Thursday, 18 August 2016

Nightmare Housemates from Hell!

My second full game is now available on DrivethruRPG: Blood & Water is an original, stand-alone game, not a PbtA hack or indeed a hack of or supplement for any other existing system. Here's the back cover blurb:

There’s this werewolf, a vampire and a ghost who share a house... but this is no joke. As it turns out, death is not the end for everybody, though it usually puts an end to your social life. Somewhere between being human and being a monster you’ll find the characters in this game: people who cannot return to the family they knew but aren’t ready to embrace the thing they have become. They say that blood is thicker than water, but when your own blood turns against you, you have to find a new kind of family, one who will accept you for what you are.

The inspiration for the game come from two sources, which fused in my head several years ago and dropped the idea on me from out of the blue. Firstly, I was a huge fan of the BBC TV series Being Human, as no doubt many of you can tell from the references in the blurb above: it was a skillful blend of the supernatural and the mundane, positing that undeath did not mean the end of your life. Over five seasons, they peeled back the layers of the everyday world to expose the things that creep underneath, with our viewpoint characters being a trio of once-human-now-supernatural beings who had to find their own ways through the strange new world they had been plunged into. The focus was on how they could balance their desire to live a normal life with the demands & vulnerabilities of their new forms, plus those who shared it with them: Mitchell the vampire was seen as a potential new leader by his own kind to begin with, while George the werewolf desperately tried to ignore his wild side and rejected others like himself. Even Annie the ghost struggled to come to terms with her mortality as she uncovered some terrible truths about her ultimately shallow & selfish ex-boyfriend. Watching the show really put me in the mood to play a game like that, but I didn't know where to begin.

Then along came Monsterhearts, which tore apart some of the traditions of RPGs: dark, messy, conflicted relationships were right at the heart of the drama and sexual attraction ran rife among these young, hot, inhuman heroes & anti-heroes. As with all my favourite games, you built the situation from the characters chosen by the players, instead of getting the players to make characters to fit the situation you had created. Everything stemmed from the characters' decisions and actions, snowballing forward in a clusterfuck of hormones, angst and rebellion against the norm.

I toyed with the idea of using Monsterhearts to pitch a Being Human-style game, but like most PbtA games, Monsterhearts set up histories, small nuggets of backstory that loosely bound the PCs together, but these were often adversarial: it pre-loaded the game with PvP conflict, which was great for that style of game but didn't entirely suit the themes of Being Human. To me, the latter adopted an 'Us vs. The World' mentality, with the main characters bonded together in their shared desire to live as human a life as possible and not succumb to the temptations offered by their inhuman nature: they were recovering, co-dependent addicts in a world of triggers just tempting them to relapse.

Being Human (BBC)
This idea crystallised in my head as I reached the end of the first Monsterhearts campaign I played in and I recalled the wise words of a fictional character: you have to get behind someone before you can stab them in the back. All of a sudden, the bare bones for the basic mechanics of the game I wanted to play clicked into my head, taking a little inspiration by way of the trust mechanics in many excellent games like The Mountain Witch and Cold City. Rather than play around with bonuses accrued by placing trust in the other characters, what if you literally got another player to roll the dice for you? Any victory was yours, but their character had to foot whatever bill you ran up in the process.

That was the seed of the idea I took to Indiecon that year: a page of A4 with the rules in annotated bullet point form and some hand written character questionnaires to be filled in. Luckily, I got some players: even more luckily, the game worked, with only one minor tweak needed to how dice-roll modifiers were applied. I went home from the convention with nearly as many notes about the game as rules for it and began to write things out properly, putting in suggestions for how to create characters and their situation. One of the interesting things that developed was the emphasis on getting the players to draw a house-plan of the home their characters shared: I'd picked up this mapping technique from other story games and was using something similar in The 'Hood, the urban crime game I was also developing at this time.

The real mark of success for Blood & Water came when I realised that not only were some of the people I had run the game for now running it for their friends, but some of  those people were now running it for their friends. This is also about the time I started getting asked "When are you publishing it?" on a regular basis, so this went to the top of my list for rigourous playtesting and expanded content to support potential GMs and players. Along the way, another source of inspiration popped up by way of the excellent dark comedy mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows: though very different in tone to the other sources, it fit well within the parameters the game design allowed for and it was nice to see other people who had played the game pointing out how well it would work with this.

The final and by far the trickiest part of writing Blood & Water was the section on guidance & advice for the GM: analysing how I ran the game for others and then codifying that in some way seemed like an impossible task, much like trying to see the back of your own head. As part of this, I was determined to create a quick-start playset, intended for conventions and other one-shot situations, but the harder I tried, the less enthused I became with that prospect: the real joy of the game comes from the collaborative creation of characters and their situation. In the end, I decided it was better to commit to that vision entirely, rather than drop a bunch of oven ready PCs onto new players and tell them "Here's the scenario you have to play through."

What We Do in the Shadows
The thing I like the most about Blood & Water is that I haven't grown tired of it: it's a situation creator with endless possibilities that copes with a range of tones from slapstick comedy to appalling tragedy, often at the same time. Every time I've sat down with it, I've had no idea what's going to happen, even with players I've know for years, and each time it's created a bunch of unforgettable moments that people still talk about away from the table months or years later.