Thursday, April 18, 2013

EPOCH: Looking at a New Approach to Horror Gaming

Horror’s hard. But when it goes off well at the table it offers a golden moment. The Id DM calls these the flashbulb memories of gaming. I remember the pseudo-live action session of Pagan’s Grace Under Pressure we ran- with two players isolated in a minisub and only able to communicate with the other players in another room via an intercom. The superhero game session I ran that ended up being a riff on Aliens- complete with the PCs opening up on their teammates when one of them got pulled up into the ceiling. The World of Darkness game where I took a player aside and then slammed the door shut and killed the light. My Dread game based on The Hangover where I made the players jump when I smashed a display board off the wall. Even the Delta Green campaign I played in with the slow building existential horror of realizing that you may have been helping evil the entire time. Different games systems- most of which got out of the way and let things roll. I’ve also played horror sessions where the game system sat squarely in the path of terror.

For example FATE, while evocative, doesn’t do horror well. It took a blog article to crystallize my thinking on that. I wish I could point it, but I’ve lost track of it. Essentially the author suggested that games offering narrative control or player escape valves didn’t work as well for horror settings. Most horror operates from threat, entrapment, and some degree of helplessness. BRP and GURPS for example usually present lower-powered characters relying on their native skills and decent rolls. They lack drama points, hero points, or the like. The author of this essay in particular suggested that FATE, while an excellent system wasn't a good fit for horror. The ability of the players to manipulate the narrative, to define the situation through aspects, and to reroll and modify their results meant a loss of tension and mystery. In general I agree with that.

However, EPOCH takes another approach. It aims to generate buy-in and terror through shared narrative control and player participation. Some other recent horror rpgs have worked to do this- often through compromises on how your character meets their grisly fate. EPOCH takes a unique approach through the use of special cards as a core mechanic. I’ll come to exactly how that works in a bit.

That’s interesting to me because I’m fascinated by different approaches to using cards as an alternate or supplement randomizer or resource in games. Castle Falkenstein substitutes that for dice and builds unique mechanics for hand management into the game. DragonStorm and the recently discussed Penny Arcade protoytpe RPG use player decks. Other uses include Everyway’s environment creation through Vision Cards or Changeling the Dreaming’s supplemental Bunk Cards. Our long-running homebrew, Action Cards, uses unique player decks for challenge resolution.


EPOCH stands for Experimental Paradigm of Cinematic Horror. The subtitle for the game is “Character-Driven Survival Horror Roleplaying.” Survival horror puts us firmly in the camp with games like All-Flesh Must Be Eaten, Fear Itself, and Abandon All Hope. The book itself is a 138-page trade-sized softcover, which can can also be purchased as a pdf. The pdf uses a completely different layout- and is standard letter size. EPOCH's comparable to other recent indie rpg offerings like Hollowpoint, Durance, and Fiasco. In print, EPOCH offers crisp and clean layout and text design- very easy to read. The pdf's a little rougher- but includes the cards and some additional scenario ref sheets. The interior illustrations, though few in number, are decent and evocative. The cover’s strong- though it does bring up memories of a Scooby-Do villain for me.

As I mentioned, the game uses special cards as a key element of play. A pdf of the cards accompanies the electronic version; I assume that can also be downloaded from the publisher’s website if you buy the print version. As well, Imaginary Empire has taken advantage of DriveThruRPG’s new PoD card option. This is the first time I’ve had a chance to see the quality and I’m impressed. The cards designs I’m a little less taken with. The book uses such a subtle and clean design that the cards feel garish in comparison. These are full color and in some cases, especially the Horror Track cards, the background images get in the way. They make reading the cards a little difficult. Most of the 130 cards in the deck are legible, with some few exceptions. I’ll admit a bias to function over form, so your impression may vary.

I want to note, perhaps a little later than I should in this overview, that I'm offering just an overview and impressions of the game. I’ve read through EPOCH a couple of times now, trying to get a feel for it. However I haven’t yet been able to get a group together for a one-shot due to other campaigns and scheduling conflicts. I’m usually pretty confident about giving useful read-through impressions of games. I’ve read and played enough to offer informed judgments and suggest who might be most interested in a product. Here I’m a little more stumped because the play of the game is so different. I should also note that I was generously provided review copy of the game and of the PoD cards.

