This game is a mashup of two games: one I started for Game Chef 2006 and the other I made for the Make Game$ Fast Contest. The result, Transantiago, is directly inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, “The Line” (a Primetime Adventures series created by Brandon Amancio, Tony Dowler, John Harper, and Phil LaRose), too much time spent researching Chinese cults, the game design work of Shreyas Sampat, minimalist music, and the metro systems of Washington DC, London, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Santiago (the latter of which I have never experienced). Thanks to my initial playtest group from the November 2007 JiffyCon: Shreyas, Elizabeth, Emily, Rachel, John, and Casey.

This is not a complete, playable draft, but hopefully it will be soon.


The elevator pitch of Transantiago is “bodhisattvas on the subway at the end of the world.” The players take on the roles of eight Buddhist saints, Those Who Tarry at the Door, at the twilight of this world of suffering. The eight bodhisattvas seek to unfetter the metro stations of the mirrored city, Transantiago, by resolving the lingering issues tying them to this world. In the process, they also unmask eight hidden bodhisattvas, Those Who Come in the Night, and outwit the demonic asuras who pose as hidden bodhisattvas.

The Childrens’ Question

When the Buddha was on his deathbed, a group of children came to him and asked: “Teacher, why is there a Santiago in Chile, a Santiago in Cuba, yet another Santiago in the Philippines, a Santiago in California (though that one’s called San Diego), thirty Santiagos in Portugal, five in Spain, and one in the Galapagos?” But by the time the children finished their question, the Buddha had died.

Ānanda took the children aside and said: “O Best Beloved, the Teacher has traded his fleshy prison for a body made of rainbows. Lucky for you, I too once asked him this question, so I can share the answer with you. In truth, the mirrored city, Transantiago, is a perfect jewel carried within the mind of Lokeśvara, the Lord of the Earth, who scatters reflections of it as he pleases amidst the grime of this world. But, I would advise you: if in the future you meet a bodhisattva on the road, pray render your speech more succinct, lest he escape like the wind in your hands.”

The Dancer & the Dawn

The Assassin has strangled this world of suffering, garroting it with the crimson thread called Desire. As this world dies, the parts worth saving depart along the Night Road which pours from the fatal wound, towards the World To Come. Engulfed in the Night Road, the Assassin is lost amidst the hustle and bustle of those departing, trapped amidst a station that we will name after him: Assassination Station. I will now place this station on one of the Stars Amid The Darkest Night, to show where the Assassin may be found.

It is my duty, the duty of the Dancer, to bring the dawn. The sun rises on the last day this world will ever know, before all the goodness departs along the Road of Night and all the excess is lost in the ashes. It rises on the Songbird, who is departing Assassination Station, leaving the depths of the previous night, to begin searching for Those Who Come In The Night.

Where shall the Songbird fly, as she sings a final welcome to the sun?

Eight Will Tarry, Twins, Lovers, Enemies, And They Shall Know the True Death of Eternity Without God

The game is for eight players, who, in the beginning, represent Those Who Tarry at the Door, a.k.a. The Petals of the World-Flower, a.ka. the eight doomed Bodhisattva. They are enlightened individuals who have chosen to return to the world of suffering even though the future age is near at hand. The cusp of the Age-To-Come, the Fifth Age, is at hand and all souls who will realize their buddha-nature have proceeded to the Pure Land in preparation for the Great Blossoming. Even the other bodhisattvas — Avalokiteśvara, Ksitigarbha, Mahasthamaprapta, and the rest — have all proceeded on.

Those Who Tarry at the Door will be trapped in the ashes of this world’s destruction and will not escape to enjoy the salvation of the Pure Land. They have made this sacrifice because they are the ones who must seek out Those Who Come in the Night, a.k.a. The Seeds of the Blossoming Flower, a.k.a. the eight emergant Buddha-to-be, who will, in their unity, bring about the next age. Once these eight souls are unmasked, they will come forward, step through The Door, and close it behind them. And then the Age-To-Come will have come. But Those Who Tarry at the Door will not be there to see it. They will perish with the rest of the imperfect world. However, without the sacrifice made by Those Who Tarry at the Door, Those Who Come in the Night will never step forward, and the Age-To-Come will not come.

