Table of Contents
Who Should Write Games?
One of the core advantages of the House Games format is round-robin storytelling. As such, all players can and should create and run games from time to time. Players should be nearly equipped to run a game after playing in 5-10. Considering that it is a skill that is honed over time, the sooner you start running games, the better. If you don't feel like an expert on the dice system, it's good to have access to someone who is. This page will teach you enough to get started.
Hard and Fast Rules
These are the core restrictions of House Games that define the format.
- There must be a minimum of two players and one GM. Veteran Contractors can attempt Solo Games.
- Games must conclude in a single session. Games that run long are voided.
- After the game, each character is determined a winner or a loser.
- Games must be deadly, and there must be a real possibility of character death in every game.
- No games can REQUIRE a character death as a prerequisite for surviving or winning.
- Games are written completely agnostic of the characters that may be in them. Specific characters cannot be required to attend.
Sometimes games come as a pair, like a mini-campaign, and must be completed in order with no games in between. You must notify players beforehand, and you should never force players to participate in these games. Only attempt this if you have an extremely steady group of players that are all fully aware that their characters will be inaccessible for normal games until the second game is completed. Do not attempt with groups larger than 4 people.
Writing a game
Designing a house game can take a lot of work. It takes a good understanding of House Games, your players, and storytelling to make it all come together just right.
All House Games follow the same basic structure. A group of characters are rounded up, presented with a deadly task which they must then attempt to complete.
A character who is invited to participate in a House Game typically has the option of refusing. GMs will clearly want to avoid this, so they should strive to make their introductions enticing. In the event the character cannot be induced to play, they sit out that Game.
If the character accepts, they are brought to the location where the Game is set, typically meeting the other players (a number that can include NPCs) at the starting point. Depending on the nature of the Game, the characters are instructed in whatever details are deemed relevant and set on their way. Early Games are usually straightforward, while later Games can have all sorts of complications. Most early scenarios are "closed" to outside influence (the "House" in House Games), requiring the Characters to overcome the scenario without interference.
This is the section of the game where the character is invited to and accepts the risk of participating in a Game.
Brand new Contractors who have not yet been on a game require more involved invitations. It should dangle the carrot of the contract of the games, namely deadly risk for supernatural reward that can help them achieve their goals. You should convince the character that the supernatural is real (if required), that you have the power to do things outside the scope of normalcy, and that you will reward them if they succeed their mission. This sort of interaction has played out many times in pop culture, so feel free to take inspiration from those sources. Each character comes with an Ambition built in: It shouldn't be hard to tempt them. If you fail to do so, you are a poor Harbinger & your peers will laugh at you. Yes, they will literally mock you: Peer pressure and a handful of rules from The Secret Masters is all that keeps Harbingers in check.
With Novice Contractors you MUST always ask the character if they are willing to participate in a high stakes, possibly fatal encounter. You can't simply teleport them in or send them in blind. Harbingers are literally not allowed to do this, as it sacrifices potential Contractors with no reason.
Seasoned characters can occasionally be brought in forcefully, as they've already generally agreed to the contract of House Games.
While important, the invitation phase can easily run long, especially when there are many players. It is also generally one-on-one which leads to many players being excluded for the duration. Make an effort to keep this part simple and group the characters as quickly as possible.
Finally, the invitation is a crucial opportunity to introduce the characters to your Harbinger and their agents, which, along with inter-character relationships, character development, and impact on setting, is one of the major storytelling through-lines available in House Games. A compelling Harbinger with a clear MO can go far. Perhaps you have a director harbinger and all of their games are recorded and broadcast to other Contractors. Perhaps you have a nature-y harbinger that sends the character to far-flung environments. Harbingers or their agents can also make good "bosses" after a cycle of a few games.
The mission is the primary meat and potatoes of the gaming session, and you should spend 80-90% of playtime there.
Winning and Losing
For Novice Contractors you should have clear and well-defined objectives for winning. Early characters are fighting hard trying to play as if they know nothing at all about the games. They will overlook a lot of things Seasoned would not just to play in-character. Thus, the objectives should be clear. If your players are frustrated and unable to figure a game out, it does not make you an awesome criminal mastermind. Anyone can fool Novices. If they get frustrated & walk out on a game, you are a poor Harbinger and your peers will laugh at you.
Seasoned characters can handle fewer instructions and and more open-ended challenges. As a general rule with seasoned characters you can either force participation or leave vague instructions but not both. For Veteran characters, all bets are off.
Any given Game can have one of three outcomes.
Death: Character death cannot be a requirement for the success of a Game, and is generally not a direct result of failure. However, most character deaths occur during Games. If your character dies, they receive no experience, no Gift, and you cannot play them anymore.