EPOCH opens with a lengthy section discussing the nature of horror gaming and the challenges facing it. It establishes the key idea for the game, that player buy-in and connection is crucial for such games to work. The game engine and mechanics of the game work to back and support that. There’s a parallel for me with Dread, which uses an unusual and explicit mechanic to help simulate the genre- in this case the tension of the Jenga tower creates tension in the players. That’s a shift from the more common rule-light or rules minimal approach which hopes to make the players connect by forgetting they’re in a game. The opening section is interesting, but highly prescriptive. I don’t mean that too negatively, but I know that some gamers react badly to games which seem to declare absolute methods (Apocalypse World) or couch things in ‘should’ or ‘must’ language. The tone of EPOCH here suggests a strict approach. I don’t think that’s exactly what’s meant, but I’ll admit on my first read-though I found myself put off a little by it. Taken as good advice and best practices, this chapter offers useful tools.

The second chapter, “Muscle” lays out the game mechanics. It begins with one of the best summaries I’ve seen in a game book- laying out a clear overview of the procedures. Players create their characters at the table, based on the scenario framework established by the GM. Each get a relationship, occupation, and circumstance card they can work into their character when the session begins. The game itself is broken into “Tension Phases,” which might be called scenes in another game, but can include several such scenes. Each Tension Phase ends with a confrontation of some kinds. To survive this, they must play an Outcome card. If they have none, they move out of the game (death, insanity, etc). After each Tension Phase, players vote on the most interesting character who receives a played Outcome card. Losing in the challenge gains the player a Flashback card. The game offers a number of additional complications to that system, but this represents the basic elements.

In character creation, players choose to begin knowing each other or as strangers. In the former case, they choose friends, family, or colleagues. Each receives a random relationship card from that sub-type. Additionally each player may write out a secret and place it face down beneath the group card. Groups of strangers instead receive random Circumstance and Occupation cards. For both groups, players also receive a random Trait and Strength/Weakness card. The game provides 8-9 cards of each type. I imagine with repeated play, GMs might want to develop new ones.

Despite the mechanical use of cards, there’s a strong Story Game focus present in EPOCH. Player feedback through voting is intended to push player investment. It is also a mechanic which can polarize players- I know several groups I’ve run for where this would work well, and an equal number which would react badly. There’s a basic structural assumption that players must win Tension Rounds to survive. Each player begins with four result cards- three representing different levels of punishing outcomes and one oddball Hero/Zero card. This last one allows you to play a card for another player so they don’t have to (but you spend two cards total) OR force another player to play two Outcomes instead of one. That’s a weirdly competitive/cooperative approach and one I really need to see in play. Challenge Rounds have the GM narrating the challenge, with the players then responding by playing Outcome cards. Players choose and reveal cards in turn, describing what they’re doing and what’s happening to them. This means latter players can respond to earlier narrative elements.

Beyond this, EPOCH presents no specific rules for resolving actions, choices, and incidents, except those which activate a Challenge Round. There’s an assumption of competency which may also polarize play groups. GMs can respond and judge situations- interactions with NPCs, for example, must be played out in the first person. Player choices may also push forward the Horror Track, another sub-system for the game. Each scenario has a set of unique Horror Track cards, each with a point value associated with an event or resource. If the players manage to achieve this in play, the GM adds it to the collective group pool. Depending on how many they acquire before the end scene the group wins or fails. Ten points or less represents a Defeat; 20+ offers total victory. Anything in between is a hollow victory.

The last part of the mechanical section, "Skin," offers nine pages of additional GM advice. The rest of the volume, from page 52 on, offers three fully-fleshed scenarios. Each talks about the set up and offers ideas for introducing the story. Each has six fully mapped and developed tension phases. Material at the end explains the relevant Horror Track cards, ideas for locations, and suggestions for resolutions. The scenarios are classic and well-presented. At first glance they seem more than a little directed, some might say railroad, but I think there’s enough room for the GM to shift and build on the concepts.

I always like to read new mechanics- if nothing else they spark new ideas about play. My gut reaction in horror gaming is to push the system out of the way, and in some ways EPOCH does that. It lacks any conventional resolution mechanics for the usual nitty-gritty of play. In effect it is pure narrative and diceless, until you get to the crunch points. And that’s where the rubber hits the road. I really need to run or see that in play to get a solid feel to it. I like many of the other elements- the concrete and rewarding nature of the Horror Track and the tactile experience of the other random cards. After several readings, I’m going to recommend this to GMs interesting new ways of approaching horror one-shots. I also think it is worth reading for those interested in new mechanical approaches. Imaginary Empires has several free one-shot scenarios which include quick start versions of the rules. They’ve also released EPOCH: Frontier of Fear a collection of four new sci-fi horror scenarios.