Master Plan - November 2006
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Ryan's Horror Game Rethought

At GenCon SoCal earlier this month, one of the spots I hit was the RPG design seminar with Luke Crane, Jared Sorensen & John Wick. If you have an idea and want to get a serious critique, I highly recommend their RPG design seminars.

The focus of the seminar was on the Three Questions:
  1. What is your game about?
  2. How is your game about that?
  3. What behaviors will your game reward?

The point of the exercise is to get you focused and to forge your ideas against criticism, making them stronger. Idea Darwinism -- survival of the coolest, most interesting, most coherent. This is part of the process of "ideacraft." Having people challenge your ideas will refine them into blazing gems of awesome.

The idea behind the Three Questions is to boil your idea down to its essential elements and recognizing what is a core part of your idea and what you can put away for later or discard entirely. Often, we'll think some element is crucial to the whole idea -- such as having the game set in Victorian London, having the characters be ninjas, or having it themes around personal loss. In discussing the idea and being challenged to defend it, we sometimes find elements that are really holding us back.

Having written last month's column before the con, I felt cocky in my belief that I knew what my game was about. At the same time, I had reservations talking about Damned Anonymous -- it was freakin' Luke Crane, Jared Sorensen & John Wick. These are people who know what they're talking about when it comes to RPG design, and will call me on my bull.

Sacred Cows: How I answered at the con and how that answer changed

I started by saying something to the effect of "My game is about people who have horrible entities inside of them that want to burst out and destroy the world, so they've formed a support group."

As I answered the second question, Jared Sorensen criticized the idea that my game was about the end of the world. I still remember that exchange, because that was my most frustrating moment and profound revelation (something that often goes hand-in-hand):

Jared: "So, could I play an Anne Rice-style vampire in your game?"
Me: "Sure, yeah."
Jared: "Then how is it about the end of the world?"

I felt tricked. I was pissed. I wanted to jump up and argue, backpedal, something. He took one of my sacred cows, looked it over and said, "Yeah, this will make a good steak."

But this is a seminar. These guys aren't trying to be jerks. I took a moment to collect my thoughts and keep from spouting some knee-jerk reaction. I didn't agree with him right away, but those words stuck with me when I left the seminar.

After some time, I realized that he was right. That cow did make for a good steak, and that steak fed a more interesting idea: "The end of everything you care about." "The end of the world" implied that, but also limited it. By focusing on "The end of everything you care about," or "the end of your grasp on your own humanity," the game emphasizes personal consequences over global or cosmic ones.

Just because the game isn't centered around the end of the world anymore doesn't mean I have to drop that idea entirely. I'm merely shelving it for now, and will decide later if it's a flavor worth tossing into the crock pot that is my game. Of course, before I get to flavoring, my game has to have a base...

What is my game about?

After returning form the convention and sitting down to write this column, my answer changed a couple times. When I talked to John Wick after the seminar about how my idea had already changed some, he grinned and said, "That tends to happen."

Damned Anonymous is about making impossible choices & struggling over the grip on your humanity, and drawing strength & misery from others who are doing the same in your support group.

What my game isn't about:

By buckling down and saying what my game is about, I'm also implying that some of the elements I mentioned before are not central to the idea. Two in particular are world noting:

The end of the world

I knew I already mentioned this. The whole idea of Damned Anonymous owes to this element, but it also outgrew it. As a designer, there are times where you have to be willing to admit that and move on.

Evil "cool powers"

They'll be a part of the game, but they aren't the point of the game. They'll factor into the choice and struggle.

How is my game about that?

For me, this question is about what elements of the game are necessary to reinforce what your game is about. That means we start talking about character elements, proto-mechanics, and other ideas that explain, justify, or expand upon what the game is about.

Let's break my "About" statement down into two ideas:

Making impossible choices & struggling over your connection to your humanity

The struggle takes two separate but related forms: the things you care about and how corrupted you become. The character elements that will come into play are: (1) mental hit points that represent different, important people or values to the character's Humanity (as I mentioned last issue) & (2) a track of evil influence, or Taint, the character has acquired either willingly of forcibly.

I want to mirror Humanity & Taint to some degree, by making them both about individual statements rather than simply a number. For example, rather than having "Humanity 2 & Taint 1," I could have "a two-point Humanity trait for 'my sister' and a one-point Taint trait for 'the time I invaded the cultist's mind to make him release her.'" That sounds more interesting and immersive, both as a potential player and as a GM looking to weave the game together.

Humanity isn't just "negative Taint," or vice versa. Both are a key to the struggle: Humanity is what keeps you in control -- even one point is enough to have some hold, however feeble, on your soul. Taint is what makes it easy to do horrible things and use powers, and thus slide down the slippery slope into corruption. So it's not that one negates the other, but that you have to carefully watch both.

One area that "choice" will center around is the availability and use of evil powers. The sort of impossible choices I want the game to bring up and be able to handle can be illustrated by one of my favorite examples:

So, are you going to stand there while the cultist murders your mother in front of you, or are you going to save her, at the price of tainting yourself further with evil and seeing the look on your mother's face as you do something monstrous -- be something monstrous -- to save her?

