BFL's going down (under)
What is EPOCH?
EPOCH, or ‘Experimental Paradigm of Cinematic Horror’ to give it its full title, is a narrative-based RPG intended to evoke the survival horror movie genre. You know the kind of thing: the cabin in the woods, the mysterious creature stalking the group, etc. The numbers dwindle, the group turns on each other, and over the course of a few hours the source of the horror is revealed, confronted, possibly defeated, and maybe just one or two protagonists walk away, bloodied and forever scarred by their experience.
EPOCH comes from the pen of Wellington based designer and games-master extraordinaire Dale Elvy*. Over the years Dale has formed some strong opinions on horror in RPGs and how to do it well, and EPOCH is an experiment with mechanics developed to put his ideas into play.
During the course of an EPOCH game, characters will come face to face with a mysterious, likely supernatural horror that will certainly kill some of their number or drive them insane. The goal is survival, and maybe, if they’re very lucky, victory against the horror will be achieved against the odds.
The central premise of EPOCH is that horror comes from character empathy. We need connections to the characters in order to feel the horror that they feel when their life is threatened by an unknown entity. All too often in RPGs we see our characters as numbers on a piece of paper, and aren’t that invested or interested in them as people. The purpose of EPOCH, through its guidelines and mechanics, is to draw the players in and have them invest in the characters at the table, so as to make the tension all the more intense when the characters are plunged into conflict with mysterious evil forces.
EPOCH is available as a PDF download or as a softcover B+W book (with colour covers!). I haven’t actually acquired the book, but I am reliably informed that it is of good quality. The PDF is well-laid out and easy to read, with a few grim illustrations to set the tone. My only gripe is that the font used for the headings could be clearer.
The book has three main sections: ‘bone’, which sets out the underlying structure of the game, ‘muscle’ which provides the mechanical ‘meat’, and ‘skin’, tips and hints for the GM on how to create the right kind of atmosphere. It also contains three full scenarios that take up more than half the book, and provide classic horror situations for players to explore. I won’t say any more for risk of spoilers, but the scenarios are well written, tense and provide a good introduction to the game.
The book concludes with the cards that you need to play the game. EPOCH is entirely card driven – there are no dice – and you’ll have to either print the cards out from the downloadable PDF, or take advantage of the excellent print-on-demand card deck that is also available. The PoD cards are printed on high quality cardstock and well laid out, and are an excellent investment if you intend to play the game more than a couple of times. The PDF cards are serviceable (an issue in early releases whereby the backs and fronts didn’t line up on the printer appears to have been fixed) without being amazing.
Over the last couple of years, several books of scenarios have been released, also in softcover book or downloadable PDF. I can’t comment on these as I haven’t had the chance to play them, but I understand that one of the scenario books was nominated for an ENnie. If the scenarios are of the same quality as those in the main product, they will certainly be worth checking out.
I should add finally that two of the core book scenarios are available for free along with a quick-start ruleset, in case you’d like to try the game out without committing to the purchase.
The first part of EPOCH, ‘bone’, deals almost exclusively with advice for how to establish a gaming experience that will draw people in. The first and most important thing to note is that EPOCH is not intended to be a light game. Breaking character, cracking jokes, munching snacks etc. are all common to RPG tables, and can all break the immersion that EPOCH is trying to create. EPOCH goes all out and suggests that these are avoided altogether, at least during the ‘tension phases’ of the game (there are other parts of the game where the players and GM can take a break – this is intentional).
EPOCH recognises that this goes against the grain for many RPG groups, and as a result suggests that the GM establish an explicit social contract with the players before the game starts not to inappropriately break character. This may be difficult for some groups, but the reward is hopefully a unique roleplaying experience. That said, EPOCH quite honestly recognises that it is not a game for all players and all groups because of this, and that there is nothing wrong with other styles of play for other games.
Having established this, the remainder of the ‘bone’ chapter, and the ‘skin’ chapter both provide some great advice on techniques for players and GMs alike to draw players into their characters. It encourages narrative sharing between players and GMs, allowing players to frame scenes, using various techniques such as open questions to encourage the players to flesh out their characters, and providing them with character defining choices. Finally, the ‘bone’ concludes with some advice for the GM on how to build the atmosphere in the tension phases by starting slow, focussing on character interactions and then ramping up the pace. It’s all excellent advice for GMs, and I recommend reading it whether you intend to play EPOCH or not.
EPOCH scenarios are intended for one-shot, convention style play. There is no possibility of ongoing campaign play, for reasons that will become apparent. Each scenario presents a short setting for the players (intended to be played out in the style of a movie trailer), and then introduces some source of horror, usually supernatural, often evil, always mysterious, to challenge the players during the game.
The anatomy of each scenario is more-or-less the same:
• Players generate characters, using a series of random draws from various card decks
• Play proceeds through a series of rounds - usually six, although the exact number will be determined by the narrative.
