Friday, 3 May 2013

The Droste Effect: Has anyone used it in a game?

After downloading Tiles of the Dead: Games Room (Crooked Staff Publishing), I'm now thinking about running a one session game devoted to the Droste Effect.
Packaging for Droste Cacao

Simply put the Droste Effect is a particular form of recursion when an image appears within itself.  It is named after a Dutch brand of cocoa powder which used the effect in it's advertising but has been used by artists from M.C.Esher to Jan Van Eyck for hundreds of years. 


Scenarios which use a Droste Effect are largely going to be dependant on the exact characters in the game but everyone needs at least two things:
  • A Focus - This is essentially a portal to each level of recursion, deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole.  The floorplan I mentioned above has a typical RPG table (complete with character sheets) which acts as its focus, but this could just as easily be a photograph (or a woodcut) on a mantlepiece, a window or even the PC's own shadows cast in their torchlight. 

    Whatever you choose, as soon as the players notice the Droste Effect in the image then they should feel that the world has gone a bit wonky for a moment.  How long it takes for them to work out that this a'int Kansas anymore depends largely on how obvious you make the differences between realities or how quickly the next recursion happens.

  • A Pivot Point - The Droste Effect revolves around it's pivot.  Locate the pivot point within the scenario and the players just have to work out what the correct outcome is and "hey presto" the Droste Effect will resolve itself and the world resets with no lasting effects on the PCs.  Get it wrong and you need to find the focus again and enter the next level of recursion.

Some Scenario Ideas

Mirror, Mirror - A great way of introducing a Droste Effect into any game is to use a mirror as portal to a mirror universe.  PCs will find that adventures in a mirror universe will have a peculiar set of complications; backwards writing, driving on the opposite side of the road, guns with ejection ports on the other side throwing hot casings into your eyes, you can see where I'm going with this.

Evil Kirk - Throw the players off by replacing one of their PCs with an Evil version of themselves.  To make it harder for them to spot, just replace one of their personality traits with it's diametric opposite.  Your normally grumpy or pessimistic Dwarf, becomes cheerful and eternally optimistic, just see how long they can last before they drag him kicking and screaming back to where he came from.  The pivot for this could be that all the PCs have to become Evil for the Droste Effect to collapse.   A more sadistic DM would make sure that injuring your Evil counterparts had some sort of penalty like reflective damage.

Uppa, Groundhog Style - Whatever the genre, the groundhog day scenario forces the players to repeat their actions until they hit on the right solution (aka the pivot).  This could become tiresome for players until they work out what the pivot is, so make sure that you let them fast-forward through the non-relevant bits.  This is probably the closest to a traditional Droste Effect as each day is one level of recursion.

Everyone is Everyone Else - When the PCs encounter the Droste Effect, make each of them pass their character sheets to the player on their left.  They must now try to play the character in front of them in the style of the characters owner.  Best played in an established group where no-one takes themselves too seriously.  Each time they encounter the Droste Effect they pass their character sheets to the left until everyone has had a turn, the pivot for the scenario is simply that everyone must play everyone else until their original character sheets come around.  Of course once they work this out they will try to quickly resolve the Droste Effect by "Goal Hanging" so you make it harder by moving the focus around making it more of a treasure hunt.

One of our PCs is missing - Each time the PCs encounter the Droste Effect one of their number is missing and they will remain trapped in this Droste until they locate the missing PC.  You could rehash another meme (Final Destination), by making the missing PC die in interesting ways just as they are found, thereby triggering a new Droste Effect.  The pivot is that you must prevent the missing character from dying.

Have you tried it?


If you have any ideas, suggestions or experience of using the Droste Effect in your own games, feel free to comment below.

The Arnolfini Marriage
(Jan Van Eyck 1434)
close up of mirror, inscription reads
"Jan Van Eyck was there 1434"

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