Each of Those Who Tarry at the Door embodies the convergence of two universal themes. Each of Those Who Come in the Night embodies the convergence of two themes drawn from different members of Those Who Tarry at the Door. The themes and their respective entities are listed below, with Those Who Tarry at the Door in bold. The beings who are not bold are Those Who Come in the Night.

  • Paper & Wind — The Kite-Builder
  • Wind & Horse — The Traveler
  • Horse & Blade — The King
  • Blade & Flesh — The Butcher
  • Flesh & Temperance — The Virgin
  • Temperance & Fire — The Blacksmith
  • Fire & Vine — The Wine-Maker
  • Vine & Flower — The Gardener
  • Flower & Heart — The Rose-Bearer
  • Heart & Ribbon — The Dancer
  • Ribbon & Throat — The Assassin
  • Throat & Music — The Songbird
  • Music & Death — The Mourner
  • Death & Ocean — The Corsair
  • Ocean & Light — The Navigator
  • Light & Paper — The Lamplighter

Unlike Those Who Tarry at the Door, Those Who Come in the Night are not portrayed by a single player. Instead, the Buddha-to-be are jointly controlled by the players of the adjacent Bodhisattva. So, you start off playing one character and end up playing half of two characters. After all, you are not really The Corsair; she is just a representation of your dual inner nature. You are really Death & the Ocean and will continue to play Death & the Ocean once The Corsair is no more and there is only The Mourner and The Navigator.

While each Bodhisattva is an authority on the Buddha-to-Be that they are personally tasked with finding (those on either side of them in the Mandala), it is the nature of this searching that each Bodhisattva will inevitably find candidates that fit the requirements of their fellows and not their own requirements. So play will also consist of recommending potential souls to the other Bodhisattvas and then working together to determine whether they are, in fact, likely candidates for Those Who Come in the Night.

Those Who Tarry at the Door and Those Who Come in the Night are not “player characters” in the traditional sense: they have no defined attributes, skills, or other traits, their physical features should not be described before or during play, and they have no possessions (aside from things they acquire in the metro). No bodhisattva can be recognized for what they look like or any other quality aside from the things they do during the game. If a bodhisattva helps an old lady find her missing purse, the old lady might call the avatar “that kind person” or remark that “you’re the one who found my purse,” but that’s all.

The events of play take place entirely within the metro. The rest of the world has already proceeded through The Door or has been burnt to ashes.

Let Us Not Hear of Misdirection and Vain Searching, But Only of the Path to the Truth and the Future

For certain, Those Who Tarry at the Door are not perfect or infallible. Being enlightened does not prevent them from spending much of their time chasing souls who will not end up being relevant to their search. However, those futile attempts are not what this game is about. Like a good police drama, if a piece of evidence emerges in play, you can be certain that it will somehow matter to the final outcome, even if it is in a way that few would expect. This is not a game about how the bodhisattvas overcome failure after failure to find Those Who Come in the Night. Instead, it is a game about the true results of their searching, about how they will, in the end, find who they were looking for.

Not Only the Night Visitors, But Demons Shall Also Come, Jackals Dressed as Goats, And the Chosen Shall Unmask Them Before the End

Because this game tells of the bodhisattvas’ successes, this does not mean that it ignores the many traps laid for them by the evil powers of the world. The Asuras and some misguided Devas do not wish to be left behind when the present age ends. In an effort to earn themselves a place in the Pure Land and the Age-To-Come, several of them have worked for centuries to disguise their supernatural nature. By placing themselves in the path of Those Who Tarry at the Door, these treacherous creatures hope to be appointed to the ranks of the Those Who Come in the Night.

Of course, their attempt is doomed to failure, for Those Who Tarry will indeed uncover their treachery before the final eight step forward from the ranks of likely candidates. But the efforts of the bodhisattvas to uncover the Asuras’ falsehood is part of the story of their success and, therefore, it is only proper that these events are part of the game.

