Master Plan - October 2006
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Introducing Ryan's Horror Game

Ah, October -- the month of horror. This seems like a fitting time to start talking about the horror game I have had in my head for some time. Around a year or so ago, this idea started as a what-if: What if you were given the potential for immense power, but it meant that with every use, you could end the world?

Gradually, that what-if morphed into the idea I'm presenting here. It's still largely unfinished, no more than a collection of notes and discussions only held in memory. What I'm going to talk about in this first installment is an overview of the idea, what I mean by some things, games that have inspired me with respect to this idea, and elements I want (at least at this moment in time) to work into my game.

What You Can Expect

Unlike the other Master Plan articles, this is going to be more than just a one- or two-part project. I'm developing a game from scratch, and writing about it while I'm doing so. There will be bumps in the road, which is part of the process. In addition, I'll still be writing about other topics, so it won't just be a string of articles about this game back-to-back. That's what you can expect from Master Plan in the coming months.

Game Idea in Short

Project: D.A.: Damned Anonymous
Part: One -- The Overview
Goal: To introduce my ideas on personal horror games and elements I want to include in my own.

The pitch: You're everyday people who suddenly find yourself with a horrible power inside of you that wants to get out and destroy everything you love. You're Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Yog-Sothoth. But you're not alone. There are a few others who are going through the same ordeal as you. There's a support group for people who are harbingers of destruction, people just like you.

Yes, a support group. A "Hi, my name is Bill, and something inside me seeks to end all life as we know it" sort of support group, comprised mostly of the PCs.

The focus on the game is of personal horror, but on a potentially apocalyptic scale. By combining elements of games where the theme is "Oh no! I'm a monster!" (such as in Vampire: the Masquerade) and others where the theme is "Oh no! Ancient horrors that can man cannot possibly fight against will destroy us all!" (such as in Call of Cthulhu), I hope to make something interesting.

As you may have already guessed from the text above, my working title for this game is "D.A.: Damned Anonymous." I had some other title ideas, but I want the title to reflect both the personal horror bits ("Damned") and the support group element ("Anonymous"). Truthfully, I don't really like the title right now, but that's why it's called a "working" title. No use getting hung up over a title when I don't have a finished game yet.

What I Mean By "Personal Horror"

By "personal horror," I am referring to the focus of the horror elements in the game being focused on the PCs as protagonists rather than a purely external force. The goal is to have the players and characters react with horror to themselves and to some extent each other. This requires a duality: the characters are both inhuman enough to be a horror, and human enough to react to their own inhumanity.

Being "inhuman" doesn't mean that the character must literally be part monster; just that whatever convention dictates as human doesn't apply 100% to your thoughts or actions. We often claim that people who commit acts of mass murder and genocide are "inhuman" -- not because they're possessed by demons or a soulless abomination, but because we just plain cannot ascribe any sense of "humanity" to those actions. However, for the purposes of the game, I'll be taking "inhuman" at least somewhat literally.

Whether the players play one or both parts of their dual nature, that nature itself is what I mean by "personal horror." Games like Vampire: the Masquerade (and its descendant Vampire: the Requiem) are games that employ this idea. You can also see this, albeit executed rather differently, in My Life with Master.

By contrast, "external horror" (for lack of a better term) involves the protagonists reacting to horrific elements that are outside of them -- the archetypical horror game, Call of Cthulhu, follows this mode (which is fitting, since it draws from the works of Lovecraft and his contemporaries).

While a person in an external horror story can perform an act that either purposefully or inadvertently helps the horror (thus wander into the realm of personal horror for a moment), the focus snaps back to the external horror. In stories that follow the Mythos model, the focus must snap back or one of the core tenants -- that humanity is insignificant -- loses its bite.

To make a crude example and belabor the point a bit more, horror means saying "My god! What have you done?!" Personal horror means you ask yourself that question.

Why Write a New Game?

To avoid giving a narcissistic answer (and to be honest, there is probably some narcissism involved), I haven't seen a game that quite hits my idea. I've seen games that come close, though that's not a criticism -- those authors had their own idea, and wrote a game that fit that.

