The Emperor's Star: A Chrononauts Role-Playing Occurrence
Designed and written by Andrew Plotkin
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The Emperor's Star

The Emperor's Star is a role-playing card game. Or, if you like, an experiment in interactive fiction.

In the summer of 2000, Looney Labs published Chrononauts -- a card game based on the idea of time travel. In Chrononauts, the players travel up and down a century-plus of history -- from Lincoln's assassination to the Columbine shootings -- and change events. The game is excellent, and fan discussions quickly turned to the possibility of other Chrononauts scenarios -- using the same basic rules, but covering other periods of history. Medieval Europe? The US Civil War? The entire history of human civilization?

(In 2011, they published a licensed version covering the Back to the Future movies. But that's another story.)

One comment went by and caught my attention like a candy-coated fishhook: the idea of setting up a timeline that consisted of a single day.

One day, yes. But consider this: three timelines, covering three consecutive days. Each day is a game of Chrononauts, but each day is also the fixed background for the next day's events. The players can travel in time, but only within the current day.

Because if you have pacing — if the players encounter a beginning, a middle, and an end — then you don't just have a game: you have a story.

The History

I started designing the game on December 7th, 2000. (A day that will live in, well, you know.) I spent a few weeks plotting out story elements, and made up a preliminary set of cards. Playtesting happened in March and April -- you can see some photos here. (Thanks also to Josh Kronengold, who ran a playtest session.)

I printed out a golden-master set of cards on July 1, 2001. On July 5th and 6th, at the Origins gaming trade show, I got six players together and ran the game.

(Yes, it was supposed to be three days — the 5th, 6th, and 7th. We moved the last session back to the evening of the 6th, because scheduling games at a convention is hell.)

And I think it was a success. The players got into their parts, without losing sight of the game's goals. The storyline kept everyone's attention, and the ending was suitably satisfying. It worked. Aside from a couple of changes on a couple of cards, it's ready to go.

Our players were: Dan Efran, Dale Newfield, Michelle Lepovic, Owen Muniz, Nathan Wilmes, and Dan Isaac. And the winners:

Thanks to the players, thanks to all the betatesters, thanks to Andy Looney for letting me mess around with his game mechanics.

The Game

For years and years, this web page said: “But I'm not going to release The Emperor's Star for free. At least not yet. It may be worth publishing as an actual, commercial, money-grubbing card game product. Or maybe an interactive Web game. Or something. I haven't even started to explore the possibilities, honestly.”

Well, that's crap. I mean, it may be worth publishing, but that's no reason to keep it under a cat for so long. Anna Anthropy bugged me about publishing it — persistently — and she's right. So here it is.

Last updated March 11, 2012.

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