The Fugue System: narrative rules for amnesia RPGs

FUGUE is an RPG engine that lets you construct and tell the story of a group of people who begin with complete amnesia, and who regain their memories of themselves, their pasts, their connections, their abilities and their secrets as the story goes on.

What really differentiates Fugue from most RPGs is that it’s built to tell a story that lasts a pre-determined amount of time (usually four sessions), and leads to a definite final conclusion. Where most RPGs are soap operas, ongoing and open-ended with characters entering and leaving the narrative, a Fugue game is more like an HBO or Netflix miniseries: there’s a fixed number of episodes and the story's done.

Fugue is a narrative game system: it is designed to let players tell a story through collaborative play. That doesn’t mean that success is inevitable, and it definitely doesn’t mean that it’s just about making stuff up. The game, together with whichever content-set you’re playing it with, is designed to provide a group of players with a structured, set of rules to act as a foundation, plus a background and narrative framework that lets them build their stories on top of that foundation. The system is simple, easy to learn, elegant and intelligent. It uses a deck of Tarot cards instead of dice.

Fugue is the system that drives the Alas Vegas RPG, a 322-page book containing four different campaigns that all use these rules. They are:

'Alas Vegas', a nightmarish journey of discovery in a bizarre casino city ruled by warring mob-bosses, by James Wallis
'Yet Already', frantic time-travel to save a chaotic collapsing universe, by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan
'Warlock Kings', paladins returned to life as generals of a dark army, by Allen Varney and Johnstone Metzger
'Remembering Cosmic Man', uncovering the twisted histories of superheroes and their foes, by Laurent Devernay and Jerome Larre.

Fugue's designer, James Wallis, is best known as co-creator of the Games 100 storytelling game Once Upon a Time (as seen on Wil Wheaton's Tabletop), the Origins Award-winning publisher of Nobilis 2e, and the creator of the multi-award-nominated Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen RPG, the original story-game. He was lead designer on the 2016 reboot of the classic dark-humour RPG Paranoia.

Fugue is released under a Creative Commons licence, allowing anyone to use it, rework it and republish it in their own games, including commercial releases. There is more information on this within the document.

The current version of Fugue is version 1.51, released 20th February 2018. Updates since v1.501 include clarifications to wording in the But What Happened? table, removing unconsciousness from the definition of 'Incapacitated' on page 22, and removing minor formatting errors.

Game Type: 
Roleplaying Game
2 - Focus/Imagination

All personae start a Fugue game with complete amnesia.. They cannot remember anything about themselves, including their names. They are blank slates, undefied, unable to recall who they are, where they came from or what they can do. Therefore the persona creation process is simpler than most RPGs: no skills, no equipment, not even a name. (This is known as ‘Hollywood amnesia’ and does not exist in the real world. Amnesia is a complex and often heartbreaking condition with many possible causes and no easy solutions. Fugue does not pretend that its representation of amnesia is anything more than a convenient narrative conceit.)
Everyone starts with a blank piece of paper. This is their persona sheet.

In Alas Vegas the personae begin naked in the desert, shivering in the cold night air, beside the shallow pits they have dug themselves out of. They have nothing and they know nothing. They appear to be uninjured, but they are likely to be confused.

However, just because your persona’s sheet is blank doesn’t mean there’s nothing to say about them. Persona creation boils down to going around the group, each player telling the others what their persona looks like. Everyone creates a persona, including the Dealer, although theirs will be run as a game-character for the first session.

The Fugue group has four players: Scott Barrett, Simon Rogers, Troy Hall and Ursula Moth. Ursula is the first Dealer.
Simon: ‘My persona is dark-skinned, but his face looks more Asian than African, particularly around the eyes. He’s probably in his late twenties, thin but quite wiry. His hair is shaved. He’s got a tattoo on top of some scar tissue on his left arm, something written in Kanji.’
Ursula: ‘What does it say?’
Simon: ‘Can you read Kanji? I can’t.’

(Note that though Simon may have a plan for what his persona’s tattoo says, because of the way Fugue’s flashback system works – see page 7 – another player or the Dealer may beat him to choosing its meaning.)

All personae in most Fugue games are genre-appropriate normal characters, or at least they start off that way. Nobody has psychic powers or elf DNA or magic or bulletproof skin or cybernetic implants or midichlorians or ninja training or supernatural ancestry or invisible assistants or meta-narrative awareness. But you can describe certain physical features of your persona: their age, gender, hair, scars, build, muscles, skin colour, tattoos or piercings, missing or misshapen appendages, and so on. There may also be marks where something has been removed, such as a wedding ring or an internal organ. (However you are not the guy in Memento and your tattoos will not spell out a message to remind you who you are or what’s going on.)

To give players some initial cues to work with, they may want to each think of someone their persona resembles physically, and someone they sound like, like a celebrity or historical figure. This is optional but some groups find it useful for getting a quick handle on their persona, and it helps to remember who’s who.

Ursula: ‘My persona looks like a meth-addicted Julie Andrews in her mid-40s, and talks like Edie Falco in the Sopranos. The butterfly tattoo on her shoulder is fuzzy with age.’