Desperation License & SRD

Make your own Tales of Desperation with our licensed SRD
Join the fun and create your own Desperation-inspired games using our upcoming Creative Commons license and System Reference Document!

Tales of Desperation

One of the most exciting parts about Desperation for us is that we want to make more games like this, and we want you to as well!

To that end, we plan to release a System Reference Document (SRD) for Desperation using a Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license when the game is released.
This will allow for licensed games using the Desperation engine, giving you the chance to make (and even sell) your own new work inspired by Dead House and the Isabel. We’re calling these licensed games “Tales of Desperation.”
That means that Jason can make his “Return to the Dead House” idea, or perhaps something aboard a dead alien spaceship, Jenn can make her Regency-inspired tale about gentlemen desperate to avoid marriage, and we all get to see whatever you come up with!

The actual details of the SRD and license are still being worked out, but what follows is an idea of how you might use the engine for your own game.

So how does the Desperation engine work?

The Desperation engine follows a flexible pattern that results in lucid, terrible shared tales. It is especially approachable for people new to roleplaying, because it only asks you to read about sixty words at a time and make some obvious but horrifying choices along the way. While you can overlay lots of fun roleplaying atop this core, if all you do is draw, read, and interpret cards, Desperation still works just fine.
One of the reasons it works so well is that Desperation quietly asks you to let apophenia take over. Apophenia is the innate pattern-matching facility that all humans have. We can’t help but draw connections between disparate elements, and a Desperation experience will present a player with a wonderful variety of things that beg to be put together in ways rich with meaning. When this is working as it should, it often feels like magic.
You can use this scaffolding to create powerful experiences of your own, and we hope you do! Dead House and The Isabel are good, functional models, but there are many ways to diverge, including ways we haven’t even considered.

The Basic Structure

The standard layout is 65 items:
10 Locations
12 People
12 Ominous Foreboding events
1 Shift from Ominous Foreboding to Escalating Problems card
12 Escalating Problem events
1 Shift from Escalating Problems to Hell card
16 Hell Events
1 It Is Over card
This division is good but not definitive; you may find less People and Locations makes sense and that you want more events and that’s fine. The thing to remember is that it is a game of attrition, and you need to scale the amount of attrition to the number of available People. Dead House has 3 possible deaths during Winter and 9 possible deaths during Hell for a total of 12 - meaning it is always possible that everyone will perish if the cards fall a certain way. Both this ratio and volume are just right, so adjust accordingly.


Locations allow the players to form both a tactile and mental map of the setting you have created. They are the first thing players encounter and should strongly inform what is to come. Make individual Locations evocative as well as easy to tie to the People. You can see in Dead House and The Isabel two different ways to think about Locations, but there are many others. Note that Locations need not all be accessible at all times - they can come and go as they do in The Isabel.


People must be memorable, flawed, and interrelatable. The players will form attachments to them and connections between them more or less automatically if you give them enough color and possibility to latch onto.

When Henry Hetzel says "My granddaughter Velma helps keep the farm running. Of her parents, the less said the better", that is going to set minds racing. That’s what you want from your People.

It is easy to imagine experiences where some People arrive later, in the first group of Events. Adding People later than that is probably a mistake, because the players won’t get a chance to get to know and care about them.

People may be removed through death, but that’s not required. There just needs to be attrition of some sort, and the players need to care about who remains and who does not.


Events come in three flavors of escalating trouble and mayhem. Each group of events must be playable in any sequence and still make sense. The three groups represent a dramatic escalation in the security and intensity of the situation.
Dead House handles this by the passage of time, which is a very straightforward way to do it, and The Isabel handles it by breaking the three groups up between pivotal events.

Each event is a 60-word short story, and you must pour as much of yourself and your passion for your setting into each as you can. Make them wild, surprising, or surreal. Make each a promise to bend the story in a new (and probably awful) direction. Players should groan with dread when they read a new Hell event!
Remember that People need to be gradually removed from play, starting in the second group of events and with great zeal during the Hell events. While “Ominous Foreboding” transitioning to “Escalating Problems” and ending in Hell is a reliable progression, others are possible. Hell as the title (and content) of the third group of events should be standard.

Between each group of events, there must be a card announcing the change and positioning the players for what comes next. It can be as simple as “time passes”, but can also include more colorful prose or instructions for adding or removing Locations, for example. The game should end with a card that announces the end of Hell, whatever that means. Winter ends. Rescuers arrive. The terrible situation is somehow resolved, and the players get to take stock of who survived among the People.

If this gets your creative juices flowing, let us know or tag us on social media at @bullypulpit_hq. We're excited to hear what you come up with!