Horror Gaming with AGE
I have toyed with modifying the core Adventure Game Engine for use as a replacement for D20 Modern, and now I’m contemplating what modifications would need to be there to adequately portray the horror genre. Since that genre is just as wide as fantasy, I will specify that I am talking about Things That Go Bump in the Night, not Survival Horror. More about stories with a human antagonist, the type that makes you wonder if they are truly human (either mentally or physically), or the stories that deal with Things Man is Better Off Being Ignorant Of. So, basically everything from Scooby Doo seen through the eyes of the Cthulhu Mythos, to Slasher Flicks, and all the vampire, werewolf and haunted mansion stories in-between.
Because this is an article about the needs and less about the mechanics, I expect it to become something of a discussion. I will also admit that I’m thinking about it primarily as a conversion for my Big Book of Nasties, as while I like the Storytelling system, not everyone does. The things that AGE has going for it over some of these systems is its simplicity. The core rule mechanics take up less than 30 pages (contrasting that with the World of Darkness Core rules) and once explained, there is no ambiguity as to what a player should roll when asked to attempt something by the Game Master. It also plays fast, and combat can be brutal because there is no built-in provision for godlike heroes overcoming inferior opponents when vastly outnumbered or dropping potent enemies in one shot.
So, that brings me to what I think needs to be added. A sanity or fear based mechanic needs to be added. Ideally, this would be similar to the Call of Cthulhu model, where each horrific thing prompts a check because it is new and horrific. This is bad at first, but each encounter with the horror gets less so until the characters safely ignore the horror trigger. Yet, there should be some things so terrifying or sanity wrenching that you never ever get over them. If you see a slavering mound of flesh crying out with the voices of murdered five year olds, it always affects you.
This to me seems like it should be tied to a Stunned or In Shock character condition. That would imply that if you are hit with an overwhelming physical or mental attack, you are unable to act properly for a little while. This would be the only change I would make to combat, and it should be easy enough to apply it to failed Fear or Sanity checks (whichever subsystem gets added) as well. The idea would be there to replicate scenes where someone is standing there in complete and utter horror and is unable to put one foot in front of the other. On the physical side it would be added on to someone who was impaled clean through with a wrought iron fire poker and somehow survived.
One thing I thought about when attempting to fit AGE to a modern cinematic mold was to remove classes, or at least to alter them sufficiently that they fit the genre better. Nobody needs the sneaky cat burglar to be able to backstab someone, and nobody expects the scholar/medic/scientist type to have access to spells. I never did decide on one single way to go. You could do complete point buy, you could have archetypes which provide for weapon groups, and when certain iconic talents or class features are available. Or you could write up numerous classes complete with class features. The first is most like Mutants & Masterminds, the second option is most like D20 Modern, and the third is most like True 20 with specific genre considerations.
Regardless of how the characters are created and the powers at their command, one thing I thought of was that for a Modern game, they were too sturdy if they kept getting a full die of Health after 10th level. So, I modified that to being an accumulation each level past 10 of their Constitution score. And to be clear, it was an accumulation based on their current score, so if you raised your Constitution at level 12, you don’t get 11 more Health retroactively added on.
After changing how tough the heroes are, it seems like you need to consider how tough the enemies will be, specifically supernatural enemies. In the horror genre, it always seems like monsters are extremely tough, until you discover a weakness. Then they collapse and leave a hero or heroine panting heavily and emotionally scarred. So maybe instead of monsters having Health totals near or above 100, they have extremely high armor totals? Armor that can’t be breached unless they are weakened, or you are using a vulnerability against them. Let’s call this special armor Toughness and add it directly to Armor to determine what gets ignored on each hit.
Example: the Vampire has 30 Health, which isn’t a lot. It also has Armor 5 plus 9 Toughness. That means it ignores 14 points of damage, per hit, at all times, unless you manage to stake it through the heart, attack it with an artifact meant to kill vampires, douse it in flame etc. Even then it ignores 5 points of damage. So you end up with a monster that it is possible to harm with a great axe, but is likely to be in the fight for a good while.
Final Thoughts: I haven’t come up with a name for this project, I’m trying to decide between AGE of Terror (simplicity), or something dark and baroque like Obsidian Shadows for AGE. Ideally, I’d like something catchy that includes the system name or omits it but is still recognizable. Why is branding always so hard?
Note: Click the image above to go to the blog of the artist, Reno Maniquis.