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Designing the Macabre Tales RPG

Posted on November 8, 2011 by Flames

We have a new design essay from Cynthia Celeste Miller. Cynthia stops by to tell us about the development of the brand new Macabre Tales RPG. Macabre Tales is the dominoes-based RPG of Lovecraftian horror from Spectrum Games.

Designing the aspects of Macabre Tales

    Designing Macabre Tales was a labor of love. In fact, when I first conceived the game, I had no intention of releasing it commercially. Rather, the plan was to use it solely for my own gaming groups. Once I began putting the pieces together, however, it became clear that others might enjoy this drastically different take on Lovecraftian horror gaming too. That’s when I headed over to the forums, stated my core system ideas and asked what people wanted in a Lovecraftian RPG. The responses were telling (and varied), which was precisely what I was hoping for. I used this information to carry forth with the design process.

    I spent well over a year developing and playtesting Macabre Tales, starting almost completely from scratch more times that I’d care to count. It was an arduous but ultimately rewarding experience. The end result was, I feel, worth the time and effort put into it.

    One of the things that I’m a stickler for is devising game rules that faithfully emulate the source material the game is based on. Actually, I’m obsessed with it. I like to tear it all apart, analyze the various aspects of the genre or subject matter and represent them accurately within context of the game. So, when I started developing Macabre Tales, I made a checklist of things that I felt were crucial to designing an RPG that truly captures all the nuances of Lovecraft’s fiction. Let’s look at a few of the items on that checklist and I’ll explain how I represented them.

    One Primary Protagonist

    You didn’t see many groups of protagonists in Lovecraft’s stories. There were exceptions to this (At the Mountains of Madness, The Dunwich Horror, etc.), but in most cases, the stories featured one primary protagonist. For this reason, I based the entire game around the concept of one narrator and one player. This may sound strange to some, but the level of involvement in one-on-one role-playing is an intense experience… and Macabre Tales was designed to elevate that even further.

    We even included advice for making the adventure represent an experience that is being told by the protagonist “after the fact”, which is something Lovecraft was fond of doing (“The events I’m about to describe to you will be difficult for you to believe, but I swear to you that they are accurate.”).

    Deliberate Build-Up

    Anyone who has ever read Lovecraft can attest to the fact that his stories had a slow build. That slow build usually involved research and investigation, with the protagonist gathering information that would inevitably lead him toward the tale’s climax. This was replicated in the game with the use of dominoes rather than dice. With dominoes, the player keeps a hand of three dominoes at all times and can play one of them for his character’s checks. This creates a sense of deliberateness that dice would have been hard-pressed to create. The player essentially chooses his own “die rolls”, which adds another wrinkle to the game: prioritization. The player will be asking himself how important each check is. If he plays that 6/6 domino on a task, only to face a more relevant task a few minutes later, he may be in deep trouble. But if he doesn’t use the 6/6 and flubs the check, he might also be up the creek without a paddle.

    Another way the game system creates a deliberate build up is through the use of “acts”. Lovecraft’s stories were very structured, which opened up some intriguing possibilities for me as a game designer. I opted to make the classic “three-act structure” an integral part of the game system. During the first act, the primary character cannot die or go insane. During the second act, things become more dangerous for the character. But during the third act, the stakes are very, very high and the character can perish or fall into the depths of insanity at any time.

    Madness and Things Man Wasn’t Meant To Know

    One of the tenets of Lovecraft’s stories was the fact that the human mind simply can’t fathom the truths of the universe and that the more it learns, the more its sanity dwindles. Obviously, you can’t ignore this in a game based on his stories. I had to devise a means for reflecting this in the game, but I felt that enough games used the “Sanity Points” concept without me needing to add yet another one to the mix.

    My answer to this particular dilemma was the “sanity check”. When the character is exposed to the horrifying knowledge of the cosmos, a sanity check must be made. If successful, the character is fine, but gains a .5 bonus to his “Knowledge [Forbidden Truths]” rating. If the sanity check is unsuccessful, a random domino must be flipped over to determine if the result is game-ending (he goes mad) or non game-ending (perhaps the character faints dead away, but is otherwise okay). The exact number or higher that must be obtained in order to avoid a game-ending result depends on which act the tale is currently in.

    Tension Without Constant Combat

    The stories penned by Lovecraft didn’t contain the type of combat generally portrayed in role-playing games. In fact, they seldom had any combat at all… yet they never failed to involve tension. It is for this reason that I devised something called “tension scenes”. A tension scene begins when the story reaches a point that your pulse starts pounding like a jackhammer (when being attacked, during a chase sequence, etc.). At this point, a random domino is flipped over to determine how many “momentum points” the character starts the tension scene with. Each check the character successfully makes will give him additional momentum points… but each one he fails will cause him to lose momentum points. If he reaches a certain number, the tension scene ends favorably for the character. If he drops to zero, however, it ends negatively. And that often means death or madness. The tug-of-war aspect of the tension scene rules creates a real sense of edge-of-your-seat drama and excitement that really increases the suspense of any game.


    The aspects listed above are but a few of the most important ones that had to be represented in the game system. There are plenty more, I assure you. Hopefully, this essay has at least given you a glimpse into my thought processes regarding the design of the game.

    In short, Macabre Tales is the Lovecraftian horror role-playing game that I’ve always wanted to design, run and play. Throughout the entire process, I kept asking myself if it would be a game that H.P. Lovecraft would approve of had he ever been given the chance to read or play it. Ultimately, I’ll never know the answer to that, but I feel confident that he would at the very least appreciate the amount of effort that went into attempting to emulate his tales of terror. And that’s good enough for me.

    Before I sign off, I would like to say that this product was not a solo project. Without the help of others, I would still be pounding away at the design. Eric Hudson worked tirelessly to help me out however he could and acted as my right hand man from start to finish. My playtesters were top-notch as well and I owe them all a big “thanks”. When the original editor went M.I.A., Norbert Franz stepped in and did a wonderful job on hardly any notice. And I would be remiss if I left out the artists, especially Nicholas Shepherd and Scott Harshbarger, without whom the book would look a lot less atmospheric and creepy. Despite having my name on the cover, Macabre Tales was created by many people, not just one.

    Cynthia Celeste Miller – 2011

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    5 Responses to “Designing the Macabre Tales RPG”

    1. Zach Peters says:

      Very excited to try this out, after reading this post I immediately bought the pdf and hit up Walgreens for some dominoes. A two person rpg would have sold me, add in Lovecraft and a unique resolution system(dominoes) and it was just over.

      Excellent article.

    2. Hi, Zach. Thanks for purchasing Macabre Tales. I genuinely hope you enjoy the game.

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