TL;DR: If every campaign in your spiritual horror game took place in a different isolated commune/cult, how would you systematize the creation of that kind of campaign setting?
I’m working on a new suspense/horror game, tentatively called Labors of Paradise, where the players are hired to infiltrate a mysterious, isolated religious/spiritual commune for some secret mission and, of course, find more than they bargained for. Thematically, think Wickerman, Midsommar, The Apostle, etc., and mechanically I’m still figuring out a new system that will hopefully challenge player’s agency as their values are questioned and they gradually discover the true powers of the group’s miracles.
What I’m looking for some input on is the designing of the commune and how much to actually make part of the rules and system versus what to leave to narrative. Since the vast majority of the game/scenes will be confined to the commune, designing it is essentially designing the setting and campaign, like a bigger, more elaborate Incursion from Trophy. I tried drawing inspiration from Dogs in the Vineyard, but the town hierarchy seems too strict and the progression too scripted for what I’m looking for. I need a structure that can be used to present a few pre-made communes in the core rulebook, set around the year 1900, plus methods for a GM to create their own. So far, I’m considering:
- Worship: What the commune values above all else, whether a deity, object, ideology, emotion, etc. [Effectively a commune-wide trait?]
- Leadership: The authority structure of the commune. Choice of three? Singular (top-down under one authority figure), council/committee, or collective?
- Service: The commune’s regular, standard “service” or group behavior honoring their worship.
- Ritual: Habitual/ritualized behavior of the commune’s members, embodying their worship.
- Ceremony: A special ceremony for particular circumstances, typically revolving around a transgression or preparation for something dangerous, such as righting a wrong, “cleansing” someone/something, prepping for an arduous task, etc.
- Festival: A seasonal/annual celebration or thanks-giving event involving long-term planning, large and elaborate activities, and some sort of transformation.
- Transcendence: A rare occurrence that either brings a commune member into one-ness with their worship or makes them transcend the physical plane and enter the realm of the spirit in some sense.
But depending on how detailed the GM gets, that could be a lot of pre-writing for a campaign, even though they could probably guarantee most of it would be used, and I don’t know if I want these events to just proceed in a linear order, though that seems to make the most sense in terms of scale. I love the Ring structure of Trophy, but I’m not sure I want the outcome of this to be as pre-determined as that.
If anyone wants more info on the system, it inverts the typical order of “checks” in an RPG. The player’s “stats” are comprised of opposed Values (sort of like Pendragon’s Traits). The GM declares the difficulty of the check, anywhere from 1D4 to 1D20, and then the player draws a number of cards from their deck based on their character’s Value that is involved in the check (plus bonuses from skills/traits). They choose how many of the cards to play to use the numerical values as “points” towards the check. (Any unplayed cards will be discarded to be recycled back into their deck.) The GM will then roll the difficulty die. More points than die result = success, less points = failure, and equaling the die result is a critical success. Failure with a Value can mean a shift towards the opposing Value. The GM then gains all played cards to add to their own deck to be later used against the players. Still puzzling out that part, but I want the harder the players work against the commune’s interests to come back against them that much harder in the commune’s eventual response.