• Each round consists of a ‘tension phase’, exclusively in character, where the PCs explore the world, its characters and their own motivations, and come face to face with various manifestations of the horror that is developing during the story.
• At the conclusion of each tension phase is a ‘challenge round’, where the PCs have to resolve a conflict (usually with the horror), and suffer the consequences.
• Once the requisite number of rounds has passed, there is an end scene, in which the PCs’ ultimate success at uncovering/combating/escaping the horror is determined, and any surviving PCs get an epilogue.
Character generation is simple but effective. As with all mechanical matters in EPOCH, it is done through the use of cards. The group of PCs may start the game knowing each other, in which case they are defined by their relationship to the group determined by a randomly dealt relationship card. Three relationship groups are provided: family, co-workers and friends. Alternatively, at the GM’s discretion, the group does not know one another, in which case each character is defined by a randomly dealt pair of cards giving them an occupation and a personal circumstance.
Characters are given two further randomly dealt cards to help define them: a ‘strength/weakness’ card, and a ‘trait’ card. Each of these cards contains descriptors that help shape a character’s personality such as ‘competitive, daring, traditional, idealistic’ etc. Each deck of cards used in character generation only has 8 cards, which is a bit of a shame, as after only a couple of plays the same characteristics will come up again, albeit in different combinations. However it will be relatively easy for groups to come up with additional cards.
Finally, each player may choose and write down a secret for their character, which is placed face down in the middle of the table. Each character then gets a ‘prologue’, where with the GM’s assistance they narrate a short scene introducing their character and his/her characteristics to the table. The prologue should include a decision point or minor conflict that helps define the character.
Rounds of play
At this point the PCs meet up and the first tension phase begins. Tension phases are entirely narrative-based role-playing parts of the game. There are no dice and no conflict resolution – if the characters want to do something, the GM makes the call based on their backgrounds, narration and the demands of the story. Some groups may be put off by this, but I have found in practice that since the PCs are usually ordinary people attempting to do ordinary things (albeit in unusual circumstances), it is usually not difficult to adjudicate whether they will be able to do something in a manner that seems reasonable.
Where there is combat or significant doubt that the PCs could succeed on a challenging activity, the game moves into a ‘challenge round’ that is also card driven. At the beginning of the game, each player is given four outcome cards: three that give a physical/mental outcome and one oddball hero/zero card. Going round the table (and starting with a different player each round), each player must play an outcome card, and narrates how their character overcomes the challenge, with the effects of the outcome card the consequences of the challenge for their character. The outcome cards are as follows:
• Three of the outcome cards define physical or mental traumas of varying severity that afflict the character when they overcome the challenge (e.g. fights off the attacker, but gets a nasty broken arm in the process > medium physical injury card). A player playing one of these cards must then roleplay the effects of the trauma on their character in the next tension phase, which (particularly for the severe traumas) may significantly limit the character’s ability to act.
• The fourth card, the hero/zero card, is played on another character.
o In its ‘hero’ aspect, the character playing the card steps in to protect the target somehow, with the mechanical effect that the target does not have to play an outcome card for the round, but the character has to play an additional outcome to represent how they protected the target (e.g. dives in front of the character to take a bullet for them > hero card plus severe physical injury card).
o In the ‘zero’ aspect, the character playing the card does the opposite, and throws the target in the path of danger, forcing them to play two outcome cards rather than one for that round.
If a character is required to play an outcome card and doesn’t have any left, that character is either killed or driven to complete mental breakdown (depending on the circumstances of the challenge), and is out of the game.
The audience ballot
The more astute of you will have noticed that since each player begins with four cards, yet there are six challenge rounds, that death is inevitable after three or four rounds. This is where arguably the cleverest mechanic comes in: the audience ballot.
At the end of each challenge phase, each player and the GM vote anonymously for the character who they regard as ‘most interesting’ (naturally a player cannot vote for their own character). There are no set criteria for this – it can be most interesting this round or the whole game, and players are free to use whatever judging criteria they wish. The winner of the ballot gets to take one of the outcome cards played that round back into their hand. This gives the winner a higher chance of surviving to the end of the game.
For those that do not win the ballot, the game provides a few crutches to help the characters become more interesting as the game goes on. Each non-winning character gets a ‘flashback token’ that they can use to interrupt the narrative during the next tension phase and narrate a flashback from their character’s perspective. The secrets established during character creation often come into play here. Characters can also optionally take ‘complication’ cards that add further ideas for their flashback.
As a result of the mechanics, some characters will certainly die, while others will certainly survive. At the end of the game, the surviving characters get an epilogue based on how well they did in dealing with the horror. This is also done through cards: each scenario has a ‘horror track’ of cards, that award the characters points for progress through the story, uncovering key clues, talking to key NPCs, obtaining items etc. If the characters amass over 20 points, they defeat the horror, and have an epilogue that shows how they survive. 10-20 points is a hollow victory, where the horror may be defeated at great cost, or only partially, whereas under 10 points means that even the surviving PCs have a very short time left to live.
