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The following interview was conducted between Roleplayers Chronicle Editor-in-Chief Aaron T. Huss, denoted by the prefix RPC, and writer Dale Elvy of Imaginary Empire, denoted by the prefix DE. The interview was conducted via Skype messenger.
RPC: Welcome everyone to another edition of A Word in Edgewise. Today we are talking with Dale Elvy of Imaginary Empire. Dale, can you start by introducing yourself and giving everyone a brief look at your RPG history, including your publishing credentials?
DE: Sure. I’ve been playing games for a couple of decades here in Wellington, New Zealand. Unlike most folks I didn’t start with D&D, rather it was TMNT and the Palladium games that were popular where I grew up. I migrated to Call of Cthulhu in my teens and developed a love for horror games I’ve never really skaen since.
I also particularly enjoy superhero games, and have been having a blast with Rogue Trader recently in the 40k universe. As far as publishing goes, I wrote a few fantasy novels in my early twenties (published by HarperCollins), but it wasn’t until relatively recently I started writing for games.
Given my interest in Call of Cthulhu I’ve written a couple of unusual scenarios – one a Dark Ages scenario called Malevolence which was published in Worlds of Cthulhu #3 and one an Old West scenario called Sundown which was written to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Call of Cthulhu (availble free from RPGDriveThru and Chasoium).
I also wrote a superhero scenario for Icons called ‘The Aotearoa Gambit’, along with some help from Icon’s co-author Morgan Davie, which was written to raise funds for St. John’s Ambulance service, who were the first responders following the Christchurch earthquake a couple of years back.
RPC: When you mention Palladium, do you mean Rifts or something else?
DE: Not Rifts I’m afraid – the generic Palladium material that tied into TMNT, so ‘Ninja’s and Superspies’ etc. although I have trouble remembering much more than that.
RPC: When I look through the games you mention, I see a lot of flavor-rich, immersive settings such as the Warhammer 40,000 universe, Cthulhu Dark Ages, and even TMNT if you consider the cartoon and comic books. There’s a definite common theme, and it seems you have incorporated these influences into EPOCH. What do you feel is the strongest part of setting immersion within EPOCH in terms of how the player characters can truly get involved with a setting that feels very alive?
DE: Well, In EPOCH I think the immersion has to work in several parts. If you just bring a complex setting to the table, often players switch off (unless they are also fans of that setting). So, in EPOCH each scenario is structured to provide some introductory detail – some basic context to get the players juices flowing. Then, you engage the player specifically, through framing an opening scene. Effectively easing them into a co-created opening scene which is unique to their character.
That’s the mechanics of how EPOCH does it. Also in the rules, there is some considerable advice about how to level with the players, and get their explicit buy-in to the game you are going to run (rather than just starting the game and hoping that you enthusiasm will carry them along as is sometimes the case).
RPC: Does that mean each character has their own opening scene?
DE: Yes. Just like many movies, each character is described, and then placed in some context. In each opening scene there is usually a small challenge which requires a response from the character (being solicited for change by a homeless person, witnessing a minor accident, getting cut off in traffic etc.) and the character’s reaction starts helping the audience (all the other players + GM) to get an idea about what sort of character this is.
RPC: As opposed to a game, such as Dungeons & Dragons, that essentially requires the group to be comprised of specific character types, does EPOCH remove any such requirements allowing the players to go crazy with character creation, leading to a truly interesting opening scene?
DE: Well, in EPOCH is player is striving to have their character be ‘most interesting’ (as opposed to being most bad-ass like in many D&D group). So what that means in practice, is that as each player introduce their character in their opening scene, the other players adapt or change their initial ideas, to be different. So you don’t generally get 5 ‘bad-ass loner’ type characters looking broodily into the darkness. After one of those characters is introduce the next player will often pick on something completely different (e.g I’m a hippie who works in a communal garden) and so you usually get a fair bit of variety in character ‘types’ without ever having to specify anything as GM (like who has to play the Priest:)
The players also get some randomly assigned elements to help them with their character choices. So in the scenario ‘Quintessence’ where the characters are corporate marines in the future, they all get a card which provides them with what kind of marine they are (grizzled veteran, career marine etc.) as well as a strength/weakness and trait card to give some additional elements to be incorporated
But, not everyone is always sure, immediately, what sort of character they want, so the opening scene doesn’t really commit you to too many hard choices, it just starts the process of character development. It’s the flashbacks where you really get to see the characters backstory (and the many inventive and surprising twists that the players come up with).
