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?