Tuesday 20 June 2017

The Shivering Circle: Beta Playtest, part 1

It's been a while since I had a think about RPG design. In fact, I'd more or less decided a few months ago that I'd given up on it forever, but you know how it is.

Before That Hasty Decision, I'd started writing a folk horror themed game, and years before that I'd gotten maybe 10% of the way into making a horror game where player characters were almost certain to die.

When I thought, I know, I'll resurrect that horror game, I looked for my notes.
Couldn't find them.


This is always the risk when you write everything by hand, though.

Not to be deterred by the prospect of ripping it up and starting from scratch, I returned to the drawing board. And well, neither of the first versions worked anyway, and I think this does. So, it's a net win.

Two notes:

1) If you've read this far, you probably know what a role-playing game looks like, but just in case, I should say that I'm going to assume that anyway. It might make sense if you don't, but if it doesn't, well. Sorry.

2) This isn't the whole game, by a long way, but this is a working system. If you want to try it at home, feel free. I'd like to know if it works for you. Consider this the beta playtest, in fact.

3) I am fond of big sprawling games with deep settings that spread over books and books. And I am fond of little story games that you can pick up and play quickly. This is the latter. 


Horror RPGs are notoriously tough to write. Even the good ones struggle. Trying to nail down a specific subgenre is even trickier.

I suppose I should write down what I want it to do.

Inevitability. That's one thing. The dread in folk horror plots often comes from the gradual gnawing realisation that it was you they wanted all along (see: The Wicker Man, Kill List, Robin Redbreast, A Photograph, The Witch). It was always you.

I want to create a system where characters look like they can't escape. But at the same time, that doesn't sound a whole lot of fun to play if you put it like that. So there's got to be a chance of getting out. Or look like there's a chance.

For one, if there's anything the political scene has taught us in the last couple years, there's nothing as sadistic as hope. A bit of hope, a slim flicker of light to reach towards, that's all the more awful when it's extinguished.

Also, I want a game that tells the sort of stories where protagonists' own qualities work against them.

I quite like the idea of there being a visual representation of how close a character is to losing mind, body or spirit. So some sort of tracker. That's a must.

A lot of the aspects of folk horror are setting-based, so I'll want to have a mechanic to help the Narrator (yes, I'm sticking with that for GM) create a vibrant world, although I also want to write a setting. I have in my mind's eye a village next to a stone circle (of course), and two eras, the 17th century and the 1970s. In the 1650s, witchfinders and witches, magicians and ghosts. In the 70s, pagan village conspiracies and technical hauntology. I also think that we could have a setting in Maine or Massachusetts, isolated places, burial mounds, where different issues might come into play: 17th century witch panics, visions; 21st century cults. Maybe also Australia. The 19th century. The 1970s.

Secrets. Skewed beliefs. Ancient, lonely places. Communities prepared to do terrible things.

Finally, I want to make the lightest game I can that still somehow manages to tell a certain sort of story. Does that make sense?

I've decided to call it The Shivering Circle. The Circle is a thing in the default setting I have in my head, a stone circle that's always a few degrees colder in the middle than it is outside the perimeter. It's a haunted, lonely place. But it's also a reference to a sort of cyclic horror. The horror of old things becoming the horror of new things becoming old. And so on until forever.


I don't know about you, but the first thing I always look at when I buy a new role-playing game is always the character sheet. If it's good, it'll give an idea of what sort of game you want to play.

This won't be the final sheet, but it'll do.

Here's a link to download a PDF. 

It's small, A5 sized. You can double up and print two to a side of A4 if you want.

The first thing you'll see is the circle of twelve boxes, with a thirteenth in the middle. When this makes its kickstarter goal or whatever they'll look like little standing stones, but boxes will do for now.

Either way, leave them. This is going to be really important for the game, but not yet.

Next, you have six characteristics, or attributes, or stats, or whatever you call them, each with a little row of dots next to it. Let's call them attributes. They go from 0 to 10.

Let's say you're making a character. Colour in four dots in each – in pencil, because they might be rubbed out – then divide ten more dots among them any way you wish, as long as none goes higher than 10.

(I use "you" for both you the player and you playing your character. You know they're different, and if it's not clear I'll say.)

Authority is about how strong a personality you have, how much of a leader you are, or how much people believe what you have to say.

Compassion shows how much you care about other people, and how much you listen to your conscience.

Courage is a indicator of the resources you have to conquer fear and shock. Fear comes from all sorts of places. It can be social as well as physical. You can be brave and afraid. Courage isn't the absence of fear. It's the conquest of it.

Dignity shows how much you can stand up for yourself, but also how much sticks to you, how you deal with bad social situations. How you carry yourself.

Health is how well you are in yourself, how stable you are, physically, mentally and spiritually.

Hope is what stops you giving up.

Name your character. To be honest. you probably knew what your name was before yoou started. But if you didn't, now is the time.

