Sunday, 1 March 2015

Dead of Night: Hacked Up

Dead of Night, Second Edition
One of my favourite games, and an influence on how I play, run and design others, is Dead of Night by Andrew Kenrick: it's a deceptively simple horror game, which models movies & campfire tales excellently. It's not so much the rules of the game which do this but the meta-rules: the second edition contains extensive guidance on how to tweak the rules, adjusting variables and circumstantial effects to best reflect the style of horror game you want to emulate, whether that's dark horror comedy or tense, claustrophobic psychological thriller.

The nature of these meta-rules encourages experimentation and I've had some success playing with the possible combinations to produce different effects: my Cold Fusion scenario, which appears in the book, changes the ways Survival point are used, splitting them into two colours which are drawn randomly from a bag, providing a countdown to a fate other than death for the player-characters.

I've also hacked the game more extensively, to profoundly change the assumptions of play, tailoring it to extended campaign play or ensemble disaster movies. Presented here is the essence of those two hacks, plus one more to represent tense, situational horror that can still be used in conjunction with 'humans vs. monsters' style games.

Die Faster: Ensemble Cast Play
This is a big change to the fundamental way Dead of Night works, as each player can control several characters at once, but the stats of the game are greatly stripped down and simplified.

Instead of the existing four stat pairs (Identify/Obscure, Persuade/Dissuade, etc) there is only one pair, Proactive/Reactive and each PC gets 10 points to split between the two halves of this pair. Proactive is used when a PC tries to make something happens or to change the situation; Reactive applies when the PC tries to prevent something happening or to keep the situation as it is.

At the start of play, pitch a setting and get everyone to suggest possible characters who might be in that situation: you 'll need a list of at least 5 times the number of players, but keep descriptions short and stereotypical, e.g. 'Greedy Executive', 'Rookie Cop, 'Foul-Mouthed Labourer' and so on. Each player takes 5 Survival points as normal, but then takes it in turn to pay 1 Survival point and buy a character from the list: go around doing this until everyone is happy with the number of characters they have bought. More characters can be added to the list at any time, but any time a player earns a survival token, they must take a character from the list instead; they can also buy another character at any time, as long as they have a Survival point to pay for it with.

Image result for tremors cast
Tremors, 1990
As well as their stat pair, each character can also have one trait in the normal way, reflecting one thing they are especially good at; it's also a good idea to give them a name and think of a short, catchy description that can be used when introducing them to the narrative.

In all other ways, characters are treated exactly as Survival points: if you lose a Risky challenge, you must lose one of your characters, but not necessarily the one who made the roll. Each time one of your characters dies, you get to narrate it, so even if you choose to spend one for a re-roll or to establish a plot point, you get to choose the manner of the character's death and how it achieves that end.

Baggage: Campaign Play
This was an add-on I created when I set out to offer an 8-week campaign using Dead of Night as the ruleset: the basic idea was to give the player-characters an additional life-line that would hopefully slow down the mortality rate and allow storylines more time to develop.

Each player in the campaign creates one piece of Baggage for their character: this should be an object or NPC which represents an important goal or issue for the PC. For example, Baggage for one character might be their significant other, whereas someone else might have the hunting rifle bequeathed to them by their grandparent which they have won shooting contests with.

In play, each piece of Baggage has two uses: first, the player can choose to sacrifice their Baggage instead of having their character die. This doesn't require any re-rolls, they simply succeed at whatever they were doing, but they permanently lose their Baggage in the process.

The Walking Dead,  2010-Present
Second, they can bring their Baggage into the action: by doing so, they get to roll 3d10 and pick two results, instead of just rolling 2d10. This gives them more chance of success, but they have to be able to narrate how the Baggage helps them with that roll and if they fail the roll, they must either spend a Survival point to re-roll or lose their Baggage.

Keep in mind that the Baggage rules are in addition to the standard rule of each player gaining 2 more Survival points at the start of each new session, though as with many other rules, this can tweaked to suit the style of play you want, e.g. don't give out extra Survival points, but allow characters to have two pieces of Baggage, if you want 'losing the things you care about' to be a theme of the game.

Hazard Pay: Situational Horror
The Dead of Night system is built on the assumption of protagonists vs. antagonists, e.g. the Heroes of the movie against the Monsters, but there is a simple way around this, by defining the monster as something within the environment, such as a storm or an earthquake, or to reify an abstract threat, such as 'paranoia' or 'despair.'

Even so, there are often situations where the player-characters are doing something that is obviously dangerous, yet there is nothing acting against them, so technically there's no reason their success would cost the Monsters a Survival point, even though failure should clearly cost the PC one. This hack is a suggestion for dealing with those situations and comes in the form of Hazard Pay.

Let's take a standard disaster movie trope, where the one hope the characters have of escaping danger is for somebody to go out into the dangerous situation and open a door/restart a generator/retrieve a weapon and so on. As GM, you take Hazard Pay from the player-character who does so: they give you a Survival point to hold while they are exposing themselves to the additional danger, but they get it back when they return to a safer environment.

Aliens, 1986
This means that, while they are exposed to the increased danger, they are more at risk of death, since they have fewer Survival points to call upon; the danger can even be compounded, for example if they fail the vital roll, they owe more Hazard Pay and have to try again before they can make their way back to safety.

The Survival points held by the GM as Hazard Pay are fully paid back to the player as soon as their character is out of immediate danger, but until then, those Survival points are not available to them for any purpose; additionally, any extra Survival points they earn in that situation are held with their Hazard Pay until they return to safety. This makes dangerous situations mean something without arbitrarily taking Survival points away from the players or making them take Risky checks in which they have no chance of making their opponents lose any.