Class Notes: What Next?

-March 20th, 2013

Last year the weekly Class Notes column served as a Degrees of Horror progress journal. Once we returned the manuscript to Pinnacle I shifted gears and wrote about the kinds of things you could expect in the book once it’s released. I wrote about Archetypes, the Fear system, capturing the fun parts of campus life in a game, your foes, and magic.

Today I want start a conversation about what comes next. If you’ll remember, I hinted at other projects at the beginning of the year and later I dedicated a column to the ETU website. In even more broad terms though, Ed and I both want to know what you would like to see from us next. Just as a recap, we at 12 to Midnight have talked about:

  • A collection of short stories inspired by Degrees of Horror.
  • An ETU website with campus news, a faculty directory, police reports, map, plus the ability to buy ETU paraphernalia
  • More ETU shorts: one-sheet/Savage Tales available for purchase individually or bundled
  • New long-form Pinebox adventures (40-50 pages)
  • Multimedia enhancements to Degrees of Horror Savage Tales: sound files of voice mail messages and EVPs found in game.

That’s pretty much the list. Now we’d really like to hear from you. Out of the above list what would you most like to see? Which ones are you willing to part with your hard-earned cash to get? As I’ve mentioned before, Ed and I both have full-time jobs and families so we want to make the best use of our limited free time for creativity. Please give us your opinion about what you most want to see next in the Pinnacle forums, on Facebook, or the unofficial Savage Worlds G+ community.

Unless someone suggests a topic they want me to elaborate upon, Class Notes will probably go on hiatus until the book hits a milestone we can report upon. Instead, beginning next week I’ll resume the Campus Tour column that ran briefly last year. Come back next week for stories about the dangerous, mysterious, and just plain weird people and places of East Texas University.


Class Notes: Arcane Secrets

-March 13th, 2013

If you’re familiar with Pinebox you know that it takes place in the “real world”– our modern, everyday life. But…not. (It’s a horror setting, after all.) I’ve already written about some of the supernatural adversaries you can expect, but up until today I haven’t really written about the ways you can fight back. As in the tv show Supernatural, packing heat can take the swagger out of many foes. Just don’t have a shoot-out in the street or get caught flashing your gun on campus or you’ll be making a quick trip to jail. You could take a page from Buffy or Angel and go low-tech. As I wrote in Degrees of Horror not only does a stake to the heart kill a vampire, it also does a number on just about any thing else you could name. The thing is, not every problem can be solved by beating it up. That’s where magic comes in.

For one last time Cody checked the knots tying Dr. Smith to the chair. The archaeology professor’s eyes were rolled up into his head but he turned to face Cody and spat out another guttural curse. Cody couldn’t help but flinch, but the rope was secure. He stepped back and took his place to the left of Alli. Together they began the rite of exorcism…

Yes Pinebox is the “real world”, but it’s also a world of shadows, secrets, and even magic. As befitting a horror setting, magic is neither easy nor without cost. All magic is performed using rituals, “cookbook” formulas for producing extraordinary results using words, movement, and various materials. It’s a difficult process made easier by assistants, but skilled ritualists can accomplish much on their own. It’s also a slow process. In Degrees of Horror, rituals are measured out in minutes, not rounds. This type of magic isn’t done on the fly but with careful preparation and forethought. You most likely won’t be slinging magic in combat, but you can fortify a room against zombies  or temporarily improve a friend’s chances at achieving a specific task.

The tall brunette paused to admire her reflection in the glass door. At least she wasn’t alone in that regard. She couldn’t help but notice the long, approving looks from students and faculty alike during the walk across campus. There was no doubt about it. She was beautiful. Her skin had cleared up, her posture straightened, and her hair practically shined. She sighed and pushed open the door to the Registrar’s office. Hopefully she could talk a student worker out of the information she needed before it all wore off and she went back to plain ol’ Kaylee.

Unfortunately tampering with natural law comes at a price. It takes a brave, strong-willed person to bend probability and reshape our world–especially when severe failure can result in a backlash to the ritualist. Possibly worse, even when a ritual is successful those involved must make a fear roll in the face of those reality-altering forces man was not meant to experience.

Finally, rituals are useful when you have time to prepare but sometimes you’re going to run into situations when you need an effect right now. That’s where talismans come in. Talismans are physical objects that have been imbued with a magical effect. These objects can take any form, from books to automobiles. They are also precious and rare. Ritualists create talismans using the same ritual that would produce the desired effect at once, but with increased difficulty due to the attempt at “storing” the effect for later use. So as dangerous as it is to attempt a ritual, creating your talisman is even worse.

