11 October 2012

Zombie Clocks vs. Attitude

Troll in the Corner is hosting this month's RPG Blog Carnival and, for once, I have something to contribute. This month's topic is horrible gaming sessions, and Ben makes it clear he means both game sessions that did horror right and sessions that went awry. Fittingly, I have experienced both extremes with the same game: Shotgun Diaries.


My very first time playing Shotgun Diaries was a screaming success. I took on the role of the GM and two other players took on the roles of survivors in a zombie outbreak. It was also my first time meeting the  other players and I had recruited them from my local board and role playing games club specifically for a one shot game. None of us had played Shotgun Diaries before, but this was at the peak of the zombie fad in popular culture and we had all been keen on giving the game a shot.Once we had settled around my table, potato chips were placed in bowls and coke had been poured we were ready to start.

I decided to start the game off in a cabin at the tail end of a week spent fishing. I hadn't planned anything beyond that because, in my mind, zombie apocalypses are a bit like investigating eldritch horrors: they can only end badly. I knew that I could easily play off genre tropes for improvisation and that's exactly what I did.

The players encountered their first zombie at the hunting cabin and it turned out to be a tense affair. Both of the players played up the "what the fuck is going on" angle as they searched for weapons and tried to figure out how to kill the zombie. They showed considerable restraint by playing their characters straight, neither of them were genre savvy and that made for a stronger session. The adventure continued with gunshots attracting more zombies, the PCs scrambling for car keys and an eventual escape down the highway only to end up in a car accident. They stumbled on across several farms, encountering a mix of suspicious survivors and walking dead until they eventually stole a crop duster and flying it out of the zombie afflicted area. It  surprised me that they ended up with a "happy" ending, and perhaps they shouldn't have (I'll go into this a bit more in a second). Even with a good end to the adventure the session went well. It was played straight, which went a long way in reinforcing the mood of the game. I was also able to keep a good hopeless tension going, partly thanks to a great mechanic in Shotgun Diaries called the Zombie Clock. My night playing Shotgun Diaries with two strangers was the most successful night of horror gaming I have had yet.

I should go into a little more detail about two of SD's mechanics that played a big role in the game. The first was the player journals. The paragraph that briefly outlines the events of the session doesn't really capture that in game about five days had passed. Shotgun Diaries uses a journaling mechanic where each day the players can write something in their journals that becomes a "fact". It's through these facts that players can write things into the game or advance their characters. In the case of the above game one of the players wrote down that they had been an Air force pilot and this was what ultimately allowed them to escape via plane. I could have vetoed it and forced a bad ending, but what purpose would that have served? The other really important mechanic is the Zombie Clock. The Zombie Clock has the GM increasing a number every ten minutes and they can use it as currency to make bad things happen. When i ran the game I used zombie miniatures from the Zombies! board game. It really adds to the game by showing the players how the zombie hoard is piling up.

Now that you know about my most successful game it's time to talk about...


Several month after my successful game of Shotgun Diaries my regular group found itself short two members on game night. I suggested we give Shotgun Diaries a try, remembering how well an improvised game went last time, and pulled it up on my Kindle.  I had no idea I was in for one of the worst sessions in my gaming career.

This time around I had four players total and we went with a scenario involving people living in a trailer park. It started out well enough, with each of the players introducing their characters and some minor trailer park drama. The problems started when the zombies reared their decaying heads. The first problem was that these players, unlike the successful group, were unable to buy into the zombie premise. They knew exactly what to do to deal with zombies and things went more in the direction of Zombieland than Dawn of the Dead. This, by itself, would not have been a game killer. The game killer came in the abuse of the journaling mechanic of Shotgun Diaries. Players would write in that they had found weapons caches or other useful items. They would write in that there was a cure or that they had found a critical weakness of zombies. In other words, they gamed the system.

As you might imagine the combination of players not buying into the premise, metagaming and flat out abusing the rules as written made for a rather poor game. It turned into a slapstick affair with the catch phrase, "and suddenly... zombies." It was Dead Rising with four swaggering war correspondents intent on placing cones on zombie heads. I could have been more heavy-handed as a GM and vetoed things, but instead of salvaging the game it would have made me look like an asshole. There's a limit to what any GM can do if the players aren't cooperating.

When game was wrapped up and the dice were put away the players exclaimed that the game had been bad, but I knew better. I knew that the fault was not with the game; the problem was with all of us, and that brings me to the final heading...

Zombie Clocks vs. Attitude

What my experiences with the Shotgun Diaries illustrate is that successful horror gaming all comes down to attitude. It doesn't matter how many fancy mechanics or gimmicks the game system uses to build tension, reinforce the setting or make the game deadly. All of the players that sit down at the table need to approach the game with the right attitude. Horror gaming, more so than any other genre, requires this initial buy-in from players. So much of what makes horror horrific is the mood and the way characters react to the things that they encounter. It only takes one player goofing off to break that mood and spoil the game.

Attitude will trump mechanics every single time. There's no contest and it's the same across every game and genre. It's just that horror is more delicate than most genres. If you're not into it then you need to speak up and if you are the GM it's your job to make sure that everyone is on the same page before you play. Learn from my mistake.

1 comment:

  1. One of my biggest bits of advice to players and GMs is to all commit to the premise when running a horror game (http://shortymonster.co.uk/?p=165).

    One of my worst experiences as a player was something similar, when I was the only player wanting to play a horror game, and the others abused the Little Fears system to turn it into a PvP game where we advanced the plot a whole twenty minutes in over five hours of gaming. everyone else seemed to have fun with what they were doing, but the whole group knew we were in a horror game, and just ignoring it really ticked me off.



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