Taint has an effect on powers. But this isn't a game about using powers in the way supers games are. This is more like a poker game: the GM raises the stakes of the conflict/situation/whatever by bringing in an element of Humanity. Are you going to see by tainting yourself and using your powers? Or are you going to fold, and lose what's on the line?

To take that idea further, you're not always dealing with your own humanity. The stakes could be someone else's best friend ---- is it worth giving up a piece of yourself to save your friend from having to do it? Which brings me to...

Drawing strength & misery from others who are doing the same in your support group

This game isn't about four guys doing their own little solo quests for humanity & redemption. However, saying that isn't enough. I seek mechanical elements to aid the vision.

There are two elements to the "support group" idea I want to touch upon in particular: Group Meetings & the Sponsor-Sponsee relationship.

While the first idea came to mind early one, I have more ideas about the latter, so I'll go into that first. During character generation, the first character created will be the sponsor for the second, who in turn will be the sponsor for the third, and so on. (Remember that I have a thing for narrative character generation. Since two people can't talk and really be listened to at the same time, there will be an order the characters are created in.)

This will have the effect of a chain of sponsor relationships where one character won't have a sponsor and one won't be a sponsor. That's awesome -- the sponsorless one doesn't have anyone to look up to like the others have, and the sponsee-only one doesn't have anyone depending on them. I think that has some interesting play fodder.

From a mechanics standpoint, seeing your sponsor succeed in resisting the evil should give you some sort of bonus for morale ("He can do it! So can I!") The flipside of this is that seeing your sponsor fail should do the opposite and invite despair. Maybe this could go both ways: the sponsor gets bonus hope/despair from seeing their sponsee succeed/fail, but to a lesser extent. I'm not sure how I feel about that, thought.

Somewhere in between the individual Sponsor-Sponsee relationships & structure of Group Meetings is the group members themselves. Members should be able to lend emotional strength to one another when dealing with crises and humanity struggles, in that "You can do this! You're stronger that it! You can beat it!" sense. But doing so means you have less energy for your own trials. Resolve is a pool you must spend when choosing to resist evil. You can give others some of your resolve pool, but it is an emotional battery that doesn't recharge often.

Group Meetings is the thing I'm still chewing on, and have been since that idea came into being. I think that it will be the framework for the game. Perhaps each session starts as a group meeting, with the events played out as flashbacks. For the most part, this idea appeals to me, but I had a bit of cognitive dissonance from the idea of a "flashback" where the world could end. Even if the stakes are simple "I'm no longer have any humanity," I still feel some of the same problems.

The other idea, which isn't necessarily exclusive with the above, is that the group meetings are the reset mechanism -- any sort of "countdown to utter hell" mechanics, like the Resolve pool, are reset when the group meets. My main issue with this is when it would happen, because I wouldn't want it to simply be player-controlled. That would ruin some of the game's tension.

What behaviors will my game reward?

My game will reward:

  • Putting yourself (or letting yourself be put) in situations where you have to make dangerous and unreasonable choices.
  • Helping those around you fight to keep their degrading humanity.
  • Surrounding yourself with these people, who you know will cause you trouble.
  • Doing the right thing the wrong way.
  • Doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.
  • Keeping your humanity far away from the evil within you.
  • Using your humanity like a ward against the evil.
  • Accepting that you're weak without the evil.
  • Rising above the evil.

You'll notice some of these seem contradictory; that's because they are. That's part of the point. Read Vampire: the Requiem, and you'll see that their Humanity rules are about an absolute morality and about punishing the players and characters for betraying them. That's a fine idea for that game, but this game is about those choices, so I want to reward all sides. Damned Anonymous's morality is fuzzy because it's intensely personal, so embracing anything should be encouraged. Really, the only behaviors I want to discourage are indecision, inaction and seclusion.

That being said, I do have a concern that this will be an ideal game for a dark power fetishist. I don't know how to address that without some sort of compromise in my vision. The idea of it has bothered me ever since I decided I had to write this game a year or so ago.

The more questions we answer, the more we ask...

How will my game reward those behaviors? What will determine success or failure in these tests? How will my game keep of the tones I want it to? I don't have the answers to those yet. Once I do, I pretty much have my game half-written.

Thank you for sticking with me so far. Next month I'm going to cover a different topic, because I don't want to do three issues on the same thing in a row. Naturally, if you have any thoughts, feel free to email me at or make a comment on the LiveJournal page listed below.

I'll catch you guys in a couple weeks or so, when I debut the Master Plan podcast. Keep watching this space. And if your name is Luke Crane, Jared Sorensen or John Wick, except a copy from me once this is out. A copy and a beer.

One last plug: Next month, the first year my horror serial on The Edge of Propinquity will conclude, as will the other three main authors. I'm really proud of what we've done. If you're the type who hates reading stories when they're half-finished, check it us on the 15th, because they'll have concluded! Or check us out now -- by the time you read all the stories, the 15th will be here! There's some great stuff there by some great authors, and it's free to boot. Writers: it's a paying market. Check it out.

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