That’s Pinebox.

Class Notes: More Cool Bits

-March 6th, 2013

Last week I wrote about how much fun you can have using a college campus as a modern game setting. It offers tons of roleplay hooks and it sets the stage as a compilation of all those exciting things you daydreamed about happening in class when you were supposed to be taking notes. If you missed the post, go back and give it a read. I’ll wait.

Okay, last week we talked about setting, this week let’s talk antagonists–in particular, let’s talk horror. Of course you GMs know that any setting can be customized to suit any purpose, but we’re all about the supernatural antagonists in Degrees of Horror. (Hopefully the name gave it away.) Those of you who are familiar with Pinebox have probably already experienced out-of-control science, ghosts, cultists, shamans, and more. We’ve kept that same variety in this game, so whether you’re into voodoo curses, undead stalkers, science gone wrong, demonic monsters, or menacing spirits you’ll find something to keep you awake at night. 

Speaking of antagonists, one development during the writing of Degrees of Horror was the publication of the Horror Companion. We tried to keep overlap between Degrees of Horror and the Horror Companion (and for that matter the Savage Worlds rule book) to a minimum. Why include vampire or zombie stats when you’ve already got ’em? The overlap that exists does so because we’ve put our own spin on the creature.

In particular, for ghosts and demons we took a mix-and-match approach that offers a base Monstrous Ability followed by a grab bag of additional abilities.*  That gives you tremendous flexibility in creating ghosts or demons with a variety of appearances and abilities. Of course, you might not have the time or desire to make your own creature. That’s why we also included a number of ready-made ghosts or demons that you can drop into your game as-is.

Since ghost-hunting is a significant part of the Pinebox mythos, we also include rules on conducting a ghost-hunting, seances, and dealing with spirit possessions. Let that sink in for a moment.

We devoted a section to spirit possessions and exorcisms.

Picture this: You and your friends arrive at the office of a degree adviser whom you think was sent a cursed yearbook. The adviser acts strangely and you see that you were too late– the yearbook is open on his desk! While you keep the conversation going and distract him, your friend edges close enough to “lay on hands” and cast out the evil spirit. The adviser shudders and collapses into unconsciousness. Your friend looks exhausted, but your step forward to help turns into a stumble. A suffocating pressure squeezes against your thoughts…

As in any horror game, your group sets the tone. We wrote Degrees of Horror so that you can make it an exercise in butt-kicking monster slaying, a terrifying gauntlet of survival, or somewhere in between. 

That’s it for this week. I hope you’re getting ideas for your own Degrees of Horror campaign. As always, please let me know if you have questions or if there’s something you want me to cover in an upcoming Class Notes. I’m always looking for new ideas. Thanks!


* I’ve mentioned this before but it always bears repeating. Just because Ed and I wrote it doesn’t mean that it’ll end up in the finished version. Sometimes things have to get cut for space reasons. I could see our build-a-monster sections being sacrificed to the elder page-count gods. If something gets cut for space reasons (as opposed to boneheaded mechanics) then we’ll probably put it in a future supplement or just make it available online.

Class Notes: Cool Bits

-February 27th, 2013

In last week’s Class Notes I gave you some general reasons for why Degrees of Horror will be worth checking out: it’s relatable, heroic, challenging, and scary. This week (and maybe for the next few) I want to get more specific. This week I’m covering some of the things we’ve done to make an entire game set in college something you’ll love.

I can understand reservations over roleplaying college life. Tests, essays, research projects, all-nighters… Woo. Hoo. Reliving those moments sounds like a special kind of punishment, right? But let’s turn that on its head. What about parties, day trips, dating, or hanging out with friends? Degrees of Horror is like a musical montage of college. It skims over most of the yucky parts and emphasizes the cool stuff. For instance, more than one Savage Tale begins like this, “You’re sitting in class when” …something really unexpected and slightly awesome (or disturbing) happens. In fact, it’s like all those times you daydreamed in class about something cool happening. Degrees of Horror is it!

Setting adventures on campus is just the start. Or maybe the ending. However you want to look at it is fine by me. Let’s just say that before the adventures begin, we set the stage during character creation. Ed and I wrote a number of hindrances that make for great roleplaying. How about an Overprotective Parent, Party Animal, ADHD, or Annoying Roommate? Edges are cool and sexy (and we’ve got plenty of those) but hindrances give your character…character. They also provoke memorable roleplay opportunities. Imagine sneaking up to a darkened campus building on a moonless night, only to hear “Hey guys, whatcha’ doing?” behind you from your clueless, tag-along roommate.

