Tim Denee and Evil Hat Productions’ upcoming tabletop role-playing game Deathmatch Island draws on the lethal stakes of competition in Squid Game and The Hunger Games, with characters forming temporary alliances before inevitably turning on each other in a battle royale. But the fast-paced RPG, which launches a crowdfunding campaign through BackerKit on Oct. 17, also works to capture the mystery of Lost and Severance. Your character is likely to die, but that just gives your next character the opportunity to puzzle out what’s going on behind the scenes and fight against the game itself.
“To me, the appeal of these kinds of TV shows and movies is the psychological aspect,” Denee told Polygon. “Like a good zombie movie, it’s really about who the main characters are and what they will or won’t do under pressure. It’s about solidarity against the odds just as much as it is about the actual battle royale.”
Much like the characters in Severance, contestants on Deathmatch Island wake up with no memory of who they are or how they got on a boat leading them to the mysterious place. Creating a new character is easy, since all a player needs to do initially is pick a name, simple description, and occupation, all of which can be rolled from random tables. The description is even made a bit easier because all the competitors are dressed in matching uniforms.
The game master, referred to as Production, will give each character a secret motivation like winning money or becoming famous. The job they choose will determine what aspects of the competition they’re best at, so a flight attendant thrives at the social game while a steelworker is better at physical challenges. Before their first challenge, characters participate in trust building exercises that allow them to develop parts of their personalities and establish bonds that provide a mechanical advantage.
“As well as the usual safety tools like a pause card and lines and veils, a big part of keeping things friendly is that you need your team and your teammates in order to survive until the end,” Denee said. “You have to work together, and you’ll end up saving each other’s lives, and that builds trust and solidarity. It’s like an alliance in Survivor; there will be tensions within it, but ultimately you rely on each other.”
Deathmatch Island uses a modified version of the system from Agon by Sean Nittner and John Harper, with players taking on the roles of regular people competing for followers rather than Greek heroes seeking to earn glory.
“The system is designed for episodic play, so it moves very fast and it’s great at handling different kinds of competition in a dramatic way,” Denee said. “In Agon, poetry competitions are just as fun as sword fights, and resolved in exactly the same way. There’s a danger that a deathmatch game becomes a long series of repetitive gunfights, but this system ensures that scenes are resolved in all sorts of different ways, from social encounters to physical challenges to dance-offs.”
Competitors in Deathmatch Island travel between a set of three islands where they’re tested in increasingly dangerous challenges leading up to a final battle royale. They’ll explain how they plan on approaching a challenge, which can be anything from attempting to forge temporary alliances with another team to using secret weapons to threaten opponents. Then everyone rolls at the same time to determine the rankings, describing how things actually played out in the form of confessionals.
Victorious competitors earn more “followers,” a mysterious number tracked on your character’s wristwatch. Their support strengthens characters, eventually allowing them to unlock better dice to use in challenges. They also get rewards that can be useful in future challenges or allow them to recuperate from fatigue and injuries they sustained in the last one. Players also earn advances when their character is injured by failing in a dangerous contest, as strain allows them to tap into deep reserves they didn’t know they had.
Between challenges, competitors share a boat to the next island. This allows more time for them to get to know each other and build trust in the form of flashbacks. Players come up with the memories they begin to recover, but Production adds in mysterious details that might connect them, like the van in the car accident they were involved in having the Deathmatch logo on it or a strange man standing in the shadows during key events for multiple characters.
Downtime also lets the characters talk about what they think is going on. Are they on a depraved reality TV show or part of a government mind control project? Production is encouraged to incorporate this theorycrafting into the rest of their narrative, working with the players to build a mystery that they can then unravel.
Those aspects are played up in Denee’s design for the book, which is inspired by his years of working in corporate communications. There are redacted memos about seasons that have gone wrong and helpful tips directed at players, like: “You may not have all your memories to begin with, but try to imagine that you have friends and family back home rooting for you. That imaginary moral support can make all the difference.”
“It was great fun playing with those skills in a new context, and satirizing everything I love to hate about corporate comms,” Denee said. “That bland-yet-sinister tone of voice was dangerously easy to slip into!”
Visuals draw on midcentury modern aesthetics and the branding of the DHARMA Initiative from Lost, with items from packaged cookies to smoke bombs designed to look like store-brand groceries.
“There’s something haunting and unsettling about a decades-old utopian project that’s gone off the rails,” Denee said. “This is the weird, spooky side of Deathmatch Island that is just as important to the game as the big battle royales.”
Navigating an island might take a single play session, but the game itself is meant to be played over the course of “seasons.” At the final island, the party will get to vote if they plan to play to win or try to break the very game itself. Overthrowing the game is hard to do the first go around, since the battle royale moves forward if even one player wants to play to win. Also, the nature of the mystery means that most weapons can’t be used to fight against Production, and characters might find themselves battling mental programming or heavily armed guards.
That’s where Deathmatch Island’s new game plus mode comes in. Most characters won’t survive the final island, but a player’s next character might be someone investigating their previous character’s disappearance or even a clone brought back to compete on Deathmatch Island again, depending on how weird the group’s mystery has gotten.
“Something I really appreciate in a tabletop role-playing game is when the game is designed to have a definitive ending, a play cycle from beginning to end,” Denee said. “In new game plus mode, the player characters enter the game undercover as saboteurs, here to bring the whole game down from the very beginning, armed with all the knowledge their characters uncovered in previous seasons.”
This time, when they wake up on a boat, they might find a hidden map of a restricted area or a radio broadcasting cryptic messages. Of course, they’ll still need the cooperation of the whole team to have a chance at beating Production at their own game.
“The endgame mechanic in Deathmatch Island intentionally saves the betrayals and confrontations right for the very end, which means everything until that point can be on friendly terms,” Denee said. “There’s a lot of levity and black comedy in most seasons of Deathmatch Island (and in the game text), and that helps the rivalry stay fun rather than overbearing.”
The BackerKit campaign for Deathmatch Island begins Oct. 17 and runs through Nov. 14, with the core game available as a PDF for as little as $15 during the crowdfunding campaign. A hardcover, digest-size version costs $30, with some deluxe bundles as high as $149. Delivery is expected by spring 2024, though all backers will get a digital file to start playing with right away. Evil Hat said it will bring the final product to retail in summer 2024.