Message in a bottle: Callisto by VSCA

Check out Callisto! It’s available as PWYW on DriveThru

When I first saw Brad J. Murray posting on Google Plus a few years back about his forthcoming game I came to it with a handful of preconceptions. Lots of dice (like Hollowpoint) or a straight take on a pulpy genre, like he did for sci-fi (diaspora). Maybe a wargame with character arcs. What I experienced reading the “1.0” version of Callisto was one of those “ah ha!” moments where you recognize someone is presenting something unique or upending something familiar so that it looks completely different. If you remember that forest temple in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time that rotates 90 degrees so that you’re running around on the wall, that’s the sort of disorienting feeling I got as I dug into the 20-ish pages of Callisto.

Callisto was in a state of “Living Beta” when I first dived in but was already complete and iterations just distilled it.

Setting

This seems like a perfect place to begin, since this is one of the aspects of Callisto that’s been overhauled since the “1.0” version. An “Age of Sail” setting was intrinsic to the first set of rules and while the theme didn’t grab me, I could understand how it informed the original rules. By the most recent update, the wording now uses the Age of Sail Navy / Army as a worked example for how a referee could configure their game. Otherwise, I’ve played in both a low fantasy game and a high tech one situated on a space station.

System

This is where I was completely caught offguard! The system involves almost no mechanics, no randomizer and very little direction from the Ref once it’s in motion. Everything needed for a character might fit on a Post-it note, like the hippie-est of storygames, but it somehow still manages to evoke the seriousness of a game of Diplomacy.

The rulebook is, as I mentioned, only about 20 pages excluding covers and credits; most of that is clarification for the Referee (borrowing a term from wargaming heritage, that of a truly neutral 3rd party to adjudicate on behalf of the rules). The Referee’s creative responsibilities are front loaded: discus with the players what kind of game will be played and summarize it in a few Tenets, draw a map with some Locations, create a list of Characters who each have Roles, Contacts and a few Resource dials and the most significant aspect, their Narrative Authority (or Authorities), and finally coordinate everyone by some sort of messaging system representing Letters.

Some example Tenet sets might be “17th Century Europe,” or “Hard Sci Fi plus warp drive and a few sentient alien races,” or “post-apocalypse; magic is real – it’s ritualistic and brutal.”

The map only needs to be detailed enough to show relative position and have some evocative labels. The Character sheets might be as sparse as “Pegula (Orc), Sword-and-Shield of the Empire,

travels with a Large Army and has great Wealth,

Goals: Quell the Lizardfolk Uprising, Retake Orc Homeland”

Once the game is in motion, the Referee steps back and checks their inbox daily for new messages – everything sent between characters is CC’ed (if using email) or otherwise sent to the referee – and they compare what’s being said in the letters to the character’s Narrative Authority. Anything said outside of their Authority might be true, but could be a simple rumor or a strategic lie, anything covered by their Authority becomes fact. The Referee distills this down into periodic (AM/PM, daily, 48-hour) news posts that reflect the most interesting version of the truth.

Let’s say Ariani sends a two-page letter describing her compelling victory at sea over Benjamin to a few other players. She doesn’t have Narrative Authority over “Deciding the outcome of Naval Battles” but it’s still great, and unless challenged by someone else’s letter it should spread as a strong rumor in the news. If Caleb – who does have that Authority – writes in a letter about Ariani’s victory, it becomes truth. Were he to flippantly write it off as her force being outmaneuvered and routed, however, her letter becomes lies spread to save face.

This could feel disenfranchising for some players, especially if they feel like their version of the truth makes the best story. The challenge here is to be able to operate at three levels: a Character who is trying to “win” by achieving at least some of their Goals, an in-the-thick-of-it Player who is aware of the significance of their words because of the distribution of Narrative Authorities, and a 10000-foot-view Player who is willing to see their character lose standing mechanically and fictionally when their words are revealed to be merely their own interpretation of events.

The majority of the rulebook is focused on how the Referee can guide their players as painlessly as possible. For what it’s worth, “Write letters to people whose addresses you have; letters full of action that falls both within and outside your Authorities. If you need to lie or ask me a question, please do so. Oh, and don’t spam.” summarizes 90% of the player-facing core rules, but invites even more questions than a thick rulebook would. The author tries to address many of those questions but quite a bit of it is left to the Ref to reassure their players, “Yes. Really that simple. Really really.”

Toward the end, Callisto includes guidelines for framing your own setting with different Powers (Narrative Authority and otherwise), different resources, and ways to represent Locations on maps. For Age of Sail – plug in the Navy & Army rules, give lots maritime routes. For game in space you could use a hex-map of systems created just the way you would for Traveler. Exploration? Military focus? Suggestions for handling both of those – and the reinforcement that Callisto is not built to simulate the conflict itself.

Fit & Weight

I’ll start this section with what it won’t fit: No matter how you play Callisto, be ready for a longer-term game, it simply won’t work as written in an evening or a day or even a weekend, set your expectations more in terms of weeks or months. It won’t play “face to face” and it isn’t designed to, but I don’t doubt that an adventurous group could hack that – picture the backroom dealings of Diplomacy and then the referee pulling everyone back to the main table to announce a round of News.

But if you’ve got a large-ish group (say, 8-15) of people interested in playing that can put on their “author” hats for a half hour during lunch or before bed to write some notes, you’ve got your crew. Busy adults often cite lack of time and an aversion to overly-complex rule sets as barriers to (re)entry to the RPG hobby, so Callisto might be a way to reconvene a former gaming group or a few friends who travel too often to set up a regular game night. It also fits the niche of “internet friends” from social networks, forums, or IRC.

Writing, Artwork & Layout

There is still some work that could be done in future “dot” updates (e.g. “2.1”) to highlight key rules – callouts among the conversational text, terse wargame-style outlines, Fate Core bookmarks. Anything in this vein would be helpful even for a same so mechanically simple. The font is easily readable and the pages have a weathered-paper look. I’m usually a fan of plain-text-on-white, but the thematic relevance far outweighs my minimalist preferences. Ah, but I’ve left the best part of the presentation for last: the gorgeous and evocative cover painted by Juan Ochoa – who I hear is also collaborating with the author on other projects.

Message in a bottle

If you’ve ever thought “Yeah! Wargame! Wait, this tome is the rulebook? Oh hell naw.” this might be the way for you to tell those grand-scale stories. If you’re jet-setting every week and only have a few days here and there to deal with real life at home, this asynchronous format might be what fits into your timetable. If you really like counting your troops, maxing your stats, and activating mechanics but you don’t care about purple prose, Callisto probably isn’t for you. But no matter your initial impressions, spend a few minutes to read it. It might be the quirky game that puts the wind in your sails.

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