One notable example is Evil Hat's Don't Rest Your Head, a brilliant game about madness and insomnia. With each turn of the page, I found myself delightfully cursing fate as I was reading brilliance I wish I had thought of. But, while that's an excellent game, that's not the game I would use for this idea. (Though, I'm pretty sure I would use it, maybe tweaked a bit for theme, if I were to grant one of my player's wish and run a game set in my Edge of Propinquity story, Hidden City.)

Along with that, I've been a horror GM for years. I have a blast running horror games, but I often find myself ignoring elements of whatever system I'm running when they get in the way of my horror-building. I'm wondering if I can write a game that plays to my GM style without making it inaccessible to others.

I don't think I could pass a game off that requires dice, pencils, paper, and your own Ryan Macklin. Not until we're perfected cloning, anyway.

In short, I'll tell you my secret: I don't care about Sanity Points. I couldn't care less about your Fright Check. What I care about is this: First, are you scared/freaked out/horrified? Second, do you like it? I'll do whatever it takes to keep those answers "yes," whether it's because you're watching your precious Sanity Score dwindle down or because we just narrated a scene where you had to shoot your own mother.

That's my secret: I care about the player's reaction first and foremost -- it's the player who is playing the game to be entertained, not the character. That means I want a system that'll work with me to create that environment and provide that feeling.

Elements I Want To Include

Before I get into the elements, let me start with a general caveat: I'm not set in stone with any of these ideas. I clearly like them a lot, but I have learned that marrying yourself to an idea means dealing with heartache if that idea doesn't work the way you thought it would.

I learned that lesson when several people who playtested my chess variant told me that one of the main ideas just plain sucked. That was the first time I learned the lesson every game designer must learn: Listen to your playtesters. Sometimes, regardless of how brilliant you think they are, your ideas will suck.

Support Group

The support group part of this idea is what makes it work, in my opinion. It's a framework where I can have normal people band together in an otherwise normal setup. The characters aren't captured or recruited by some shadowy agency. They aren't turned into monsters and living in some secret subculture. They're just normal folks.

At the same time, the framework also gives them a legitimate way to stay together and to bond with one another. It does it in a way that lets they essentially keep some humanity, by doing a very human thing.

But, as much as that helps the setup, I don't want it to be a forgotten element once play starts. Just as Call of Cthulhu has rules for regaining some Sanity Points (through minor victories against the darkness and through psychotherapy), I want to provide some way for the characters to stabilize or even try to get better. The support group is the key for that. Unfortunately, I haven't figured out exactly how that's the key for it, but that might reveal itself once I've sorted out the "mental hit point" question.

Mental Hit Points

While I don't like the term "mental hit points," it's generic enough to serve for discussion. I want to model how a character's madness, humanity, and connection to the outside world as one concept: the human side's defense against the new, inhuman aspect. Since the subject matter is about working against an inner evil that wants to corrupt you and destroy everything you hold dear, it would not serve to handle that in a purely narrative fashion.

Here's how some of the games that have inspired this idea deal with humanity or madness:

Vampire: the Masquerade & Vampire: the Requiem

The Humanity system in Vampire is a 10 to 0 scale, from purely human and in control to completely inhuman and unleashed. I like this degree of granularity. But with any situation involving a breakdown of vague, difficult to quantify concepts into purely numeric constructs, some sense of meaning is lost. We can have a good idea and generally agree (in a broad sense) what a rating on the extreme ends means, but as you move closer to the middle of the scale, there's a sense of fuzziness about what that number means. The text even tells you what it believes the various ratings mean, but it's in the form of "At this level of Humanity, a person acts and thinks like this..."

Granted, the vagueness could be part of the point of such systems (provided the designers have that in mind when developing it), but I want the players to understand what they've lost and gained in a less abstract manner. I also don't want to tell them how their character should thing or act. A personal horror game is partly about discovery, and I want to keep that sense of discovery by not mandating how someone should think or act.

I also don't like the way Humanity works as a punishment system. For Vampire, that works, but I want my game to focus on loss, not punishment.

Call of Cthulhu

The Sanity system in Call of Cthulhu is another numerical scale, but it's quite different from Vampire's Humanity. The scale is larger, allowing small loses to occur without devastating impact, and the individual scores don't have any particular sense of meaning.

