Filming the Slenderman

Well, we’ve recently updated Filming the Slenderman, and posted the new copy with our other one-pagers, so now’s as good a time as any to talk about it in a little more depth.

(For those interested, the original PDF can be found right here; it lacks the “clue” token conceit, and is organized slightly differently, but is largely the same).

Filming the Slenderman, in its original form, was written on October 29th, 2011, over the course of about eight hours from dusk till dawn, and while it’s been altered a fair amount since then, it wears its halloween roots on its sleeve; this is TCGs first attempt at a horror game, and while it was inspired by the Internet myth of the Slenderman (and most especially, the video project based on the Slenderman, called Marble Hornets), it was inspired just as much by a post by Ryan Macklin (of Evil Hat Productions and other gaming superheroics).

He asked: What systems work for you for keeping tension? Which is to say, what, mechanically, makes a horror game effective? This was part of a horror week, which went on play with this question from several angles. Uncertainty. Mechanics which re-enforce emotional beats. The ever-present specter of doom.

And letting the GM cheat a bit, of course, to keep things interesting. But that’s neither here nor there.

Anyway, we thought for a while. And we said to ourselves: “Can we think of a mechanic which satisfies these requirements? Something that marries the uncertainty of the immediate with the certainty of the inevitable and, at the same time, is mechanically tense or at least neutral enough to not interfere with the non-mechanical tension?”

… well, yes. That is what we hope that we did, here. However, we only did it through categorically ignoring one of the cardinal rules of RPGs, one of the Great Unwritten Axioms, that what your character’s odds of success or failure depend on his or her skills, rather than his or her actions.

To be brief (because the rules are, after all, only a page), you determine success or failure by pulling a colored bead from an opaque cup. White is a success, black is a failure, and red or green are, essentially, critical failures. When you draw a bead, the result is essentially a die roll, though there is that damning guarantee that, eventually, you will hit one of the red or green beads, and things will get worse for you. Furthermore, while you may be aware of the starting contents of the cup you’re drawing from, the GM is continually adding beads to it, with or without your knowledge… if you draw the red you know is in there, can you be certain that it is now free of reds? Insert evil laughter here. And of course, the players are supposed to wait half a second before revealing the bead, even to themselves, because they might get an offer from the GM. Enforced tension, with, if the bead gets dropped, instant payoff.

The caveat? The contents of your cup don’t reflect your skills. They reflect your actions… if you research, you get more success beads, if you take dangerous actions, you get more failures. If you are on a streak of successes, you know you’re more likely to fail, and vice versa. Rather than this cup being a mechanical track of your character, it’s a track of your character’s ACTIONS. Which works, perhaps, with horror, because the genre is so focused on the actions of characters and how they are reflected in their ultimate survival… imagine Scream, if you will, and the “rules of horror” if presents… having sex or doing drugs don’t kill the characters in horror movies, but they do ensure that they will die when the time comes. Actions beget consequences, even if they do not lead to consequences.

… which suggests to us that this might be a mechanic we could use for a more slasher-oriented horror game, which suggests to us that maybe we should look into that.


2 responses to “Filming the Slenderman

  • Ryan Macklin (@RyanMacklin)

    However, we only did it through categorically ignoring one of the cardinal rules of RPGs, one of the Great Unwritten Axioms, that what your character’s odds of success or failure depend on his or her skills, rather than his or her actions.

    This is in no way an axiom in story games or many indie RPGs. One person’s On True Way is another’s “Yeah, we threw that out because it didn’t work here.” Which is to say: welcome to the fold. 🙂

    Sounds like an interesting mechanic you have there.

    – Ryan

    • Thought Check Games

      Good point; any tradition worth following is worth breaking at least once to see what sort of interesting mischief we can get into without it. So, we take it back… not an axiom of gaming, but a facet of our Traditional Game Design Personal Comfort Zone which we’re breaking. Which is a bit more of a mouthful.

      Also, thanks for being our first official (non-spam) commenter! You’re one of our indie game-design idols, so it’s especially exciting.