What I’ve defined so far would be more than adequate worldbuilding if the setting was being used to tell stores of intrigue and the relationships of people in a land on the brink of revolution, but it doesn’t really describe the potential eldritch horror, mythic exploration, and arcane mystery that I also saw inherent in the narrative. What else do we need? Let’s break it down.
Horror – I’ve never seen a set of rules that really functions to add a sense of horror in the minds of the players. Palladium Books toyed with the idea of “Horror Factor” as a mechanism to determine whether characters are scared in a given situation, but for players it’s simply a case of 1) Roll a die 2) If higher than Horror Factor, character is fine; if lower, character is stunned and can’t act. It’s more of a mechanisms to see if the players get frustrated by an encounter more than anything else. There’s a game called “Dread” which uses a Jenga Tower, this is probably the closest I’ve seen to a true sense of fear and horror manifest through a game mechanism, it induces tension in a game…not really horror, but a certain palpable tension that something is going to go wrong soon…if not now, soon. I’ve also never seen good horror happen in a communal GM environment, I’m not saying it can’t happen and I’d love to engage in a game where everyone is trying to out-psyche each other, I’m saying that I’ve never seen it. Even one of my all-time favourite games, Chill (2nd Ed by Mayfair Games) doesn’t do well in the mechanisms to convey horror, but it has an awesome GM Guide explaining the nuances of different forms of horror and what make them tick. I’ve always seen horror as something that is driven by the narrative of the GM, picked up on by the players. If there is going to be horror in this game, I foresee it as the existential horror of the Cthulhu mythos combined with an internalised body horror. There are monstrous entities lingering in the background of the setting, and every time a player opens up a new avenue of exploration they might end up walking into something so horrific that they are either obliterated or return to the civilised world changed in some dark way…players lose their characters, regardless of how much they have invested, they see their hard work used against them. The characters themselves become the most confronting monsters of the setting.
Exploration – I really haven’t touched on game mechanisms at all, but the notion of exploration seems to beg the idea of random encounter tables. Things may seem decadent and dangerous in the city, but there are certain rules and orders that keep things generally running smoothly (preventing them from devolving into anarchy and violent revolution). Once you get away from the structure and routine of the civilised world, things get less predictable…well that’s not entirely true. Once you get away from the civilised world, there are less buffers, less checks and measures. In small towns there are a few people to help you out when things go awry, and when you go into the wilderness there is no-one at all to help keep the dangers at bay. Random encounter tables aren’t something you’d normally use in a LARP, but in a tabletop setting (and running small groups of players) they’d be a bit more appropriate. Since we’re already using cards to determine random personality traits where a character deviates from their cultural stereotypes, we could use cards to randomly determine events during exploration. You could also use whatever random tables already exist in a favoured game system, but for the moment bear with me.
I like cards because they can be read a few different ways, quickly and conveniently without needing to reference too many tables. You can also do some fun tricks with them like counting doubles, triples, straights, matching suits, etc.
The basic system I’m thinking of has the GM drawing a minimum of two cards (in safer areas you’d draw extra cards and discard the higher results, in more dangerous areas you’d draw extra cards and discard the lower results), the highest card drawn determines whether an incident occurs. The next highest card determines the type of incident, severity of the incident. Each type of location has its own chart (El Puerto de Isabella, Trader’s Port (or large town), Kāinga Kākāriki (or native town), Outpost (or small village), Ruins, Farmlands, Forest, Swampland, Beach, Underground-Mines, Underground-Caves, etc.) Exploring these tables would be a post on its own.
Mystery – Mystery is another of those things that I’ve seen done very poorly in many games. It’s certainly something to explore from a game mechanisms perspective and not from a world-building perspective. We’ve generally got mystery covered when we look at the way short term goals feed into medium term goals and medium term goals feed into long term goals. The whole story is never known by all of the players, especially during the course of play. Only once the story has been concluded should certain ideas be revealed, this is basically a tenet of Australian Freeform play.