Friday, December 28, 2012

Kapcon Needs You

Kapcon needs more gamesKapcon has been a staple of the Wellington, and the New Zealand convention gaming scene for a fair while now, and seems to grow larger with each passing year.  It is a great time (you can read about my own experiences at Kapcon in recent years here).  There are many games on offer, and it is a very supportive environment environment to run a game.

So, why should you run a convention game?  The simple answer is that it's a whole lot of fun.  The feeling of having people really engage with their characters, dive into the setting or plot, and bond together over the course of a few hours is amazing.  A convention scenario is one of the purest aspects of roleplaying, a simple story told in half a dozen discrete scenes - and it's a great way to try a new system or published scenario.

That's not to say it always goes smoothly, but the players at Kapcon are usually very supportive, and you can learn a lot from what doesn't work in a 'con game to improve your next effort.

To me, running a game at a roleplaying convention is something that everyone should try at least once, so, if you're planning on coming to Kapcon, why not offer to run a game?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Roleplayers Chronicle Review EPOCH

The Roleplayers Chronicle have just posted their review of EPOCH, scoring it at 9 out of 10 overall.  I have to say, it's a pretty positive review, which makes me think that other folks have been able to replicate the experience and enjoyment I've been having with EPOCH - which is really terrific. 

"EPOCH is epic! This is more than just a role-playing game, in that it is also a new kind of narrative tool with the power to improve your storytelling and role-playing in general. EPOCH is a cooperative game, meaning that the players and Game Master work together to weave a quality horror story. It is a contemporary horror game, but the elements of the game can easily be ported to other genres...
I have been enthralled by EPOCH. This is a totally new way to run a role-playing game and is extremely satisfying. EPOCH is also educational, and the mechanics force a cooperative structure and atmosphere that can enhance the play of other role-playing games as well. Get it." [Read the full review here]
The review also highlights one of the main barriers to initially running a game, namely the number of cards that you have to print and cut out before you can begin. Work is underway on a print-on-demand card deck so that this is not a major problem, so long as you don't mind buying a card deck  -  once you've got one deck, you shouldn't need anything except a horror track for each scenario and some secrets and ballots.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Road Trip

I just released an all-new free scenario for EPOCH on DriveThruRPG and RPGNow.  Road Trip is my fourth scenario for EPOCH, and is my take on a fairly classic horror movie sub-genre.  Like all the scenarios to date I tried to make it an inclusive framework for the stories of the characters, that is; flexible enough to match their decisions and provide a context of escalating stress and tension without being overly prescriptive, while also having enough story and depth for the characters to explore if they want (within a single session).

My thanks to Doug for the fantastic art, Andrew Smith for the editing work, and all the playtesters for providing such a memorable playtest.

On a more pragmatic note, 4 scenarios written by me seems like it might be a lot.  I have lots of ideas for other scenarios, and I’d like to see EPOCH scenarios branch out to other settings (certainly a sci-fi and World War 1 or 2 setting at least) but I’d like to get some sense that the scenarios are of some value, and being used by others.  I’d also like to broaden the gene pool a bit and have some other folks write scenarios.

Friday, November 23, 2012


Is less really more?  One of the things I went back and forth a few time in the design of EPOCH were the complication cards.  This deck of plot twists is really intended to provide players who have been struggling to make their character the ‘most interesting’ with an idea for a significant and unexpected complication.  Paired with a flashback token it should allow the player to reveal some fairly interesting and surprising material.

Usually the player pulls a card, looks at me with eyebrows raised and says “No way!  I can never make that work.” Then during the next tension phase reveals some really surprising and interesting twist, foreshadowed with a flashback, often which wins them the next Challenge Round.  Not always of course, and it’s often harder to weave the complication in later in the game, once the story of the character has been more established.  But in the games I’ve run the complications seem to do the job they are designed for.

In designing the cards, I went with a very simple layout – just a white card with a single word or phrase.  Nothing else.  I thought a lot about adding some additional prompts.  For example, there is a card called “Hidden Wealth”.  I had thought about adding some prompts suggesting it might include a lottery ticket, treasure map, inheritance, stock portfolio, trust fund, blood diamonds etc.  In the end I decided it was best not to provide the prompts and let the players imagination fill in the blanks.  

Next year, however, I hope to be able to offer print-on-demand card decks for EPOCH, removing the need to print, cut and stick a whole lot of cards, and allowing me the opportunity to re-design the cards.  Do you think I should include prompts – or not?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Player Stories

We just had an amazing game of EPOCH playtesting the new scenario, Road Trip (released in early December).  What was especially interesting; the scenario itself was only a small part of the game experience.  It was the story the players wove about their characters that was truly fantastic.  The players deserve all the credit.

