Friday, September 10, 2010

Tommy's Take on Slasher Flick

In one of the last reviews I did (Blood Games II, during Horror Week) I mentioned how little I like doing capsule reviews over playtest reviews. With Slasher Flick I hoped to get an actual playtest review, but then two things happened: 1) My printer ran out of ink, and I had the wrong replacement cartridge...(and I really don't like running a game off a PDF). 2) Half of my gaming group got trapped in a flood (as of this writing, they are still, just stranded). So, I am going to settle for the capsule review and hopefully do the playtest down the line.
Slasher Flick – The RPG
This review will cover the Slasher Flick PDF, provided to me by designer Cynthia Celeste Miller for review. The premise is as simple as it sounds: emulate the slasher flick genre in the confines of an RPG game.
Slasher Flick is available from as a PDF for $7.99, and from as a Print-on-Demand book for $12.99. Again, this review specifically covers the PDF.
The PDF clocks in at 113 pages, black and white, and can be formatted for digest-sized “booklet” printing. It's a rather functional PDF, fully searchable with text-select enabled if you need to copy and paste for whatever reason. My main gripe is an overuse of black, namely in the borders. It's not as excessive as, say, Eden Studios' Witchcraft is, but it's still a bit more ink-intensive than I like from a PDF I'm printing off.
This gets really bad later in the book as there are a handful of tables that are white text on black backgrounds...not fun for the “print at home” types.
The book is broken up into six chapters: Introduction, Slasher Films, The Game Rules, Creating Characters, The Players and The Directors. Additionally, the chapters are also broken up with cute, schlocky fake movie posters such as Grave Danger (“On The Darkest of Nights...He Waits For You!”)and Baby Doll (“When The Bough Breaks...The Baby Will Kill.”), which is a very nice tough, reminding me of the fake advertisements in the West End Games' Star Wars rules.
Chapter One: Introduction
Each chapter begins with a quote from a slasher film, relevant to the chapter.
The intro chapter begins with a discussion of fear, moves on to a general overview of Slasher Flick as a game, and then a discussion on what role-playing is not unlike what you'll normally see in an RPG corebook, completely with example of play. Slasher Flick uses a handful of dice, ranging from d6 to d10, and is meant to be fairly short-term as RPG “campaigns” go...a horror “flick” with a beginning, middle and end, though you can certainly leave it open for sequels.
The chapter concludes with a glossary as well as a quick overview of the other chapters.
Pretty basic chapter, nothing extraordinary or bad about it. It works fine as a basic summary of the book, which is the point, hitting on such deviations from a standard RPG such as the players having a “Primary character” as well as controlling “Secondary characters”.
Chapter Two: Slasher Flicks
Here we get a more detailed breakdown of the slasher flick subgenre. The author makes this incredibly readable by hitting a series of bullet-points including a massive, SIX PAGE list of slasher film tropes that clearly shows the author has done her homework. Some are obvious (don't have'll die)...some are fairly tongue-in-cheek (such as a killer gradually becoming overtly supernatural over time as a way to explain their constant returns until it gets so ridiculous that the filmmakers finally pull the plug and bring the killer back to the basics in order to make them believable again...Michael Myers, from Halloween 6 to H20, comes to mind).
The author helpfully makes a list of Essential Movies for you to study up on, complete with commentary. The first two obvious entries are Black Christmas and Halloween which basically invented and defined the genre, respectively. The other entries here include Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Child's Play and Scream. This pretty much hits all the beats: The beginning of the genre, the four faces of fear from the genre, and the movie to reinvented it. Can't say as I disagree with much here (other than the author's take on Rob Zombie's Halloween, but that's neither here nor there.)
The “Almost Essential” list has a slew of smaller entries, most of which are well worth watching in their own right. I was happy to see the underrated Cry_Wolf on the list. My main issue here is either the inclusion of Leprechaun or the exclusion of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or both. I'm just saying, I would define the latter as both more of a slasher film AND more important to the genre than I would the former.
A very good primer for the genre which reads quickly and in an entertaining clearly shows off the author's love for the genre and the research she's done. This gives one high hopes then for the “game” part of the book and its goal of genre emulation.
Chapter Three: The Game Rules
And here we learn to play the game. Slasher Flick has four kinds of characters, which we'll discuss now.
Primary Characters – These are the main characters of the movie, as well as the main characters of your players. Literally, they are your standard PCs as usually defined by RPGs.
Secondary Characters – Here we get an interesting deviation. The secondary characters are made and controlled by the players as a group. These are your “obviously gonna die” characters, the red-shirts, the pot-smoking buddies, the randy couple off to go have sex in the bushes.
Tertiary Characters – Here are the classic NPCs. The crazy old man who warns about the death curse, the skeptical town sheriff who may also be the father of the Good Girl, the Town Gossip. They show up, move the plot on in the way they were designed to, and sometimes are there to help boost the body count.
The Killer – This is the killer. The main antagonist. The guy (or gal) that makes this into Slasher Flick and not 90210.