RPC: Given what you just said, how much character creation is there before the actual game begins?
DE: Not a great deal. The players have hopefully read the trailer before they come to the game so hopefully they know what kind of setting to expect, and may have some ideas in advance – but when they sit down at the table they get dealt some cards, and start thinking about the character during the opening introduction – then we go straight into opening scenes.
RPC: Can you take some time and discuss the trailer?
DE: Sure. An EPOCH trailer is in two parts. The first is the flavour text. A short, compelling blurb, much like a guy with a smooth voice would read during the trailer of a movie. It should give prospective players an idea about where the game is set (now, the future, the past) and give some hints about what might occur. The second part of the trailer explains what kind of game EPOCH is – the aim and that players will have a fair bit of control over how the game plays out. I think this kind of explicit communication is fairly essential in ‘con settings where players come to the table with a huge range of different expectations.
RPC: How long do you expect a trailer to be?
DE: Two paragraphs. One for the flavour blurb and one for the game description. In my experience, much more than this and people often lose attention.
RPC: When I look at the cover, which I think looks fantastic, I get the sense that EPOCH is about cinematic horror where the focus is getting through to the end and escaping that which is “chasing” you. Knowing from your Designer’s Diary that EPOCH is survival horror, what is the ultimate goal for the player characters and what is the ultimate goal for the game master?
DE: Thanks. The goal for the PC’s is survival. Not all the characters will survive until the end of the game – this is certain. Equally, some will survive if there is a basic level of engagement with the scenario – this is equally certain. So each player should aim to have their character survive. Their survival, however, is anchored to the way the other character play their outcome cards, and how interesting the group judge their character to be. The more interesting the character, usually, the more fun the game is for the payers and GM.
The GM’s goal is to ensure that characters have ample space to develop their characters, but that the scenario is nonetheless, continuing apace. The horror should manifest and claim characters as the game progresses, almost regardless of character actions. So the GM should be aiming to make sure that each challenge is a truly harrowing and challenging encounter for the PC’s as much as possible to really ratchet up the tension of the game.
RPC: So who is actually driving the horror and the chance to not survive? The GM or the other players?
DE: Both, because the horror is felt through the lens of the characters, although ultimately each challenge is levelled by the GM. The players have a Hero/Zero card which allows them a choice of limting their own chance of survival to help another character, or harming another character to help their own chance of survivial. The way these cards are played often dictates who survives, and who does not. Equally the whole group (players + GM) get to vote for most interesting a regular intervals, with the winner recieving an additional card, and therefore an additional chance at survival. So, while the GM is levelling the challenge rounds, and manifesting the horror, it is the players who really explore the consequences and cost of the horror.
RPC: How does the voting work? A simple yes or no or something in-between?
DE: Secret ballot. Each player and the GM gets a ballot at the beginning of the game. Secret ballot. The game is split into (usually) 6 tension phases, with a challenge round at the end of each. The challenge round presents a challenge for all the characters, which they must play an outcome card to survive (the card reflecting the mental or physical cost to the character). Once that’s done each player votes for the most interesting character during the previous tension phase (using whatever criteria they like) then hands this to the GM. The GM votes once as well, then tallies the votes, hands back the ballots, and announces the winner. That player can retrieve a single outcome card back into their hand.
RPC: What happens if you’re voted as the least interesting character? Or does it not work that way…?
DE: Nope, there is one winner. Everyone else gets a flashback card. THis allows them to trigger a flashback during the next tension phase. The flashback is a huge opportunity to emphasise why your character is so interesting. Sometimes players ‘piggyback’ onto other players flashbacks, showing that their character was also present during the flashback. Even though winning a ballot is great, missing out on a flashabck can really hurt, especially if you think up some amazing twist for your character during the next tension phase.
RPC: It sounds like you’re describing character creation and development even throughout the scenario, adding to the richness of that character. Is that a fair statement?
DE: Yes indeed.
RPC: How does a character succumb to the horror? Is it a simple “you have succumbed to the horror and have thus not survived” or is it a manner of physical and mental degradation throughout the entire scenario?
