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Breakdown: Orientation

Posted by Jason Walters on

Welcome to the first installment of Breakdown.  I hope you enjoy it, and I look forward to your thoughts.  I’ll share a few thoughts of my own along the way. 

I’d like to first thank everyone at High Rock Press and especially Jason Walters.  I’ve enjoyed tremendous support from High Rock as well as the good fortune of friendship with the ceaselessly diligent and caring Jason (I must add, I hope everyone is looking forward to his Symposium as much as I am). 

You might wonder why this game has two settings, and why the specific two.  Why not one or three (or more) settings?  Why a specific setting at all, why not only explain how to create one’s own setting?  It’s no small matter; I have given it considerable thought over time.

Breakdown is about protagonists on the edge.  Their emotions and obligations define the game’s mechanics.  To best stage a group of such protagonists, the game demands a setting where the social context provides common emotional pressures, amplifies interpersonal drama, and bonds the protagonists in purpose.

While the book could explain how to generate one’s own settings to meet these special demands, it’s more effective to start with a widely recognized genre setting that has been proven to do the job.  This sparks immediate player understanding.  With that understanding, the book can zero in on the specific elements that matter for this game (you’ll see later in the book how each settings chapter is structured toward that end).  The setting needn’t be so detailed:  a simple archetype with example flavor suffices.  That makes it readily adaptable for players, whether they want the haunting, surreal dystopia of the movie Brazil, the grittier, pulp-ish one of Blade Runner, or something entirely different.

Why not just one setting, then?  Any given setting brings its baggage, and an author’s take on it, no matter how archetypical or broad, will necessarily bring even more.  I am too often turned off by a game’s given singular setting.  I then hold my nose, play the game a bit to get the idea, and develop my own setting that honors the game’s thesis. 

That bias of mine coupled with mere serendipity.  As “Orientation” discusses, I was inspired by two particular heroes during ideation:  the paranoid survivor trapped in the dystopian state of the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime,” and the explosive Detective Stabler as portrayed by Chris Meloni in Law and Order:  SVU.  This led to my trying out the book’s two settings. 

Playtesting proved that both settings worked well.  I found that more players gravitate to “Life in the Shadows,” the near-future Orwellian state, and at one point I did consider only releasing that one setting.  But then I was gratified to see players bringing to life emotionally charged E/R staff and big city detectives using “The Breaking Point” setting as their backdrop.  Those gripping games convinced me that dropping that setting would shortchange the promise of the game and deprive those players looking for the more personal, psychological heroics of a House or Rescue Me,

The book discusses in more detail the distinguishing characteristics of the two settings.  It’s hoped that between these two settings, you’ll find at least one to your liking as an easy entry point to the game.  The last chapter provides tips on how to make your own setting.

I’m working on a third setting, probably to be titled “The Darkness Within and probably to be offered with the Kickstarter for Breakdown.  It applies this game to the stories of superheroes on the edge, and further extends the concept of “breaking.”  You might consider it as a good vehicle to play a certain group of mutants, among whom one notoriously gained massive power and sacrificed herself; or to play a group of supers gone mad with authoritarian zeal as their expression of great power and responsibility.  It should be an exciting extension of the game and will be very different from any other supers game I know. 

And speaking of which, just days ago, after I already was drafting this commentary, the question arose as to adding that supers setting directly into Breakdown.  At first, I liked the idea, but (in a rambling note to the ever-patient Jason) I came to realize why it doesn’t make sense. 

The two settings provide adequate coverage to explore Breakdown.  They are in its sweet spot.  They also have the advantage of synergy, with game lore of each easily transportable to the other.  More settings would dilute the focus – with a corresponding weight in page count, especially to account for more character and play examples as each setting necessitates.  

Finally, the two settings represent the easy range of verisimilitude for play, avoiding more esoteric questions of fantasy, from time travel to alternate realities, which are not central to telling the kinds of stories for which Breakdown is made.  “Life in the Shadows” goes as far as we “need” to go in science fiction and stretching “realism.”  While “The Darkness Within” will provide more guidelines for the high fantasy that supers play brings, it also pushes us further afield from the core purpose of Breakdown.  The game should already be suitably open to your own tinkering with or without reading “The Darkness Within,” even as I hope that you will find that supplement enticing.

 (Side note:  in retrospect, a small regret I have in the Orwellian setting was not providing more small city and rural resources, which is a bit ironic in that for years I facilitated Don’t Rest Your Head with a small town flavor.) 