A group of friends travelling to an isolated cabin for a getaway turned into a story about how two war veterans were failing to adjust to modern life, how their friend-of-a-friend who seemed to be a well meaning hippie, was a drug baron working with a major cartel, and how another of the friends was an undercover FBI agent sent to gain his confidence, obtain information and apprehend him.  In one scene we had four interwoven flashbacks leading to an inception style sequence where it turned out that the drug baron was also planning to eliminate the FBI agent via her old school friend. Meanwhile the micro-brewer, who used some illicit substances to spice up his products, revealed how a bungled robbery had turned him into a murderer.

This was a fantastic story – so funny in places it made people cry with laughter, and also fairly haunting and shocking.  It was entirely created by the players and far more interesting than the scripted scenario. This has been a fairly common experience in running EPOCH – so why does this seem to be the case? 
Here’s my theory.  The way that characters are created in EPOCH really allows the players the time and space to feed ideas off one another, and slowly bind things together into really tight, awesome character stories.  But it’s not just about the generation, it’s also about pressure.  The challenge round mechanic, which encourages people to strive to make their characters interesting, and then rewards one character each round, really drives character development.  It’s an extreme incubator process, and each player seems to draw energy and ideas from the others to make their characters story even better. 

The fact that voting for the most interesting character is anonymous seems to take the sting out of the contest element, but heightens competition nonetheless, manifested through ever more poignant and creative flashbacks.  Using the complications really seems to drive more outlandish stories, yet these are unarguably interesting – which makes me think  it would be interesting to experiment with other decks of complications.

These elements put into a framework of horror via a scenario, which threatens both the lives and sanity of the characters with regularity provides the necessary texture and the extreme circumstances to keep things moving for the characters, without forcing the players to step out of character and problem solve or investigate as they might in other such games.

I never designed the game to deliver this particular experience, but I’m hugely gratified that it has.  Of course, as I’m the common element at all the games I’ve run, it could just be me.  That said, I was extremely flattered, and honoured, to receive the following review from a complete stranger on DriveThruRPG.  This, for me anyway, is the kind of feedback that makes all the hard work worthwile:

“Played this for the first time last week. Amazing!!
As with the previous reviewers comments, the system really encourages over the top characters and roleplaying. It was my fault as GM, but the game did turn into a bit of a comedy horror extravaganza.
Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the game, though one player had a gripe with the rules ( maybe because he was the first to die. :-) )
This game has encouraged the players to roleplay more in our regular games ( Call of Cthulhu, Delta Green and WFRP), which makes it worth much more than $7.”

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Free For All

One thing I have observed about many of the more successful indie games is that they make large sections of their games available for free.  I can see the appeal.  Having people actually play your game is the objective of most game designers.  And the surest way of achieving this is by making your work freely available and easily accessible.  Even the big companies have picked up on this with companies like Chaosium and Fantasy Flight Games making Quick-Start versions of their rules available for free.

Of course, just making a game available in itself, seems no guarantee of success.  Unless you are promoting a game which draws on a strong cannon of published material with an existing audience, it’s going to be an uphill slog convincing folks to spend even a few minutes of their time looking at your work, let alone spending time to read it through and run it for their gaming group.
Like many people, I tend to put more stock in the opinions of those I trust, and the gaming ‘buzz’ I encounter as a barometer of a game that I should check out.  But, in doing so, I am limiting myself to a subset of games , and may well remain ignorant of a whole host of fantastic games.  For example, a recent visit to the comprehensive Age of Ravens blog revealed just how many horror games are published every year, many I’d never heard of.  The great and terrible truth about the current global online marketplace is that there is a mind-bogglingly huge array of games out there, with all the benefits and drawbacks that entails, and that number is only going to increase. 

This is a roundabout way of announcing that I’ve published a quick-start set of rules for EPOCH, along with Fever Pitch, a simple little scenario from the core text, and made this available for free via RPGDriveThru and affiliates.  Early next month I plan to publish a new scenario Road Trip using a similar arrangement.

How do you find new games?  Have you used quick-start rules, and if so, has this been a good experience?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Long Shadows

Last night I ran Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition.  My group is one of the 80 odd playtest groups around the world who are playing through the latest iteration of this great game.  I can’t, and won’t, post any specific details of the new rules here, but the guys working on the rules have made it fairly clear, they wouldn’t exactly be upset if I posted my general impressions.  Fair enough.  I’m in a fairly unique position to appreciate what it’s like to be really enthused by a game you’ve created, and to want to see others discussing their impressions in public.

Let me say, first off, Call of Cthulhu is a classic game.  One of the greats.  So, no matter what you do with it, even minor changes are going to displease some people.  More than that, in my experience, there are sub-sets of folks who exclusively like Call of Cthulhu to the virtual exclusion of other games.  So changing the core system under the hood is a contentious and difficult thing, unlikely to be universally praised.  That’s not to say Call of Cthulhu is without fault.  Indeed, long before 7th Edition was a twinkle in Chaosium’s eye, I posted my thoughts on the shortcomings of this great game here.