The secondary character set-up was designed so the game could have a decent bodycount without it just being a series of GM described cutscenes, or worse, just a series of scenes where the players keep stumbling across bodies. Depending on the what the group prefers, the players can control all the secondaries as a group, or they can assign secondaries to each player to control for the duration of the flick.
All characters have four stats: Brawn, Finess, Brains and Spirit, rated as Poor, Normal and Good. Each character also has Qualities, both Positive and Negative. When performing an action, you check the Stat rating and roll four dice of the appropriate type: Poor is d10, Normal is d8 and Good is d6. If any of the dice match, you are successful. A Positive Quality can grant an extra die, a Negative takes one away, as well the Director can modify the number of dice up or down by one depending on overall difficulty.
Additionally, if you are rolling an opposed check, the difference in stat ratings further modifies the number of dice rolled by the active character...(a Good stat rating versus a Poor stat rating would add 2 dice of the same type, for instance, while a Normal stat rating versus a Good stat rating would actually reduce the number of dice rolled by one).
Don't Freak Out
Like most horror games, Slasher Flick has a fear mechanic called Freak-Out Checks, which are Spirit rolls anytime a character comes up on something horrifying, frightening, creepy, etc. If the character fails, they become freaked-out and any time after that a decision must be made, the Director can require a Spirit check to make the character pick the worst possible choice. If the player manages to roll matching sets of the top possible number on their dice (or “toppers”), they snap out of the freak-out state and resume normal play.
Kill Scenes
When the Killer shows up, a Kill Scene begins. The goal of a Kill Scene is to make it to 8 Survival Points before the Killer can bring you below 0. Primary characters begin the game with 1 Survival Point and Secondary Characters begin with 0. Actions are declared, the Director decides the relevant trait and modifiers, the dice are rolled, the events narrated and then the Survival Points are adjusted based on the result.
Each matching result nets you 1 Survival Point...matching toppers grants you an additional 1d3 Survival Points. No matches equals a loss of 1d3 Survival Points plus 1 for each “1” rolled. There are further modifiers tipping the scales for Primary Characters and against Secondary and Tertiary characters...such as Primary Characters ignoring their first loss of Survival Points (there should be no first round kills for the star of the movie, darn it!).
The author includes a Kill Scene example as well as guidelines for faster Kill Scenes in case your group finds the 8 point survival threshold to take too long.
It's A Movie, Darn it!
Some games have Drama Points...others have Action Points...and some have Bennies. Slasher Flick has Genre Points, which are awarded whenever player do things that wouldn't make sense in a normal RPG, but make perfect sense in a slasher investigating that noise in the basement, running into the dark house yelling your friend's name or using drugs. These Genre Points can then be spent to reroll Stat checks, find just that thing you were needing, reduce the Survival Point loss from a check or transfer the nastiness to a Secondary or Tertiary character instead.
The Killer
The Killer doesn't have stats...the Killer has “components”. The Killer is successful at 98% of the things it tries to do, and can't really be hurt much until...well...until it gets down to the Final Two (often the Good Girl and the Asshole She Redeems). At that point, survival is no longer the only option, as the characters can now achieve victory if they can withstand the Killer's onslaught. Before the Final Two, for every three matching toppers rolled in a Kill Scene, the Killer takes a Damage token. Once you hit the Final Two, every matching topper equals a damage token. If the Killer hits its damage threshold, they're dead...unless you decide to make a sequel, of course.
Unique mechanics...probably the most disconcerting thing here for the experienced gamer is the use of smaller dice the better you are at something. The mechanics are designed to get you to act like in-genre...for instance, you can make a boneheaded move with a Secondary Character, but the player gets the Genre point, which can then be used to keep their Primary Character alive later.
There is no traditional “combat” in this game, but an interesting tug-of-war mechanic for the Killer, which seems like it could be very tension-filled. The rules certainly read like they've hit their intended mark.
Chapter Four: Creating Characters
And now, character creation. Kinda surprising for me...I'm used to seeing the character generation before the rules. Not sure I would have deviated from that here.
This chapter is solely for creating Primary and Secondary Characters...that is, the characters controlled by the players.
As mentioned above, this is meant to be a group exercise. Everyone sits down, the Director informs the players how many secondaries will be involved and what, if any, requirements exist for the characters (everyone needs to be a high school student, a death row inmate, etc). Basically, this is just to make sure that you don't have guys wandering in from the wrong movie.
The secondary characters are divided up among the players, and the players then assign a stereotype for each character in their possession, including their primary. Here's where it gets interesting: From there, all the secondary characters are passed to the player on your left for the next step.
Everyone starts off at Poor rating on their stats, but Primaries get four stat boosts, while secondaries get three, and each player spends those boosts for all characters in their possession. Then: switch. Everyone gives all their people Positive Qualities, pass the secondaries around, and do Negative Qualities. Everyone switches again, and can then make two alterations to their Primary character and one alteration to each secondary character in their control. Primary Characters can gain special abilities here, such as Back For More which allows the possibility of the Primary “getting better” after dying, and Scream Queen which allows your female to instantly generate four Genre Points once per game by unleashing a blood-curdling scream.
