Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another. The rest of the series can be found here.
Marxist Steampunks in Post-Apocalyptic 19th Century Paris.
When evaluating RPGs, it is easy to fall into the trap of treating ‘innovation’ as a universal positive. Of course… everyone likes new stuff and people who try to get their work published should at least try to have something new to say, but in reality there is something of a ceiling on how much innovation you can cram into a single RPG. You can innovate on a formal level by presenting information in new ways, you can innovate on the level of fluff by presenting players with new worlds in which to play, or you can innovate on a mechanical level and present players with new ways of exploring old worlds. Unfortunately, RPG publishers are often loathe to innovate on a formal level and so most innovation tends to occur at either the level of mechanics, or at the level of lore. The ceiling on innovation means that you can either present players with radically new kinds of settings, or you can present players with radically new ways of simulating familiar worlds. Push too far in both directions at once and you’ll leave people behind and wind up with a game that is, at best, more admired or collected than actually played (*cough* Nobilis *cough* Everway *cough*).
On a mechanical level, the 1990s French RPG scene was an absolute graveyard: Most games felt like Call of Cthulhu and their systems were usually little more than stat + skill + dice roll and a load of hand-waving. This wasn’t so much a case of creative stagnation as a universal belief that systems were things that should be simple, intuitive, and fade into the background lest they get in the way of the more important stuff like roleplaying your character or telling a story. However, while those years saw little in the way of mechanical innovation, they were an absolute golden age when it came to settings. Published in 1994 by a company that never published another game, Mathieu Gaborit and Guillaume Vincent’s Ecryme is best described as a low-tech Marxist Steampunk game set in the aftermath of an evolutionary catastrophe that turned the world into a series of 19th Century Parisian city-states held together by a planet-spanning network of bridges.
The world of Ecryme is deliberately full of gaps. The rulebook presents the world as a series of lectures given by explorers and cartographers who are struggling to make sense of the world around them. None of them have all of the answers and those who do offer an opinion tend to angrily contradict everyone else’s. This is a game whose world-building is deliberately weird, patchy, and mysterious.
The roots of the world lie in a biological catastrophe that occurred when someone created a nutritious plant that could grow anywhere. The plant was supposed to end world hunger but what its creators failed to realise was that once the plants reached a certain population density, they broke down to produce an acidic black sludge. Unfortunately, by the time the scientists had realised the life-cycle of the plant, it was already too late and all of Earth’s oceans, seas, and low-lying areas were covered in toxic slime. As civilisation collapsed, humanity withdrew to the planet’s remaining hilltops and immediately collapsed into feudalism.
At some point and for some reason, the feudal lords who now ruled over humanity took it upon themselves to start expanding their territory by sinking stone and steel gantries into the slime. At first, the idea was just to expand the available real-estate but, for reasons unknown, they all started expanding their territory in the form of 100m wide bridges built in straight lines in the hope that they might someday and somehow meet up with another city-state undertaking a similar project of works.
The rulebook kind of glosses over where this technology and where these raw materials might have come from. The world of Ecryme also contains people with psychic powers and there’s a suggestion that the bridge-builders might have used these psychics as a form of homing beacon. Over time, the bridge-building systems began to link-up and so an array of isolated city-states became a small tentative society held together by vast bridges made from stone and steel.
The oddness of this creation myth is explained by the fact that political power is shared between two huge sets of special interests: Workers who have organised into a series of guild-like lodges, and the rich who have organised into a series of merchant houses. Both sets of interests blame the other for the catastrophe happening in the first place and so we must understand that what is known about the world of Ecryme is subject to just as much culture-war bullshit as anything in contemporary real-life politics. The book does not give you much information on this power struggle but it is definitely class-based as each of the city-states is administered by a political system that is forever poised between brutal crackdowns and revolutionary uprisings. Think of the period immediately before the Russian Revolution when the Bolsheviks were camped out in one set of buildings, the Mensheviks were camped out in another, and politics was all about running between the buildings, the soviets and the military in an effort to find consensus and you have exactly the feel of this game’s politics.
In the world of Ecryme, the present is far from evenly distributed. The cities are steampunk re-inventions of the Paris of Baudelaire and Benjamin; full of electric trams, early motorcars, broad boulevards, scandalous cabarets, and ornate apartment buildings with bel époque stylings. There is also a high-speed steam railway that runs between the different cities though the vibe there is equally poised between white tie for dinner on the Orient Express and old Cowboy films where everyone is forced to lean out their window and shoot at attacking Native Americans. Outside of the city, the middle-ages still hold firm as feudal knights in shining armour live in forts and guard-posts dotted across the bridge network. There is even talk of a more futuristic city comprising air-ships but that, for the moment at least, remains a dream.
The characters in Ecryme are an array of pleasingly low-rent trouble-shooters who have fallen through the cracks in organised labour and wound up working for themselves. Some of them might be political radicals, some of them might be medieval warriors who wandered into a city and decided to stay, and others might be rogue psychics or scientists whose ideas worry the powers that be. Some might just be messengers or cartographers, paid to travel from city to city and explore previously unknown areas of bridging.
While the game did generate a few supplements, its writers never got round to publishing a full campaign and so there has always been a certain amount of uncertainty as to what you were supposed to do with Ecryme once you got it home. Having played the game a few times, I suspect most GMs tended to gravitate either towards the idea of exploration, or the idea of Lodges and Merchant Houses duking it out for political dominance. The rules are not particularly helpful in telling you which way to go as the game’s mechanics are as simple for combat as they are for political manoeuvring. The fact that the game’s psychics tend to be more in the business of clouding minds and changing hearts than hurling fireballs suggests that the authors might have expected people to spend more time in the cities but the strength of the game’s visuals world-building draw the eye to exploration rather than hanging out in cities that are basically just 19th Century Paris with weird politics.
Ecryme was never a big success and you can tell that the book was quite cheaply produced but one thing the book got absolutely right was the decision to illustrate its pages with a series of stark, simple, black-and-white pencil, charcoal and marker drawings that I find almost overbearingly evocative:
An interesting postscript to Ecryme is the fact that, much like its near-contemporary Nephilim, its creator eventually wound up leaving the RPG industry to become a novelist. In fact, the French genre publisher Mnemos was built almost entirely by refugees from the French RPG industry and, to this day, they still periodically re-publish spin-off novels based on those game worlds which, given the extraordinary richness of these settings, is really kind of awesome.