Friday 18 October 2019

Review - The Shivering Circle

By Howard David Ingham. Buy it here (no, seriously, buy it, it's good). Website here.

Well, this is absolutely my jam. I love this.

It's a 60 page book. Short and concise. It gives you an engine for a particular style of game, and a setting - Hoddesford, England - to run those games in.
It's full of a very specific, very evocative atmosphere. Modern rural middle-England, the sort of place where the plastic veneer of modernity is slapped over somewhere older and more odd. It's incredibly British, and if you're British yourself you'll recognise this stuff immediately. I grew up in a town that might as well be Hoddesford myself, and this stuff really resonated with me.  The book absolutely nails the tone of the place.
It feels political. Not that it has a message per se, but rather that it recognises the state of modern Britain and ties that into the horror. Like, for example, you take the way our underfunded social services let down poor kids, and the way this produces angry directionless teenagers who, sure, they're gonna cause trouble for everybody else, but they're far more troubled themselves. Right? And then you get these hopeless bitter kids, and take something old and dark that preys on that sense of being abandoned, and... that's a coven, right there. The book implies that this keeps happening. That there will always be poor children that society has abandonned, who become prey for the things witches worship, and that when it ends tragically for them (it always ends tragically for them), that just fuels the cycle.
The book makes them sympathetic, almost. Almost. It's a sort of tragedy of the state of the country being exploited by dark occult forces. Kind of a microcosm of the whole setting, really. The problems that face this sort of town IRL, turned dark and horrible by the supernatural.
The weird's never fully explained. You see hints and glimpses. The actual horrible truth is something you'll work out in play. You get a haunted fox-hunt that sometimes hunts people; an old old man living on the hills, hunting with a hawk, in communion with old pagan bird-godesses; a spooky old manor with parapsychologists poking it; the ministry of defence doing horrible psychic experiments on kids; a charity shop that is just fucking horrid; and a bunch of other stuff, all tying back in vague and ominous ways to the Shivering Circle, a circle of standing stones that serves as the load-bearing central pillar of the setting.
Seriously, this shit is good.
The rest of the setting is similar to that coven of kids I mentioned. It keys in on different tensions you might find in modern British society (fox-hunting, the general ukip-gammon-arsehole infestation the country's suffering, social deprivation, etc etc). There's some grade A queer representation in here; off hand mentions where it's no big deal. Likewise, there's women presented ranging from strong to flawed to fucking horrible, and it nicely avoids anything too sexualized or stereotyped; all of the sample NPCs given feel very true-to-life. As a solid lefty myself, I approve. Bigger RPG companies could take some notes from the way this game handles this stuff.

The system presented is decent. I'm not wowed by it like I am the setting, but it seems pretty functional. You get five stats - Compassion, Courage, Dignity, Health, Hope -  rated 0-10, roll 3d6, and hope to beat a DC. Get an extra d6 if it's something you're good at, or d6 less if you're shaken in that stat.
Critically, you only roll at key points. If you pass a roll, that stat goes up. If you fail, it goes down. Your character's capabilities will shift over time, without needing an XP mechanic. I really like this.
If really bad shit happens on the roll, you'll be shaken in that attribute. A few different things can cause this. It's bad news.
As you keep succeeding, you get an escalating increase to the difficulty for that stat, that resets once you fail a roll. So you'll find problems mount up until you hit breaking point, and then catch a second wind. Again, I like this.
The engine is really simple but looks like it will produce escalating tension, ratcheting things up and providing release valves. It hits the same thing I like about a game like Don't Rest Your Head.

My only criticism here is the selection of stats. They're a bit vague and arty for my tastes and I find myself struggling to work out which would apply in different situations. (That said, you avoid the 'justify why you use your best stat for everything' problem here by the fact that rolling the same stat over and over will make it harder to succeed). If I were to hack this, I'd possibly re-name them to slightly more traditional concepts. It's a minor quibble, though, and it's quite possible that shit'd work out fine in play.

Your character sheet has a ring of standing stones drawn on it. As bad shit escalates, you colour them in. Once only the stone in the centre is left uncoloured, things have come to the head, and you tell the GM, who can steer things appropriately. If the final stone gets coloured in, you're fucked. It varies what exactly happens, but that's game over for that character.
It's simple, evocative, and I love it.
Of note: there's three different character sheets, with different numbers of stones in the circle depending on the type of game you're running; 5 for 1-shots, 9 for short-burn campaigns (of maybe 6 sessions), 13 for longer games. Scaling shit up and down for different styles of game is good.
Like everything else in the game, this mechanic is all about setting the pace things move at, providing escalating tension.

