I’ve been listening to a lot of role-playing game podcasts recently that use rolls of six-sided dice to help advance their narrative. So, when I heard that Citizen Sleeper was using some of those ideas in a video game format, I was curious to see how that would work out. I’m used to video games that are inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, and games that depart from the D&D template by adding in more direct control of your action; I am not used to games that continue to lean into dice but that take inspiration from a more recent generation of tabletop RPGs.

To be sure, Citizen Sleeper isn’t (to my limited knowledge!) based on any specific existing RPG system. I’m used to tabletop RPGs where characters are progressing along the plot, decide what action to take to advance and help form that plot, and then roll dice in response to that. In Citizen Sleeper, however, there are multiple directions in which you can choose to act, partly corresponding to different potential plot directions to act in and partly to support yourself, by earning money and keeping your health from collapsing, and you can interleave actions in all of those directions. So the narrative possibilities are much more of a broad mesh rather than localized decisions of how a singular tip of the plot progresses.

Concretely, Citizen Sleeper has you roll a collection of dice at the start of each day. You then decide which actions to allocate those dice to, where by “action” I mean “do a bit of work in area X of the station”, generally with higher numbers going to ones that are more critical to your health and/or whatever plot thread you’re most interested in. Each time you allocate a die, the game then rolls another die behind the scenes to determine how that action turns out, with the probability table for that hidden role based on the quality of the die that you devoted to the task and the inherent risk-level of the task. So on days when you roll a bunch of fives and sixes, you might spend time taking on high-risk tasks; but when you’ve got a bunch of low numbers, you’ll spend time doing safer basic maintenance. (It’s a little more nuanced than that, because there’s one kind of action that prefers low numbers, but that’s the basic idea.)


At that level of description, Citizen Sleeper feels more like a worker placement than a role-playing game; the RPG elements comes in through the text descriptions that the game gives you in response to the outcomes of your actions, and the ways those actions turn into plot threads. So you might start by working a job to make a little money, then the owner of that business asks you to do more stuff as they start to trust you, then a bit of a mystery might pop up in that plot thread asking you to accomplish a task somewhere else on the station, and so forth.

This is also, in part, mediated through the notion of “clocks” that are common these days in tabletop RPGs: maybe you need to advance a clock by six ticks to gain somebody’s trust, and a good roll of the dice will advance it by three ticks whereas a bad roll will only advance it by one. Or maybe something bad will happen when a clock reaches ten ticks, with one tick happening every day; and it’s up to you to find a way to cancel that clock before it expires.

Those plot threads are one way in which the role-playing happens; but the core mechanics also lend to role-playing through the mechanics of your daily life. Because you start off rolling five dice; sure, it’s not great if you role five dice and you don’t get as many good actions as you’d like, but you’ll almost always get at least one five or six, and even at the worst, you can still take five actions, you might just want to weight them towards low-risk actions.

But, as the days progress, your body deteriorates; so, a few days later, you’re rolling four dice, then three dice, then two dice. And it does not feel great to only have two dice to roll, to be getting increasingly desparate to dig yourself out of a hole, and then those two dice happen to be a one and a three! Do you play it safe while watching your powers drain away, hoping the next day will be better, or do you take a risk hoping that you’ll be able to turn things around?


My first hour or two were spent navigating those issues. How do I deal with my body deteriorating? At first, I was just trying to find any way to deal with the deterioration before my body fell apart completely and I didn’t have any dice to spend; then, once I’d done it once, could I repeat that regularly?

And I was also trying to navigate some of the negative clocks. If I just had to make a good enough living to be able to afford my medicine, I would have been able to navigate the dice just fine, but my character was also being hunted, so I had to spend some of my time trying to resolve that issue.

My health and threats were I had to spend my time on, but there were also items that I wanted to spend time on. Some people had helped me when I arrived at my station; I wanted to learn more about them and help them. And there were parts of the station that I hadn’t poked at at all, so that was something else I wanted to spend time on. A lower priority than basic survival, but still.


At this point, I was happy enough to be playing Citizen Sleeper, but I also felt like something was lacking. If I’d been going through the same experiences in a traditional modern video game RPG, it would have been a very different experience, and one which I suspected I would have enjoyed more. The interactions and plot scenes would have been fully fleshed out; I would have been navigating through a 3D environment of a space station, instead of just clicking on nodes to travel to and see some text.

