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.


  1. I'm not sure it's really my thing, just because I've lived almost all my life half the world away, in a very different setting, but I might have to check it out anyhow. Sounds a lot like some of the stuff Warren Ellis gets into when he gets talking about the land and history and England, and those pieces of his are always great reads.

    1. You can reskin it to New England or something without much trouble.

    2. West coast. The closest I've been to New England is Minnesota ;)

      I bought it anyhow :)

    3. You could also look for folk horror or folk-horror-adjacent kind of things that are located near where you live for inspirations for alternative settings.

    4. I haven't actually had a chance to play an RPG in over a decade. They're just reading matter for me at this point.

    5. I've often thought of doing a boarding school setting in New England for it—teachers, locals, and even older students are all solid characters. It would work well.

    6. Having read it, it's cool, but not really possible to adapt to the US west coast without completely changing its nature. There just isn't the necessary critical mass of continuity of tradition for this sort of Folk Horror to work out here.

      That said, it was still a really cool read, and I def second the recommendation for it.

  2. Does this bear some similarities to Broadchurch? (David Tennant, Olivia Coleman, Jodie Whittaker) As an across-the-ponder, I like depressing rural towns but don’t have as good a grip on what depressing British rural towns are like.

  3. This was a very interesting review, I've put The Shivering Circle on my wishlist (though it also fills me with apprehension, as I shall be returning to the UK next year after a five year absence).

    I look forward to further recommendations from you, as many other readers will too, I'm sure!