Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fright Night VII

On the weekend I attended Fright Night 7, a one night ‘con which offers a range of horror themed games.  This was my first time attending the ‘con where I wasn’t either running the ‘con, or facilitating games, so I was looking forward to enjoying the total player experience.
Round 1: Vampire Weekend
"Four friends, united in their love of vampire movies, gather annually for a weekend of watching movies, excessive drinking and catching up on each others lives. They each take turns choosing the location for this weekend of decadence. This year the gathering will take place at an isolated house in the mountains. This year will be different."
Mike opened this game by referencing how there were some components in the game borrowed from EPOCH including a ‘flashback’ card, and his own ‘timely intervention’ and ‘lucky escape’ cards, as well as 3 hit points.  The game asked for the players to generate characters at the table (i.e. name, job and relationship to one another, and significant person from your past), and also asked the players to establish the setting themselves, with the caveat that the characters gathered annually to watch vampire movies in a remote location with no communication to the outside world.  Mike ran the game fast and free, with a minimum of preparation, which enabled him to tailor the scenario to the characters.
The flipside is that I’m not sure a GM less experienced than he could easily replicate this game, and the lack of structure did lead to some uncertainty from the players and create an initial load of creative work which might turn some folks off.  That said, with the players gathered around the table, this didn’t prove a problem, and we soon had a dysfunctional group of friends from Wellington who regularly travel to a huge, luxurious, and very well stocked batch in the Marlborough Sounds.
As the other characters were almost all fairly strong alpha types, I soon realised my character ‘Caleb’ needed to play up some vulnerabilities in order for the horror to have a deeper impact for all the characters, and thus he started to freak out early at a series of events which, although benign, would foreshadow the coming horror.  The main body of the game (which took most of the allotted time) was therefore spent with the characters exploring their relationships through a haze of alcohol, barbecue and vampire movies, punctuated by Caleb occasionally freaking out.
This was a fun time, and the interplay with the other characters was good, although I think the characters might have been even stronger, and the relationships more fraught, if they had spent more time developing their shared past together, and explored some vulnerabilities to heighten the drama – e.g. no flashbacks were played as there was no explicit reward or benefit for doing so (in hindsight, using Mike’s system, I might have started the characters with 1 hit point, and then rewarded players who framed meaningful flashbacks with an additional hit point or card).  This meant it was it was a little hard to imagine why this collection of characters would chose to spend any time together, let alone going away for the weekend together to watch movies.  However, each character was fairly well developed and interesting.
As Mike said after the game, the true horror manifested much later than expected, leaving the end of the game a little rushed.  The shy girl from Caleb’s new-age-church background was found in the extensive wine cellar and attacked or brutalised all of the characters, although ultimately the characters escaped their brush with the horror and fled into the night.  The game was a lot of fun, and despite the erratic pacing, it felt like a complete movie experience (although more art-house than slasher in style).
Round 2: Silenced Night
"When a major property developer shows up on your doorstep two days before Christmas offering triple overtime rate for a couple of weeks work, you don’t say no. Even if the property in question is a town that’s been forgotten for decades in the snowy northern reaches of Maine. You definitely don’t stop and smirk to yourself as you pack, and think how much this whole situation is starting to sound like the plot to a bad horror movie.
But you should have.
As your friends are dropping around you and the snow is turning red, do you have what it takes to survive where thousands of drunken teenagers before you have failed?
Its time to find out…"
This game used a new system called ‘Slasher’, created by Aaron which is intended to replicate a slasher movie experience (you can currently buy the PDF here via Drivethru).  The system is straightforward, there are 4 basic stats, and you then choose (or are assigned) an archetype (hottie, hardcore, coward etc.) which modifies the mix of stats slightly. The system then works through a series of opposed tests, with the expectation that the characters will be eliminated frequently and new characters will ‘arrive’.  Characters also accrue ‘marked for death’ (MFD) points which are used by the GM.
The system seemed good and simple in practise, but the application of the dice mechanic was hindered, in my opinion, by a lack of clarity about target numbers, or what the GM had rolled (GM rolls seemed to be secret).  Accordingly it was never clear when you rolled an average result if this meant that your character would be killed, badly wounded or escape. In my opinion, had this been more transparent I think the game would have had an additional level of tension.  
The character archetypes seemed a little open to interpretation, so it might have been nice to have some other elements to help illustrate the GM’s idea of how “Hardcore” differed from “Hero” and these differed from “Jock” for example.  Rapidly churning through characters can be a fun experience though, and put me in mind of playing  Purgatory 13 – Descent to Abraxus In my opinion the weakness of many survival horror games is that they fail to apply horror movie style consequences, by eliminating characters - Slasher does this, and I think that and the simple, but evocative system is a real strength. 
The scenario setup was that a company had purchased a large abandoned town, buried by  perpetual snow in Maine(??), and was scrambling a large team of surveyors, engineers and historians to comb through the town (which had been abandoned since the 1920’s) and prepare for excavation.  It was a setup that reminded me strongly of the opening scenes of Aliens vs Predator, and so it seemed clear that the characters would soon meet a grisly fate.  As it turned out, the horror began much sooner than I expected, as Emma’s first character suffered a serious injury almost as soon as we entered the town.
The highlight of the game (for me) was the terrific characters generated from the sparse backgrounds provided.  Igor and Andrew did an amazing mean-girls double act while Leonie and Emma simultaneously did a fair impression of misogynist males, however just as we were getting to see more of these characters, there were brutal eliminations and new characters entered.  These included Andrew’s action focussed bad-ass, Igor’s hapless narcolepsy prone historian, who was killed in short order by Emma's hardcore yokel “Spare Rib,” and then there was the memorable transient grifter mother and daughter combo played by Igor and Leonie.
For my own part, after several eliminations, my most enduring character was the ‘cowardly’ Professor Green, who acted in much the same way as movie academics, explaining what was occurring as though he was an expert, but without providing any greater insight than was already evident.  When Green actually realised what was going on in the town, and saw an opportunity to seize immortality for himself as part of a ritual to thwart the source of the horror, so betrayed the other characters in the final scenes – and suffered his just deserts as a consequence.
I had great fun, and it was good to talk to Aaron after the game about his game, and the scenario, and to hear how other runs of the game had gone before.
So, the games were great.  The ‘con was smoothly run, the venue was neat and I had a good time.  Roll on Fright Night 8!
Previous posts about Fright Night:

