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.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

An Experiment in Horror Gaming

Today I published EPOCH on DriveThruRPG and RPGNow.  I thought I’d pause for a moment to reflect on the journey that led to this point (imagine some wavy lines on either side of the screen). 

It all began in February 2010 when I dived into a discussion on horror games on the venerable Gametime website.  In my righteous passion I said:

My own philosophy is that if it is to be done successfully, we must take a page from horror movies, and try and employ similar techniques. Without going into too much detail I break these down into:

-Player buy-in and empathy (through a degree of shared narration)
-Visual and audio aids (not in a major way - just to cover learning bases)
-GM ground rules and time out zones
-Table discipline
-System reduction
-Shared Character development
-Identifiable setting
-Identifiable situations and choices
-Distance closing techniques
-Disruptive player techniques
-Increasing the stakes with (almost) every successive scene”

This list became the core of my Horror Manifesto, the techniques which I believed, if done properly, could deliver a genuinely tense suspenseful horror game in a single session ‘con environment.

So, why then did it take me nearly 3 years to draw this together into EPOCH?  Well besides all the real-life considerations, I needed to test my ideas.  Using different games and settings I started to experiment with a variety of techniques.  

I started with character creation.  I realised around 2010 that many of my pre-generated characters that I was so very proud of, used similar elements to stimulate conflict and drama.  Therefore, I wondered, could those elements be isolated, and assigned randomly to characters?  I tested this with the superhero genre first, and found that people readily grasped the elements, and wove them into clever combinations I’d never anticipated, but I also noted that the initial establishment of the character was particularly challenging for some players.  Players needed to ease into their characters, and allowed the space to weave the elements together. So that’s what's in EPOCH

My superhero games also helped me to realise that a story built around the characters is much stronger than a story which the characters encounter.  Ivan had previously helped me with this conclusion with my WFRP game, but seeing the elegance of concentrating a one-shot game around the way the characters develop and interact with one another, and the game environment helped me see the often competing agenda written into many scenarios.  Rather than have the players take responsibility for the story (as many indie games do) I wanted to bring the story to the characters as much as possible in a traditional format (without having pre-generated characters).  I tested this too, and while a little bumpy, it convinced me this was a viable proposition if the characters and players were on board.

Next I wondered just how much more immersion a game could have if I explicitly stated my aims to the players before the game, and sought their agreement to challenge each other to make for a more immersive game.  Again, I experimented and found that players were willing to embrace this concept, and when they did so, the game got that much better.  But I also found that it was very hard to sustain this concentration for prolonged periods.  Just as with a movie audience, concentration is often fragmentary and should be managed to allow natural relaxation.  So I added that to EPOCH as well.

I also pondered whether ‘combat’ really served much purpose in a ‘con game.  As GM I was usually much more interested in what the cost of a combat was to the characters, how they reconciled violence, or responded to injuries.  The mechanical resolution stole too much time from my one-shot sessions, and even the most basic system often served as a distraction from the game immersion.  So I decided I’d predetermine the outcomes of combat, but let the players determine what kind of injuries or psychological trauma their characters sustained, and when.

I had thought this alone was enough, but talking with people over the years, I discovered many players (although not all) really like to know during a scenario how their actions might have played out differently.  Players like to compare notes about how different groups had acted during a scenario – they liked to feel like there was meaning to their characters actions beyond the impact to their characters.  I wasn’t willing to walk too far down the path of investigative games – Gumshoe and Call of Cthulhu have trod this path enough – and in a ‘con environment investigative games can go very badly wrong.  So I used a simple mechanic which would dictate how happy, or otherwise the final scenes of a game were for the surviving characters.  Not all my early readers like this, but I was very taken with the symbolism of a GM literally laying all their cards on the table at the beginning of a game. 

Then of course I had to write some scenarios to illustrate how all these things would actually work in practise…

So that’s an overview of some of the major elements of EPOCH, and how they came to be included.  It is a game with a specific purpose.  It’s not a game for everyone.  It is an experiment in horror gaming.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Reaching the Summit

Last night we completed our twelfth session of Mountains, which is probably the most dramatic and poignant of the campaign. I am pleased to say that I think we all did it justice, no mean feat considering the prior eleven sessions had all been building toward this single, dramatic climax. I think this was reflected by the harrowed, tense play of the surviving characters and the grim decision making that followed. I have enjoyed running Mountains again, and also enjoyed the sharp contrast with Masks.
In other news EPOCH, my survival-horror roleplaying game is nearing publication. I hope to publish it this month, in time for Halloween and am busy putting the finishing touches on the 3 scenarios which are included with the game, and working my way through the list of minor revisions and editing generated by the folks who have reviewed the game thus far.  If anyone has any suggestions on tips for launching or promoting EPOCH these would be gratefully received.  I expect I'll be posting more here shortly, not just with more detail about the game, but also the expereince of putting it all together.

I’ve offered to run one of the EPOCH scenarios, Sunshine Falls, at Fright Night this year, so if you’re keen to try the game (or any of the other great offerings from this years 'con) now is a good time to get in and register due to limited places at this ‘con.