If Souls Were Cities, You Could Wander Their Streets And Study The Experiences That Gave Them Shape, Their Dreams, Stories, Histories, & Memories

  • POLO: Perhaps this garden exists only in the shadow of our lowered eyelids, and we have never stopped: you, from raising dust on the fields of battle; and I, from bargaining for sacks of pepper in distant bazaars. But each time we half close our eyes, in the midst of the din and the throng, we are allowed to withdraw here, dressed in silk kimonos, to ponder what we are seeing and living, to draw conclusions, to contemplate from the distance. (103-104)

What can we say of the experiences of bodhisattvas that would not simply be a metaphor? How can the mortal mind possibly comprehend the sensory powers of those for whom the past and future can be experienced as readily as the present? Where and when are Those Who Tarry involved in their conversations and searches? Are they clustered around the door to the Pure Land, whispering amongst themselves and identifying their proteges as Those Who Come step forward one by one? Or are they simply engaging in brief conversations in wayside huts as they pass one another, engaged in their searching across time and space?

We do not know. We cannot say for certain. But we can enact these conversations and see what transpired between them. Do the place and time truly matter? Not particularly. Whether the eight hours of game time passed, in reality, all in one moment or spread out over the course of humanity’s 55,000 years, they happened all the same. And that is enough.

Suffice it to say, the players responsible for representing Those Who Tarry at the Door need not imagine themselves in any particular environment or circumstances, but are free to do so if it helps. Spread the Mandala out on a reasonably flat surface, put on a pot of tea, and cue the music. Everything else will take care of itself. If you wanna pull out the fancy robes and play WTF as a full-on 8-hour larp, be my guest, but I’m imagining a more casual play experience, which allows players to focus on speaking and listening.

  • "I speak and speak," Marco says, "but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. …It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear." (135)

Once play begins, the conversations among the eight bodhisattvas should flow freely, whether in pairs, in small clusters, or, on occasion, with the whole group meeting to hear evidence or make decisions as a commitee. However, each individual bodhisattva can only move forward in their efforts to unmask Those Who Come in the Night not by speaking, but by listening.

Play consists of the bodhisattvas describing (to at least one other bodhisattva) circumstances they they experienced while traveling through their native Age, circumstances which may indicate the presence of one of Those Who Come in the Night. Because this game only tells of the bodhisattvas’ successes, the circumstances described will inevitably lead to either 1) finding one of Those Who Come, or, 2) uncovering an Asura attempting to fool Those Who Tarry. Note that this does NOT mean that any candidate suggested by a fellow bodhisattva must be an Asura or one of Those Who Come, just that the evidence provided must EVENTUALLY lead to one or the other. An obvious answer is rarely the correct one, in this case.

Notice, as well, that even if a candidate will eventually prove to be one of Those Who Come in the Night, he or she is not necessarily either of the two of Those Who Come that any given listener is tasked with finding. For instance, the Corsair could tell the Traveler about a candidate who might end up being the Wine-Maker. It takes great diligence on the part of Those Who Tarry, then, for the proper candidates to eventually gain the attention of those who seek them. And only the listener can determine if they are indeed hearing of the one they seek.

  • Marco enters a city; he sees someone in a square living a life or instant that could be his; he could now be in that man’s place, if he had stopped in time, long ago; or if, long ago, at a crossroads, instead of taking one road he had taken the opposite one, and after long wandering he had come to be in the place of that man in that square. (29)

If the listener is to recognize the soul they seek by its similarity to the listener’s own self, how then can a bodhisattva’s fellows best assist in finding such a soul, if they themselves lack those experiences whose similarity is the only true measure of likelihood? Actually, there are several possible approaches. What may not be obvious is that, since each bodhisattva’s own experiences are not described in detail before play begins, the process of play determines the nature of Those Who Come in the Night by having the players make choices about who Those Who Tarry at the Door actually are.

Initially, the only guidelines the players have are the two elements assigned to each bodhisattva. As an example, let us consider the Blacksmith, who is really Temperence & Fire. It is the Blacksmith’s responsibility to find the souls that will become the Virgin and the Wine-Maker, even though he knows little of Flesh or the Vine. This may not seem like enough information to create a well-rounded character out of, but, in the process of considering evidence presented by the other bodhisattvas, the Blacksmith’s player determines the past experiences of his own character.