And, in that hypothetical alternate version, it might have taken me five hours to get to the same point that I’d reached in Citizen Sleeper after an hour or two. Some of that would have been richer environmental interactions and plot scenes; some of that would have been actions that could fairly be described as filler. But I often enjoy filler as long as it’s not overwhelming: when playing NEO TWEWY I spent a lot more time on the battles than I had to, and I’m going through Tales of Arise now and I’m still quite happy to fight all the enemies in any overworld or dungeon section, at least the first time through that area.


The thing is, though: that hypothetical more fully fleshed out version would have taken, what, a thousand times as many person-hours to produce as Citizen Sleeper? I’m not sure what the exact multiplier is, but I can’t imagine the difference is less than a hundred-fold. So what I should really be asking is: given the resource budget of this hypothetical AAA RPG covering similar material as Citizen Sleeper, would I prefer to have that game, or a hundred games like Citizen Sleeper, or ten games using a similar engine as Citizen Sleeper but with ten times the complexity of the story, or with twenty five games that are similar to Citizen Sleeper but with visual stylings more like a visual novel instead of plain text, or what?

Honestly, I would be sad to see the AAA RPG be replaced exclusively with cheaper work: when those work well, they’re glorious. Though, even there I do think games are usually spending money on the wrong thing: I wish the Dragon Age team had been putting out a game like Dragon Age II every couple of years instead of taking rather longer than that making Dragon Age Inquisition and then having their next game stuck indefinitely.

And also we’ve done one version of the above experiment, with I don’t know how many thousands of Twine games produced. And I’ve played some Twine games that I thought were neat? But, strictly from the lens of my personal enjoyment, if I added up the enjoyment I’ve gotten from all the Twine games I’ve played (which, to be clear, is more in the range of dozens than thousands), it wouldn’t add up to the amount of enjoyment I’ve gotten from, well, almost any random game that I’ve played over the last year.

Having said that, my thought was that I really would love it if there were a hundred different games done with the Citizen Sleeper engine; I wouldn’t play them all, but I bet some would catch people’s eyes, and I’d love to give those ones a try. Yay for exploring different parts of the design space, including games at different scales.


But: the above is all fantasy. It’s fantasy in one obvious way, that I’m hypothesizing what future games with a similar engine and rules might be like and how much effort they might cost to make. And it’s also fantasy in another way: the above represents what I was thinking about Citizen Sleeper after my first hour or two with the game! And, while Citizen Sleeper isn’t a long game, it’s certainly more than two hours long.

And, as I pulled on the threads that I’d encountered in the start of the game, those threads turned out to be quite a bit longer than I expected. I was worried about some clocks ending; but, as I scrambled to resolve those clocks, the actions and interactions that I took to get out of the way of those clocks didn’t end the problem, they just revealed that the problem was deeper than I’d realized. And sometimes the clocks did expire, but that turned out to not be the end of the game (at least in those instances): that also set up a new set of interactions (and, of course, clocks) and revealed more about the world.

Also, some of these clocks were obvious how to resolve: do some specific action with a good outcome more than a certain number of times. For those clocks, the challenge was just to manage my dice so that I could do those actions frequently enough, while also leaving me enough actions free to make money to pay for my food and medicine.

But there were other clocks where I didn’t even know what to do next to solve them. After avoiding that problem for a bit, I decided to start spreading out where I worked, and in particular to start spending actions in sections of the station where the text basically said that I needed to get people to trust me there before I could really spend time there. And when I did that, I did indeed get access to actions which would let me make progress on those clocks; but I also opened up both entirely new plotlines and saw hints of resources and mechanics that I hadn’t been aware of before. (Why are multiple people wanting me to provide them with mushrooms?)

So, by the time I was four hours into the game, I realized that, actually, Citizen Sleeper was a significantly bigger game than I’d been thinking. There are more areas in the station than I realized (and I still hadn’t opened it all up by that point), the plot threads are longer than I’d realized, there are more unrelated plot threads than I’d realized (and I didn’t even know which ones were related and which ones weren’t!), and there was noticeably more going on in the game’s economy than I realized.