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What Tabletop Games can learn from LARP

I had been planning a post on tabletop gaming versus live-action gaming, then Jenni went and stole my thunder.  However, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that what I actually wanted to explore was what lessons I think tabletop games can learn from theatre-form LARP.

LARP killed the tabletop star?
In my local roleplaying community LARP has been on the rise over recent years, and tabletop games and events have suffered diminished attendance when tabletop and LARP events clash.  Some tabletop GMs I know have complained that this has meant some of the more creative and immersive gamers in the community are now less likely to pull up a chair at their tabletop games at a ‘con when offered a LARP in the same slot.  Certainly the LARP community has been growing and flourishing in a way that the local tabletop community has not.  Why is this?  What makes LARP more appealing to some players than a tabletop experience?

There are many differences; some people enjoy costuming and set dressing (perhaps better termed 'immersion'), others prefer romance or intrigue plots, which are more elegantly executed in a live setting with a larger cast, than across a table with the GM playing multiple NPCs.  There’s not much tabletop can do to compete with this, but I do think there are some other things that tabletop can learn from the LARP experience.

Character Agency
In most parlour style LARPs players are given a high level of character agency.  They usually have a background, contacts and goals to try and achieve during the game.  From that point on, the player has almost complete control of their character.   There is usually little or no GM moderation, and often no interaction with a GM at all.   The players are effectively in charge of creating their own fun. This is a pretty big challenge to traditional tabletop games, although much less so to indie games.

This freedom can be very liberating, and I think the thing that tabletop games can take away from this is that many players enjoy a high degree of freedom in the way they explore their characters, and interact with plot.  To my mind this is pretty much the opposite of the ‘railroading’ common in many traditional tabletop outings.  Although I don’t think this means traditional games should move away from railroading entirely, I do think that there is cause to examine just how many assumptions, set-piece scenes and pre-determined outcomes feature in tabletop scenarios.  Do the characters genuinely have agency? If not, can some elements be constructed more flexibly to allow other outcomes?  Ideally a scenario should have a number of moving pieces, which can be added, removed, shifted, or replaced with entirely new character-generated pieces as required.