Outcomes are decided on a per-character basis. Most of the time Games are won and lost as a group, with all characters sharing the the thrill of victory or shame of failure. Some games are "Highlander" style where only one character can win. It should generally be made clear at the start that this is the case. If you run too many Highlander games, players might get discouraged that their characters aren't advancing.
When writing your game, you should establish clear guidelines for what is considered success and failure even if you don't share them with the characters.
Game balance is entirely in the domain of the GM. For all the work we do regulating gifts and character stats and experience, almost 100% of balance lies in the hands of theGMs and the games they run. Many times characters who have seemed extremely powerful in one cell have visited others and been caught completely off guard by a different required skill set. This is one of the main reasons why it's important that everyone playing games also designs and runs them. Balance needs to be a communal thing. If some skill set seems extremely under or over-utilized to you, try designing a game to emphasize or de-emphasize those elements.
The point of the Games is to produce some of the hardest, smartest, cunning, bad-asses ever seen in the Multiverse. It is NOT to kill players. If your games routinely wipe out characters who did not take foolish risks or turtle excessively, you are a poor Harbinger and your peers will laugh at you. Might do more than laugh, in fact. You are wasting good talent, which is hard to find. That makes you a wastrel, and most Harbingers did not get where they are today by being lax.
Therefore, your games should fall somewhere between never killing anyone and full party wipes. Games that end in full party wipes are generally unenjoyable and often voided. Remember: perception of danger is even more important then reality of danger. Sprinkling a few NPC deaths or visceral descriptions of close calls can raise the stakes considerably.
There are very few hard and fast balance guidelines when it comes to game design.
- You are not required to follow character creation rules for NPCs and Henchmen
- You are not required to follow gift giving or power guidelines for your NPCs
- You can invent systems for supernatural phenomenon and items that player characters would never be able to obtain
- You can keep partial inventories and stat pages for your NPCs
That said, here are some good baseline rules
- At the very least, you should write down stats, relevant combat equipment, and supernatural powers for your NPCs before the game starts
- If you are using mundane items, become familiar with the standard rules for equipment
- Try to make supernatural items difficult to obtain. In the case when a character does obtain one they can use, there should generally be downsides (NPCs hunting them, a curse, etc). Player Characters can never take non-gift items as signature (can't be lost, destroyed, or stolen), and GMs from other cells are not required to let them enter their cell.
It's not bad form to adjust the quantities of certain bad guys before encounters in order to avoid party wipes.
Let's start this section with a motivating question. Which of the following elements are acceptable to put in a game?
- Someone's character is cursed and grows bunny ears permanently
- The players must kill a child to succeed the game
- The gang fights Santa Claus
- Someone's character gets raped
- A pop-culture character makes a guest appearance
- There's an erotic or leading scene that must be roleplayed
The answer? It depends. All of these things have occurred in House Games that have been run in various cells.
These are somewhat extreme examples, but the lesson is that what's acceptable in one group is not always acceptable in other groups. Things are rarely black and white, and the handling of a subject matter can make a huge difference in whether or not it seems okay. Try to get a grasp on what a particular set of players will balk at or embrace. Always consider your audience, and don't force your preferred tone down their throats.
This can be a catching point for some GMs since it's difficult to quantify. Use your discretion.
Novice games should be subtle. You should not find yourself facing Stormtroopers or transformed into a "Toon" on your 1st game. Think X-Files or Fringe. Early games should gradually become supernatural, as Novice characters can't be expected to handle total mind-fuck games & not realistically fall apart. Save your weird games for the Seasoned group. Establish "controls" so that if a game proves overwhelming for Novices, they still have some chance. Be prepared to do this BEFORE the Player deaths start. I personally can't stand seeing a great character who made all the right choices die on account of a bad roll.
You can stir up the normal House Game by adding other elements such as the following.
- Time Limit: Characters only have a set time to achieve specific goals.
- Hostages: An NPC must be safely retrieved or brought along.
- Open Door: The Game takes place in a public setting; local Institutions may help or hinder.
- Rivalry: Individual characters have different, or even opposing goals. Alternately, a rival team may be after the same goal.
- Highlander: Only one character can win.
GM's will often stray from this list, but the most standard types of House Games operate as follows:
Bug Hunt: Just what it sounds like: Find & neutralize the monster. This sort of game strongly favors fighter types, but can be cast in numerous layers of subtlety. These games tend to be the most predictable.
Escort Mission: You are required to protect an individual, location, or group for a specified period of time. Due to the inherent flexibility of roleplaying games, these games tend to be far more compelling than their video-game counterparts.