DE: Elmination happens when you have no further cards to play during the challenge round – so whatever the challenge is, it claims the character. Often this is as simple as a character being killed by a supernatural foe, or losing their mind etc. However because of the Hero/Zero card, sometimes this elimination plays out in unexpected ways (another character doesn’t hold the lift for you while your character is being chased by a werewolf etc.) or can represent the character making the ultimate sacrifice for another character (saying “I’ll hold him off” to another character as the hocy mask weaing slasher advances). The injuries and negative mental consequences you play during the game are not cumulative – because as with a movie, even if you have suffered a serious injury early on during that movie, you might be acting entirely fine later on. So injuries and mental trauma hopefully provide you with a new element to help make yuro character interesting during the next phase.
RPC: Can a Zero card have a detrimental affect to a character for the remainder of the scenario? Or are they always “shrugged off” after the next tension phase?
DE: Assuming they weren’t eliminated, the injury or trauma the charcater plays when targeted by a Zero card only lasts for the tension phase. Of course – mechanically, a player has cost you one of your 4 cards, and reduced your chance of survival significantly if you don’t win a ballot, so the detrminetla relationship between characters might last throughout the game (e.g. Burke and Ripley in Aliens).
Which is of course, more interesting for everyone…
RPC: What’s the potential that everyone can survive?
DE: The only way that can occur is if the GM runs less tension phases than the 6 most scenarios are designed for. Usually the first character elimination happens around the 4th tension phase. However, I did play in one game where all of the characters played a Hero card on each other at some point during the course of the scenario, so if the ballot had resulted every player winning once, I suppose there might have been a theoretical possibility.
RPC: How specific are the Hero/Zero cards?
DE: We were mobsters in that scenario by the way…
The cards simply explain the mechanic (play an additional card to mean that another player doesn’t have to play a card, or
Sorry, you might mean the Outcome cards (of which the Hero/Zero card is a subset).
RPC: Actually I mean all of them. For instance, if someone plays a Hero card, it only tells them the mechanic and is up to the player to narrate how that heroic deed occurs?
DE: Right, so the Outcome cards have 3 levels – Serious, Moderate or light. There is a sentence of flavour to give you a feel for the severity, but it’s over you to narrate whether the injury is a stylish cut above the eye, or the amputation of several fingers – although it is advsed the GM provide some suggestions. In the EPOCH core rules there is a section with a lot more detail on each level to help the GM frame the outcome.
As for the Hero/Zero card, yes, only the mechanic is defined. The way it manifests is up to the person playing the card. Again GM suggestions are recommended
So, if you Zero another character, that person has to immediately play another outcome card – they would narrate the specifics of this additional trauma, although you should suggest how your character came to endanger them.
RPC: That’s a great mechanic for representing the inherent chaos of a horror movie. If a character ends up surviving all this, is there a chance they can be in a “sequel?”
DE: Indeed :) In Frontier of Fear (the EPOCH Sci-Fi collection) this idea is discussed, along with a suggestion about which scenarios might be good ‘sequels’
RPC: What is the base theme of the EPOCH core rulebook? In regards to how you designed it…
DE: EPOCH is about running tense, or even scary games. So drilling that down, I guess it’s about how to generate enhanced characterisation and immersion, and how this can lead to tense gameplay.
RPC: Is it primarily modern? As opposed to fantasy, sci-fi, action, or historical…
DE: EPOCH is a framework for reflecting all types of horror movie. The core book suggests that most EPOCH scenario should feature the kind of movie settings that are liekly to be familiar to players. The core rulebook contains 3 scenarios which are ‘modern’. Frontier of Fear contains 4 Sci-Fi scenarios, The Cold Shore which should be released early next week is set in the 1870’s, while EPOCH: War Stories which is currently being written will feature scenarios set in WWI, WWII as well as more contemporay conflicts.
RPC: So the core rulebook is designed to be genre agnostic?
RPC: I think I’ve run out of things to ask as you’ve really covered a lot. Is there anything else you’d like to touch on? You are free to also give a brief description of the other EPOCH releases and what’s coming up.
DE: Fair enough – thanks for the opportunity to discuss EPOCH. My last post outlines what’s coming up for EPOCH. Plus I hope to have a companion out mid-year with some additional card options, advice on writing EPOCH scenarios plus mini-series rules
Thanks to Dale Elvy for taking the time to speak with Roleplayers Chronicle about EPOCH!