Roleplaying

Metrofinál Makes God Mode Interesting

Metrofinál Transantiago, by Jonathan Walton, is a story game about the apocalypse. Not a minor disaster, the complete end of days. Eight bodhisattvas—people of such unimaginable spiritual power that they are essentially gods—are wandering the world as it crumbles into ashes. Their task: pave the way for the world that is to come by tracking down the people who will become the gods of the next world. Because the human mind is not equipped to comprehend the rebirth of reality, everyone is sharing a sort of hallucination, which couches these impossible events in a convenient metaphor. In this case, a busy afternoon trying to navigate the convoluted routes of the subway system in Santiago, Chile.

You’re living gods of nearly unlimited power, yet you’re still stuck on the metro. Story games are weird. But that’s not a dismissal! Metrofinál is not only an excellent game but also a study in making “overpowered” fun. Your characters can do just about anything, and while this would make most games incredibly dull, Metrofinál deftly avoids the pitfalls of overpowered characters.

Keeping Unlimited Power Dynamic

In a game of Metrofinál, players will step into the role of the bodhisattvas, or Those Who Tarry at the Door. These characters are drawn in broad strokes and given portentous names that sound like they could be some sort of second-string Time Lord. The Navigator is associated with ships and storms; the Chevalier has a horse and a sword; the Assassin is described in terms of shadows and death, and so on. Creating a character takes seconds; all you do is pick a character card and settle on a few visual and thematic details. You don’t have any stats, skills, or explicitly-described powers.

Story games often eschew specific stats in favor of keeping characters almost purely narrative, so this in itself isn’t unusual. While Fiasco doesn’t give its characters Strength or Constitution scores, characters are still limited by the collective understanding that they are human, with human abilities and limitations. Even if you set your Fiasco in a magical kingdom or aboard a starship, your elves or aliens are going to be broadly humanoid. If you say “Oh, and then I sprout wings and fly away,” the other players at the table will probably veto that.

But Metrofinál is not a game that takes place on a human scale. The bodhisattvas are nigh-omnipotent; if you want to grow wings and fly away, that’s perfectly okay. If anything, it’s a fairly generic approach to problem solving as one of Those Who Tarry. The rules actively encourage players to seek out strange and imaginative solutions to their problems. Specifically, scenes end only after the situation escalates to a new level of surrealness. In other words, the progression of the game is directly tied to how weird and epic things get. As the game progresses, this becomes more demanding. Growing wings might allow the story to advance at first, but after a few scenes shapeshifting is the new normal. If you want to get somewhere (in the story, as well as physically) you’ll need to step up your game. Steal the memories of those around you and weave them into a bridge of thought, which you use to cross a chasm!

This solves one of the most basic problems with overpowered characters: the stagnation that stems from relying on the same moves over and over. After all, if Godking Krakskull’s mighty broadsword can cleave every head in the room, every time, then the player is encouraged to use that move over and over. Metrofinál ties advancement to change, which keeps the story from getting into a rut.

Divvying Up Narrative Pressure

Every scene in Metrofinál focuses on one of Those Who Tarry, who will travel to another station on the Metro as they search for Those Who Come in the Night, the people who will be bodhisattvas in the next world. As they wander, they’ll confront obstructing monsters, people in danger, hidden paths, and things of that nature. By surpassing these challenges (and escalating through several levels of surreality), Those Who Tarry will eventually find the people they’re seeking. However, rather than putting the pressure to provide these challenges onto a single game master, every player controls a single station, in addition to their own character.

When a bodhisattva comes to the station you control, you act as the GM. Your station has a simple description to get you started, but what happens there is up to you. Your job is to create the obstacles that stand in the way of Those Who Tarry and, as this godlike figure tears through your obstacles, escalate. You have full control over the station and its occupants and are just as responsible as the bodhisattva’s player for making sure things get surreal.

Because you’re summoning obstacles for nigh-omnipotent entities, you don’t have to worry about little things like “game balance” as you create challenges. Saying that ten thousand demons come pouring out of the wall is a good way to make sure nobody wants to play D&D with you anymore, but it means nothing to Those Who Tarry. They can just open up the bag of storms, pull out a tornado, and use it to blow the demons into the ticketing kiosk. As the station, you can’t overwhelm the other players, but you can give them opportunities to look awesome.

This answers another major problem with incredibly powerful characters: even if they’re not stagnant, it’s hard to make sure that they’re facing obstacles that feel appropriate. Traditionally, GMs have the right and responsibility of unfettered power; they can decide that the ten thousand demons combine into one massive body that eats the tornado and bursts from the kiosk. It’s certainly possible to keep momentum going at this power level, but it’s also taxing. Eventually, your imagination runs out of steam.