By this point, I was getting my feet under myself. I wasn’t worried about my health: it was something I had to deal with, but I’d be able to manage that while pushing along on one or maybe two plot threads. I still had one or two threats to deal with, but I was pretty confident that I’d navigate those without too much trouble, and I was looking forward to seeing how they turned out. And I felt like I had enough space to sometimes dip into side plot threads without feeling like I was putting myself too much at risk.

And, finally, my experience of the game morphed one more time. Part of this was me resolving all of the active threats; and part of this was my character’s abilities improving, to the extent that my character could remain at full health (and getting five dice) every turn instead of having their health degrade from five dice down to three dice over the course of ten turns or so, and then restoring them to full health after that.

That’s how my experience changed mechanically, but what was more interesting to me was how the fact of those mechanical changes actively helped with the feeling of role playing in the game. I started out as a character very much on the fringes, who was scrambling not just to survive but to make any kind of sense of what was going on. Then I felt like I had a lifeline, but I could lose hold of it at any moment. Next, though, I started to feel like I actually belonged on the station: not everybody agreed with that, but I had enough friends and enough of a knowledge of how things worked that it started to feel like I was really making a life there. And, finally, at the end, I felt secure and happy.

That was my emotional experience (or my interpretation of my character’s emotional experience) playing the game; but it was also supported and reflected in my mechanical experience with the game. I was going to append “despite the simplicity of that mechanical experience”, but honestly, I’ve played so many RPGs where the main mechanical experience while playing the game is that all the numbers keep on going up (your opponents’ as well as your own). And that sort of game leads to a flatness of experience, even over the course of fifty or a hundred hours playing a game; whereas, in Citizen Sleeper, the difference of “I just hope I can do something before I lose my last dice” to “I’m pretty sure I can prevent myself from going lower than three dice” to “I’m always at five dice”, while the challenges I encounter don’t scale in the same way, is a completely different feeling.


As you progress through these plot threads, you realize that some of the plot threads will provide an ending for the game if you make a certain choice. I stared approaching the end of one of those threads maybe halfway through my playthrough of the game, and I was struck by two things: one is that it involved some people that I cared about enough that I was pretty sure that this is the ending that I wanted, but the other is that I didn’t want to end the game yet, I wanted to explore more of what the game had for me.

The game was fine with me putting off that ending; I’d stopped pulling on that thread before any potentially terminal clocks were ticking. Which maybe didn’t make a ton of narrative sense, and I was really exploring mostly out of a traditional gamer desire to see content, to do all the side stories in an RPG before finishing the plot.

But, as I did more of those side stories, I realized that there was something else going on for me narratively: my character was feeling more and more at home on the station, I was making a home there.

Which, I realized, was at tension with the ending that I was thinking I wanted to choose: that ending involved leaving the station with some sort of people. And that, in turn, was a very human sort of tension, of story: I had a community where I felt at home, with a bunch of individual people in it that I cared about. But, also, there were these two specific people who were my family. And, ultimately, my family mattered more: if I had to move so I could be with them, then I’d be sad to leave my home, but my family was what was more important to my character.

Which made the last hour or two I spent playing the game a completely different experience than almost any other game I’ve played. Sure, I was spending some time pushing along whatever my current side story was; but I had five dice to spend, and I couldn’t spend them all on that! So I’d think “whom would my character want to spend time with, knowing that, in a few weeks, they’re probably leaving the station forever?”; and I’d end up working jobs in a given place not because I needed money but because I wanted to spend time with people there, or because they just fit into the rhythm of my daily life on the station.


So, returning to my fantasy from an hour or two into the game: yes, Citizen Sleeper was probably made with less than a hundredth the resources of the game I’m currently playing; and I really do like the spectacle of that latter game, I don’t want to give that sort of thing up, even though I’d also like to see a lot more experiments using resource levels like Citizen Sleeper in doing. But, also, Citizen Sleeper ended up showing me something that I’m not seeing in those AAA spectacles: somehow, with its stripped down systems (and I still don’t know if it’s despite the fact they were stripped down or because they were stripped down!), Citizen Sleeper still managed to hit on an aspect of being human that I am just not used to seeing in games.

Post Revisions:

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