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.


  1. Nice read. I love horror RPGs, preferring to run them in favour of almost everything else. I'll go check it out, now, and you should feel free to hunt down my blog and see if any of my ideas for horror gaming strike your fancy.

  2. Sounds excellent! Now... can I copy this (attributed of course) for the next RPG Review.. We have a horror/Cthulhu special.

    All the best, Lev

  3. Paul, me too. I'll be sure and visit your blog.

    Lev, feel free to use whatever you like.

  4. Congrats on getting this out.

  5. I have purchased it, and am looking forward to playing! This weekend, maybe, but I have 3 players...Any way to modify the written plots for only three?

  6. Hi OldGamer, all of the scenarios in EPOCH should work fine with 3 players (we had a lot of fun playing Price Slash with 4 last night). The only thing to keep an eye on is how many outcome cards the players have left, and be prepared to skip to the final tension phase to try and get the number of survivors you want, which is most easily done in the sandbox scenarios.

    Of course, if your players Zero each other a lot, and choose to return Hero/Zero cards to their hands in the audience ballot, that's going to be out of your hands. I'd love to hear how it goes, so feel free to drop me a line.

  7. I was thinking maybe 1 more light for each player should get through all the tension/conflict scenes...

  8. Give it a try and let me know how it plays. Extra outcome cards and options are on on the books for the next release.

    EPOCH is intended to have most of the characters eliminated before the end scene, and the terrible choice of Hero or Zero is a major element of the game - so it is important the players make this choice, however with 4 + 1 outcomes you should still have some memorable final tension phases, and probably increase the chances that one character elects to be a hero.

    Of course, even adding extra outcomes, if one character wins all the ballots, you will still lose the other two before the end : )

  9. See if thats what we get up to tonight! If we do, I'll post resuts!