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Saturday 11 September 2021

Guilty Horror I

Locus: A roleplaying game of personal horror which explores themes of guilt, morality, and mystery. It asks each Player Character what it was that he did wrong and how he feels about it, what is wrong—or right and who says so, and presents him and his companions with a strangeness and mystery around them, that somehow, they must survive. It is a game of ordinary men and women, protagonists thrust into unsettling situations and nightmares, and exposed to mysteries that perhaps will push them to confront their own secrets. Published by Cobble Path Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it comes in two volumes—Player Guide and Director’s Guide*—and is inspired by psychological horror films such as The Descent, Triangle, Shutter Island, and others, rather than classic slashers like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Friday the 13th.

* Note: Neither the Player Guide nor the Director’s Guide are sold separately.

A Player Character in Locus is defined by eight Attributes, a Haunt, a Virtue, an Attitude, and skills. The eight Attributes are Frailty, Clumsiness, Carelessness, Impatience, Cowardice, Ignorance, Repulsion, and Temper. What is interesting about this octet is that they are negative, almost anti-Attributes. They represent the worst features of a Player Character, such that the higher value they possess, the greater difficulty a Player Character has in overcoming them and the greater the possibility, the Player Character will be let down by his weakness. For example, Repulsion represents how uncharismatic the Player Character is, so the higher it is, the more likely the Player Character is to be unpersuasive or unpleasant in terms of personality. Rated between one and five, they do require a player to invert how he thinks about the role of attributes in a roleplaying game.

A Player Character’s Haunt represents a significant event in his past when he did something wrong, or caused harm, whether that is morally or legally wrong, or simply through negligence. Initially a known only to the Player Character, Haunts are classified into four categories—Temptation, Apathy, Discord, or Malice. A Player Character’s Virtue is his predominant redeeming feature, and like Haunts, are classified into four categories—Temperance, Motivation, Community, and Compassion. The four Haunts and the four Virtues are also associated with a suit from a standard deck of playing cards. A Player Character’s Attitude is how he views his Haunt.

To create a character, a player first assigns sixteen points to his character’s Attributes, which already start with a value of one. He then selects a Haunt, a Virtue, an Attitude, and skills. A Player Character starts play with two of these, either Trained, Knowledge, Speciality, or Expertise. Throughout the creation process there is decent advice, especially in detailing the Haunt, and what that might be. Particularly good are the descriptions of the eight types of Attitudes, whether Pessimistic or Optimistic, that otherwise might have been difficult for a player to really express. The Virtues are given a similar treatment. Player Character creation is simple enough mechanically, but the choices involved are not necessarily as simple, especially when it comes to the character’s Haunt, Virtue, and Attitude, as they all strongly influence who the character is and how he will be roleplayed.

Our sample character is Chantelle Lowder. As a teenager she rebelled against her middle-class background and became part of a gang. The gang got involved first in petty crime and then more serious activities. This led to rivalries with other gangs and ultimately a feud which would lead to outright fights and the death of a rival gang member. Chantelle did not strike the killing blow, she was a witness and when she did not co-operate, she was convicted as a participant. She was sentenced to a term in prison, but was paroled for good behaviour. Since then she has tried to build a life different to her time as a gang member. She works in a software development studio and tries to not think about what she did and the fact that she attempted to cover for the murder, but is still wracked with guilt and occasionally drinks too much as a result. She tries to make up for it with kindness, but derives no real happiness from such acts.

Name: Chantelle Lowder
Attitude: The Conflicted Pessimist
Haunt: Apathy (Spades)
Virtue: Compassion – Kindness (Heart)

Frailty 4 Clumsiness 3 Carelessness 3 Impatience 2
Cowardice 4 Ignorance 3 Repulsion 3 Temper 2

Skills: Computer Coding (Trained), Lockpicking (Speciality)

Stress: Unaware/Tense/Stressed

Locus uses two sets of mechanics. The first involves dice. Locus uses four different types of dice rolls to determine how a Player Character overcomes a challenge, all involving the roll of three six-sided dice. The standard or Outcome Check is rolled against one of a Player Character’s Attributes, attempting to roll higher than the Attribute, essentially trying to overcome one of his worst features, at least temporarily. Only one die is counted. The lowest die if the difficulty of the task is Hard, the middle die if the difficulty is Medium, and the highest die if the task is Easy. A roll of six on all three dice counts as a critical success, but even if the roll is a failure, then the Player Character still succeeds, but at cost. So, “Yes, but…” Contested Checks are also rolled against an Attribute, with each participant attempting to roll higher than the Attribute on more dice than the others. If a Player Character has a skill, it either allows him to attempt an Outcome Check because he is Trained or because his Expertise reduces the Attribute being rolled against. Untrained Checks cover situations in which a Player Character has no training, and require a Hard Ignorance Outcome Check to work out what to do, followed by a Hard Outcome Check with the appropriate Attribute.