Rules Lite
Systems and rules are often extremely light in LARP.  In general they follow a principal that the rules should be secondary to interaction between characters and have as light a touch on the game as possible.  I think this is a principal that would enhance tabletop games for many players.  To be clear, some player like rules, mechanics and dice irrespective of the game or setting, but others are much more focused on story character and drama.  If you want your game to appeal to these players, the rules should support and enhance the game, not shackle and slow it. 

There are so many different rules and hacks available, that it should be possible to find the right kind of rules, for the right kind of game.  For example, in Trail of Cthulhu, a game about following clues, characters spend a relevant investigative point, mark it off their sheets, and narrate how it manifests, automatically earning the clue.  The system supports players rapidly accessing clues, and building some narrative details into the experience, while balancing their actions against a finite pool.  In EPOCH, during a Challenge Round players choose the level of injury or trauma their character sustains from cards in their hand, then narrate how this comes to pass  -the focus is on the impact of the challenge for the character, not the mechanical resolution to achieve this outcome.  In wrestling game Piledrivers and Powerbombs, ring scenes are simple and fast flowing, with players drawing playing cards, then holding or folding – promoting a narrative style combat without slowing the game for mathematical calculations, or the translation of actions into game-terms to apply a resolution.

So the question I think a tabletop GM should ask themselves of a scenario is: ‘what is the core activity of this scenario for the characters?’ then ensure the system being used is optimised or streamlined to enhance and support this activity.  It can be tough – we all have our favourite systems, but unless your players share this love, it is worth at least investigating other possibilities.

Sharing the Spotlight
Due to the high level of character agency in LARP, and the ability for multiple conversations and encounters to happen simultaneously, the amount of down-time in LARP can be pretty low.  Compare this with a tabletop game of say, 5 players where it is unlikely that more than 1 or 2 characters are narrating actions or speaking at once, and often the GM is speaking and all of the players are listening.  In this situation there is a high level of down-time for some players – particularly if there are folks in the game who enjoy the spotlight, and others who are quieter or more retiring. 

In some games, a less description from a player equates to a lower levels of action involving their character, meaning that both player and character are less involved in the scenario if they are overshadowed by others.  Both traditional and some indie games have tried to correct this balance through mechanics (e.g. combat rounds & character-specific powers or story points & narrative negotiations).  Nevertheless, there is generally going to be a higher degree of downtime in a tabletop game for the players.

In my view, the key to achieving a better balance is through game management by the GM – which is to say being aware of the amount of spotlight time each player/character is getting, and trying to balance this as much as possible.  In addition, encouraging the players to share or build on one-another’s narration, and interact more is likely to reduce downtime and mean the players are more engaged.  It’s not always easy, but it is an important step in making sure all the players are having a great time.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

One Year as a Micro-Publisher

This October marks the one year anniversary of my entry to the world of RPG publishing.  It has been an interesting 12 months, and I thought it might be useful for those interested in RPG publishing to post about what I did, what I didn’t do, and why.

To set the scene, my game EPOCH is about one-shot survival horror.  It is a traditional game (in that it has a GM and pre-written scenarios) but it doesn’t use dice, instead using a card based mechanism, controlled by the players, to determine character survival.  It doesn’t have a specific setting, rather it is a game about movie style horror.  A fuller description is here.  In addition to publishing in PDF form, the game also features print-on-demand softcover books and card decks. 