For Call of Cthulhu, I like this. It provides for that sense of gambling in RPGs -- What's losing a couple Sanity Points when you have a large pool of them. "Sure, I can handle reading this book." "Casting this spell won't hurt much." "I'm pretty sure I can handle whatever's behind that door..." Of course, that's part of the point of the game -- people who are new to the horror can rush into it like fools, but those who survive long enough cannot.

But this is also the opposite of what I want for me game. I want each loss to be felt, and you don't really feel the first few losses in the Sanity system. I also don't want to promote the idea of gambling your humanity or sanity away.

Unknown Armies

The Unknown Armies Madness Meter system has some similarities in scope to the both Vampire (as individual meters) and Call of Cthulhu (as a whole). There are five meters: Violence, the Unnatural, Isolation, Helplessness, and Self. Each meter has two ratings: Hardened (from 0 to 10) and Failed (from 0 to 5), for a total of ten meters.

In effect, this breaks down the idea of sanity loss into individual realms. You can have any score in any of these meters, even Hardened and Failed ranks on the same one (representing, for instance, that you're numb to a certain level of violence, but if it gets past that, you're less able to cope than others). This seemingly contradictory system does a good job of mapping out the inconsistent nature of the human psyche, especially for a gritty occult game.

But, as much as I like it, that's also not what I want for my game.

My current idea

I've talked a lot about what I don't want in this mechanic, because doing so can help us understand what we do actually want.

The point I keep coming back to is that I want the player and character to feel the loss, so the best way is to make the loss something tangible. I accept the idea that having some sort of "mental hit point" system will help keep track of the character's hold over his faculties. After all, that's what Sanity Points and Humanity achieve.

The idea I had was to assign each of these mental hit points to something that the character cares about so much that it helps keep him human. As he loses points, his connection to that thing, or the thing itself, is threatened or eliminated. Here's what a sample character sheet might look like for this system:

Mental Hit Point BoxMental Hit Point Box My mother
Mental Hit Point Box Financial Independence
Mental Hit Point Box That guy at the coffee shop I haven't gained the nerve to ask out yet
Mental Hit Point BoxMental Hit Point BoxMental Hit Point Box Jen, my best friend since 4th grade
Mental Hit Point BoxMental Hit Point Box Being Pro-Choice

For this character, some guy she sees at a coffee shop and her sense of financial independence is a minor, but not utterly insignificant part, or her sense of humanity. Her mother and being Pro-Choice are very important elements to this character. For some reason, her best friend even outranks her mother in this scheme.

In character creation, I'm sure (or, rather, I hope) there would be rationales for why these values are the way they are -- maybe this character and her mother aren't as close as they used to be, maybe even physical distance is the issue, whereas her best friend lives right across the hall from her and they spend a lot of time together. Maybe "Financial independence" and "Being Pro-Choice" could be combined into one "Sense of freedom/independence" value, but maybe there's a reason that they are separated.

I still haven't figure out how I want to handle this bit any further. Once I figure that out, I can ask questions that go into finer detail, such as how many of such things a character has.

Outside input: On reading this pre-publication, one of my players gave me some ideas for what to call this element: "Value", "Meaning", or "Integrity" -- something I'll take under advisement. Using a different name will help separate this idea from the more common methods of handling human degradation used in other games, but it will only work if the new name actually suits the idea.

Narrative Character Creation

The most fun I had as a GM was when I tried the "Yes, But..." scenario from Robin Laws' Page XX for the character generation session of an Unknown Armies campaign. I modified the idea some, and had a fully in-character character creation setup. I took down notes as the characters described themselves by looking in a mirror, and bonded with some pure role playing. Only after that did I even show my players the Unknown Armies core book and hand them character sheets. Everyone enjoyed that campaign, start to finish.

I'd like to tap into that with this game. Since there's the support group theme, I can use that as the backdrop of character creation: all the characters are sitting at their periodic meeting, introducing themselves in that scripted manner, "Hi, my name is Ryan, and I am an addict."

Originally, the statement ended with "...and I might destroy the world," but in a conversation with several people at GenCon, Ben Lehman (author of Polaris) said that he didn't care for that, but something smaller would be pretty cool. His line was "Hi, my name's Ben, and every time I close my eyes, someone disappears."

