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Good evening, afternoon, or whatever time it happens to be there, ladies and gents! I happen to be Andy, who happens to be a freelance web designer, musician, writer, and whatnot.

Roman Catholic, student of tabletop gaming, and someday soon I'll have my own designs in the field!

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Boardgame Goodness: Time Is Running Out

Oosh, I had a monster essay due. It's slain, now, though, and I gained XP for it. Might happen again in the near future, but smooth sailing isn't far off. The semester draws to a close.

Well, I said I was gonna talk about using boardgame components for RPGs. In a weird way, it sort of connected and merged with some playing of a game called Tremulous. I was a human with a gun, trying to fend off an alien invasion. I'm running around, turning around, trying to gun down this alien who's sprinting all around me, and then I turn around and catch sight of a MONSTER alien who's charging right at me. Bam. I had a very brief moment of "OH SHOOT IT'S GOING TO KILL ME!" before it did, indeed, kill me.

The Magic Moment
It was that brief moment of panic where the entire essence of the incident got me. That one split second. And then it was over. I loved it. Mulling over it later, I realized that it would be really cool to replicate in an RPG. Horror is something that is usually best suited to "creeping dread", because of the pacing of an RPG. At the same time, I think there's a way to manage that feeling of "OH SHOOT STOP THERE IT IS--" in a game. It's not easy, though.

It needs two things: buildup and a simple system. The method I'm about to describe provides a lot of buildup by itself, and it can be run on a very basic system. The ones I have in mind are World of Darkness, Risus (bonus points, because five-minute character creation makes for an easily high-lethality game), and even the Cortex System. A stripped-down version of D&D, focused on the skills, would also work. (4th Edition, ignoring class powers for the most part, would work great.)

How to Do It
Picture, if you will, a game where there's a small team of PCs all hunting down a Nasty. It could be a werewolf, a vampire, or even a serial killer. This begs the "Who's hunting who?" question, and that's also a part of this game. They make efforts to find it, but every so often the Nasty comes and springs, taking down one of the players. Tension builds...tension builds...tension builds...snap.

This can be modeled, not by tables and dice rolls, but by a simple physical prop. It's an egg timer. A tiny little hourglass, usually filled with sand. A game that uses it (off the top of my head) is Boggle, and I know there's various older time-based games which use it. It runs on a three-minute time scale. Sand runs out one side, and into the other. You may begin to see how this works...

The players and the Nasty take turns doing things. The players all take actions to ward themselves against the Nasty or to hunt down the Nasty...or to deal with complications caused by the Nasty. When the first player starts, so does the timer. It continues to run as each player takes their turn. The last player to take their turn flips the timer over. Then it comes time for the Nasty's turn. The Nasty does one thing, presenting an obstacle to the players. For instance: the players hunting down Dracula are suddenly faced with a barrage of whirling bats. Then the Nasty flips the timer, and it goes back to the first player.

Thus goes the back-and-forth, until time runs out. If it runs out on the Nasty's turn, then the players achieve a breakthrough, and burst in on the Nasty, when he's unprepared to face them. This is unlikely, though, since the players are burning time much faster (three or more people to burn time, as opposed to one person). If time runs out on the Players' turn, then the Nasty strikes. The last player to take an action is attacked, in a very lethal manner not conducive to survival or evasion. It's "The Kill". (You may not prefer to make the killing quite so automatic, as Dread does; in that case, simply tone it down a little, to the point where it's very damaging but potentially survivable.)

Flow of Tension
The sequence then goes like this: prep...prep...prep...Nasty prep...prep...KILL.

The tension is very visible: you can watch the sand/salt trickling down, and see how much is left. You can feel time slip away, as you try to finish your action before time runs out. If you're the player when it finally empties, you can feel that brief moment of dread. And then a swift finish when the Nasty strikes. This is the sort of gameplay that creates drama, in the "shock" way. What could make it even more interesting is the inclusion of a Burning Wheel-style "conflict through beliefs" ruleset. Characters will develop differences in their hunt for the Nasty, but can they afford to argue when time is running out? Will a player intentionally try to "stick" another player with a low amount of time, to eliminate them?

This could even make a good standalone RPG. I'm going to be a bit busy with (it appears) Paper Empires, so no time to devote to this idea. However, if one of you readers gets the inkling to further develop this into an RPG, please let me know. I'd love to see it!

Note: search "board game sand timer", and you'll be presented with places to buy these timers from. Most seem to run from $1-$3.

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