Conflicts are handled via Opposed Checks and cover movement, hiding, attacking and defending, and the like. Damage—or rather injury types—when suffered, is brutal. Each Player Character has the same Death Clock, which is filled in whenever he suffers an injury, either Minor, Major, or Grievous. If the Death Clock is filled in, the Player Character dies. Major and Grievous Injuries make successful Checks harder to achieve. Injuries can be treated, not to reduce the segments filled in on the Death Clock, but to negate their effects on Checks that a Player Character might attempt. In addition, a Player Character can suffer a Condition, such as Blind or Entangled, their effects interpreted by the Director and roleplayed by the player. In addition, the brutalism of the setting is extended to equipment as many items also have a durability value.

The second mechanic in Locus involves one ordinary deck of playing cards, Jokers removed, per every four players. Each player begins play with a Hand of three cards. Further cards are drawn every hour of actual game play, when a player’s character experiences jarring visions or hallucinations, or acts in accordance with his Vice. When the card drawn matches the Character’s Vice (or suit)—a Haunt card, it is discarded and the Player Character gains three Willpower Points. Otherwise, a non-Haunt card, which does not match the suit of the Player Character’s Vice, is retained in the player’s Hand. Cards can be discarded from a player’s Hand through certain actions, for example, when a Player Character acts in accordance with a Virtue not his own, when he resists the urge to act in accordance with his Vice, when his player rolls a critical on the dice, and so on. One of the mechanical aims in Locus is for a player to reduce the size of hand through play, as the rules state that having a larger Hand size is a bad thing. The rules advise the player to be proactive about this, to not actively pursue it in play, but with the Director, who confirm whether or not the cards can be discarded.

Like any good horror roleplaying game, Locus has a mechanic for handling scares and the deleterious effect upon the mental well-being when confronted with the unknown, fraught situations, and other dangers. This is Stress, rated Uneasy, Tense, and then Stressed. A Player Character’s degree of Stress can be raised as a result of a failed Stress Check, seeing a monster, taking damage from an Injury, and other situations at the Director’s discretion. Instead of a set stat being rolled against for a Stress Check, a player rolls a check against the appropriate Attribute, for example, Cowardice when his character confronted is by a monster or Impatience when his character is being chased and is slowed by an obstacle.

Locus also uses Willpower Points, representing a Player Character’s drive to succeed. Its only use is to purchase rerolls, which cost one Willpower Point each time, the number of dice which can be rerolled varying according to the degree of Stress a Player Character is suffering. So all three dice if the Player Character is Uneasy, just two if he is Tense, and only one if he is Stressed. Willpower Points are gained when a critical result is rolled on the dice, when a card matching the suite of Character’s Vice is drawn, when Stress is lowered, and others. A Player Character begins play with five Willpower Points.

There are two interesting aspects to the Stress mechanic. The first is that there is no mechanical effect upon a Player Character except to reduce the number of dice that can be rerolled with the expenditure of Willpower Points. Thus mechanically, Stress does not have an effect on what a Player Character can do, but instead has an effect on the purchasing power of his Willpower Points and thus on his drive to overcome difficult or dire situations. Plus of course, it should ideally influence how the Player Character is roleplayed. The second is that Locus has no insanity or madness mechanic, so that in terms of its rules, a Player Character cannot go mad or insane. That possibility is best left to the player roleplaying his character. Further, the combination of the no insanity mechanic and the brutal Death Clock gives Locus much more of an immediacy in its play, rather than the long effects of confronting the unknown as seen in other horror roleplaying games.

Physically, the Player Guide for Locus: A roleplaying game of personal horror is a slim hardback, done in deep blacks and shades of grey with slashes and splashes of red and white. The artwork tends towards the blocky, but is generally fairly decent. The layout is perhaps slightly rough in places, and although it can be difficult to find things occasionally, there is a solid index. The game and its play is nicely supported with several examples of play and the mechanics, including a trio of sample Player Characters, plus a decent summary and glossary at the end of the book.

However, there is the one thing that the Player Guide for Locus: A roleplaying game of personal horror does not do, and that is, tell the players and their Director what the Cards do in play. Fundamentally all that player knows is that having too many cards is bad and that they are keyed to his Virtue and his Vice. He can roleplay to the cards and the Virtues and Vices they link to, to an extent—and is encouraged to do so, since it is not the Director’s remit to keep track of such things—in order to get rid of them. Yet he does not know what they do otherwise nor what their effect is in the game, or the effect of having too many or too few. That is left up to the Director’s Guide to explain, but surely some explanation could have been included in the Player Guide?

The Player Guide for Locus: A roleplaying game of personal horror does, in general, give a good explanation to the majority of the roleplaying game’s core rules. It does feel fussy in places, as if there are too many mechanics for what it is trying to do, and the lack of any explanation as to the use of the playing cards is a major omission. Of course, the Player Guide is going to need the Director’s Guide, but there is the basis here for what Locus sets out to be, ‘a roleplaying game of personal horror’ with a set of potentially quite nasty, brutal mechanics coupled with strong roleplaying potential in the Virtues and Vices. To bring those out fully though, along with the elements of guilt and morality at the heart of each Player Character, the Director’s Guide is a definite must.


A review of Director’s Guide for Locus: A roleplaying game of personal horror appears tomorrow.

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