From what I can see, it's mechanically simple and flexible, and everything in there is fine-tuned for it's specific purpose. The author very clearly understands how the game is meant to play, how the mechanics incentivise and push things, what the core loop of the game is. From reading it, the game is a little more collaborative in intent than most I play - it's one of those games where "if you pass a roll, you narrate what happens, if you fail, the GM does" so players need to be invested in telling a good story. I've been having an itch for something like this for a while, though, and had great fun last time I dipped into this style of game.

There's a few pages on supernatural abilities PCs might have. Low-level psychic abilities, or a little dabbling in ritual magic. It's low on concrete mechanics (you basically roll like for anything else when you want to activate a power, with some slight tweaks) but high on how this stuff works diagetically. The section sets expectations for what supernatural stuff in the game world will consist of, rather than defining everything numerically. I like this.

Character gen is simple. Assign some numbers to your five stats, and then the rest is free-form diagetic stuff. What you're good at, what you're scared of, what drives you, etc. It's quick and simple but drills down onto the core of the character.

In terms of visual stuff, the book is fairly simple. Some public domain art, but otherwise minimalist. It's print-on-demand from DTRPG, so the print quality is what you'd expect for that.
The layout is good, though. Information is divided up nicely, with bold text picking out the key mechanical bits. The whole thing is given in a very informal, conversational style. I found it really compelling to read; you get this wonderful sense that Howard is telling you about this really cool RPG in person. For reference, there's an SRD in the back of the book that gives things in slightly more plain and technical language. This is useful, more things should do this.

It's not perfect, but nothing is, but it comes fucking close and the only real quibble is something that's trivial to fix.
It's PWYW on DTRPG. Go buy it. Give the author good money for it, because it's a good fucking game and I want more shit like this to be made. I think I payed about 15 quid for it, and I regret not paying more because it's worth it.

Monday 7 October 2019

New Class - The Visionary

Visionaries are odd people. Plagued by ill health and madness from birth, each is a frail, frightened, wide-eyed thing, overwhelmed by the signs and portents they see at every turn. Something in their mind processes the world differently to other people. They see things others don't, understand things in ways other's can't, draw bizarre connections between things. By all accounts, they're totally insane, tormented by hallucinations, delusions and paranoia.
Except, of course, that they're frequently entirely correct. Their insights have a habit of being correct, and their madness has an underlying method to it that might be obscured even from the visionary. 
Many such individuals find themselves locked away in sanatoriums and asylums, or kept behind closed doors by families ashamed of the lunatic in their midst. Others go out into the world, becoming vagrants, hermits, or social dropouts. A few manage to find themselves recognised as oracles, kept somewhere safe and consulted for prophecy. 
A significant number, however, are recruited as adventurers. Neither front-line combatants, nor skilled problem solvers, a Visionary contributes little directly to their party's success. Any party that can recruit one, however, knows the value of the wild-eyed, babbling prophet accompanying them. When things are about to turn nasty, the Visionary becomes the metaphorical canary in the coal mine, and when the party's course is in doubt, the Visionary's insight becomes invaluable.

