The designer of Chernobyl, Mon Amour Juhana Pettersson writes about the game now that an English version is in crowdfunding. Check the campaign here!
Chernobyl, Mon Amour is a game about love and radioactivity. The great thing about love as subject matter is that it plays heavily to the strengths of tabletop games as a medium.
Tabletop games are typically played indoors, for example in someone’s living room. The participants sit around a table or on sofas and chairs. They mostly narrate the events of the game verbally, describing what happens. When I run a game, sometimes people stand up and do some things physically, but there are severe limits to how much can be done like this. In a larp, I can run across a field waving a sword. In my living room, I can stand up and take another player aside for a quick chat, but not much more than that.
Many roleplaying games have mechanics for things like combat. This makes sense: We can’t do combat for real in our living rooms, so it must be done with a different method. Rules mechanics make it interesting. However, the one thing we can do really well in a tabletop game is talking. We don’t need a mechanic to talk because we can talk for real.
A lot of actual, real life romance consists of talking. This is the way you play romantic scenes in Chernobyl, Mon Amour as well. You can narrate details about action and the environment (“We climb to the roof of the building and sit down to watch the sunset.”) and talk out the social side pretty much the same way you’d do in reality.
For example, if two characters are on a first date, you can talk for fifteen or twenty minutes as your characters, almost as if you were in a larp. You don’t need a system for this because you already know how to do it.
In my experience, people can vary between speaking as their characters and narrating their actions and thoughts in a very fluid way. You can talk as your character, then explain her thoughts to the other participants to give them context, then go back to speaking as your character.
Sometimes scenes can be difficult to play, but the format of a tabletop roleplaying game is pretty forgiving in this regard. If another character suddenly declares his love and you feel your character should have a ready reply, you can take a moment to think about it as a player before you go back to speaking as your character.
Another way to use this flexibility is to skip boring parts.
It’s important here to grasp that these social scenes are principally not challenges. They’re not about who will succeed. You as the player don’t need to pummel anyone with your charisma. Rather, in these social scenes the point is to experience life through the lens of your character, feel the emotions in each moment and discover the nuance and wonder of small things.
Let’s go back to the rooftop. Your characters are sitting together watching the sunset. Tentatively, you hold hands. You feel the moment is intimate enough to make a confession, so speaking as your character you say: “I had a family before I came to the Zone. They don’t know what happened to me.”
This presents the player of the other character with a bunch of different options on how to respond, but nothing about this is related to “success” or “losing”. The other player character can be supportive or jealous, curious or distracted. The point of the scene is to explore these little details and how they affect the relationship between these two characters.
Especially when it comes to the theme of love, these types of social scenes form the backbone of Chernobyl, Mon Amour. They’re also the reason why the game is extremely light in terms of system: Because they can be played out almost for real, they don’t need system support.
My experience suggests that these types of scenes are very emergent, often veering into surprising directions depending on the particular mix of emotions present. What started as an argument can turn into a love scene and the other way around. They also take time. In my view, they work best if they’re taken as themselves without focusing too much on broader narrative context. After all, the characters are not living a story but their lives, the same as the players are doing.