Things I Did

Regular Releases.  Taking a page from Fiasco, I wanted to maintain the momentum of EPOCH from the outset.  Therefore, I observed a fairly regular release schedule, which hopefully illustrated my commitment to the game and expanded the support to would-be purchasers, increasing the scenario count from 3 at launch, to 15.  Here is the schedule of the last 12 months:
  • October 2012 – EPOCH PDF
  • November 2012 – Fever Pitch Scenario PDF
  • December 2012 – Road Trip Scenario PDF
  • February 2013 – EPOCH Book and Cards Revised to include new art and formatting
  • March 2013 – EPOCH Print on Demand Book & Card Deck
  • March 2013 – Frontier of Fear Scenario Collection PDF
  • April 2013 – The Cold Shore Scenario PDF
  • June 2013 – Printer Friendly Cards Released for all PDF products
  • August 2013 – Frontier of Fear Print on Demand Book & Card Deck
  • September 2013 – War Stories Scenario Collection PDF
  • October 2013 – Shadows of Yesterday Scenario PDF
  • October 2013 – War Stories Print on Demand Book & Card Deck
Gave it away for free.  Right from the outset I wanted to give my rules maximum exposure and allow people to try them without having to pay anything.  Therefore, I released 3 scenarios, each with quick start rules and cards.  Did it work?  I really don’t know.  People have certainly been downloading the free products (free scenarios have been downloaded at a rate 3 times greater than EPOCH sales), but I haven’t heard much discussion of the free products, or received any reviews.  I assume people have downloaded them for a future rainy day…

Solicited Reviews.  Early on I identified independent and established folks who had reviewed other games, and approached a number to see if they’d be interested in reviewing EPOCH.  A number were and I was very pleased to receive some very positive reviews (collected here).

Talked about the game and why I created it.  I was approached for a couple of interviews (here and here), and had one of my posts on this blog about the creation of EPOCH incorporated into the RPG Review.

Ran my Game.  During this period I took EPOCH to local roleplaying conventions including Kapcon, Fright Night and Buckets of Dice.

Used the Marketing Materials.  I fully availed myself of the publisher points and marketing options available via DriveThruRPG and RPGNow.  Most successful were sending out e-mails to customers about new releases and being featured in the e-mail newsletter.  Less effective (for me at least) were the banner and featured product options.

Discounted my game.  I took part in a number of sales during the 12 month period, and these did generate additional sales.

Maintained a web presence.  I have a simple blog website for EPOCH, and post regularly there.  As people have pointed out to me this is not exactly an elegant site, and I don’t even have a dedicated URL, but it is easy to maintain, free and updated regularly.

Submitted the game for awards.  Being nominated for a clutch of ENnie awards significantly increased sales in my products.  Obviously being nominated was hugely gratifying and as submitting an electronic product is free, this was a pretty great outcome.  The flip side, of course, is that given my following, relative to other nominees, winning an award was pretty much out of the question.  But a pretty dream nonetheless.

Things I Didn’t Do

Actively talked about my game in online fora.  I don’t have much of a profile in online RPG communities, and so have no reputation to speak of.  Talking about your game in a forum where you have no reputation, and have made no previous contribution is pretty poor form (in my opinion).  This means that in the majority of online RPG communities there has been no discussion about EPOCH, and without this word-of-mouth it is hard for any game to grow a following.

Made a video.  One comment I have received from several people is that they understand the game, but want to see how it actually works in practise and a video of a game session or similar could be a major asset.  I have thought about the idea, but video editing and appearing on camera is not something I am excited about, so it hasn’t happened yet.

Utilise social media.  I haven’t utilised Facebook for EPOCH (and only recently experimented with G+), and accept that this might be denying easy access and free marketing to interested folks.  Social media isn’t something I’m personally interested in.  I do use Twitter for regular updates about the game, although I’m not sure many folks beyond my immediate circle of friends pay much attention to my tweets.

Ran my game at major international conventions.  I would have loved to attend major ‘cons overseas to run sessions of EPOCH, and show off the game.  Unfortunately the cost of travel abroad is simply too high to justify such an extravagance.  I approached some Australian RPG conventions on Sydney and Melbourne to see if they’d be interested in having me attend and run games, as flights across the Tasman are more manageable, but my e-mails went unanswered.

Kickstarted.  A Kickstarter was not really an option for me (as it is not yet available to folks in Australasia) and I have no significant reputation or license to cash-in on.

Sold my game through other channels.  I have yet to branch out to sell EPOCH through other channels (including direct sales) and I’m not sure if it’s likely to have much impact considering the work involved.

