Sunday 14 June 2020

Haunt / Hearts - A Mini RPG

Here's a little game that's been on the back of my mind, that I'm going to try to put into writing. It's about ghosts, queerness and loneliness. It's one of my first forays into a more experimental, diceless style of play; perhaps you might even call it a storygame. This is a first draft; I might tidy it up and publish it.
Loosely inspired by these comics.

Art by sarah carapace who is excellent

Our mortal protagonist, Jenny, has moved into a new flat in east London. Little does she know the flat was not empty when she moved in; the other resident is the little ghost Agatha, the painful remnant of a former resident who died in unfortunate circumstances. Can our protagonists learn to live with one another? Can they resolve the ghost's issues? Can a deeper relationship develop? Maybe even... romance? Play to find out.

The main cast:
There are two players. Decide between you who plays Jenny and who plays Agetha.

Aged 24, having just left university with a bachelors in history. Currently working stacking shelves at the local supermarket. She's working on a manuscript for a book about queer life in the years leading up to the second world war, although finishing it, let alone publishing it, is a pipe-dream. She doesn't really have many friends locally, and only a few online. Her days are a blur, with little meaning to them. She's lonely.
Health problems - a congenital heart condition - have forced her to take less hours at work, meaning she gets paid less, meaning she's had to find a cheaper place to live. That's why she went for this flat; it's far cheaper than you'd expect. Apparently all the previous tennants have moved out in a hurry, citing all manner of reasons that have (apparently) had little basis in truth. 
Her health is getting slowly worse over time. She's hoping it will level out soon, she needs her independence. She can't afford a carer, and while her family can pay for one (or just look after her), re-initiating contact with them means getting constantly misgendered by people who never really accepted her in the first place, so it's hardly an option. 

Agatha is dead. She's been dead since 1940, and she's stayed here the whole while.
She died aged 23. Her older brother caught her engaged in 'inappropriate' activity with another girl, confronted her about it when she got home. The confrontation turned into an argument, she shoved him, he shoved back, she toppled down the stairs and when she landed, her neck was bent at an angle it shouldn't be, and she wasn't moving.
Her brother stashed her body in the space between ceiling and attic-boards, and left her there to desiccate and crumble. Told the family she never came home, and it was, eventually, assumed she'd died in an air-raid.
In life, Agatha was a timid, shy thing, scared to open up to others, scared to be truly recognised. Since her death, her fear has given way to loneliness and bitterness. She's furious at the world, furious at herself, needing a connection to somebody, anybody, but unable to achieve it without driving people away.
For now, she's a lingering presence in the building, able to observe freely but struggling to manifest herself. Unlike the previous people to move into her haunt, she likes Jenny.

Supporting cast:
Nobody plays these characters exclusively as their main character. Normally, Jenny's player will take suggestions from Agatha's player and decide based off that what the supporting characters do. Agatha's player can, however, control them instead, particularly in scenes where Agatha isn't active or present. Who controls a supporting character is fluid and flexible, varying from scene to scene and moment to moment as you each have ideas for them.

Jenny's father. He's an asshole. He thinks that no deal Brexit is what the people voted for, that this gender nonsense has gone too far, and that his kids should shut the hell up and respect him. Owns a carpet store, which he hasn't set foot in in twenty years. An upstanding member of society, allegedly.

Francine's a doctor at the local clinic. Overworked, underpaid, stressed. Frustrated by the lack of time to give things the attention and detail they deserve. Jenny is one of her more regular patients, both for blood tests and her recently-emerging heart problems. She's good at endochrinology, bad at mental health stuff.

Jenny's landlord. Doesn't really give a shit anymore; he manages thirty properties, and this is the only one with any persistent problems. His response is to ignore it, accept the place is a bad asset, and rent it out cheaply to whoever will have it for however long they'll put up with it. He's used to fast-talking his way out of conflicts, and not having real problems. He's doing alright for himself.