But Metrofinál gets around this by giving every player their own station. Players are explicitly advised to wander the stations as they search for the gods of the next world. This means that no one GM-figure holds the reins for more than a scene or two in a row. Coupled with the rule that scenes end right after a big, surreal escalation, this means that it’s a lot harder to get overwhelmed. When the nigh-omnipotent character does something that you don’t know how to respond to, that’s a good indication that it’s time to break and let someone else craft the next scene.

Furthermore, because scenes focus on two players, the bodhisattva and the station they are visiting, most players spend scenes either on the sidelines or playing minor roles. This gives everyone a chance to recharge their brain-batteries, which keeps the game from feeling draining.

Putting Limits on Omnipotence

Metrofinál gives the players a nearly absolute level of creative freedom over both their characters and the world. This means, however, that areas in which the players are actually limited become especially notable. Virtually all of the things that limit Those Who Tarry relate back to the setting: the (surreal) subway system of Santiago, Chile. Bodhisattvas can move through the stations, and the stations can contort and change in impossible ways, but there is no way to actually leave the subway system. And while the subway is a bizarre wonderland, it’s also a literal subway.

Metrofinál has a map with the stations laid out as points on a grid. To move from one station to the next, you have to draw in the railways that connect them, and the rules for doing so are specific: rail lines cannot branch, they must take the most direct route, and there are only three lines on the metro. The result is that sometimes, to get where you want to go, you have to spend a scene hanging out at an interchange station. How bizarre: you can draw a door in mid-air and open it to find a passage to the spirit realm where nightmares live, but you can’t get from Los Heroes to Santa Rosa without making a stopover in Estadio.

The other hard limit is the fact that there are only four scenes in every station. After four scenes, that station’s story ends. Both the station itself and the bodhisattva who started that fourth scene disappear, to make way for one of Those Who Come in the Night. These are simple limits, but they build the mythology of the game into its mechanics: the subway is a metaphor for reality itself, and its rules are the only thing more powerful than Those Who Tarry. And the world is ending, so when a piece of it falls away, it’s no longer accessible.

This mythologizing helps keep the players focused on the plot. The problem with “go anywhere and do anything” is that there’s so much anywhere to go to and so much anything to do when you get there. It’s easy to turn that into aimless wandering. Now, Those Who Tarry actually have a specific goal: they’re seeking Those Who Come in the Night. This gives the players direction, but having an explicit goal is no guarantee that a player will pursue the goal.* But the mechanics of Metrofinál give players no choice. Players literally cannot help but follow their goal—no matter what, their character will find their replacement before the game ends. Since this is unavoidable, there’s no point dithering over what you want to do or trying to avoid the responsibility. Your task is set.

Together, these limits reinforce the mythology of Metrofinál Transantiago. This is a game telling a very specific, very peculiar story, and it’s not built to handle anything else. It also lightens the players’ creative load. It’s hand-holding to ensure that while players can go nuts with respect to the specific events of the narrative, the story as a whole won’t spin out of control or grind on interminably.

Demanding a Little Too Much

Metrofinál Transantiago is not for everybody. This is true of any human endeavor, but Metrofinál is, well, strange. You’ve probably noticed. And more than that, it’s demanding. Although it uses the above techniques to rein in the difficulties of playing incredibly powerful characters, the game provides a number of challenges in its own right. For one thing, these techniques make playing a nearly omnipotent character feasible but not simple. Things are forced to keep escalating to bigger and more intense heights. It’s CrossFit for your imagination.

But even more daunting for many folks is the fact that, per the rules, there are eight bodhisattvas, visiting eight stations, and every one is supposed to be represented. That means eight players are going through an absolute minimum of thirty-two scenes exploring the metro, plus another eight scenes at the end as Those Who Come in the Night actually usher in the new world. That is over a six-hour commitment, even if you’re really pacey and keep every scene under ten minutes. Or, you can split it into multiple sessions, but that’s a challenge for a game so reliant on narrative momentum.

This seems like a misstep; the author has attached a massive buy-in to a game that is otherwise very freeing. And yet, there’s an amusing juxtaposition here. After all, this is a game that lets players be incredibly, inconceivably superhuman, but in order to reach that point, they have to deal with very petty, human concerns: finding the people, finding the time, or tweaking the rules to get around it. It’s comparable to being able to pluck the sun from the sky and pocket it, but still being stuck taking the red line because that’s the only way to reach Del Sol Station.

Even if Metrofinál requires some effort to be playable, it’s worth it. It is a wholly unique experience, in which you create an amazing, coherent, and exciting story, without sacrificing the feeling that you are all-powerful.

Looking for an evening of fun? Uncover your lost memories and battle the supernatural in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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