Even The First People Knew That Journeying Is Merely a Way of Learning About The Familiar Places Behind You

  • Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his. (5)

When another player describes experiences and circumstances that they have encountered while searching though their own native Age, it is the responsibility of the listening players to determine which aspects of the narrated situations are in harmony with the experiences of their own character. For example, if The Dancer comes to the Blacksmith and describes encountering an old man whose rooster would crow at the exact stroke of midnight, when there was not a glimmer of light to be seen, the Blacksmith’s player needs to decide if the Blacksmith has ever had a similar experience, such as once meeting a fairy-child who was blind during the day but could see perfectly well in total darkness.

In these cirumstances, then, it is the responsibility of the teller to describe situations that are interesting and to the liking of the listening player, such that they will want to invent similar experiences for their own character to have. If they begin imagining connections, you know you are on the right track as a teller.

This is the establishment of similarities through listening.

  • Kublai interrupted him: "From now on I shall describe the cities and you will tell me if they exist and are as I have concieved them." (43)

Finding the similarities between unusual circumstances and the experiences of your brother and sister bodhisattvas is rarely that easy. You may be recounting your evidence to the wrong bodhisattva. They may be so caught up in their own searching that they initially fail to recognize crucial evidence when it is presented before them. Or you may be focusing on the strangeness of the old man’s rooster when it is the old man himself that is more likely to assist in your companion’s search.

Listeners can assist tellers by asking the right questions and giving good feedback on the evidence that has been uncovered. If the other player presents circumstances that do not initially appear enticing, a few simple words may push them to uncover a much richer horde of interesting material to bring into play. For example, after hearing of the bizarre behavior of the rooster, the Blacksmith might say, "How peculiar? And has the rooster always crowed at midnight, even since it was a chick?" And the Dancer might respond, "No, in fact, it has only done so since the old man’s eldest daughter ran off into the forest, never to be seen again." Ah ha! Now you might actually be getting somewhere…

This is the establishment of similarities through questioning.

  • And Polo said: "Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice." (86)

There is yet another possibility that occasionally emerges from play, which is where the listener actually sees themselves in the teller’s narrative. While the bodhisattvas may have achieved enlightenment in their "native Age," they have existed since the beginning and have been continually reincarnated since their enlightenment in an effort to teach and free others from the cycle. So, if the teller has discovered a situation that reminds them of one of their fellow bodhisattvas, there is the possibility that that particular bodhisattva was actually present for that specific situation. Maybe the Blacksmith was the old man with the strange rooster, or was the bandit queen who carried off his vanished daughter and sold her into slavery.

This is the establishment of similarity through identity.

Concluding Remarks

The other Calvino quotes that I was planning on using are as follows:

"While, at a sign from you, sire, the unique and final city raises its stainless walls, I am collecting the ashes of the other possible cities that vanish to make room for it, cities that can never be rebuilt or remembered." (60)

Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone. "But which is the stone that supports the bridge?" Kublai asks. "The bridge is not supported by one stone or another," Marco answers, "but by the line of the arch that they form." (82)

The catalogue of forms is endless: until every shape has found its city, new cities will continue to be born. When the forms exhaust their variety and come apart, the end of cities begins. (139)


Starting Positions

Each player selects one space on the board to be the station at which they start out (stations are represented by black circles). Players each choose a name for these starting stations from a list of the actual station names of Santiago’s underground. Each player also has a uniquely colored pawn that represents the their location in the Santiago Metro (the colored dot).

No station in the game can ever sit within one space of another station, whether vertically, horizontally, or diagonally (even though players cannot move their pawns diagonally). This limits the number of stations that can ultimately be created in the game, which is important. Remember this when picking the locations for your initial stations.

Basic Movement: The First Round of Turns

Players can move their pawns, in a straight or angled line, anywhere on the board, creating a “subway line” that follows the trail of their pawn. Lines cannot normally “branch” into multiple alternate lines, but must take the form of a single bending thread or a loop, just like most subway lines in the world. Pawns only move station-to-station, however, so wherever they stop becomes a new station if it isn’t already one, complete with a name chosen off the list. In the first example, below, the blue player moves their pawn north and creates a new station.

