Friday, May 17, 2013

The Right Stuff

I thought I’d post a short update on the progress of the latest EPOCH scenario collection.  EPOCH: War Stories will see a diverse range of scenarios which feature war – either taking place in wartime, or with war as a backdrop.

A couple of weeks ago I ran a playtest of the scenario by Mike Sands (of Monster of the Week fame) called Coldest Winter set during the Winter War (Finland and the USSR, 1939-1940).  We enjoyed the epic scale of this scenario, and had some great characters.  With a little polish I think it’ll make a really strong offering.

Last week we played through Marcus Bone’s scenario From Above and Below which took us to the horror of trench warfare during the Great War.  You can read Marcus’ thoughts on the scenario here, and how he found the process of creating an EPOCH scenario.  As a player, I had a great time, and found a really evocative setting, paired with a solid premise, and some really atmospheric scenes, made for a really strong scenario.   Marcus has a little more polish to do, but I found his first EPOCH offering very impressive.
My own scenario is progressing more slowly than I’d like.  Mass Destruction is set during it in the first hours of Operation Iraqi Freedom, as a collection of journalists are transported to witness the discovery a cache of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.  The first few scenes are fairly clear to me, as I have a strong idea about the source of the horror, but the final scenes are yet to unfold.  Hopefully I’ll have a finished working draft ready to playtest in a few weeks.
There are some other intriguing sounding scenarios being crafted – Igor will soon test a fantasy war scenario, Andy M. is working on a Home Front scenario with, what I hope will be, a creepy twist on Dad’s Army while Liam will draw on some working knowledge of African Peace Operations.

It’s an exciting time seeing these great ideas resolved into great EPOCH scenarios.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Horror and Helplessness

A little while ago Lowell Francis, a blogger who has posted extensively on horror roleplaying games, posted that in his view,  "horror thrives on player uncertainty and lack of control.  I thought about it a little bit at the time, but when he recently repeated the assertion that “most horror operates from threat, entrapment, and some degree of helplessness “ it helped me crystalise my own thinking about the nature of horror in roleplaying, and helplessness.

Helplessness is tricky in roleplaying games because of the question of trust.  Most traditional RPG’s are a shared paradigm where one individual has more narrative powers, and can set the stakes for most conflicts (as GM).  In this relationship, trust is essential.  Implicit in this traditional paradigm is the fact that the GM is not subject to any meaningful checks and balances beyond their social relationship with the players – and, therefore, can structure the story to kill, maim or incapacitate one or all of the characters (or place them in situations where the survival of their characters is unlikely).   But even if the stakes aren’t this severe, the players are effectively being asked to trust that the GM has the best interests of their characters, and their enjoyment of the game as players, at heart.  In a traditional roleplaying games, therefore, the players are largely helpless against the authority of the GM.

Nowhere is this paradigm more evident than in horror roleplaying games.  Many of these systems conflate character helplessness with player helplessness.  They use a mechanical system to establish norms, then ensure that exposure to horror will irrevocable and perpetually erode the characters mental wellbeing within those norms (a la Sanity points in Call of Cthulhu).  In this context the system is continually reinforcing to the player, that their character is helpless against the horror (in the case of Sanity points, they will almost always lose sanity points faster than they can gain them, and each loss is accompanied by periods of system dictated distress helplessness – temporary, permanent and indefinite insanity, often at critical moments in the action).

Other systems use similar mechanics.  In the Gumshoe system the characters spend from a wide pool of perpetually diminishing resources to investigate, encounter and attempt to survive their brushes with the horror.  In Dread, each pull of the tower brings the characters closer to their doom.  In Geiger Counter the horror increases its dice pool every test.

But, in my view, most horror isn’t actually about helplessness. 

Horror is about the intersection between character and something terrible (the source of the horror).  The essence of horror is not helplessness, but rather the human struggle against the macabre and inhuman.  The place where a protagonist tries to find the strength to struggle against forces that would otherwise eviscerate their physical or mental wellbeing.  Lovecraft’s Robert Olmstead escaped Innsmouth, Armitage dispelled the Dunwich Horror and Dyer returned from the Mountains of Madness intent on warning others.  Ripley ultimately defeats the Alien, Ben survives the horde during the Night of the Living Dead, MacReady bests the Thing and the Freeling family flee beyond the reach of the Poltergeist.

So, if you accept that horror is about the struggle, rather than helplessness, what does this mean for horror roleplaying games?

To reflect the way these stories play out, the GM should be continually exploring the impact of the horror on the characters.  The horror should have no independent motive or agenda – rather it exists entirely through the prism of the characters experiences.  That’s not to say all the characters must survive, or that there isn’t a broader story – but the experience of the characters should be the focus of the game.

But that’s not how many games play out.  This blog is called Total Party Kill because of precisely this tension.  The idea that GM’s sometimes violate the relationship trust – exploit the helplessness of the characters in their games.  Indeed many systems and scenarios are explicitly designed to create this experience, or will inevitably result in this outcome without modification.

Some players may accept, or even enjoy the helpless downward spiral of their characters.  Some may even embrace it – but unless you’ve had a conversation with your players about exactly how they enjoy interacting with the horror, its safest to assume that some players are looking to try and triumph against the horror like so many protagonists in horror movies and literature.

For these reasons, when I designed a horror roleplaying game, I put that conversation front and centre.  I also ensured that there would almost always be survivors of the scenario, just as there would be victims, and that the decision about which character survived, and which did not was an artefact of highly structured collective decision making, rather than putting the load on one individual – thus, the players are not helpless in a story that is all about their characters.  I designed a game that I believe exemplifies the struggle that I believe is central to horror.