[Game Dev] Notes toward Untitled Ghost Game

I keep thinking about a hypothetical new Wraith edition that goes back to a bedrock of ghost stories, i.e. stories about ghosts haunting people, and burns down “the lore”, or rather leaves it burned down as it was when the product line was cancelled. There was a huge explosion, the afterlife collapsed, everyone got kicked back into the barrier between life and death, and it’s presumably EXTREMELY dangerous to go anywhere else. That’s cool. Wraith doesn’t have to rebuild the old edifices. It has potential to move forward and become a post-mortem post-apocalypse: a storytelling game of survival and psychological horror.

The idea met with hostility from the Wraith people with whomst I discussed it, but I think it has legs and I want it to exist even if W:tO comes not in that form. (It probably won’t, because the White Wolf brand’s profitability rests on appealing to a fanbase which cannot allow anything to be thrown out, so we’re likely to get a soft reboot, like with the Week of Nightmares: details obscured, impact and “canonicity” maintained.)

Mechanically, I know V5’s Hunger mechanic making dice pools bigger or smaller and more or less dangerous in certain circumstances has really stuck with me as a system for horror play, but they need a twist away from how V5 uses them, because ghosts, surprisingly, aren’t vampires.

Ghosts are a located phenomenon: there’s never just a random ghost, there’s a haunted house or family or video tape. So, in this context of survival horror, ghosts need to be encouraged to be near people, places and things that make them more powerful, more able to resist that which threatens them. Wraith lands the concept with Fetters, but as with everything about Wraith it’s overwritten and blended in with a lot of other baggage from the V:tM engine it’s built on. There’s so much else there that the strength and clarity of the concept is lost.

Enter Walker, Twitter’s @ProfessorJust. I paraphrase their contributions thus:

The real question with any engine that maintains the conceit the players are the ghostly protagonists is: how does that narrative resemble a ghost story?

The best ghost stories don’t bring us closer to the nature of a ghost, as adversary or as agent. They are about the feeling of being haunted. So Wraith defines being a ghost as being haunted all the time. If you want to centre the ghost, you end up, I suspect, with the vengeful or protective dead, because that’s the actionable ghost, right? But that’s worlds away from Haunting of Hill House stuff.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing as long as it’s explicit.

V:tM isn’t Dracula, for all that it namechecks him straight from the get-go. Bloodspell isn’t quite La Morte Amoureuse, even though Clarimonde crops up in the Extended Edition, because Clarimonde is a rescued antagonist, a showing of how the script’s been flipped.

Likewise, Untitled Ghost Game isn’t gonna be The Woman In Black because that story isn’t about her, it’s about Mister Kipps discovering her. The literary touchstone, if there is one, is Fell — a piece of domestic haunting by Jenn Ashcroft which pushes the boundaries of ghost story into ghost POV.

I find myself thinking less and less in terms of literature when I’m working on WoD or post-WoD gameplay. The classics position the supernatural agent as antagonist, which is only playable if you’re really into RPGs as douchebag simulator and find victimising the living to be enjoyable play in its own right. Modern script-flippings generally focus on the state of being a supernatural entity — the horrid little shits in Lost Souls or the superpowered mopes of The Vampire Chronicles are deuteragonists at least, but they don’t do anything other than be what they are (because the stories are still about their impact on humanity). This is why Vampire always has to reach outside the vampire genre for its momentum — why it’s always vampire-as-gangster, vampire-as-conspiracy, vampire-as-medieval-warlord.

Wraith positions its protagonists as victims of ghostly oppression, which is fair enough, but reads as inert to me, it doesn’t achieve that momentum I was on about. This is why blowing up the underworld is a good decision, because movement away from something that’ll kill you. OR: I suppose the “goal” of Wraith is to transcend, to free your character from all this awful world-built bollocks by resolving their own living-person baggage, and all the Guilds and Legions and lore are sheer inertia, obstacles in the path of you doing that — but nerds being nerds, the world building becomes the point of the exercise, and character-focused “adventure design” takes a back seat.

Aside: Naked Metal, a very good blog which I wish I’d stumbled upon years ago, has a very good post about metaplots and why they need to die in a fire. Among the many true words spoken here is a quote from Dean Shomshak, former White Wolf staffer who seems to Get It.

Gods, I wanted to smack some of my fellow writers upside the head on some Vampire projects when they burbled on about the cool things they’d have Hardestadt do, or whoever. What were the PCs supposed to do?

Wraith has yet to present a clear, defined, satisfactory answer to that question. V5 does, but it’s buried midway through the book. Seriously, “what do we do in this game” is a sidebar about forty pages in. I’d go and look but I don’t want to stare that layout in the face when I’ve only had my breakfast half an hour ago. I need to do better than that. Front and centre, “this is what your characters are trying to achieve.”

Ghosts want to escape a fate worse than death, by punishing/protecting the living.

This is something I thought about when I did the Drives mechanic for Bloodspell. Wolfspell has a similar problem in that it presents a mechanic for being wolves, but there’s no thrust to it behind “solve an implied problem that somehow requires you to be a wolf, what am I, your dad?” and I wanted to get more oomph, more momentum in there. (I talk about “flow” and “momentum” a lot when I’m talking about rules, don’t I? That’ll need a post in its own right.)

Anyway, “What does your character want to do with forever?” was the big question in Bloodspell, the source of momentum in the play, and it’s relevant here too. I interpret post-Wraith, Untitled Ghost Game as it remains for now, through the “fate worse than death” angle, that staying out of not-Stygia and not-Oblivion is the goal.

This means I can’t just port Drives over. Drives are more character focused and about personal agenda, whereas the target genres here — psychological and survival horror — set the agenda and the player choice is located in tools and strategies to survive.

I may be able to hang the whole thing on pools to Punish and Protect, in classic “You have two stats” indie-game style. That works best as a pure game, but I’m not sure it has the right “stat your OC!” hook that actually makes people play games. People like to make Their Dude and that needs a little more detail than the bare minimum to hit the game’s concept. The answer may lie in types of ghostly activity – poltergeist, siren, possession. Which gives a WoD-style pool: add your “Objective” dice to your “Activity” dice. That’s your choosing tools and strategies of which you like the concept.

I definitely want the word “Haunt” on players’ lips a lot and I don’t think attaching it to “what you need to show on the dice” is the right way to go (people will just say “difficulty” or “target”). I also don’t want fussing about adding and subtracting from rolls or targets. One thing I’m very clear on is that players should be able to look at their dice and know how well they’ve done: none of that convoluted “I rolled a sixteen, plus this, minus that, did I remember all my modifiers, is that good enough mister dungeon master u_w_u?” toss on my watch.

So I think I need to introduce Haunt Dice too. You get to roll more dice if you’re somewhere you’re haunting. Not sure about swapping dice yet (I still think that’s cumbersome, and gets in the way of players learning their dice pools – because they have to factor in something different every time, there’s less room for familiarity to develop). If everything’s on a 1-5 scale that should keep the probability curve fairly sensible.

Time to sit on this for a while and see what boils away.

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