Jenny's boss at work. Mid thirties. Hates her dead-end middle-management job, her stagnant life, her useless employees. Drinks more than she should. Has been drinking far more than she should since separating from her girlfriend six weeks ago. Cares less than she should. Used to be a good person, maybe she could be again. 

Harriet is 95, living in a nearby retirement home. Her lover died in the blitz, and in the years following that, she settled down, got married, had a family. Her husband was an asshole, but he's dead now. Her kids don't visit her. She often thinks back to her first love in 1940, and wonders what could have been.

Agatha's brother. He died in the blitz not long after Agatha did. He regrets what happened, but not enough to admit it to anybody. He died guilty, and now haunts the place of his death, which has subsequently become a grotty petrol station; it would probably be less grotty if it wasn't haunted.

Other Supporting Characters
Feel free to introduce other characters to your game, whoever might be relevant to the story. Work out who they are, how they related to the main characters, what drives them, what the possible conflicts are.

The Flat
What was once Agatha's house has been divided into three flats; Jenny has moved into the top floor, the one Agatha herself pays most attention to. There's a shared stairwell between the flats - the same stairs Agatha was pushed down - and a shared hallway with letter-boxes, and electricity and gas meters.
The flat itself is seemingly clean and neat when Jenny moves in. A bedroom and a living room. A well-equipped kitchen with an old gas cooker and a modern (and slightly shit) fridge, washing machine, freezer, dishwasher. A bathroom with an old bathtub, newly installed shower over it, a medicine cabinet where Jenny stores her titty skittles. It came unfurnished, and Jenny doesn't own much furniture, so for now she's making do with a camp-bed in her bedroom, and a cheap desk and swivel-chair with her computer on it. A few items from her time at university are scattered about, but absolutely nothing from her childhood. Most of her minimalist possessions are still in boxes in the living-room, unpacked until she needs them.

Jenny's bedroom used to be Agatha's bedroom. On the skirting-board, there's a little carving of Agatha's name that she made as a teenager, under a loose floor-board there's a handful of scandalous pulp lesbian romance novels Agatha stashed there, which nobody has since found.
There's an area five feet long and a foot wide in the kitchen, where black mold seems to form regardless of what measures are taken. Everybody scrubs it away before it gets too bad, but if left to develop, it will form the silhouette of a woman's body, curled in the fetal position, stashed between the ceiling and floorboards above.

In the public stairwell, there's a hatch leading to the attic above. It's not even locked shut. The landlord has stored some leftover lino and wallpaper here, but really nobody goes up here; the place gives people the creeps.

Game Mechanics

The game is divided into scenes. In each scene, Jenny's player begins by describing what she's doing, narrating her actions and what's going on around her. Agatha's player doesn't get to control the narration here, but she can ask questions, offer prompts and suggestions. She serves, initially, as a sounding board for Jenny's player to narrate the scene.
Agatha is, diegetically, present and observing. Although she cannot normally communicate with Jenny, her player can still offer Agatha's thoughts and observations as a running commentary. She can, however, manifest herself if she wishes, and expends the effort to do so, as detailed below.
Whilst normally Agatha's player doesn't control the narration, she can - if Agatha isn't really around - take control of a supporting character for the scene. 
Likewise, it's possible to have scenes which Jenny isn't around for, but Agatha is; here, Jenny's player would control any supporting characters, and Agatha can respond as normal.

Agatha's player has a pool of Emotion Points; in games in person, you can represent these with physical tokens, online keep track of them in a text chat.
There are five emotions Agatha has access to:
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Love
  • Pain
  • Loneliness 
Agatha begins with one point each of Pain and Loneliness.
When Jenny openly expresses one of these emotions - either to herself, to Agatha, or to some other supporting character - then Agatha gets a point of the relevant emotion. It's Jenny's player's responsibility to keep track of when this happens, and dole out Emotion Points as appropriate, although, of course, she should listen to Agetha's Player's input.

Agatha's player can use her Emotion Points to Manifest.

