When I say touchstones, I don’t mean a required reading list. You don’t need to be familiar with any of the touchstones to enjoy Deathmatch Island. Ideally the game brings out what’s compelling and unique about the touchstones and translates that to this new medium.
For example: Survivor. I love Survivor, particularly the Australian version of the franchise. In Survivor, there will only be one winner. The competition is a funnel, driving towards that pointy end of the game where even best friends have no choice but to turn on each other because that’s just how the game works. There can be only one. But to thrive in Survivor you need an alliance; you need numbers on your side, to survive votes and control the game. And so you have this fascinating dynamic where trust and teamwork and friendship are crucial to victory, but any alliance, no matter how strong, must eventually turn on itself.
If your ally is going to blindside you and stab you in the back, you need to make sure you pull the trigger first. But if either of you strike too soon, your alliance dissolves and now you’re a lone operator swimming in dangerous waters. So the whole game is this stand off, this balancing act, of putting genuine trust in others but also constantly weighing that trust against the risk of being betrayed.
In Deathmatch Island, I tried to capture what I love about this dynamic. Even if you’ve never watched an episode of Survivor, this tension between genuine trust and the risk of betrayal is so compelling. It’s a competition structured to first promote teamwork, and then to test the limits of your bonds as the numbers are slowly whittled down.
Not everybody loves death games and battle royales, and truthfully that’s only a part of Deathmatch Island. There are various game modes and dials you can use to tweak the deathmatch-of-it-all to your tastes, all the way down to no violence at all. Above all else, this is a mystery box game.
Your characters can go behind the curtain, they can ask questions they’re not to meant to, they can work together to blow this whole thing wide open.
After each island the table goes through a procedure called Theory Crafting, where competitor players propose theories about what’s going on based on what they’ve seen so far. The Production player keeps track of these theories and builds on them, teasing them out in future islands. This isn’t all improvisation - there are truths here. But the truths are multiple, and so the combination of pre-written events, the choices the player competitors make of where to go (and thus what they see there), the things they focus on when they craft their theories, and what the Production player chooses to put in front of them, all combine to build a unique version of the truth of Deathmatch Island at every table. The act of discovery makes the truth feel real and surprising, but the collaborative nature of the process means it will be dialled into your table and your tastes.
Every game calls itself fast-paced these days, but the Paragon system (from AGON) earns the epithet. It’s a little zoomed out compared to most other RPGs. What you lose in granularity you gain in speed and action.
Most games are zoomed in on individual tasks or actions. A player character attempts something and a roll occurs, with some back and forth with the GM.
In Deathmatch Island, and the Paragon system, the mechanics are zoomed out to resolving a whole scene with one set of rolls. The Production player declares a contest and rolls a target number. All the competitor players roll at the same time, and the scene plays out from there around those results. Because all the mechanics are front-loaded, the action runs without friction, like lightning. There’s none of the stop-start stop-start.
The system also ensures there’s always an even amount of spotlight shared around, and much less of the GM speaking and holding forth. A whole scene can go by without the GM having to say anything.
Because there’s less negotiation around every single action, players have the freedom to pull off astounding acts of teamwork and cooperation, and they don’t have to mediate everything through the GM.
It’s like the difference between an actual game of sports versus a sports movie. Both are compelling in different ways, but an actual sports game will always have moments of back-and-forth and anti-climax. The sports movie elides all that and only shows the hits, and it can cover several exciting matches in a couple of hours of narrative. Deathmatch Island is just the hits.
The focus is on being fast and narratively dramatic rather than granular and tactical. There’s enough threat of death that surprises can happen even to our protagonists, but we don’t have to track every yard gained or bullet fired.
The speed of scene-based resolution means you can resolve an entire island in one session, so a whole season of Deathmatch Island can be completed in a few sessions. The game is designed for multiple seasons, with the truth of the island gradually revealed, and with a New Game+ mode where the players return to the game to end it once and for all.
If the player competitors survive long enough they will make it to Island Three, and the End Game.
In the End Game, the competitors must choose whether to Play to Win (and fight each other) or Break the Game. This decision is made in secret, then revealed all at once. It’s essentially a Prisoner’s Dilemma.