Everyone swaps again to equip the characters, then the group works out the details regarding the characters, such as who knows who how and minor “flavor” tidbits.
A big table of sample stereotypes and qualities is included at the end of the chapter for those needing inspiration. For those printing the PDF, these tables are white text on black background, so be prepared to use some ink.
Character generation looks like it could well be a blast. For me, I think it almost looks involved enough that I would want to have a character generation session before we actually played the game as I could see it getting slow going, especially if you have a few people playing (four or more).
Chapter Five: The Players
This chapter is devoted to players trying to play within the genre. It includes five tips, a couple of which are incredibly helpful for experienced gamers: Be stupid and accept death. The game is designed to reward you for acting like an idiot, not for thinking tactically. The other point is a helpful reminded that some or all of the characters you control WILL kick the bucket in this game...have fun with it.
The next bit is about Genre Points and a helpful guideline of things you might do to earn Genre points: Heading off by yourself, walking away from the Killer's “dead” body, and investigating that strange sound from the cellar are all handy ways to acquire Genre Points...complete with a reminder that the PLAYER gets the Points, not the characters.
Finally, there's a pair of helpful sections on playing your Secondary characters and your Primary characters.
A nice, short chapter that, again, is probably really helpful for experienced players to help ease them into the expectations of the genre.
Chapter Six: The Director
This chapter, oddly, is about running the game.
There's a fairly redundant introduction in this chapter setting up the sub-headings. It's largely paragraph summaries that then direct you to the subheadings for more information and I'm really not sure it was necessary.
The first section is “Preparing the Flick” and it is all about the two basic types of slasher films “Location flicks” and “Event flicks” and a discussion about how that affects your plot. A nice list of creepy locations are included in a sidebar, as well as a short list of scene ideas you can steal in case you need to spice things up.
The section also includes discussion of the Backstory and how important it is to the genre, as well as how to integrate it into the game...and say what you will about the slasher genre, but all the classics actually HAVE a backstory.
The section on creating Tertiary Characters largely tells you what you should have suspected: Do some handwaving. Don't worry about heavy details...hit the key points that will be relevant to the role they are playing in your flick and forget the rest. Spend your time fleshing out your plot and your Killer.
Speaking of: The Killer. Now we get to the meat of making your monster. Give the Killer his basic, backstory, personality (including modus operandi: Does he only kill at the summer camp his Mom died at, does he only show up on Halloween, etc.). From there, give him a Damage Threshold. Finally, components. The book includes a list of over 20 components, some helpful to the Killer and some detrimental. This list is by no means exhaustive, but does cover a lot of ground. With that, your Killer is now complete.
The chapter continues on with discussion about Tone (Horrific vs Schlocky) and tips on Pacing, Description and Mood that you've probably read a time or two. It then veers into the application of cinematic techniques in regards to running this game, such as cut-aways (when part of the game is designed around your players splitting up, you don't want to leave anyone sitting for long) as well as discussions about both sex and gore, both obviously relevant to the genre.
Guidelines are included for the handing out of Genre points, as well as actual application of the rules in the game, arguing towards whatever is more cinematic over what is codified in the rulebook.
The next sections discuss actually playing the Killer and the Tertiary Characters and for organizations sake, I would have placed them alongside the sections about creating the Tertiary Characters and the Killer. Some good advice is here, such as using Tertiary Characters to pad the bodycount and a friendly reminder not to overuse your Killer.
The last section is about the embracing the subgenre and hits on some optional rules like penalizing character for sex and drugs (while rewarding the players), running sequels, running Mystery Killers (which sparked an idea I totally wanna do, once I figure out how to pull it off) and an acknowledgment that a female lead almost ALWAYS survives the slasher flicks...and so this section offers the optional rule of giving any girl who makes it to the Final Two two additional Survival Points to help with that,
Lastly, the book includes both an index and a character sheet, and one that looks plenty large enough to hold everything you need on it.
Final Thoughts
This is an impressive piece of work. The love of the subgenre shines through. The mechanics are designed for genre immersion, and have a very unique hook of rewarding the players to punish their characters. The book certainly READS like the author has succeeded in her goals, and I'll definitely look for the opportunity to play the game to find out. The art is all very cheesy in the best possible way.
On the downside, I'm not a fan of the heavy black borders or the white text on black background for a PDF. Also, there were some slightly wonky organizational issues in my opinion...I'm used to character creation, then rules, for instance. That said, no glaring errors stuck out at me, though the Back For More quality could use some clarification as to exactly what kind of die you're supposed to roll to use the power (reading it, I assume a d6). Still, these minor quibbles are pretty minor in my view, and if you're a fan of horror RPGs or specialized RPGs with a tightly defined focus, Slasher Flick is well worth a look.
This review is from May of 2009 and is being posted here as a precursor to my Slasher Flick: Director's Cut review coming soon.

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