We also wrote a flexible system for extracurricular activities. Join a student organization or athletic team, take a part time job, pledge with a fraternity or sorority, or more. It’s easy, flexible, and makes a small mechanical effect in the game. Activities provide extra adventure fodder for the GM and roleplay opportunities for players.

Speaking of mechanical effects, remember what I said earlier about skipping the yucky stuff? Welllllllll… I may have stretched the truth. What’s college without tests? Periodically you’ll take a Final Exam using a free Knowledge skill that you can further bump like any other skill. You’ll also get opportunities to earn bonuses (and detriments) to apply to that roll throughout the semester. Passing exams means you reach the next rank. Failure slows your progress until you can take another exam. It may seem like an unnecessary stumbling block but to quote from one of our sidebars, “Part of the campaign’s fun is that sometimes you’ll have to choose between studying for that hard exam and tracking down the intelligent insects mind-controlling the Entomology department.” Making that choice is roleplay gold.

Finally, there’s money. The “poor student” trope exists for a reason. In Degrees of Horror, we’ve assumed you’ve already paid for tuition, housing, and an on-campus meal plan. What’s left over is your “semester allowance” which you’ll have to spend wisely. It hand-waves most of the tedious bookkeeping while still making money matter. For instance, you might have to choose between buying a silver bullet or taking your date somewhere that doesn’t have a drive-thru.

All these small friction points–over things like money, tests, or personal hindrances– create  moments from which great roleplay can arise. They also build on one another to create a sense of student life while still letting the adventures stand front and center. That’s cool.

I hope you’ve enjoyed getting a glimpse at some of our “cool bits” for bringing a campus setting to life. Tune in next week, when I’ll turn to the supernatural!

Class Notes: Reasons Why

-February 20th, 2013

I’ve been sharing the ups and downs of Degrees of Horror development for a long time now, but for the most part I’ve tried to avoid game “spoilers”. That’s driven by two things. First, I hate spoilers myself–let me just jump in a enjoy an experience “in the moment” without preconceptions. The other thing? I also hate overblown hype and being bombarded with daily updates that try to inflate minutia. That’s why I purposefully limit the Class Notes column to once a week. I’m treating you the way I want to be treated.

Put those two things together…and I’m probably in the wrong business. Self-promotion just doesn’t come naturally, but like it or not having spent 5 years making a game now my job is explaining why you should play it once it’s released. Here’s the thing–you can’t work on something for five years unless you love it. Sure there were times when Ed and I got burnt out, but every time we came back to the manuscript we fell in love with ETU all over again. We wrote Degrees of Horror to be the game we’d love to play. Here are just a few reasons why:

It’s Relatable: Many of you are either in college or have been in college, so pulling from those experiences when you play is second nature. Even if you haven’t been to college, it’s relatable simply by virtue of being set in our present-day world. Contrasted to a fantasy or sci-fi game, Degrees of Horror feels immediate and instantly engaging.

It’s Heroic: But not in a hack-and-slash way. You don’t play superheroes, adventuring knights, or space rangers. You play regular people. Your special-ness doesn’t come from birth or occupation, but from your choice to stand up to the darkness that so many of your classmates willfully ignore.

It’s Challenging: In a way, the present-day setting itself is an opponent. Characters have to obey the law (or at least avoid getting caught) or they risk the very real possibility of arrest and jail time. You won’t be walking across campus with a shotgun or attacking a doppelganger in the street–not if you want to avoid a trip to prison. Degrees of Horror requires characters to be not only brave, but also crafty and stealthy. Prepare the ritual, then lure the doppelganger into your dorm room.

It’s Scary: Dating. Demons. Parties. Poltergeists. Majors. Magic. Sports. Seances. Exams. Exorcisms. Being grounded in the “real world” somehow makes the unexpected and unnatural much more disturbing. Just because your characters are heroes doesn’t mean that they’re going to walk through this experience unscathed. The Guts skill is mighty important. They will know fear and you may very well know fear, too.

That’s Degrees of Horror in general terms. Next week I’ll pick out some specific examples of “cool bits”. I’m always looking for feedback on these Class Notes (or anything else), so please shout out on the Pinnacle Forums, our page on Facebook, or Google + Savage Worlds community. As always, if you have any Class Notes requests please let me know. As mentioned, I’m not good at self-promotion so Tuesday nights I’m usually struggling for ideas!