Following this move, the red player, who goes next, moves their pawn south and east, creating a new station in the bottom right corner.

Finally, the yellow player, going third, moves their pawn west. The yellow player is not able to move their pawn across the newly formed Red Line of the Santiago Metro without first creating a “transfer station” where passengers can switch from the Yellow Line to the Red Line. So the yellow player creates a station where their lines intersect.

More Complex Movement: The Second Round of Turns

In the second round, the blue player begins by doing the same thing the yellow player did on their turn, connecting up to the Red Line by creating a transfer station. The blue player does this by moving south, bypassing the station they started from, and expanding the Blue Line all the way to the bottom row. Players, when moving pawns, can bypass any number of established stations, stopping wherever they like as long as it’s on the same line they started on.

The red player, moving second, connects the Red Line up to the Blue Line at the northernmost blue station. Notice that, because the red player lands on a previously established station, they don’t have to create a new station.

Finally, the yellow player, though already sitting on a transfer station, moves parallel to the Red Line to join the blue player at the newly-built transfer station on the Red & Blue Lines. The yellow player could have made the same move by switching lines and traveling on the Red Line, but they decided to continue creating an extension of the Yellow Line.

Other Types of Movement: The Third Round of Turns

First, the blue player moves moves down the Red Line, traveling to what’s currently the “End of the Line” to the north-west. Players can travel on each other’s lines whenever they like, but can only travel on a new line if they begin their turn on a transfer station. This means, in a given turn, a player can only travel on a single subway line, though they are free to switch lines however they want between turns. However, note that players cannot establish stations on other players’ lines. They are limited to traveling between previously established stations.

Next, the red player turns the Red Line into a loop by connecting up to the original station on their line. However, the red player chooses to bypass that station and the blue player who just moved there, since the red pawn doesn’t have to stop there to create a station, and continues down the Red Line to finally stop at the transfer station connecting to the Yellow Line.

Finally, the yellow player moved north, bringing the Yellow Line along, and creates a station on a space where the Red and Blue Lines are moving in parallel. Because of the lines already in that space, the new station is now a three-way transfer between all three lines.

Creating New Lines

This only happens if you add new players to a game already in progress. If players leave the game or are absent for one or more sessions, their subway line still stands, but cannot be extended. New stations can still be added to it, but only by other players connecting their lines to it.


Station to Station

Each station represents an opportunity for the characters to make a difference in the lives of other people, to have some interaction that goes beyond the usual pushing, shoving, and other rude treatment that occurs on the Santiago Metro. Each station is defined, then, by a particular Issue that, for some reason (practical or serendipitous), will not be properly addressed until one or more of the characters figures out how to deal with it. Each Issue can generally only be dealt with in the station in which it is originally located, but characters may be required to travel around the Metro in order to accomplish things or gather the resources necessary to address a given Issue. It is often necessary for a character to enlist the help of one or more other characters in order to deal with a particularly difficult Issue.

In the beginning, most Issues are normal, everyday problems that people have, but exaggerated to the point of being a little weird. For example, perhaps it’s raining outside and one older gentleman doesn’t have an umbrella, so he is stuck in the subway station, terrified of leaving it and going out in the rain. Or perhaps there is a baby that is crying inconsolably and its young mother seems unable to stop it. A hint of “modern fairy tale” style or X-Files supernatural weirdness is great, but make sure to keep it subtle, at least at first.

Interestingly, Issues evolve as characters try to address them. What seems at first to be a simple problem, a momentary issue that a foreigner can easily step in and help with (someone’s choking!), will undoubtedly end up drawing you into the grander mysteries of Transantiago. Issues evolve in the manner of traits in the Avatar game, where you keep track of the things characters did to attempt to address an Issue and, whenever the GM decides, alter the Issue a bit to reflect new developments. So, if a character finds an umbrella for the older gentleman, he will thank them profusely and then realize that he has a message that he needs delivered to a friend, a friend who lives… in a subway station that the characters have not even heard of (i.e. one that’s not even on the map yet).

