dread: the house at lake horn

photo (5)


I was the host. Among the six other players, four were trad rpg veterens, and two had never played before. Crafting character questionnaires felt like a pretty delicate task, given how much they inform the shape of the game.  I really wanted the questions to interact with each other, and for common threads to connect all the characters together. I used the used the questionnaires to set up the broad strokes of a story: The family Fray (four siblings, one in-law, and one childhood friend) return home for the funeral of their mysterious father.

The Eldest

1. Choose a name:

2. What public failure sent your life into it’s current downward spiral?

3. What pieces of clothing do you wear to communicate your brooding, don’t-fuck-with-me attitude?

4. Recent setbacks aside, you’re still the best there is at…

5. Upon what ambitions venture have you pinned all your hopes?

6. Against which sibling do you harbor an old jealousy? Why?

7. What inscrutable item was waiting your your childhood bedroom?

8. What don’t your siblings understand about you?

9. What happened to the last person to pick a fight with you?

10. What severe allergy keeps you constantly on guard?


The Elder Twin

1. Choose a name:

2. You can always tell when your twin is…

3. What dark secret do you share with your twin? (decide together)

4. How did you receive your disfiguring scar?

5. How do you explain the gaps in your memory?

6. Why haven’t you spoken to your youngest sibling in years?

7. Who do you dread running into in your hometown?

8. By what nefarious means have you amassed your fortune?

9. What famous friend are you constantly name-dropping?

10. What exotic pet have you brought home with you?


The Younger Twin

1. Choose a name:

2. You can never tell when your twin is…

3. What dark secret do you share with your twin? (decide together)

4. What big case got your promoted to Lieutenant?

5. How do you maintain your extreme level of fitness?

6. About what obscure subject are you unusually knowledgable?

7. What strange piece of evidence have you brought along to puzzle over?

8. You always go armed; with what?


The Prodigy

1. Choose a name:

2. Not having seen any of your siblings in years, what change has left you unrecognizable to them?

3. What shocking secret have you recently learned about your father? Who have you told?

4. What prestigious job offer did you recently decline?

5. What medicine do you depend on for your daily survival?

6. You’ve competed internationally in what three things?

7. With which of your siblings have you been longing to reconnect?

8. Why has it taken you so long to finish your doctorate?

9. Yo’ve only cried once in your life; when was it?


The In-law

1. Choose a name:

2. What strange belief do you cling to, despite frequent eye-rolling from your spouse, the youngest Fray?

3. Describe your most powerful mystical experience?

4. What powerful drug do you use in spiritual practice?

5. What recurring nightmare does your evening meditation keep at bay?

6. What has left your hands so strong and callused?

7. What important task have you been putting off?

8. At what common task do you lack all competence?

9. What’s your biggest source of pride?


The Childhood Friend

1. Choose a name:

2. Which of the Fray siblings are you always trying to emulate?

3. Why did you spend so much time at the Fray house growing up?

4. What did you learn in prison?

5. Why does your parole officer give you so much leeway?

6. Why did Mrs. Fray always hate you?

7. When you opened that box in the Fray attic, what useful spell was burned into your mind?

8. When you use or think about that spell, you hear voices; what do they tell you to do?


Thoughts from play

We got pretty good momentum off of character creation. The players sunk into the roles of estranged siblings pretty easily.

At the beginning, there was some clash in play style, mostly about the interaction of plot and character. The trad rpg veterans generally played in a more reactive manner, describing with flourish the mundane actions and demeanor of their characters, and waiting for the host to make something happen. The new players were much more proactive in pursuing plot, using their characters as devices to make things happen but not delving as deep into actual characterization.

Once the action picked up, this difference in orientation mostly faded away, and things snowballed pretty well. Everyone seemed eager to pull from the tower, which helped thing a lot. The expectation of character death had been well established, and the tower did it’s tension-building job. During about two hours of play, the tower collapsed twice. The second collapse lined up with the end of the session, after which we wrapped up the story in epilogue.

During the game, we turned the lights down low and used some dark ambient music. I think the main observable effect of this was to cut down on extraneous table chatter, which was great. There was still a lot of humor and levity during play. I was worried about this initially, but the shaking tower cut through the jokes and enforced tension. Good job, tower.

Anyway, I had a lot of fun hosting this game of dread. The questionnaires were an awesome tool to seed a story, and also distribute creative agency among players.

game dev: cats in the gray city, first seven character sheets

So, here’s the first seven (out of ten, I think) character sheets for Cats in the Gray City.


I’ve gone into this hoping that the character sheets would kind of tell me how to write the rest of the game. I want the sheets to convey a self-contained set of rules for each character, to communicate how to play the game as much as possible. I think there will need to be an additional sheet with procedure for setup and other order of play things.

The dice-as-resources concept is very untested, and I need to run some games to see how the dice pools should be adjusted, or if explicit scene framing will even work here.

game dev: cats in the gray city, SHADOW and MAGUS

Shadow, Magus

Work-in-progress drafts of the Shadow and Magus character sheets got made today. I’m having fun creating little interactions between different moves and marked boxes on each sheet. Hoping that there is some fun in following things around the sheet and discovering how the different moves and options work together.

Ideas for further characters:

Gremlin. A gadgeteer of a cat. Has uncanny understanding of human devices. Possible move: Copy that; you have a two-way radio set and know how to use it.

Familiar. A cat with a bonded human companion. Has to assign dice to avoid becoming a pet.

Haruspex. An inverted Magus. Lighter, more cooperative. Can erase other characters’ boxes somehow.

game dev: cats in the gray city, the BRUISER

Here’s a draft of the first character sheet for Cats in the Gray City. It’s a story game about cats, and cat society, and cats’ relationship with human people and the city they live in.

In Cats, players take on the titular role of the city’s felines. Free Cats. Definitely not pets, but not wild beasts either. Walking that line between feral-ness and domesticity is the main theme of the game. There is an MC who speaks for the supporting characters and the city itself, and does what they can to make the cats’ lives not boring.

In a game about cats, it’s been hard to get player buy-in outside of a very structured starting situation (“I’m a cat, what do you want from me? I lie in the sun all day.”) So the next big part of this is going to be setup procedure–kind of a world-building phase, where all players collaborate to set up what exactly is going on in the city, and why they care. A few things I want to always be true:

  • Cats live in a society. There’s a cat sovereign, and the players’ cats are part of the cat court. Do they like it? Is the queen a good queen? Who is contending for the throne? Maybe the king just died or is about to die.
  • The city is big, maybe endless, but there are places that cats never go. Maybe they’re haunted. Maybe they’re overrun by ferals. Who has gone there and come back? Is there anything beyond the city? Does anyone even know?
  • The city is only the surface. Humans can’t see it, but there’s a secret world down there, filled with spirits and magic.

So there needs to be a time at the start of the game to ask and answer these kind of questions. Then players choose their character from a stack of options, and follow instructions on their character sheet to tie themselves together.

The rules have been through a half dozen iterations so far, using various PbtA technologies, with a few things hacked in from Don’t Rest Your Head at different points, but the current version uses a variation of Otherkind dice, where each character has a different list of options for assigning dice.

Maybe it’s just me, but for me, the following link opens the PDF of the Bruiser character sheet:

The Bruiser

Next up: The Shadow