Shadow play – Part II, creatures and mechanics

May 19, 2014

Why not keep rambling? Last time I wrote the basics about a world from my spare story and game files, using character geometry to add humanity and some playable content. Mostly gang members to beat up. But that’s okay, since really I was testing loot tables for a post-apocalyptic world, so put two and two together and I have enough for a playtest with friends.

I didn’t explain the “shadow creatures,” though, which are supposedly representative of the “darkness” inside humanity. You know, the whole point of the thing: “Can the darkness ever truly leave our hearts?” Today I’ll explain those creatures.

So! Shadow creatures!

If the super-subtle you-don’t-actually-know-this-from-the-start point of the thing is that these monsters are connected to our own human failings, then it’s time to get symbolic. Tons of people have taken the “seven deadly sins” and tried to manifest them in people or beasts, like the artist Joe England and his rabbit version. (Please take it as meaningful that I present this and only this.) For a videogame, it would be more like the monsters in The Suffering, which came about when certain foolhardy individuals asked Stan Winston Studio “Can you, I dunno, design monsters that are symbolically connected to means of execution?”

But I want human failings, so I go back to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and the Inferno. Not his poem, though: my own. After devouring the Inferno in high school, I took it upon myself to write a new one, and the result was the longest poem I ever wrote. I think it even sounded good in a couple places. Not all the “sins” were amenable to game adaptation, so today I choose these five: betrayal, exploitation, greed, sadism, and zealotry.

I’m neither Joe England nor Stan Winston, so I don’t really know how they look, but probably each beast is a scrawny/hulking/gangly/muscular brute/wretch of some sort. In dark colors. More important is how they behave. They are intelligent, most act slowly and deliberately upon spotting prey, and all use a thematically-appropriate means of approach. They will gladly kill and eat you, but each also has a special way of “catching” you: if you succumb to their themed failing (“sin”) while one is hunting you, then you’re in trouble. The very next instant you stand in a shadow, you will fall through reality. The only way to avoid this fate is to kill that monster while remaining in the light. Obviously, this morality-themed “catching” mechanic works best in a pencil-and-paper RPG, with fleshed-out details for what happens when you’ve “vanished into the shadows,” how you get back out, and what lingers afterward. I’m thinking effects like Wizard’s Twilight from Ars Magica or Frag from Continuum.

Anyway, to log those creature details. Again, if you are interested in anything I post and want to use it somewhere (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

Behavior: Lure prey into attractive-looking ambushes to kill and eat them. Prepare dead ends with lots of light so they look safe. Open doors and windows to provide tempting escape routes, then make noises (subtle or scary) to channel victims along.
Catches those who: Leave behind companions in a fight. Lie to get ahead when cooperation is possible.

Behavior: Set humans to kill each other so as to feast on their remains. Identify those who don’t wish to be noticed (intruders in hostile territory) and make a loud commotion to ruin their stealth, then hide while fighting ensues. Unlock points of entry in a gang’s lair to leave a route for intruders.
Catches those who: Send others to face risks they refuse to face. Use a human shield.

Behavior: Devour human food and steal their supplies, then wait patiently for the victims to weaken before striking. Learn what humans value and quietly raid stashes while defenders are out. Locate further resources and despoil them if victims approach.
Catches those who: Sacrifice a companion for material gain. Destroy anything or anyone because “If I can’t have this, no one will.”

Behavior: Use hit-and-run tactics, crippling victims before granting the finality of death. Engage in direct assault, switching from target to target quickly after a strike. Target both humans and their supply stashes, and in the case of food and resources either devour or despoil them.
Catches those who: Kill for amusement. Injure an individual or destroy resources to “make a point.”

Behavior: Bluntly assault prey, destroying the victims themselves and all signs of humanity’s presence. Use no subtlety, tearing down walls and throwing furniture to keep victims terrified and in their place. Deface corpses to the same end.
Catches those who: Kill for a vendetta, even against the shadow creatures. Evict companions based on ideology.

(“Kill a surrendering opponent” should be in there somewhere, but I’m not sure where yet.)

I won’t write any dialogue for these monsters, but effectively the above themes could be one-dimensional character geometry. Simple enough. And if this were a printed RPG product, then the “catching” mechanic would be part of the basic draw: “Be judged by your actions” and such on the back cover of the book.

Sure, players are pretty good at figuring out criteria and would try to avoid the “sins.” Good game design here must present a cost-benefit analysis. Many unethical actions are beneficial in a post-apocalyptic world, which gamers know as they’ve seen movie “heroes” be led to betray their friends, or played games where the system explicitly let them use a human shield (“exploitation”). The related costs can appear low or manageable since a creature needs to be present before crime results in punishment, and creature frequency is impacted by eclipse status. If this were a pencil-and-paper RPG, perhaps character generation could demand the player choose one flaw they must risk exposing: perhaps an RPG character must have tendencies towards betrayal, exploitation, greed, sadism, or zealotry, just as Unknown Armies has a Passion system.

So what then about my ethical obligations as a game designer? I keep saying that “games are culture,” and apparently right now I’m trying to get gamers into a “morality play” of some sort. That’s a topic that deserves more attention, and I reserve it for next time.


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