Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Restless: a freeform survival horror game

Played Restless last night: 's freeform horror game of survivors being hunted by an unstoppable evil force. This was a one-off game arranged via Facebook for a university games club. Every time I emphasised how lethal it would be, my prospective players would laugh and say tell me it sounded great.

They were right.

Players divide into 'survivors' and 'desolators'. Desolators describe the world and portray the Restless (the monsters who are hunting the survivors)

I played a desolator, along with Chris. I had some thoughts going in that were heavily influenced by The Darkest Hour (invisible electricity aliens).

Chris was interested in a different angle, and mentioned the Reavers from Firefly as a touchstone. We took that idea of frenzied humans as our starting point. Then I said I'd like there to be something unnatural about them: like they can hide in shadows or crawl on ceilings. Chris came back with the idea of 'possession' and we locked it in.

Not too much detail or backstory, but just enough for us to start jamming with.

The game is played out in sequences (or set-pieces from a horror movie). These are called 'verses'. The game gives you strong guidance for what happens in each verse. The order of verses is randomly determined.

Each verse provides prompts for actions to describe or settings or memories to invent. It felt a little like the verses encoded hard and soft moves into them.(*)

* Apocalypse World terminology.

Starting The Game

Our first verse was called 'Dreams and Nightmares': it made for a great opener, as it deals with memories, flashbacks, and difficult emotional terrain for each of the survivors. It really humanises them.
Right from the start of that card, we realised that (for the survivors could choose where to camp and how to defend themselves) the desolators would have to provide some setting details that weren't in the verse:
  • What are the Restless?
  • How long have the Restless been destroying the world?

It also seemed like we needed to empower the desolators to ask questions that:
  • Lead the survivors into danger
  • Explore the survivors misery, miserable lives
Giving desolators the power to ask those types of questions kept the game flowing smoothly, and steered clear of violating the Czege Principle ("When one person is the author of both the character's adversity and its resolution, play isn't fun.").

Specific Feedback On How Verses Work

I also wonder whether the desolators should be the ones to read out the information on each verse. I suspect that could:
  • preserve suspense about what will happen next
  • encourage immersion in the survivors
  • simplify some of the instructions you need to read out (I'm thinking of "The going is tough" from 'Bushwhacking') ...

... but I'm not sure how important that is to Jonathan's vision of play. We just rotated players reading out cards and it worked fine.

The game is very very late playtest, so this probably hasn't come up for any other groups. While we played I did wonder about the phrasing of the cards. Because they're read aloud, some sections felt like they could be phrased as very specific questions to the survivors or using the imperative.

An example.

In the 'Bushwhacking' verse, it says "The survivors then quickly decide on an alternate route", but maybe making it "The survivors need to decide..." or "You need to decide..." would make what's required clearer.


Developing What The Restless Are

Between verses, you can swap from playing a survivor to a desolator (and vice versa), or choose to play a new or returning  survivor character.

This was great, creatively, for our group: two survivor players in the first verse leapt at the chance to play desolators in the second. And they were fantastic at it: much better than me. I love the idea that the game allows you to rotate how you creatively feed into the game based on your enthusiasm and energy.

In passing on the desolator role, I felt I had to brief the new desolators on what we'd established... and then give them permission to establish a fact each for themselves. We applied that protocol throughout the rest of the game. It led to some creepy imagery, including:
  • Thick black streams of oil announcing the arrival of the Restless
  • Anyone who had an open wound had a chance of becoming a Restless, regardless of whether a Restless was anywhere nearby.

Establishing A Social Contract For Tone?

Initially, people took the game's situation and character creation very seriously. Over the second and third verses, it became a little comedic: perhaps people were distancing themselves from the significant chance of character death? It became serious again towards the end of the third verse and during the fourth.

Next time I play this, I think I'll introduce the social contract from EPOCH (and adapt it a bit):

At the beginning of the game you inform the players of the purpose of EPOCH (a game of character-driven horror) and emphasise that during Tension Phases it is inappropriate to ‘break character’.

By making this explicit and securing agreement from everyone present, you and the players share the responsibility for building game atmosphere. You can remind individual players of this during the game, should you be faced with a specific instance of player blocking.

Again, I'm not sure if that maps to Jonathan's vision of play, but it certainly maps to what I want out of playing each verse. Because each verse is reasonably short (in our game, 20-40 minutes), I think that social contract would be pretty realistic.

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All in all, a great game. It'll be going into my go-bag for things to run at Games on Demand and at short-notice.

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