Posted on July 25, 2008 by Preston DuBose
Recently I contacted a handful of horror game designers, writers and publishers and asked them to tell me about the creation process that went into their projects. I tried not to limit them with artificial rules or requirements on the project…I wanted to see what they came up with…
The idea is to let these creative folks tell us how horror works for them. They have each worked on at least one horror game that tested their creative energy, ideas and made them reach for just a little more. These essays are a chance to see how the creative process works from a variety of talented individuals in their own words.
Degrees of Horror
I’ve talked before about how the small town of Pinebox, Texas came into being. Pinebox is a place far from the beaten path, where shadows are thickest and the night is darkest. It’s a beacon that calls to the otherness intersecting our world. From the haunted high school boys locker room to the strange man running the local pawn shop, Pinebox is a town of many mysteries. When you spend five years thinking about a place, even an imaginary place, it tends to come alive in your mind. In some ways, I know the people and places in Pinebox better than I know my own hometown. In other ways, it IS my home town, albeit a darker, more sinister version. You see, I grew up on a ranch 20 miles from a rural Texas town, and that experience definitely colors how I see Pinebox.
Last year we at 12 to Midnight made the decision to break with our tradition of building the Pinebox campaign setting through stand-alone adventures. However, we knew that the setting was too big, too multifaceted, to fit in a single campaign book. Our solution was to take one slice of Pinebox and cover it in depth. Hitherto, East Texas University on the edge of town had received little more than a mention and some detail on the free city map. We quickly seized upon the idea of a self-contained modern horror campaign starting as freshmen and ending with your graduation. As students at ETU, you’d have to unravel grand mysteries and learn how to fight back the darkness… all while maintaining passing grades. Thus, Degrees of Horror was born.
This book, which is being written for the Savage Worlds system, follows that system’s traditional “plot point” setting style. That means that in addition to all the information you need about the setting, character creation, and so on, the GM’s section includes an entire campaign in outline form. The last two words of that sentence are very important. Plot point campaigns are not fully scripted. A typical campaign may have 8-12 individual plot points, summarized anywhere from a few paragraphs to a two or three pages each. This approach seems to appeal to time-starved GMs because it gives them a cohesive campaign but with plenty of room for personalized embellishments both in between and during plot points.
So that was the storytelling framework we adopted for our first campaign book. I volunteered to take a stab at coming up with the overall plot point campaign, then proceeded to write an introductory plot point as a convention game for Origins last year. That adventure about Freshman orientation, called Sweat Lodge, went on to heavily influence the rest of the campaign. One randomly generated element resonated so strongly with players that it went on to become a central touchstone.
I craft plots by coming up with a scenario, then poking holes in it. This drives my partners absolutely up the wall, because I indiscriminately shoot down their ideas and my own if something just doesn’t make sense. When I have an answer for every “but why?”, then know I have a solid plot. I knew very early on who the major adversaries would be, I knew how things would begin, and I had a general idea of how things would end. From there it was a matter of building up a scenario, then poking holes.
Meanwhile one of my partners, Ed Wetterman, approaches plots by creating backstory. I’ve known him to create hundreds of years of history –pages and pages of notes–about a setting, most of which is unused. But it gives him the grounding he needs to explain what happens in the present. For Degrees of Horror, while I was tackling the present-day plot points, he was busy building history. Once a week we would meet for coffee or beer and compare notes. I’d poke holes in his timeline, and he’d cause me to rethink the plot based on ETU’s sordid history. It may sound like a dysfunctional way to develop a campaign, but we were both approaching the problem from our strengths.
We had been making incremental progress up until one fateful day. We couldn’t meet in person that week, but I was tackling the plot points on my own. I called up Ed to get clarification about when something happened, then something just clicked. His chocolate got in my peanut butter, and vice versa. (You have to be of a certain age to get that joke.) What I thought would be a 5 minute phone call ran an hour and a half. Everything fell into place–all the motivations, all the schemes, even the stand-alone adventures we’d published earlier. All the “but whys?” had an answer. It was the Grand Unification Theory of Pinebox. We were euphoric . We knew that we’d finally nailed it. It was like we hadn’t so much created the plot as we had discovered it. It was one of those creative moments that writers live for.
Everyone has their own way of writing. I certainly don’t have the hubris to say that our way is the best way. Heck, we didn’t even go into the project with a firm understanding of how our contributions were going to fit together. Fortunately, my partners have spent the last five years thinking about the same imaginary place as me. Collaboration is a difficult process. At its worst, it’s “design by committee.” At its best, the sum is greater than the parts. From my perspective, the key is being willing and able to shoot down bad ideas, pick apart mediocre ones, and lift up the best—and being able to recognize the difference.
12 to Midnight
12 to Midnight publishes roleplaying games and accessories, primarily in the modern horror and fantasy genres. Visit 12tomidnight.com for more information.
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