HD: d4
Saves: As a Magic User
Attack: As a Magic User
Experience Costs: As a Magic User
Weapon & Armour Restrictions: If your system restricts gear by class, no armour or shields. Weapons limited to one handed weapons, spears, thrown weapons, and slings.
Madness: The Visionary is not even slightly sane, and is not very good at hiding it. The precise details are up to you to decide; they might hallucinate wildly, have weird obsessions, find themselves driven to constantly complete arbitrary rituals, talk to themselves (or to things nobody else perceives), believe things that seem nonsensical or baseless to others, or something else. The exact details will vary wildly from Visionary to Visionary, but all exist as a coping mechanism for the visions they are constantly beset with. While there are no hard-and-fast requirements for their actions, it will always be clear to anybody observing them that they're mad. They can suppress this for a time if they wish, doing their best to put on a facade of sanity, but while doing so all their other Visionary abilities cease functioning, and they cannot gain experience for anything they do or achieve while pretending not to be mad, even if they were only feigning sanity for a small portion of the venture. 
Uncanny Insight: A Visionary can, if they concentrate, find themselves knowing all sorts of things that they shouldn't have any way to find out. The information comes to them filtered through weird symbolism and hallucinations, but they can still glean a certain amount of truth from it. To use this ability, the Visionary must be able to concentrate for a few seconds (a full round in combat) to put all the signs together. Roll a d10. On a 1-9, the Visionary gets to ask the GM a single yes-or-no question on any topic, and get a truthful answer. On a 10, the Visionary's insight has run out; they cannot ask about that general topic again until they gain a level.
Foreboding: Visionaries also tend to have a sixth sense for danger, even if they're often unable to articulate exactly what the nature of the threat might be. Whenever the Visionary or their companions are about to do something truly foolish or dangerous, or whenever they face an oncoming threat that they have no knowledge of, the GM should give the visionary a warning that they're in danger (if they want to know what from, they can use Uncanny Insight to find out more). After receiving this foreboding. the Visionary has two options available to them. They can either tune out their danger-sense, losing access to Foreboding for the rest of the day, or concentrate on it, allowing them to benefit again the next time danger looms. Concentrating on their danger-sense is mentally taxing; each time they they do, the chance that their Uncanny Insight fails entirely increases by 1 for the rest of the day. (IE: if they want to keep their Foreboding active after the first time it goes off, they fail Uncanny Insight on 9-10. After a second warning, Uncanny Insight fails on 8-10, and so on).
Second Sight: Visionaries literally see things other people don't, and sometimes those things are really there. They permanently get the benefit of See Invisibility. However, anything they can see in this way is hard to distinguish from mere hallucinations and false-positives; the invisible things get the benefit of the spell Mirror Image, with 4 imaginary duplicates of themselves; when the Visionary targets an invisible thing they can see in this way, randomise whether they hit the real target, or just prove that one of it's imaginary duplicates isn't real (eliminating it), until either the real one is revealed, or else all the duplicates are proved to be imaginary.
Uncanny Reflexes: A visionary is often aware of threats a split second before they begin, and if they concentrate on this, they can be surprisingly hard to pin down in a fight. If they spend their entire action doing nothing but trying to avoid harm, they get +4 AC and +4 to their saving throws against any attacks directed against them; doing this doesn't prevent them from moving. 

(It should go without saying that this class models somebody driven mad by supernatural prophecies and visions, and in the real world this is not at all how mental illness works. Keep taking your meds.)

Thursday 3 October 2019

OSR is Survival Horror

No, really. Hear me out on this.
I'm don't play many video games, but survival horror is something I find fascinating.

Generally accepted qualities of survival horror games:
  • The game isolates the player in an inherently hostile environment, in which everything is a potential threat.
  • The player avatar is somewhat dis-empowered, and cannot reliably defend themselves through brute force alone.
  • Survival instead requires alertness, careful resource-management, avoiding threats, and so on.
  • Exploration is often a focus; to succeed you must keep pushing forward into danger. Environments are set up to facilitate this.
  • Shit's creepy. The game's atmosphere is often oppressive, sureally disturbing or overtly threatening.
This is all stuff that a classic oldschool dungeon-crawl does well.
Your starting PCs find themselves in a dangerous environment (the dungeon) that's full of monsters that can absolutely kick their faces in, if it comes to a direct conflict. They're cut off from the support of civilisation and surrounded by threats. To succeed, the PCs have to move forward carefully, to budget resources such as HP, spells, light, etc, to avoid random encounters where possible.  The game's about negotiating a space that wants to kill you. 
If you run it right, a good dungeon crawl evokes similar tension and building nervousness that a game like Silent Hill does, you just need to hilight the overtly horrific elements of the monsters and space.

The basic set-up of an OSR game (particularly at low levels) supports this. Exploration turns (and their associated mechanics such as light management, random encounter checks, etc) push the game towards being about exploration, and the combat mechanics are pretty fucking unforgiving if the enemy land a hit. 
I genuinely think that if you wanted to run a Silent Hill style game, or a zombie survival game, or whatever, then an OSR-style framework could work very well. You'd want to swap out gold-for-xp for something else to motivate your PCs, but that's not too hard if you understand what's driving your protagonists forward. An 'XP for uncovering horrible secrets' mechanic could work fine to mimic the 'I shouldn't want to see more but I can't resist the curiosity' drive you often see; your PCs then have a nice tension between wanting to witness the horror and needing to survive it. Once you've got that down, it's largely cosmetic design to actually produce the adventure.

Anyway, this isn't a big post but it's a thought that's been knocking about inside my head for a while.