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:

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