I’ve been thinking a lot about horror gaming, and in particular about how I have yet to successfully design one. I’ve tried, but so far all I have to show for it is a cluster of folders of unfinished drafts and discarded mechanics. I think it’s time to try again.
Here’s a rundown of what I have so far:
Character creation is done in terms of three broad traits – your character’s Vocation (closest thing to a “class”, but functionally more like an Aspect from Fate, helping define what skills and equipment you would reasonably have), Drive (personality and motivation, which helps guide role-playing and serves as a hook for psychological mechanics), and Distinction (something that makes you different, such as being bio-engineered or having psychic powers or being an alien).
Once you pick these three things, there’s a Tarot card draft, which ends up with players attaching three Minor Arcana to the character’s traits. The narrator, meanwhile, is going to be building a “Crux”, a modified Celtic Cross spread that determines factors about the scenario.
Resolution for most actions is inspired by Trollbabe/Lasers & Feelings/etc. – you want to draw a random card that is higher than your number for “external” (affecting the world around your character) actions, or lower for “internal” (affecting the character themselves) actions. Criticals are called “Surges” and are based on suits rather than numerical value: you get a Minor Surge when you draw a court card (Page through King), and a Major Surge when you draw one of the 22 Major Arcana. A Major Arcanum also triggers a Revelation, a new piece of information about the story, and replaces one of the cards currently in the Crux. When the Crux is full of Major Arcana, game over, for good or ill.
As for tone: the universe does not inherently make sense, entropy always wins, and no amount of transhuman tech or knowledge can prevent that. I’m bucking a trend in game writing by explicitly weaving nihilism into both in-character and game text (something I think Apocalypse World did interestingly and could stand to be emulated more widely).
As of right now, here’s what’s been accomplished so far:
The plan is to have seven each of the Vocations, Drives, and Distinctions (which comes out to a whopping 363 core character builds, not counting sub-options that those choices give you). All seven Vocations have solidified, but I’m currently at six Drives and five Distinctions. The hitch so far has been keeping all the options unique, so that all combinations are both narratively and mechanically viable – one idea for a Distinction had to be cut because it overlapped too much with a Drive, for instance.
In broad terms, each of the three pieces grants characters an advantage: Vocations will give you access to skills, Drives will assist your characters in dealing with the horrors they’ll face in the game, and Distinctions grant special but limited powers. There will be a sample of specific advantage options under each choice, along with the option to create a custom advantage.
The Crux mechanic is functionally complete, but has not been playtested yet. Still trying to round up a group to try the game in its current nebulous state.
Setting will be implied heavily through flavor text, as with most of my games; the universe contains limitless horrors.
GM advice is going to make up a more substantial part of the text than I typically give it, because creating a good horror gaming experience is harder than just letting players kick in doors and kill dragons. There will probably even be a corresponding player advice section, because I don’t think enough players have actually been provided guidance on working with the GM to maintain the mood of the game.