Then under that say something that defines you. Whatever you choose to label yourself as, use an adjective as well. I am: a dedicated scientist, a curious country vicar, a gentle old age pensioner, a lost cab driver, a dogmatic witchfinder, an innocent ploughman, or whatever works for the setting.

Then write down one or two things you know. By One or two things I know: what I really mean is things of advantage. "I know how to dispose of a body," or "I know about archaeology," or "audio engineering" or "the history of ritual magic" are all things that might help you. Knowing West Ham United's FA Cup record since 1949 might on the other hand be useful in certain cases but not so much in the midst of a pagan village conspiracy. Knowing two things isn't necessarily much more useful than knowing one.

Choose one or two people you love the most. One or two people I love: Your spouse. Your child. A best friend. A parent. Jesus, if you want. Again, you don't have to have two if you don't want to. One is fine.

Next a thing that drives you. One thing that drives me: Scientific curiosity. Revenge. Religious fervour. Bigotry. Duty. Faith. Curiosity. Self respect. Hate. Selfishness. You get the idea. Something that makes you do what you do. It doesn't have to be good. You could play someone despicable if you want (and it will be all the more satisfying when you receive your just desserts).

Under One thing I am afraid of: write something your character is afraid of (not you the player, and I know I said I'd avoid doing this but the distinction is really important here). It can be anything reasonable. Heights, rats, spiders, they're obvious, but what about "That I'll do what I did in Kiev again" or "I won't ever fit in" or "They'll find I'm a fraud"? I like those.

Now do the same with One thing I am ashamed of: Think of a thing you'd rather no one knew about your character.

Now you have a character.

Here's an example.

Authority 6
Compassion 4
Courage 8
Dignity 5
Health 5
Hope 6
I am: a guilt-ridden hit man
One or two things I know: how to dispose of a body and how to kill someone quickly
One or two people I love: my son, my best mate
One thing that drives me: self-loathing
One thing I am afraid of: not being able to control myself
One thing I am ashamed of: what happened in Kiev

Or what about

Authority 4
Compassion 7
Courage 5
Dignity 7
Health 7
Hope 4
I am: a lonely teenaged settler
One or two things I know: the Bible
One or two people I love: my little brothers 
One thing that drives me: doubt
One thing I am afraid of: the forest
One thing I am ashamed of: my rebellious nature

Making characters is fun, and seriously, I've always taken a lazy pleasure in rolling up characters for games, but for now we'll stop with one more.

Sgt Neil Howie
Authority 6
Compassion 6
Courage 7
Dignity 6
Health 4
Hope 5
I am: a devout police sergeant
One or two things I know: police procedure, the law
One or two people I love: Mary, my fiancée
One thing that drives me: duty, first and foremost
One thing I am afraid of: that my faith will not be enough
One thing I am ashamed of: lusting after women other than Mary

One of the tests for a game that's supposed to "do" genres is whether or not you can satisfactorily create a protagonist from a movie you like in said genre as a player character. I think I rest my case there. 

The System

This is the first system rule: you can do what you know you can do.

What that means is that generally if you could conceive of your character doing a thing, they can do it. If your character is, for example, a scientist working on audio formats and wants to figure out a way to get a stone to play back a traumatic experience that happened here three hundred years ago, you can (would you want to, though? That's another question). 

You probably can't if you're a devout police sergeant, but the scientist won't be able to tell you what the statutory prison sentence is for child abuse and put you under arrest for it.

It might take you a while to do a thing, but generally, if you know you can do it, you can do it.

The question is, will you?

If what you're doing is important, if it matters to you, or directly affects someone else in a way that means they might wish to stop you, you roll dice. Don't if it's not important. Climbing a tree isn't important; climbing a tree when the villagers are coming for you, singing, that's when you'll roll dice because your hands are shaking, and the tree branches are wet from the spring rain, and you're shaking more than the leaves, and you have to keep quiet or they'll find you.

Normally you roll three six-sided dice (3d6) and add the total to an attribute.

You roll dice+Authority when the action is about asserting your authority or will, or if you are trying not to be cowed.

You roll dice+Compassion when you might hurt someone, or you are trying to help someone.

You roll dice+Dignity when you might be humiliated or you are trying to rise above a low place you've been brought to.

You roll dice+Courage when you have to be brave.

You roll dice+Hope when you need to drive yourself onwards or something is driving you to despair.

You roll dice+Health when you need to overcome or escape an injury or a sickness.

You need to equal or beat a target number, so high numbers are better.

If you make the target, you add a point to your attribute and you get to describe what happens. Your attribute can't go higher than 10, by the way. If it's already 10, it can't go higher.

If you don't make the target number, you lose a point from your attribute and the Narrator decides what happens. Your attribute can't go into negative numbers. It bottoms at zero, and can't dip below that.