(Another side note:  I also half-scribbled notes on how to use Breakdown for such as Bojack Horseman – hit me up if you’re interested.)

(Final side note:  the only reason the brilliant Mr. Meloni’s Happy! isn’t listed as a key reference point for players of Breakdown is that I didn’t watch the series until shortly after completing the book). 

I hope these musings on the settings of Breakdown were of interest.  I’m looking forward to reading your comments and will be happy to answer your questions, whether on settings or anything else.


Thanks and Foreword

First, thanks to my incredibly supportive wife/life partner, Alesia. That should have been in my first book but confusion on my part lead to an error for a proper “thanks” section.

Second, thanks to the playtesters. Their playing has been inspiring and sustaining. I was overjoyed and, at times, moved while reading through my notes and remembering games. Many thanks to the following for testing and feedback:

Dovi Anderson, James Anderson, Chris Armstrong, Adam D. Ashworth, Christopher Bequette, Ryan Brazil, Adam Breindel, Reid Bruni, Peggy Burgi, Will Calloway, Mateo Chamberlain, Amy Dickinson, Amanda Ditmore, Tim Enborn, Elizabeth Forbes, Frank Foreaker , Laurel Halbany, Alan Hodges, Dale Horstman, Morgan Hua, Janet Johnson, Daniel Kelley, Dani L, Robert Leach-Philips, Mara Lynn, Scott Martin, Eric Nunes, Laurana O'Shea, Jason Pigol, Benjamin Plytas, Aaron A. Reed, Rayven Reid-Murray, Patrick Riley, Michael Ripley, Ryan Rivers, Saebuson, Edward Sichel, Jill Staepleton, Janaki Sullivan, Travis A. Tippit, Karen Twelves, Scott Watson

Like any game, this builds on the works of others. Don’t Rest Your Head (by Fred Hicks) provides inspiration for the mechanics of this game and moreover the emotional spiral theme. I cannot recommend that game highly enough.

The Opening mechanic and notions in this work owe a debt to the “Trust” mechanics of Timothy Kleinert’s Mountain Witch. Another game I highly recommend.

The extended version of the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” first inspired exploring the world of protagonists on the edge of breaking down. The paranoid, myopic, romantic protagonist and increasingly familiar dystopic setting of that song first struck the chord that would become this game.

But other fiction shortly amplified the initial inspirations of “Life During Wartime” and “Don’t Rest Your Head.” I owe a great debt of gratitude to all (rather than list them here you will find them mentioned throughout the text).

Using this Book

References in this book to other sections of it appear in italics and underlined (e.g., this section would be referred to as Conventions in and Use of this Book). Chapters appear in all capital letters (e.g., this section appears within the chapter ORIENTATION).

Game-specific terminology is capitalized (e.g. “Openings”, “Scenes”, and “Conflicts”, all explained in the coming pages). Each such term is to be found in the glossary at the end of this book, where you will also find references back to the relevant sections/pages.

If you are going to facilitate this game, you need to read the entire book. However, you may browse examples or even skip some of the longer example sections, returning to those when needed. Especially note the In-Game Resources section, which provides material designed to minimize the need to reference this during play.

If someone else is facilitating and you are reading as a player of a Pro (explained shortly), you will most benefit from browsing this ORIENTATION chapter, focusing on the CREATING CHARACTERS chapter, browsing the ACTION chapter until the sections that are directed at/toward “Darkness” (the role of the facilitator), and focus on whichever of the relevant setting chapters (THE WORLD OF LIFE IN THE SHADOWS or THE WORLD OF THE BREAKING POINT). But nothing in this book is a secret to players.

Because this book assumes no familiarity with roleplaying or storytelling gaming, veterans of such may find concepts and instructions on play quite familiar: feel free to skim such portions (e.g., many of you will be quite familiar with scene-setting and may quickly read through how to frame scenes). Points that are particular to this game and require special attention are called out.

What is Breakdown?

Breakdown is a roleplaying game for at least three and ideally four or so mature players. Each of the players but one plays the role of a highly-stressed protagonist (“Pro,” as we call these characters) trying to do some fundamental good amid a tide of inhumanity. The other player will help them tell the story of these characters by presenting dramatic, engaging challenges; this player has the unique role of representing that tide of inhumanity, and so we call this player “Darkness” (if you’re experienced in other roleplaying/storytelling games, this is the same role commonly referred to as “Game Master”).