When she Manifests, pick an Emotion she's manifesting and spend a Point of it. Direct supernatural events occur exactly as Agatha wishes, totally under her control. Agatha's player can narrate these how she likes. However, the supernatural events in question must reflect the emotion being manifested; Agatha cannot spend Loneliness to smash a picture-frame of somebody she's mad at, or spend Anger to make Jenny feel the sensation of being held affectionately. 
Possible Manifestations include strange noises, alterations to what the TV is showing, physical sensations, glimpsed images, objects moving by themselves, electrical items malfunctioning or functioning oddly, and other poltergeisty activity.

Once Agatha has spend an Emotion Point to Manifest, she can continue to Manifest that emotion for the rest of the scene; if she spends a Point of a different Emotion, she shifts to manifesting that one instead.
In order to speak audible words without a source, she must spend two points of a relevant emotion, not one. In order to show her visual appearance, she must spend three points of a relevant emotion, not one. In order to create a brief physical body out of nothing, she must spend five points of a relevant emotion, not one.

Framing scenes
In each scene, discuss between you what you want out of it, what you want to explore. Ask yourself where the conflict is: is it between Jenny and Agatha? Between Jenny and the external world, and the supporting characters in it? Between Jenny and her own weaknesses and traumas? Between Agatha and her own weaknesses and traumas?
Once this is decided, work out the specifics. Where and when it takes place, what Jenny is doing, who else (if anybody) is present, either in person, or on the phone or internet. Once the scene is set, Jenny's player can begin narrating, bouncing off the suggestions and questions offered by Agatha's player, until Agatha has sufficient Emotion Points, and the desire, to interact with the scene more directly.

Scenes can be influenced by previous ones, drawing from their events and outcomes to create new conflicts. After one scene ends, take a little breather, discuss between you both how it went, and then work out what you'd like to play through next.
There's no set point where the game ends. You can play through as many scenes as you want - maybe in a single session, maybe spread out over time - until the emergent story reaches a natural conclusion. That conclusion will vary from game to game; maybe Jenny doesn't cope with being haunted, and moves out. Maybe Jenny's heart problems get too serious, and she dies - and maybe, if she does, her ghost lingers with Agatha's. Maybe Agatha gets a proper funeral and can finally rest. Maybe the two protagonists fall in love, and settle down together. When the game ends, and if you consider that ending happy or sad, is down to you.

During scenes
When deciding what happens in a scene, there are a few priorities to consider. Does the new element reveal something about the main characters? Does it reflect or symbolise the conflict for the scene? Does it reflect or symbolise the deeper feelings and motivations of the characters? Does it create or advance a conflict that will be interesting (IE uncertain and rewarding) to resolve? All of these factors are positives. It is also worth trying to keep your actions consistent with your characters as established so far, both in their briefs and in previous scenes, and making changes and developments to their personalities flow naturally from what they've experienced.
Where the outcome of a conflict between characters is in doubt, ask yourselves what the most interesting outcome would be, what the most likely outcome would be, and what the most desirable outcome would be. Weigh these factors up, and decide by mutual agreement what ends up happening.

What Jenny Initially Wants:
  • To feel safe.
  • To be free from her past and her family.
  • To be accepted.
  • To be loved.

What Agatha Initially Wants:
  • To have people know what happened to her.
  • To have a proper funeral.
  • To be accepted.
  • To be loved.


  1. Wow... This is really powerful. I've played through similar scenarios (not identical) in the past, and... well, it takes a lot of trust to do so. Suffice to say, I'll be keeping this one bookmarked.

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    1. Oh wow, just reading this made me no-kidding cry a bit.

      (sorry about replying to myself. i wanted to make a small edit after posting, but i guess that's not possible)

    2. glad it did its job! The playtests were, like, pretty emotional.

    3. Yeah, I can imagine. For me, once I got how the WW2 and modern day characters and NPCs connected, I was just "Oh. Oh nooo!"

      Unrelated, but kinda important:
      The links to buy your books (in the top of the right-side column) are broken. Only the link to Deep Morphean Transmissions work, the rest are missing the ':' from the "https://" part. I posted a comment about that on another page, but I'll mention it here too.