|Strathclyde House. Whatever walked there, walked alone.|
Last week, we finished my haunted house campaign NO ONE GETS OUT ALIVE. It was a strong finish to a game that had a lot of powerful stuff in it.
Everything about this game was an experiment, really, and it's probably lucky that it came out as well as it did, but I had great players and good tools to play with. The objective of the game was to play something that was focused on going deeper, playing harder than we had for a while, even in games that had a lot of good stuff in them. We were playing with a slightly smaller group, three players and a GM, which had important implications for play down the line. As far as mechanics go, we were using the dramatic petitioner-granter rules from DRAMASYSTEM, with the 2d6+Trait mechanic from Powered-by-the-Apocalypse games to serve as our procedural rules.
I started with a very broad canvas to work with, my love of ghost stories and haunted houses. You could tell all kinds of different dramatic stories against that backdrop, and I suggested several models we could work with (including one that was investigators in a haunted house, like THE HAUNTING), but the one we settled on was a sprawling family drama. After the death of the family matriarch, the relatives come together to deal with the will, and secrets and sins start to boil to the surface. It took us two sessions to create characters and a suitably complicated family tree to satisfy everyone, but it was time well invested.
In a nutshell, the McBride family has been in the distillery business since the 1920s, but now Michael Ross, the "good son" who's been working as CEO to hold things together, has resorted to fraud to keep things afloat until the company can be sold to a Japanese firm. "Miss Maudie" McBride, who has been living alone in the decaying island mansion Strathclyde House for years, leaves a will behind that includes a sibling the McBrides didn't know they had -- Lisette, the daughter of the groundskeeper, who also has McBride blood in her through one of Miss Maudie's indiscretions. Michael's wife Jo is wary of Lisette's return, because she remembers Lisette and Michael were boyfriend and girlfriend as teenagers... until she put a stop to it, with Miss Maudie's help. Jo has been having an affair, but is still quite prepared to defend her family "turf" against all comers, including Michael's sister Diana and his brother Matthew, who have been draining the family coffers for years. Now, Diana is demanding to see the family books, at the worst possible moment for Michael, threatening to expose his bookkeeping fancy footwork. Then there are Madeline and Tyler, Michael and Jo's children, who may be pawns or leverage in the crumbling Ross marriage...
...And all of that is before the supernatural shenanigans begin.
I told the players early on that ghosts were all about "weaponizing the past", and I made sure that each player character had a dark secret to draw on. I mentioned Michael and Jo's above, and Lisette's was substance abuse. I also asked the players to go into each session with a game plan, a concrete, actionable goal for something they were hoping to do that session, and rewarded those who accomplished them. I think the game plans helped a bit, as did the group's mission statement to play harder, go deeper.
The first session I did very little other than describe the house as they saw it, and occasionally interject small moments with side characters like the kids and Michael's siblings. I like to be an active GM, so it was stressful to just sit back and let things play out, but I'm a big believer in letting people "kick the tires" on new characters and explore them a bit before putting any serious pressure on.
I knew going into the game that ghosts were capable of so many things that I needed to place some creative constraints on myself, or I could create situations that were abusive -- the player characters would literally have no defence against that kind of opposition. My solution was to create a "timing" mechanism for when the supernatural elements would begin to manifest, using the "clocks" from APOCALYPSE WORLD. I wrote a list of "triggers" that would fill a clock segment, and left it up to the players whether they would know what they were. (I figured that it was an open question whether they would want to know, so they could push harder to make things happen, or whether they'd prefer to be surprised.) We compromised, and I told them one of my list of eight-ish triggers, but kept the rest secret. I planned them to be things that were likely to come up in the first act of a drama (such as deliberately lying to another character or avoiding looking into the past, or refusing a petition); I think I planned them well, because 2/3 player characters filled their clocks by the end of the first episode.
With their clocks filled, the players then got to pick from a series of cards with evocative phrases on them ("The Whisper", "The Door", and "The Mirror" were the ones chosen). These cards corresponded to "ghost powers" that I could use in the game, after they'd been unlocked. This both created a calm first act before the supernatural began to manifest and gave the players some agency in what the rest of the game looked like, although they didn't know what the cards meant. The cards they chose gave me the ability to create hallucinations / illusions (The Mirror), voices speaking to them to drive them apart (The Whisper), and the ability to move objects and people around in space -- what ghost chasers call an "apport". These turned out to be perfect choices, because they created a very particular kind of ghost: one that was focused on fucking with people's perceptions, toying with existing conflicts, driving the characters apart.
The following three episodes were much higher-pressure. As I mentioned earlier, having only three main characters in a drama-focused game has serious implications for play. It meant that practically every scene had two of the players involved in it, giving players very little "down" time where they were just observing other scenes and recharging their cells. The sessions tended to be on the short side, between two and two-and-a-half hours, but they were pretty demanding for the players, and I'm not sure we could have played longer if we'd wanted to. The best sessions seemed to demand a half hour afterwards to cool down and talk about what had happened, which felt an awful lot like a LARP style debrief to me. (Megan and I also made a practice of going for as long a walk afterwards as we could manage, because we knew otherwise sleeping would be hard.)
The last episode was the most demanding for me, with the characters all at each others' throats and the stakes very high (Michael and Jo's son Tyler had vanished, and Michael was reeling from having pushed his brother Matthew off the roof the previous episode). I pushed the supernatural elements hard, dividing the characters and pushing them against each other. That session was a lot closer to the way I run traditional horror games, with quick cuts between scenes and much of the tension building from characters having imperfect knowledge or skewed perceptions of what was happening around them. I went into that episode with my own game plan written at the top of the page: everybody's dark secret is revealed. So a phantom cell phone call revealed Jo's infidelity, a ghostly re-enactment of the brother's death revealed Michael's culpability, and mysterious pill bottles tumbled out of Lisette's pockets at the worst possible moment.
I enjoyed that episode a lot, and I hope the players did too, and one particular thing that was a pleasure was that I wasn't entirely sure it would be the last episode when we began it. I knew it was possible, and intended to play hard, but it could have turned out that a fifth episode was required to wrap everything up nicely. I didn't decide until about twenty minutes from the end that this was the time to pull out all the stops, play for keeps, and see if anyone would survive in defiance of the game's title. As it turned out, of the main cast, only Michael survived the fire that destroyed Strathclyde House at the end, living to be accused of murder by his daughter and likely face prison for cooking the family business's books. It was an awful, painful ending, and it felt entirely earned. Maybe even inevitable.
Megan has written long, deep recaps of the sessions here, at her excellent blog, and if you're a bibliophile who doesn't already know about it... now ya know:
Episode One - "The Drop-Off"
Episode Two - "Another Midnight"
Episode Three - "Inevitability of Death"
Episode Four - "Here in the Dark"is here and here (in two parts, including a little bit about the backstory from me).
And, for the completists, about character creation too.