Welcome to the forty-eighth Designer’s Diary, a column where designers are given the opportunity to take readers on an in-depth ride through the design and development process of their system, setting, or product. If you’d like to share your product in the Designer’s Diary column, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
EPOCH is a game of character-driven survival horror. The goal is to deliver a tense and scary experience in a single game session. The central premise of EPOCH is that detailed and interesting characters, with stories that evolve and are embellished during the game, are the key to achieving this.
EPOCH introduces a number of mechanics to create this experience. Pre-generated character elements and structured opening scenes help players start a character sketch they will further develop during play. A structure of limited survival which rewards interesting character play (as judged by all the players) with increased chances of survival encourages enhanced characterisation. EPOCH also introduces a number of techniques for a GM to employ in order to support enhanced characterisation, and lead to an atmosphere of tense, suspenseful, gaming.
I wanted to create the kind of horror game that explicitly linked the desired outcomes of the game, with the mechanics. I wanted a game which reflected the style of one-shot games that I enjoy running and playing; a game where the style, scenario, and mechanics put the characters at the centre of the story, and no matter what decisions are made during the game, this results in a tense and entertaining horror story. Then I wanted to make that experience replicable for everyone.
EPOCH is strongly influenced by a large pantheon of horror roleplaying games that have gone before. These giants have expanded our understanding of what is possible in roleplaying, and helped to carve out a distinctive and important body of work. Games like Call of Cthulhu, Kult, Trail of Cthulhu, Fear Itself, Little Fears, Don’t Rest Your Head, Dread, Zombie Cinema, and many others, have all influenced EPOCH in one way or another. Horror movies of all sorts are obviously also a huge influence.
EPOCH is not about simulating reality, rather it is about simulating horror movies, so insofar as it can be considered ‘research’, I watched a lot of horror movies and tried to isolate what made them tense, how the horror manifested, and what the impact was on the characters. The mechanics I employed were tested fairly extensively, but I’ll cover that in the development process below. Finally, most EPOCH scenarios involve a degree of research to anchor the movie style fiction to a kernel or two of fact.
I commissioned a series of pieces from talented artist Doug Royson. I wanted several large illustrations which exemplified typical scenes from horror movies, and would be recognisable as such. I also wanted a major piece depicting a scene from each of the 3 scenarios featured in the core rules. Doug delivered some stunning art, as well as an evocative cover illustration and several smaller filler pieces. I think the art ties EPOCH to the films it seeks to emulate and hopefully provides an evocative and stimulating experience for the reader.
As a player of EPOCH, the game is (in my experience) intense. You begin by creating a character sketch, often drawing on familiar film stereotypes. Through a structured opening scene and pre-generated character elements you develop some fairly strong ideas early on. But from that point on, the character evolves as you are busy trying to distinguish your character from the others, while interacting with them – seeking to win the ballot that gets you an extra outcome card, and a better shot at survival. Of course, the flashback you get from not winning the ballot in any round can be almost as powerful, as it provides a terrific way of revealing tantalising glimpses of your characters background. You are also faced with a tough choice – play your Hero/Zero card as a Zero and reduce another character’s chance of survival, or play it as a Hero and help another character while reducing your own character’s chances of survival? It’s a choice you will soon have to make; make it interesting and your character’s prospect of survival is likely to increase. As the game develops, so does your character, as you all-the-while keep an eye on the cards revealed on horror track – hoping that if your character survives, you might even secure a happy ending.
As an EPOCH GM, the game is actually very straightforward to run, as the purpose of each scenario is to act as a framework of horror for the characters, rather than a story which they must investigate. This allows you to concentrate on adapting the scenario to the characters, bringing the drama to them, emphasising how the horror impacts each of them. The challenge and ballot mechanic mean you are not faced with deciding who is attacked or eliminated, when, or translating character actions into mechanical tests and rolls – all the characters face elimination, and all the players narrate the impact of this challenge on their characters as they play outcome cards. You vote along with the players, and the conclusion of each challenge round should provide a natural pause to prepare for the next tension phase. You also monitor and reveal the horror track, revealing the collective progress of the characters in defeating the source of the horror (and literally laying your cards on the table at the beginning of the game).