State of Play

So, what next?  I have more EPOCH products planned, and have a lot of confidence in the quality of the game, and its ability to deliver what it promises.  I have yet to facilitate a bad session of EPOCH (although as Marcus has said, this may be because playing any game with its creator is likely to be fun, and is no guarantee that others can replicate the experience).

In terms of future sales, I am fairly sure that I have yet to break into the collective consciousness of the mainstream international RPG community.   My game is very specific, and tailored for a unique market (single-session non-traditional survival horror). Without influential folks who relentlessly champion your game online, to their friends and gaming communities, I don’t think it’s possible to make this leap, and I don’t seem to have reached many people who are active in this context beyond NZ.

Can I reach these folks?  Perhaps.  My game has a lot of moving parts, and unless you play or run it, I think it is hard to envisage how everything comes together. And it is hard for me to convince these folks to take the time to do this when I have no credible means to reach them - especially as there are so many other games out there. 

The flip side of this argument (evidenced by the reviews and award nominations), is that I think EPOCH is a strong enough offering that, if you do manage to play or run it, it will convince you of its merits.  So, perhaps there is some future potential to break into the mainstream market.  I guess time will tell.

Please feel free to post any questions or comments.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Favourite Monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos

As October rolls around my thoughts turn to Halloween.  This time last year, I was publishing EPOCH, my game of survival horror, and I’ll be posting here shortly about my thoughts on being a micro-publisher and publishing games one year on.  For now, to get warmed up for Halloween, let’s look at my favourite monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos.

There are many monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos – some derived directly from the work of Lovecraft, and others drawn from other sources. Indeed the venerable Ken Hite tells us there are 38 monsters listed in the Call of Cthulhu core rulebook, and a further 98 listed in the Malleus Monstrorum.

I’ve used many of these monsters when running games, and more besides, as many Call of Cthulhu scenarios like to introduce unique monsters of their own.  However, over the years I’ve come to be fond of some, more than others.

In my view a truly great Cthulhu Mythos monster has the ability to be terrifying, (not just in terms of mechanical San loss for the investigators, but also in the way in which it is encountered) and balances this either with either a mortality that puts it on a par with an armed human, or, it can be outrun if the investigators take to their heels.  Here are my top 5 creatures of the Cthulhu Mythos:

1. Bhyakee: A great stalwart of the game, the insectoid, winged Bhyakee can be used to stalk its prey (for example see ‘A Happy Family’ in Adventures in Arkham Country),  and can be a fearsome opponent for lightly armed investigators.  Even better, Bhyakee can be summoned and bound by investigators willing to plunge into the fearful tomes of the Mythos, serving as a potential assassin, or even a means of transport.

2. Ghouls: Ghouls are great.  They lurk beneath cities and towns, and sometimes even infiltrate society.  They are not necessarily deadly, but when encountered en-masse, or in their natural environment, they can be terrifying.  In addition they have a link to the underworld of the Dreamlands, livening any expedition into a ghoul warrens.  Then, of course, there’s that potential for human fascination and even devolution (see: Pickman’s Model).

3. Insects from Shaggi: A monster which hides inside people is a terrific idea.  There are several mythos monsters that do this, but these are my favourites.  Forcing their victims to perform terrible acts, any monster which promotes trepanation must be pretty terrible.  Several scenarios have made great use of these monsters, but my favourite remains Hobo Quest by Joseph Donaghue, which features in the Cthulhu Masters 05 monograph.

4. Dimensional Shambler:  A monster which can appear anywhere, and which drags its victims into another dimension?  Fantastic!  The shambler is great for stalking investigators and is a versatile foe, which emphasises the supernatural nature of the Mythos threat.

5. Shoggoth, what’s not to like about a bubbling, acidic creature that rolls like a monstrous freight train?  Okay, they're hunting cry is a little fruity, and because of their lethality the Shoggoth is often featured at the conclusion of scenarios, and can seem overpowering to players.  However, if you can manage some foreshadowing, and construct an environment which promotes investigator options, encounters need not be fatal. Surviving an encounter with a Shoggoth is a true badge of honour for any investigator.