy edgelord play, you play DnD to imagine yourself powerful and mighty, your paladin lets you protect others, your wizard lets you wield your mind as a weapon – and I love this about them, I revel in being the revolutionary kingslaying man of the people in my games, but by limiting ourselves to characters we create, we inevitably view things through a very specific lens or context – by forcing you into a state of vulnerability, then asking you to build from an already existing person who may have none of the traits you see in yourself, Mirror attempts to facilitate a unique shade of the emotional spectrum to play out at the table.
There are some tricks employed to keep the game civil, besides the high minded faff up there about social contracts and the happy accident that people turn out to be generally good hearted. For a start the rules specify that you should begin by writing 4 of their greatest strengths. This already means you’re thinking of your friends positively, celebrating them with your words and filled with excitement for their doing of the same to you. Secondly you’ll note we say Greatest Strength, and for weaknesses its just Weakness. This allows folx to interpret exactly how deep of a cut they’re going to go for – allows them to judge their friends sensitivity and adjust accordingly. This means you have the option to softball on Weaknesses, but you MUST go big on Strengths
One particular element that’s fairly unrelated that I’d just like to say I’m proud is that the entire class system is essencially an extended NPC tag system that works incredibly well. You give your friend a class (Which is, basically, a 5th, most important, strength) which gives them all their powers, abilities, equipment and history in a single word.
We also specifically call the other player “Your Friend” throughout the rules to ensure people know this is a game, fundamentally, for a certain group makeup – a group of friends who already enjoy each others company and know each other well enough even without RPGs, as opposed to pickup games or groups that aren’t perhaps as close or trusting of one another.
The final element of Mirror that I believe encourages and reinforces a sense of emotional vulnerability and empathetic links between players is the assist system. It’s practically impossible to succeed in the game without leaning on the person across from you, asking for assist rolls and working collaboratively. The maths is designed so that you’re most likely to land on zero successes/fails on a standard roll, which loses you a die and only gets you half of what you wanted, whereas the addition of a third dice in your skill pool from an assist knocks those chances up enough that you are most likely to get at least one success.
This mechanically rewards players for trusting in one another and cooperating throughout the experience even within their vulnerable state – and given that the failure of the roll came from, essentially, the weakness of the person sitting across from you, that they then “fix” that failure by using a strength they identify in you is, I believe, a little poetic, and definitely contributes to an overall atmosphere of mutual vulnerability and support.
I have been absolutely and completely blown away by the response to Mirror so far. Monetarily it’s not a whole lot, PWYW games often sacrifice income for things like brand building, creative fulfillment and, cynically, customer email lists, but it has brought in enough cash that I can pay for my next major project, which I think is going to kick a whole lot of ass and I hope resonate with people in a similar way to Mirror. I’ll talk more about it soon, when art deals and the like are squared, but for now I’ll say it uses a modified version of Mirror’s dice mechanic and has a little bit of its friendship enforcing rules in there, but applied in a very different context.
Thanks to everyone who has grabbed a copy of Mirror, I’d love to hear some play reports soon. I’m setting up an AP podcast with some friends soon so look forward to that!