Requirement and Reason to Play

Play this game if you enjoy making up stories and/or playing a role – i.e., “playing pretend” – and you want to explore the lives of protagonists dealing with great stress, facing the dangers of breaking down.

This game is NOT a “police procedural.” It is NOT about the details of loading and firing a pistol. It is NOT about the minutiae of forensic analysis or hacking.

It’s about the firefighter haunted by her dead best friend. It’s about the cop who was molested as a child. It’s about the hacker whose lost their job and friends. It’s about the spy who is discovering betrayal.

If You’ve Never Played a Roleplaying Game

You’ll want to read the whole book thoroughly and pay special attention to examples of play. As you play, think “what would the character I am playing do” and “what will make a good story for everyone at the table.” BOTH are equally important. Then think “how do I narrate the character’s actions?”

If you are reading this with the intention to play Darkness, you will have unique work in focusing on plots that provide intersection between the Pros and give them appropriate dramatic challenges.

You can find roleplaying podcasts online; you should do this if you want to play Darkness and have no experience with this kind of play.

As you read this book, think about what fiction this calls to mind and let it inspire you. It doesn’t have to be the same genre or setting to inspire stories, conflicts and characters in this game. Following directly below and later, you’ll find a few of the fictional sources that fit this game.

What Inspires and Distinguishes Breakdown

In most roleplaying games, players typically choose some trait and roll dice or employ some other mechanism of fortune to determine how successful they are in using that trait. In Breakdown, replace the word “trait” with “feeling.”

Why that difference? Consider the following fictions that can be inspirations for a game of Breakdown:

  • Law and Order: SVU: Detective Stabler (“stabler” – get it?) struggles to keep it together as he confronts pedophiles and rapists while worrying about protecting his family and controlling his own inner rage, inevitably driving everyone away just as he so dearly wants to protect them

  • Brazil, the movie, where Sam Lowry tries to cope with the Orwellian state crushing him

  • Rescue Me: Denis Leary’s protagonist is a committed firefighter, having survived the 9/11 terrorist strike in NYC, in which he lost his best friend, a fellow firefighter; he is driven to rescue others while not succumbing to his own demons of survivor guilt and loss, fearing his own insanity as he believes his dead partner has come back as a ghost

  • “Life During Wartime” (especially the extended version) by the Talking Heads, as already mentioned above

  • Law and Order: Criminal Intent: Detective Goren is part Sherlock Holmes and part brilliant empath, a profiler able to lay bare the truth of insane perpetrators and well-intended excuse-makers – but his own inner demons are his kryptonite

  • Fahrenheit 451’s Guy Montag, awoken by a precocious nonconformist and his wife’s suicide attempt to realize the desperation of his empty life, the oppression of his labor, and a sudden desire to truly experience life amid a culture bent on control, stultification, and self-indulgence

  • Monk: while often a lighter show, the tension between Monk’s need to keep going after his wife’s murder and his multiple severe phobias puts him in constant danger of lashing out, infuriating others, and breaking down

  • ER: doctors come and go, struggling with problems from addiction to abuse (as victim or perpetrator) while facing the power and responsibility of life and death

  • Blade Runner highlights characters caught in existential crisis – especially the “replicants” with their false memories and short lives

  • House: Dr. House’s apparent misanthropy barely masks his pain and inner bleeding heart as he heals his patients at all costs to himself, his colleagues, and their relationships

  • 9-1-1’s characters have a bevy of noble intentions and tragic backstories, perhaps best exemplified by Captain Bobby Nash’s battle with alcoholism and sense of responsibility for the death of his family


Remember, this is about highly-stressed protagonists trying to do some fundamental good amid a tide of inhumanity.


If you’re going to facilitate this game – if you’re going to help people roleplay these Pros – then you are Darkness. You play the forces that conspire to crush the characters hopes and dreams; to break them down.

BUT breaking them is NOT your purpose in telling the story of these characters! What a terrible “game” it would be if all you did was beat on them. Who wants to play that?

No, your job is to help tell a story that the people at the table will love to witness and reflect upon. You aren’t there just to screw things up, but to screw things up thoughtfully, providing the kinds of challenges and drama the players and their characters demand and deserve.

Adult Themes

I don’t see how a game dwelling on people about to “break down” can avoid intense adult issues.

