Monday, November 23, 2009

Reality Blurs Following in Paizo Footsteps with Agents of Oblivion Beta

While the news isn't new, it is well worth repeating. This past June, Reality Blurs announced they were releasing a pdf of the Beta version of their Agents of Oblivion Player's Guide for the Savage World's game system.

The Agents of Oblivion setting fills a nice gap in the roleplaying game marketplace. The setting combines modern espionage with elements of horror to create an exciting gaming environment. The vast majority of horror roleplaying games ask the following question, "what happens when everyday people encounter the horrors from the beyond?" Agents of Oblivion, like Pelgrane Press' excellent Esoterrorists, asks, "what happens when extraordinarily skilled individuals encounter horrors from the beyond?"

These games navigate the waters of the "action horror" genre, a genre that presents unique challenges to writers and game masters. It's hard to create the tension required to maintain an atmosphere of horror when those combating the horror are skilled at what they do, but that is a necessary component of horror games and stories. One need only watch a season of "Supernatural" to see some of the challenges the action horror genre doles out to writers. Week to week the episodes alternate between the deadly serious and the comedic, and when the episodes are serious the stakes are usually extremely high.

Raising the stakes is one way to maintain that tension. The higher the stakes, the more likely we are willing to believe that the Winchester brothers must pay some cost in blood and sanity in order to save the day.

Using comedic relief is another way -- believe it or not. When writing a comedic episode or adventure, the writer knows that he/she can "turn it up to 11." The risks to the characters may be lessened to some degree, but the limits of what can occur become limitless because you don't need to worry if your horror element accidentally becomes parody or farce. If it does, it only adds to the flames of fun. The light-hearted elements also make the tense moments, or the "gotcha" moments, a little more visceral due to the contrast. One doesn't want to over use humor, as it quickly can become silly, but it is a tool that should be incorporated in action horror.

Another way to increase the underlying horrific tension, and the key way to do it in a black ops vs. eldritch horror game, is to raise the stakes by threatening third party characters. The characters -- children, spouses, teachers, important politicians -- must be three dimensional characters to give their deaths consequence, but if you can achieve that end then it becomes easy to maintain tension. Certainly the players, or the viewers of a show like Supernatural, know that the protagonist's lives aren't as at risk as they would be in a Lovecraft story (or a Call of Cthulhu game session), but they should know that their characters are capable of failure. And if they fail to save someone worth while, that can create a memory that lasts well beyond the campaign.

Every now and then it is nice to step away from the traditional Epic Fantasy roleplaying game, or the hopeless despair of a game like Call of Cthulhu, and an action horror game like Agents of Oblivion can fill that slot nicely. Especially when it is free.

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