How juicy is that? When I heard him say that, I felt like an idea just dislodged from some deep corner of my brain. That's exactly how I wanted character creation to work. From that starting point, we can develop the character further through role playing, but that first statement packs quite a punch.

End-game & Dread

This is a game of apocalyptic consequence. That means I am considering this to be a close-ended game. In all likelihood, one of the characters will ultimately fail and the horror will be unleashed.

To create this, I want to build up the dread and have minor bouts where characters lose control and have bad things happen. This could be linked to the loss of mental hit points in either direction: that loss could spark some lack of control, or the result of the lack of control could cause a loss.

But rather than have it happen randomly, I want this feeling to build-up in order to create tension and dread. One use of a power granted by the inhuman side might not mean much, or resisting its impulses one time might not mean anything, but eventually those little acts build on themselves and cause something horrible and unwanted to happen.

As time passes, these events grow in scope, until at some point a character loses the battle completely and the end-game is triggered, where the evil is free to do what it will and all humanity is lost.

I've come up with a few different ideas to try and model the dread. Some early ones don't really take into account any sort of mental hit points, and others are vague constructs in my head. More than any other part, I know I want this to be represented in my game, because it's that tension that allows me to create an atmosphere of horror and fear. Without that, there's a lot less to build from.

As far as the end-game portion of it goes, the apocalyptic nature of it turns the personal horror aspect of the game into something more than "Oh no! I'm a monster!" At least, that is my hope.

Hope

The final element that I want to involve when working on this game is a sense of hope amidst the darkness. Without hope, you have futility. With futility, you have a great tragedy but a poor horror story.

I want to take this moment to talk about Polaris. It is a beautifully-written, well thought-out game of tragedy on both a global and personal level. You play knights who take up arms against an adversary who seeks to destroy your world. In the course of the game, you will go from being full of zeal to being drug down by weariness. Every knight, to a one, will die, become corrupted and join the enemy, or abandon the struggle altogether.

Ben Lehman has crafted a hauntingly beautiful game, and the actual play I've heard is amazing. I am very much looking forward to playing this. But (yes, there's a "but"), this game is exactly an example of what I don't want to do with Damned Anonymous. The players know that there is no hope in the end, so they can go in and give it their all to create that sort of story. Indeed, they have a good deal of latitude in determining the tragic fate of their characters; however, without the player buying into hope, that element of horror cannot be created (or maybe it can, but certainly not as easily).

Call of Cthulhu works on a similar level -- ultimately, the stories are tragedies -- but it's the chance of minor victories and the uncertainty of fate that also retains the full bite of horror. Of course, it requires the players to buy into the hope (if you've ever played in a Lovecraft-inspired game where everyone is jaded and cynical about their characters' fate, you know what I mean). Naturally, there isn't anything I can really do about player cynicism, but if the game is to contain any hope, I have to provide it from my end. It's up to the people playing the change to accept it or not.

But I digress. Hope is a vital element to the game if it's to be more horror than tragedy. I don't want a great degree of hope -- if victory against the darkness is to be possible (whatever that might mean), then it should be hard-fought and a true feat to obtain.

On a side note, one can really get the idea of how much of an impact hope has by playing a cooperative board game, like Arkham Horror or Shadows over Camelot. As the game goes on, hope mixes with dread to form such an amazing game experience, as if through some sort of emotional alchemy. I suppose it can be said that my inspirations for this game aren't limited to other RPGs and stories.

Where Do I Go From Here

You'll notice I didn't write about any sort of resolution system or anything like that. I have a hypothesis on RPG design:

General game systems start with one question: How do I want to resolve things?
Focused games also have that question, but have two others first: What things do I want to resolve, and why?

For "focused games," you could read "indie games," and most are pretty focused, but that isn't always the case.

I don't quite have the answer to that question this month. I feel like it's just on the tip of my brain, but I've been feeling like that since August, and the answer still hasn't come to me with any satisfaction. Perhaps this upcoming month will change that.

If you have any comments, I would love to hear them. As always, you can reach me at MasterPlan@hmfy.com. I don't have any forums set up yet, but the posts on my LiveJournal where I announce the Master Plan articles seem to be serving as a makeshift one for now (see More Information, below). Until then, I'll see some of you at GenCon SoCal in sunny Anaheim, and the rest of you next month.

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