Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Tommy's Take on EPOCH: Experimental Paradigm Of Cinematic Horror

EPOCH is a very interesting, ambitious horror RPG by Imaginary Empire in which your goal is as much to be the most interesting character as it is to survive the "Horror Movie" you are in.



DISCLAIMER: I was provided comp copies, both physical and PDF, in exchange for a review of this RPG. My agreement was for an actual play review, but I haven't had the opportunity to do that yet, despite having received the game close to a year ago. The following are my capsule thoughts, with an actual play to follow once we've had the opportunity to bring it to the table. Affiliate links are used in this review, and clicking on those links to make purchase may provide store credit to me.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: EPOCH (Experimental Paradigm Of Cinematic Horror) is a card-based horror RPG/storytelling game in which players try to not only survive until the end of the "film", but score enough points on the "Horror Track", ensuring that the survivors have truly ended the nightmare and not just set themselves up for soul-crushing failure. You can get the PDF for $7.99 or the print for $9.99. Just keep in mind that you'll also need a deck of the EPOCH cards, which are available via Print on Demand for $14.99, or you can print them yourself off of the PDF, either on cardstock or placed in card sleeves.

The rules don't actually take up a ton of space in the book. It's very much a narrative game, with the players taking on the roles of normal people in a horror scenario. There's not a point buy system or a random roll system, or really even a trait system...character creation is pretty freeform. If you're playing a Sandbox scenario, the players and the GM agree on a group of cards for the players to use in connecting their characters: Family, Friends or Colleagues. There are 8 cards in a group and they are doled out at random to the players, who then apply that to their character. For instance, using the Friends group, one character may have a Crush on another, while one character may be an Outcast whose only friends are the other PCs. Each player then has to write out a secret and place it under the Friends card, by the end of the opening act. In a Lock-Box scenario (a tighter, controlled scenario, like the Saw films, or even the TV show LOST), you instead give everyone an Occupation card and a Circumstance card (what they do and why they do it). From there, each player gets a Trait card and Strength/Weakness card which helps define their character. They also get three Outcome cards and a Hero/Zero card.

Once gameplay begins, the GM sets the stage with Opening Scenes for the characters, before building to the first of several Tension Phases. Each Tension Phase ends with a Challenge Round, which is where the Outcome cards come into play. For instance, the Challenge may be discovering that the town sheriff's head has been chopped off and placed in your refrigerator. The player may play a Still With It/Considerable Stress card, not being TOO shaken because the Sheriff was a jerk, but there's still a severed head in his fridge. Alternately, they may play a Hero/Zero card on the person next to him...maybe that person was going to the sheriff's office, only to find the Hockey Mask Killer waiting on him! That person now has to play an Outcome card, but another player may spare them by playing their own Hero/Zero card in order to be the Big Damn Hero (maybe busting into the sheriff's department and unloading with a shotgun on the Killer, giving the two PCs a chance to escape in the cop car out front).

If a character is in a Challenge and can't play an Outcome card...then it's the end for that character. Their face is eaten off, they are sucked into Hell, their fragile mind snaps, etc. At the end of each challenge round, a secret ballot is held, with everyone (including the GM) voting for the Most Interesting Character - and no, you can't vote for yourself. Whoever wins gets another Outcome card, which means they have more cards they can play the deeper they get into the story. Everyone else gets a Flashback card that they can then use in the next Tension Phase to attempt to show that their character is more interesting. and the ballot mechanic means that once your character is dead, you are expected to stick around and be an audience member.

Surviving isn't enough, though. There is also the Horror Track, which measures the number of points the group has acquired while attempting to deal with the situation. Once the final challenge is complete, the GM sets up the finale based off of the points scored: On the lowest end, the group may be facing complete failure, like the end of Night of the Living Dead (the original). Score enough points to avoid complete failure, and you may be looking at a Hollow Victory. One of my favorites is the ending of Friday the 13th Part V, in which Our Heroes stop Jason (kinda), only to find that Tommy Jarvis has gone nuts and taken up the mask (which gets retconned in the next film). Score enough points and it counts as a total victory for the heroes, stopping the bad guys with no surprises.

Another element that can come up, for characters falling behind in the Most Interesting Character voting, are Complications. These are cards that the characters can gain that can throw twists in the story: Like they are actually cops or agents working undercover, they have a higher, hidden purpose...or maybe they aren't even human.

The rulebook speaks at length about how to frame these various sequences, as well as how to set the tone, especially laying out steps to provide immersion for groups. Some guidelines are also provided for setting up EPOCH Scenarios.

You aren't left with just guidelines, however, as three scenarios are included in the book, and the EPOCH card deck includes the Horror Track cards for a fourth free scenario called Road Trip. I won't get into the details of any of the scenarios (Fever Pitch, Price Slash and Sunshine Falls), but they run a pretty wide gamut of horror, really showing off how the same basic system can be applied in different scenarios. Additionally, EPOCH has a number of other scenarios (including a sci-fi themed set), for free or low priced, including a holiday scenario that they used as a UNICEF fundraiser. The PDF includes a number of secret ballot sheets, blank Secret cards and so on that can be printed off and used with the game.

WHAT WORKS: EPOCH boasts a very interesting mechanic, akin to many semicooperative board games. You are trying to survive, yeah (and someone is probably going to die), but it's all for naught if you fail to rack up enough points to beat the Horror Track. The freeform roleplaying is more likely to appeal to non-gamers or casual gamers. There is a great amount of support available for the game, and the price point for the book is low, making the purchase of the card deck not seem like such a big extra expense.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: Your average roleplayer may be thrown by the game lacking even a trait system, much less stats or ability scores. In some groups, a dominant personality could overrun the game, and the Hero/Zero mechanic could breed some resentment with the wrong players, especially if they feel picked on for not getting enough votes, or being targeted with Zero cards.

CONCLUSION: Definitely not the normal fare for RPGs, EPOCH is a very different take on horror roleplaying, putting the onus very much on the Player-As-Character. That said, the Outcome and Hero/Zero mechanics ensure that the game never comes down to "I win, because I said I do". With the right group who doesn't take anything too personal, it seems like a great game to play in between breaks from other games, though groups with more tense dynamics could run into problems. It could be really great for a convention game, as the lack of personal connections among the group seem like it could actually help, rather than hinder, in this game. I hope to bring this to my table very soon, but from reading, it seems like it could be a great deal if fun if your group isn't afraid of breaking the mold a bit.