As far as I’m aware, EPOCH provides a genuinely unique experience within the parameters of its scope (single session, survival horror roleplaying). Other games like Zombie Cinema or Dread also tread this ground, but EPOCH’s focus on almost competitive character development, paired with collective decision making, make it stand apart. Other games like Fiasco involve at-the-table character creation using pre-generated elements, but the fairly traditional scenario and GM/player dynamic makes EPOCH less dependent on a good group dynamic and agreed shared-imaginary-space, while still empowering the players to take the key decisions about their characters. Games like Call of Cthulhu often involve a degenerative mental and physical spiral for the characters, and while in EPOCH the players are balancing finite resources, it is just as certain that some characters will survive the scenario, as will perish, so long as there is some basic engagement with the scenario by the characters.
EPOCH evolved from the aims I outlined in the purpose section above. From a design perspective, the question was: what does a game that is genuinely character driven look like and what mechanics are required to specifically support this? The answer came in several parts, over several years. My method was to use existing systems and scenarios, and to try new techniques to try and achieve the effect I wanted within these games.
I started with character creation. Many of my pre-generated characters I had used to good effect in ‘con games used similar elements to stimulate conflict and drama. Therefore, I wondered, could those elements be isolated, and assigned randomly to characters? I tested this with the superhero genre first, and found that people readily grasped the elements, and wove them into clever combinations I’d never anticipated, but I also noted that the initial establishment of the character was particularly challenging for some players. Players needed to ease into their characters, and allowed the space and time to weave the elements together. So I designed a structured opening scene for EPOCH, so that the players weren’t starting cold, added flashback cards to allow for subsequent development and for additional support, I added a card deck of interesting complications.
My superhero games also helped me to realise that a story built around the characters is much stronger than a story which the characters encounter. I had come to believe there is a competing agenda between plot and character written into many scenarios. Rather than have the players take responsibility for the story (as many indie games do) I wanted to bring the story to the characters as much as possible in a traditional format (without having pre-generated characters). I tested this too, and while a little bumpy, it convinced me this was a viable proposition if the characters and players were on board.
Next I wondered just how much more immersion a game could have if the aims were explicitly stated to the players before the game, and their agreement sought to challenge each other to make a more immersive game. Again, I experimented and found that players were willing to embrace this concept, and when they did so, the game got that much better. But I also found that it was very hard to sustain this concentration for prolonged periods. Just as with a movie audience, concentration is often fragmentary and should be managed to allow natural relaxation. So I added that to EPOCH as well.
I also pondered whether ‘combat’ really served much purpose in a ‘con game. As GM, I was usually much more interested in what the cost of a combat was to the characters, how they reconciled violence, or responded to injuries. A traditional mechanical resolution stole too much time from my one-shot sessions, and even the most basic system often served as a distraction from the game immersion when combat occurred as players sought to optimise their character’s prospects. So I decided I’d predetermine the outcomes of combat, but let the players determine what kind of injuries or psychological trauma their characters sustained, and when. This also means that all EPOCH characters are created equal under the system. Every player gets four outcome cards; three physical/mental outcomes of different severity levels and a Hero/Zero card, and will face around 6 challenge rounds, so who survives and who doesn’t is entirely a product of the interaction of characters during a game session.
I had thought this alone was enough, but talking with people over the years, I discovered many players (although not all) really like to know during a scenario how their actions might have played out differently. Players like to compare notes about how different groups had acted during a scenario – they liked to feel like there was meaning to their characters actions beyond the impact to their characters. I wasn’t willing to walk too far down the path of investigative games – GUMSHOE and Call of Cthulhu have trod this path already – and in a ‘con environment my experience has been that investigative games can be hit and miss. So I decided on a simple mechanic which would dictate how happy, or otherwise, the final scenes of a game were for the surviving characters. Not all my early readers like this, but I was very taken with the symbolism of a GM literally laying all their cards on the table at the beginning of a game.
Once the basic structure of the game was set out, I drew upon the collective wisdom of an experienced group of GMs and game writers. These included Morgan Davie (co-author of Icons), Michael Sands (who wrote Monster of the Week) and Alasdair Sinclair (who has won awards for scenario design and written extensively on game theory on Gametime (gametime.livejournal.com)). I collected comments, critiques and questions and then began revising draft after draft, until I was satisfied that their comments had been sufficiently addressed before beginning the editing and layout process.
Then it was on to testing the complete game, using my regular role-playing group, players at conventions and a group facilitated by Alasdair Sinclair until I was satisfied that the game would deliver the experience I had envisaged.