Puzzles: These Games involve a variety of riddles and complex problem solving. Clearly favoring the cerebral characters, at no point should players be allowed to simply "roll" a solution. Investigative rolls and skills should provide clues, not answers. For obvious reasons, these Games can be frustrating, but also very rewarding when solved.
Puzzle Shooter: The combination of the above styles, these Games tend to run like the first Resident Evil: A combination of Antagonists and Problem Solving that ultimately leads to the finale.
Obstacle Course: Simple and often brutal, these Games send the characters through a series of traps, tests, and challenges with the objective of surviving to reach the goal. They are best when used sparingly, as a series of death traps and little in the way of flexibility can wear on players when used too often, yet can be refreshingly straightforward after several more cerebral Games.
Abstract Goal Many games present characters with an abstract goal that involves approaching, assessing, and gaining control over a situation. These games punish non-flexible characters, and give less combat-oriented and flexible characters a time to shine. Examples could include: robbing a bank, stopping a riot, saving a group of people, or penetrating a small conspiracy.
Running a game
We're all busy people, ya hear? Every single game has a real-world time limit of a single session. If your game is running at midnight on a weekday, has gone wildly off the rails to the point where it can't be finished, or just absolutely terrible and wasting everyone's time, call it a loss and let people move on with their lives.
Here are some tips for making sure your game doesn't drag on for your players.
- Don't run side-games before primary games. Schedule different meetings for downtime play.
- Don't have lengthy character introductions for each character. Try to get the group together as soon as possible and present them with the game as a group.
- Don't encourage characters to split up. While it's efficient with regards to in-game time, it doubles the real-world time required to get anything done and forces half the group (or more!) to twiddle their thumbs. Sometimes specific characters will monopolize the GM's time. Avoid it when possible, and don't encourage it.
- Secret ringers (characters that are NPCs masquerading as Contractors) should discretely communicate via text or chat instead of having one on one private meetings with the GM when they want to take secret actions.
- STAY FOCUSED. As the GM it is often your responsibility to keep the game rolling. While characters are planning, narrate relevant things in the environment. When they choose an action, respond immediately.
- Don't call for excessive rolls. Remember, rolling is used to determine the result of an action when it is not obvious. You don't need to roll perception + alertness to hear a helicopter above you.
- Avoid multiple combats per game (combat takes a lot of time)
- Avoid combats with tons of characters
- Make it a personal goal to resolve the actions of NPCs as quickly as possible, especially when in combat. No one likes to sit around waiting to hear what the minotaur does.
- Enforce the passage of in-game time when relevant. Players can't talk in-character for an hour in the span of 15 in-game minutes. This is especially relevant when things are time-sensitive in game. If you've got the mental bandwidth, enforce things like travel time and force conversations into the car to keep players on their toes.
Being an impartial Referee
Just as Players should strive to play their Characters true and not use out of character knowledge, so too should the GM strive to be an impartial Referee of the events that transpire during the game.
Even in the age of information with access to the internet, situations will still arise where there is a "correct" call to make about a way a situation would play out, but no one really knows what it is.
- What are the local laws regarding the transportation of firearms?
- Would this medicine work to cure a given symptom or disease?
- What is the proper military procedure given this situation?
- What sort of security systems do private companies or the government have in place?
Sometimes no one present knows the answer, and then it's time to make a call. Players can try to convince the GM one or or another, but unless someone has specific information that answers the given debate directly, the GM's call stands. Even if the call is later found to be non-factual, the call made at the time stands.
When to roll?
Many new GMs make the mistake for calling for too many rolls. In general, you only want to make characters roll when there is some question as to whether or not their chosen action would be successful. You do not need to make people dex + athletics in order to jog a couple blocks.
You are also allowed to make certain rolls without the players knowing that you are rolling. For example, you can roll perception + alertness without telling your Players so that they do not know whether the information you are giving them is good or bad. Hiding a few key rolls can make the games very exciting for Players. Do not hide player-character combat rolls.
Being a Rules Resource
Due to the fact that GMs often have the final say as to what happens during a game, they often act as the interpreter of the systems and rules in place. If you are ever in doubt, feel free to ask for opinions from your players, especially more experienced ones. Breaking system rules, especially major ones, and especially when character lives are on the line, can invite a void of your game. Generally, though, if people don't complain, they must forever hold their peace.
A large part of the moment-to-moment skills involved in being a GM are just general storytelling skills. Managing stakes, the perceptions of the players, describing settings and characters, and pacing are central skills. It's difficult to master these skills or write about them. Look for them in the narration of stories you read, and make a note when another storyteller says something dramatic.
A more concrete storytelling skill is keeping an awareness of all the details that can affect play. How does that character draw their gun when they were just wearing a poncho to get out of the rain? Are they used to driving on the side of the road where they currently are? etc.