That means ugly subjects may arise such as rape, cancer, pedophilia, mob violence, incest, etc...

Never dwell on the details of issues that might be disturbing, especially considering anyone might have personal experience. Simply say such a thing happened and move on to how the characters deal with the repercussions.

Pause before starting any game session and discuss if there are issues or themes too uncomfortable for anyone. If someone says, “I don’t want to hear about pedophilia at all,” then as a group you will honor that. For example, I once played a game where a player requested that cancer not come up; no questions needed to be asked, we simply noted that we would not bring up cancer or issues related to it and played accordingly.

But no suggestion I have can fit every group or recognize every person’s need for an emotional safe space. I can’t know your play group, how your group relates, nor am I any sort of therapist. Nor is this game a vehicle for therapy, not any more than watching episodes of Law and Order: SVU or Dexter is a form of responsible therapy. Be responsible for yourself and be respectful of others; if this game has too many potential triggers or issues of concern, skip it (you probably already bought it if you’re reading this, so in that case I suggest gifting it to a friend).

Settings and Characters

Technically, Breakdown could be played in any number of settings: see Generating Settings for more information if you want to make your own.

But to focus on the sweet spot of the game and for the best introduction, use one of the two settings provided. Each is highly customizable, as they are loose templates for you and the other players to shape.

One setting is called The Breaking Point and is focused on civil servants in a big city. The stresses are more personal and psychological. The setting is immediately recognizable to anyone who has seen or read character-driven legal, medical, firefighter, or other emergency and civil service worker dramas.

The other setting is called Life in the Shadows and is focused on people under pressure in a near-future “Big Brother”/Orwellian state. The setting is immediately recognizable to anyone seeing today’s headlines about surveillance and privacy and/or anyone interested in near-future dramas such as Brazil, Blade Runner, or Max Headroom: 15 Minutes into the Future.

The conduct of the game is identical in both settings. The ORIENTATION, CREATING CHARACTERS, and ACTION chapters discuss how to play regardless of setting and provide examples for both settings. Details of each setting are provided in THE WORLD OF THE BREAKING POINT and THE WORLD OF LIFE IN THE SHADOWS chapters. Some readers may prefer to know in detail about either or both settings and then come back and read the rules; that is absolutely fine. You may go back and forth or read the rules and settings chapters in any order. Note that the settings are deliberately general and open-ended. You will not find details such as “the president is…”, “the mayor is…”, and so forth (though some characters and ideas are presented to use as you like); such specifics are left open to the players. Each setting is intended to provide just enough detail to be easily understood and to inspire the players to further elaborate the setting as they like. Along with a general description of the setting, you will be given themes of daily life (which you may alter as desired), ideas for stories/plots, and notes to help ensure proper connections between Pros.

Choosing a Setting

You need to first choose which setting the group will play. You’ll need to at least browse and discuss the settings among the players. The Ideas for Pros section in each may especially inspire ideas and choice of setting. Each setting has a Game Starters section; for now, just consider those as general ideas for situations in the game.

Aside from obvious differences between the settings, in play there’s a few other differences that tend to emerge (how it plays out for you will really depend on your group):

  • The Breaking Point tends to center more on “typical” personal and social problems (alcoholism, infidelity, mental issues, crime, etc.) whereas Life in the Shadows tends to “go big” in its situations (deep conspiracies, “big brother,” strange disappearances)

  • Pros in the Breaking Point virtually always somehow represent/act on behalf of authority and are on the same side; Pros in Life in the Shadows are often somehow at odds with authority and may have divergent interests

  • The Breaking Point is better suited toward mid-long term and serial/”soap opera” play with the same Pros, while Life in the Shadows is better suited toward short-term and episodic play with changing or rotating Pros

Materials for Play

Along with this book, you’ll need:

  • a bunch of dice – ideally, have four different colors of dice (6-sided), 24 of each color if possible, but if not, you can easily make do with far fewer, it just means occasionally writing down rolls made

  • some tools for people to make notes (if not pen and paper, then a smartphone, tablet or such)

  • print or otherwise reproduce the Protagonist Profile and Protagonist Game Sheet from the end of this book, one for each player who will play a Pro, and provide a pen/pencil or other editing mechanism for each player

  • a couple distinctive, smaller tokens for each player who will play a Pro (e.g. one person may use a couple nickels, another person may use a couple pennies, or people could use differently colored poker chips or such)

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