So for example, here's your character Germaine. She's in the corner of the attic room with a gun trained in shaking hands at the door as Mr Tomms the Squire comes in, smiling, explaining that she's important to the harvest. She tells him to back off or she'll shoot. He takes a step forward. Does she shoot him? She's never pointed a gun at anyone before. I say, roll dice+Compassion, and you get 14 and Germaine's Compassion is 6, so that's 20. I had decided you needed a 19, so you add a point to Germaine's Compassion score, which is now 7, and you get to decide whether she shoots Tomms dead or not. You might decide that he's a cheerful murderer and deserves it and justify his death like that, or you might decide that Germaine shoots the floor and runs through the door as he flinches, or simply that Germaine can't do it. But it's up to you.

Conversely, if you hadn't made the target, Germaine's Compassion score would have gone down to 5 and I would make the call. And Germaine might still shoot him.

What's at stake here is is Germaine's self, whether or not she can justify to herself what she's going to do. And the fact is that either shooting this man or not can come from trauma or the avoidance of it. If you gained that point, you felt better about what happened. If you lost the point, you were damaged by it. Either way, the outcome is what it does to you.

Where do target numbers come from? Supporting Cast (in other games what we call NPCs) might have a set of target numbers, like so:

Lord Summerisle
(pagan laird and smug jerk)
vs Authority 18
vs Compassion 17
vs Courage 14
vs Dignity 15
vs Health 13
vs Hope 19

He's pretty tough. A more average target number sits between 13 and 15, I think.

And if there isn't a person you've got numbers for, pick 13, 14 or 15.

By the way, when I actually write this game up and start selling it and stuff, I'll use original characters exclusively rather than resort to folks from films most of the time. I'm just using film characters for the sake of familiarity right now. I hope that's OK.


Only roll dice when it matters. If you want to spot a clue, or kick down a door, or climb out of a window, don't bother rolling dice. You either do it or you can't. If someone might die, if your soul is at stake, if you might lose someone dear to you, or something that really matters, roll dice.

When you've made a target number, the next one is one higher than it might otherwise be. And if you make that, the next one goes up by another one (for a total of two), and then to three, and so on. So if you've made the target four times you add four to the target. And there's no upper limit notionally, except the first number it's not actually possible to roll is 35 (no really, see below) and the chances of you getting that high are really infinitesimally small, so if you somehow get to 35, you will definitely lose (and buy yourself some new dice. Seriously. Your dice are messed right up). When you fail to meet one of these targets, the stacking additions go away.

If you can justify involving a thing you know, a thing that drives you or a person you love (you're trying to rescue your beloved father from the clutches of a cult; you are being tempted to do something that would break your marriage vows), you add an extra die. So you roll four dice. If you succeed, you still add the point but if you fail, not only do you lose the point, but you are Shaken.

I'll get to what Shaken means in a minute, so bear with me? Thanks.

If the Narrator tells you that the the thing you're rolling dice for involves the thing you're afraid of or the thing you're ashamed of, you don't get any extra dice, and again you win a point if you roll high enough; if you don't, you lose the point but you're also Shaken.

Also, if you're put up against something super horrible, like really horrendous, you're Shaken if you miss the target. The Narrator has to tell you before you roll, although if the Narrator is doing their job right, you're going to know anyhow.

And you become Shaken if an attribute falls to 0.

When you're Shaken, you're traumatised. You've taken a big blow to your self esteem, courage, confidence, whatever. You're rattled, dysregulated.

You colour in one of the boxes in the ring, and tick the box next to the attribute that failed. Until you succeed in a roll with that attribute, you only roll two dice. When you make a target, you get your third die back. You can use your character's advantages to get the extra die as usual, bringing it back to three dice (and in fact you'll probably have to) – if you miss the target while using an extra die, you'll still be Shaken, but you have to colour in another stone in the ring.

The stones represent dread. They represent the pieces of the puzzle filled in, the gradual dawning realisation of doom. They're your fate. As the circle fills in, hope evaporates, the claws tighten. Lean into that. Play your character as they grow more frantic. More afraid.

You can choose to colour in a stone and regain 4 points for an attribute at any time.

You can spend 10 points from across your attributes to return a stone to normal (that, is, so it's not coloured in).

If all of your stones are coloured in, including the last one in the middle, you're done for. You meet your fate. In the next scene, you get burned in a Wicker Man, crowned as the antichrist, dragged to hell, inducted into the coven, and so on. The Narrator should think about the sort of fate you've been heading towards. Make it fit. But that's the end of you as a working character. This is the moment when Thomasin gives up and tells Black Philip that she would live deliciously; when Jay realises who the Hunchback is and takes on his mantle; when poor, poor Sergeant Howie goes up in flames in the Wicker Man.

So. If you've got just the middle one left, tell the Narrator. It's up to the Narrator to raise the stakes, bring it all together. Because this is when it comes to a natural end for you, or if you get out alive. This is the endgame.


This is not supposed to be a system that is kind. The more you lose, the more you lose.

I'm not 100% sure about the escalating target numbers thing, particularly. Feedback would be nice.

The next post about this will talk about fast DIY settings and about dark secrets and that sort of thing.