The Prisoners Dilemma

How to Play


What's at stake is not whether you will go down… you are going down, that's a fact. What's really at stake is how long you are going down for… if you cut a deal and give up your friends and family, then the cops are going to go easy on you. Of course, they'll be able to stick it all the harder to your friends and family now, but at least you'll be better off.

It's the way the game is played. It's every man, woman, and child for him or herself, and everyone knows this.

The Structure of Play

  • Framing the Investigation
  • Character One: First Go
    • Confrontation
    • Flashback for Character One
  • Character X: First Go
    • Confrontation
    • Flashback for Character X
  • etc.
  • Character One: Second Go
    • Confrontation
    • Flashback for Character
  • Character X: Second Go
    • Confrontation
    • Flashback for Character X
  • etc.
  • The Investigation
  • Epilogue

Framing the Investigation

The very first thing that you do in this game is frame an Investigation.

The initial scene concerns the cops enumerating key elements of the crime and investigation. For example, the very first scene could be a walk through of a crime scene. One player frames the scene, the other players choose a character to play for the duration of this scene: forensic investigator, beat cop, detectives, bystander, and so forth. Play consists of the walking through the crime scene from the point of view of the characters: as the characters comment on stuff at the crime scene, the players physically write and pin notes onto the table.

The Confrontation

Play then moves directly to an interview room. Each player is playing a Character that is being interviewed individually about the crime. The player to the left of the spotlight Character is that Character's lawyer; the player opposite is the Bad Cop; the player to the right is the Good Cop. (cf. Polaris.)

The Character is interviewed: the other characters probe for information about some element from the crime scene. At some point - not too long - one of the cops says "So tell us about it." (A ritual phrase that triggers a flashback scene where that Character is the central character.) (cf. Polaris.)

The Flashback

The player of the Character frames a scene: he/she assigns roles to the other players for that scene, possibly having them play their own Character characters or new NPCs.

The scene plays out: it could be anything - a touching love scene with his/her squeeze; getting doughnuts from his/her mother; offloading a van packed with white slave girls; buying drugs; butchering a corpse and flushing it down the toilet; the specifics of the scene don't really matter… at the end of the scene, some fortune mechanic and resource management comes into play, in a manner reminiscent of "My Life With Master".

Blame/Evidence is placed on Elements of the crime (kibbitzed during Scene 1); Characters are assigned to such Elements.

Play goes clockwise round the table; the only proviso to the first time round is that each Character's scene must draw in/feature/name check the next player's Character in some fashion.

Resolving the Investigation

Once a Character runs out of Resources, we trigger the Investigation. We revisit the Case Scene from Scene 1, but this time we start resolving the Blame/Evidence attached to Crime Elements, and thus we tell the story of what really happened with the Case: up until this point, nothing has been known verifiably.


The Characters each narrate an Epilogue. This is short, punchy narration that describes what happened to their Character after the Investigation was concluded.

You know those American police procedural TV shows? Or those American daytime films that are 'based on true events'? You know how those episodes and films often end with a black screen that tells the viewer in a few plain sentences what happened to the characters in the show… well, the Epilogue is just like that.

Let me give you an example:

"Naz Mohammed was sentenced to 30 years with no possibility of parole at the Boise Correctional Facility; he was murdered shortly after beginning his sentence. His girlfriend and young daughter moved to Sheboygan where they scratched out a living writing Christmas cards for the mentally ill until they were dead."

In play it works like this. After the Investigation has concluded, someone at the table - it doesn't matter who - narrates an appropriate ending for their character.

What is narrated has to be based on the results of the Investigation, but other than that it's pretty loose as to what you can and can't narrate. For example, if a Character was sentenced to life in prison, then it wouldn't be cool to narrate a scene in which it looked like the character wasn't sentenced. It's cool to skip ahead in time though: maybe a Character was sent down to 30 years, but the player narrates an Epilogue where we see the Character walking out of the prison gates after serving his or her sentence, looking much older and weary.

After the first player has finished with their Character's Epilogue, the focus shifts to the next player's Character, and so on, until everyone at the gaming table has narrated an Epilogue. Once everyone is done narrating, that's it… the game is over.


Creating Characters

The characters that you play in this game



Conflict Resolution


This game uses ordinary playing cards. You only need one deck, because all the players use the same deck for the entire game. You'll want to strip out the Jokers from the deck: we only want the standard suite cards, all 52 of them.

Shuffle the deck, and place it in the centre of the table so that everyone can easily reach it to draw cards.

Flashback Level Conflicts

(Same resolution mechanics as everything other conflict, this section is where the flashback level metagame is detailed: forex, what you can and can't narrate and so forth.)

Investigation Level Conflicts

(Again, same resolution mechanics as everything other conflict, this section is where the investigation level metagame is detailed: forex, what you can and can't narrate and so forth.)


(A lot of short punchy examples of both flashback and investigation level conflicts. A longer example of play that encompasses both flashback and investigation level in a single example will come towards the end of the chapter.)

Design Goals

  • Tell the meat of the game using only flashback scenes. (cf. "In a Grove".)
  • Make the Prisoner's Dilemma the underlying driver of play.
  • GM-less and prep-less.
  • Story Now!
  • Some fortune mechanic/resource management: not free-form.
  • Don't reinvent the wheel: if another game out there is a better fit, just play that game.
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License