So, what are my general impressions of the changes?  They’ve definitely moved the game in the right direction.  The changes being proposed will enhance the game experience for many, encourage much greater interaction between players and keeper, and work to combat many of the elements which might characterise a ‘bad’ game.  Like a proud New England villa, the system is being thoughtfully and carefully renovated so that it preserves many of the great traditions, and much of the original character, but adding many modern conveniences.  The technology of gaming interactions has changed over the last 30 years, and I believe the 7th edition rules, assuming the final product resemble those we’ve been testing, moves Call of Cthulhu into the modern era as gracefully and gently as possible.

I also appreciate how the writers have been very responsive to the feedback of the playtest groups.

The strange part of this experience was shifting gear last night back to running Call of Cthulhu again.  I’ve been running EPOCH scenarios almost exclusively over the last month, and it felt almost uncomfortable to move back to dice, character sheets and investigative scenarios.  I immediately wanted to savour the development of the characters using EPOCH elements, or see what kind of story was revealed through flashback scenes.  Perhaps this is just a factor of having EPOCH on the brain a lot recently, so it will be interesting to see if the feeling continues next playest session.  I hope not, Call of Cthulhu has been my go-to game for a long time.

By the way, if you haven't already, you should check out Mash's post on GM shared imaginary space, Dread and EPOCH on Gametime.  Very interesting reading.

What has been your experience, if any, of Call of Cthulhu?  What would you like to see in a new edition?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

One Night in Sunshine Falls

Last night I attended Fright Night, a local horror ‘con with two sessions of gaming in a single evening.  This year we had a new venue, as our regular venue is being earthquake strengthened, and I must say the combination of an old house, stories of the ghosts that were said to inhabit it, high winds and rain all made this a memorable experience.

I ran two sessions of Sunshine Falls, one of the three scenarios included in my survival-horror game EPOCH.  This year the ‘con was trialing a new format, with GM’s workshopping their scenarios together then running two rounds (rather than playing one and running one as in previous years).  I hadn’t been able to make the workshopping sessions, and so I did miss the opportunity to try some of the other games, which was a shame.

The first run of Sunshine Falls ran a little over long, mostly due to all the detail and drama the players added to the characters (which I have to say I thought was very cool).  I sharpened my delivery after that and the second run went exactly to time.  I was very pleased that, in both games, EPOCH delivered a game that felt very much like a horror movie, with periods of intense drama, suspense and some gruesome splatter.

However, it was the stories that the players wove for their characters that were the standout for me.  I selected the Friends group for the scenario, deciding that the characters would be former close friends reunited for the funeral of their former teacher – a mentor who had changed their lives in some way.   

In my first run, the game focussed on the fierce rivalry between Brooklyn’s character Jessica, a girl who had grown up poor and made herself into a leading fashion designer through force of will, and Hannah’s character Tess, a driven college student who resented Jessica using their friends against her.  The other characters found themselves arrayed on either side of this protracted and bitter conflict, and sometimes electing to try and make peace, and other times getting frustrated with the bickering.  Through flashbacks it was revealed that Jessica had cheated Tess of the Harvest Queen title, with the complicity of Frank’s character T. Moore, the prize for which had allowed her to follow her fashion dreams.  
The drama in this game was so intense that it probably could have gone for another couple of hours without breaking a sweat.  This game ended with the only survivors, Tess (despite suffering some horrible injuries during the game) and Mash’s fairly sad high school coach Greg getting together, and putting the horror behind them, or so they thought...

In the second game, it was revealed during flashbacks that all of the characters had been complicit to covering up a hit-and-run death of a cyclist several years ago, but the grudges held between the characters, particularly Ivan’s character (who had drawn the ‘friend of a friend’ card so was not as tight with the group as the others) and Marcus’ character, who had been at the wheel and returned to the town to show off his success, drove a lot of conflict and drama which really made for a special experience.

In this game too, as the horror intensified, so did the drama and conflict between characters, leading to some memorable moments.  This game ended with both Marcus’ and Norman’s characters surviving with what seemed like a happy ending, only for the evidence of their original crime to be uncovered as confessions made by their now deceased friends came to light.

Interestingly in both games, one player played a law enforcement type, with Mike Foster having some memorable scenes as his mild mannered FBI agent was pushed to breaking point, and Frank’s sad revelation that his character had failed to make it into law enforcement and was living in his car, although he would never admit as much to his friends.

I had a great time in both games, so thanks to everyone who participated for making it such a memorable time and crafting such entertaining stories.