In this way, Issues evolve similar to “fetch-quests” in Zelda or other adventure-oriented video games, always with something else to do, but they also get progressively weirder and more involved. Additionally, sometimes an Issue can seem to be wrapped up, but then return later. If a character manages to quiet the baby, perhaps the next incarnation of that Issue doesn’t appear until the next character happens through the station, at which point they see signs that indicate the baby was kidnapped by the “young mother” who was trying to quiet it.

There is no right or wrong way to address an Issue. This doesn’t, however, mean that any attempt at addressing an Issue will make it evolve in a new and interesting way. Sometimes Issues evolve in really mundane ways or ways that don’t necessarily indicate success. Perhaps you fail to quiet the baby, leading the young mother to decide that she doesn’t like you. That is certainly a development of the original Issue, if a pretty mundane one. Perhaps you steal an umbrella to give to the old man and end up being detained, lectured, and warned by the Transantiago Police. All of a sudden, the Issue may evolve to focus on your status as a known trouble-maker.

Right now, there are no resolution mechanics to decide how attempts to address an Issue are born out. I could leave it up to the whims of the GM, but that’s not all that interesting. This is, I suspect, the last core element of the game that needs to emerge before I’m ready to pull all this together and playtest it.


Transantiago, as its name suggests, is a transitory place, a place that is developing, thanks to the Nasza Lines that run under all its tracks, into another realm, another plane of existence. It sits in-between this world and another world, a undeniably liminal space. As the Issues of its stations develop and are refined, they become larger and larger, weirder and weirder, closer and closer to this other space.

Eventually, when an Issue is determined to encompass an entire station and all of the people in it, the GM says, “This Road Is Opened.” After that point, characters do not travel to that station any longer. It’s not that they CAN’T precisely, they just tend not to. Perhaps they might stop in that station in the process of addressing an Issue in another station, but that’s all. If this was a video game, everyone in the station, if you tried to talk to them, would say: “Thanks for all your help here! Good luck with the other parts of your quest!”

When all roads are opened… Transantiago transcends. What does that mean for you? Well, that depends on what’s happened to you in your game.

As We Mourn the Ephemeral Beauty of This World of Suffering, Let Us March Out Dancing!

Minimalist music that I listened to while writing this game includes:

  • John Adams, Nixon in China
  • Philip Glass, Music in Twelve Parts, Music with Changing Parts, Orion
  • Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians, Reich Remixed
  • Sufjan Stevens, songs from Michigan and Illinois
  • Richard Wagner, "Vorspiel" from Das Rheingold

9 Responses to “Transantiago”

  1. tonydowler Says:

    Brilliant and beautiful. I’m going to try and put together a playtest of this.

  2. Thanks, Tony. Be sure to let me know how it goes! Sorry there aren’t any… um, resolution mechanics yet :)

  3. Hey Jonathan.
    Question: You mentioned an Avatar game. What game is this? Do you have a link.
    Comment: I had an idea a while ago that I called “Campaign Transcendence” but I wasn’t really able to go anywhere with it. I think you definitely have something here with that.

  4. Brandon, the Avatar game is the top one linked in the sidebar on the right.

    Thanks for the comment. I’d be interested in seeing the notes for your project.

  5. […] first game I played was Transantiago, which was as good as I thought it would be. I think the playtest pointed out some important […]

  6. […] JiffyCon Recap 2007 Nov 19 Playtested a slightly revised version of Transantiago with Shreyas, Elizabeth, Rachel, Emily, John, and Casey. I didn’t have a character, but […]

  7. […] There are games which encourage the kind of play this book evangelizes– Jonathan’s Transantiago is the immediate example that comes to mind, and I think there’s a decently-sized chunk of it […]

  8. Hituro Says:

    I’m very interested in the current status of this game. From the version above I’m not sure how the first section about the Bodhisattvas and the board hang together

  9. Hituro: Yeah, the bits and pieces I’ve posted here don’t really fit together. I’ve been planning on getting a playtest draft together, but haven’t quite yet. I’ll definitely make an announcement when I do, though.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: