Playing Liminal Horror
Back in October, I suggested to my table that we put our UVG campaign on hiatus for a week to throw in a special horror-themed one-shot for Halloween. I had a specific one-shot in mind, and it wasn't until after excitement began to build around the idea that I decided there were too many ways for that one to go wrong.
The replacement I landed on was Liminal Horror, a modern-day urban/cosmic horror game in the Cairn lineage. Which is to say: a streamlined NSR game with a stress mechanic for simulating the psychological effects of supernatural horror.
How simple? Most moves are resolved via discussion. Rolls come into play only when there's some specific and immanent risk, and even then only in the form of saves. Roll under one of three ability scores in order to avoid some specific consequence. Damage is automatic, factoring in the character's Hit Protection, and subtracted from either Strength or Control. Damage to Control eventually causes Fallout, resulting in weird side effects from the characters' encounters with the supernatural.
Comparatively simple, but sometimes simplicity creates more opportunities for things to go wrong. My big concern, going in, was that the modern-day setting made movement less structured than you might find in a medieval fantasy or sci-fi game. Those tend to have a well-defined division between wilderness and settlement, and a built-in excuse for dropping players into closed labyrinths. The urban milieu, by contrast, threatened to be messier, more abstract, less compartmentalized.
No doubt, some of the locales we ended up playing did feel flimsy. Solid prep feels more essential to Liminal Horror than in some of the other games I dealt with recently, but it's difficult to anticipate where players will want to take their characters when your milieu is a modern city. Nevertheless, we wound up having effective scenes against a variety of backdrops: conversations in diners, some low-speed vehicular cat-and-mouse, a tense rescue on a fire-escape, a heart-to-heart in a skate park, a nearly disastrous stake-out in a morgue.
Also surprising, given our constraints, was how much the players managed to flesh out their characters. In the interest of expediency, we used Liminal Horror's quick character creation method, and I warned everyone that the game was structured to play rough with their characters. If anyone died, we'd roll a new character for the bereaved player and leave the body where it lay. Yet, almost immediately, backstories began to percolate around each character.
In part, that was simply a side effect of thinking aloud about how the characters might respond to each obstacle. How often implies why. Why sent them brainstorming for biographical details. One character, they decided, was a single father, worried that his teenage daughter had fallen in with a cult. Another was the social worker he called in for help. Together, they enlisted the third, an archivist, who we positioned as a researcher specializing in cults. Almost out of nowhere, the party had a raison d'être — an uncommonly solid one in a hobby that often contents itself with treasure hunters and murder hobos.
The daughter complicated things, though. My prep did, in fact, contain a secret society you could reasonably call a cult, but she didn't really fit the profile I had worked out for recruitment. As long as she was pure background, that hardly mattered. When the heroes went back and check in on her, though, I had to make a choice. Changing the profile was one option, and in all honestly, I'd likely have been the only one to notice the change. Instead, I declared that she had fallen in with the school misfits, one of whom had recently dropped out of the secret society. Normally, I hold with the idea that you should be willing to part with your prep the moment player interest points down a different path, but in this case, trying to salvage the prep paid off. The daughter's friend quickly turned into a compelling character in his own right. The party took under their wing, which allowed for a narrative turn my players likely would not have accepted had it occurred to the daughter they had created.
Steadily, things fell together. I fumbled a bit on one of the combat rules, but everyone rolled with the correction, and anyway, they seemed intent on avoiding combat right up until the crisis point. The scenario ran longer than I had intended, but wound up describing a complete narrative arc. Its conclusion managed to both maintain thematic consistency as well as afford the characters agency. The results seemed to satisfy everyone at the table, even as it sealed their doom.