Most of the mechanics serve excellently to further the central premise of the game: player buy-in to their characters to enhance the horror.
Central to this is the audience ballot. I think this mechanic is genius for a number of reasons. It means that the character that the table is most invested in has the highest chance of surviving to the end of the game. Furthermore, it provides a mechanical incentive for players to make their PCs as interesting as possible. The more interesting a player makes his character, the more invested he/she is in the character and the game, the greater the tension when the character might die, the more he/she wants that character to survive, and hence the more effort he/she will put into making the character even more interesting so as to win the ballot. It’s a beautiful positive feedback mechanism, and in my experience it works brilliantly. I have seen players who normally play to type in other games come up with all sorts of weird and wonderful characterisations, quirks and personality traits as a result of this mechanic, and been surprised and delighted by the amount of creativity it brings out in players.
The flashbacks, complications, secrets and GM advice all serve excellently to draw players into their characters and provide ammunition to be most interesting. In the games I have played, it is rare that the same character wins ‘most interesting’ two or more rounds in a row, which is a testament both to the creative power of the players and the facilitation the game provides.
A couple of mechanics need a little more discussion:
The first is the hero/zero card. In my experience, this card doesn’t always work. I can see the point of it, as it is meant to force difficult and character defining decisions, make or break bonds between characters that come into play in the next tension phase, and allow players another avenue to make their characters interesting.
However, in practice I have found a few issues:
• Players find the mechanics of it a bit awkward to grasp (particularly since it is turn-order dependent – you can’t play a hero card on someone who has already narrated an outcome for that round), and often don’t want to play it in either orientation.
• The play of multiple hero/zero cards in the same round can also lead to confusing situations with who has to play which card, which break immersion.
• The biggest problem is that I have found players often don’t see any good mechanical reason to play hero cards when the purpose of the game is supposed to be about survival**. The incentive of ‘maybe you’ll be more interesting for it’ isn’t enough. It tugs against what the other mechanics drive towards, and so doesn’t seem to quite click.
EPOCH appears to recognise that the hero/zero can be awkward to grasp, as it contains a sidebar asking ‘why have a hero/zero card’, but even with the explanation, it works sometimes for some characters, but at other times feels like an artificial constraint on player choice.
The other mechanic is that of character elimination. Given the mechanics, it is certain that characters will be eliminated at some point in the game. This may put a number of groups off, but in practice I have found there to be a number of mitigating factors:
• Death, and the threat of it, is an intrinsic part of the genre and the tension that the game is trying to evoke. It is a necessary part of the game. The threat of being knocked out of the game is another driver for players to make their character more interesting.
• Although characters are eliminated, the players remain members of the audience, and continue to participate in the audience ballot, so still have a role
• Since you only die when you need to play a card and can’t, and you start with four cards, characters usually will not die before the fourth challenge round (out of a usual six), unless they have been mercilessly targeted with ‘zero’ cards.
• The last couple of rounds of play tend to go quite quickly compared to the early ones. This is partly due to the reduced number of characters, but also because the early rounds establish the setting, characters, NPCs etc and so are more involved.
EPOCH scenarios are designed for one-off convention-style or single evening play, so usually clock in at fairly short – around 3 hours. Given the above, it’s rare for a player to be out of action for more than the final 45 minutes. In practice I have found by that point the fact that they can participate in the ballot, plus the effectiveness of EPOCH at engaging players, means that they usually stay interested to the end.
EPOCH does what it sets out to do very well: present a cinematic style survival horror game in which the players have considerable investment in their characters, and hence care about their survival. Coupled with the fact that it is inevitable not all of them will survive, it often accomplishes the tension that it sets out to.
EPOCH is clearly not a game for all groups, all the time. It is explicitly designed for one-off play, and is best brought out on occasion when your group fancies something different. Some groups will not get on at all with the required level of commitment at the table to the game, and others may balk at the diceless resolution, guarantee of death for some characters, and lack of mechanical character definition. It is very much a character driven story game, and those that dislike that sort of game will probably not find anything to convert them.
But for those of you who are interested in horror roleplaying, and would like to try an interesting and different experience, one which will draw you into your character and challenge your roleplaying in new ways, I thoroughly recommend giving EPOCH a go. You will be amazed at what your game group will come up with when they strive with one another to be ‘most interesting’!
*As may be apparent, I am personally acquainted with Dale, having been fortunate enough to be a player a few times in some excellent games he has run. However, I have no stake, personal or financial, in the success of EPOCH, and I am reviewing the copy I purchased.
** It’s interesting to note that the group as a whole will do better the more ‘hero’ cards that are played, as each zero card means that an extra outcome card is played by the group as a whole compared to when played as a hero card. This makes it a choice between good of the group and good of the individual, but that aspect is quite subtle.