This weekend, I’ll be putting the final touches on the Die Laughing rules, based on the final round of playtest feedback. As I move toward finalizing the game, I find myself looking back on how the game came to be. I hope you enjoy the insights. It’s been a long, long road. But first...
I've been a horror fan for a LONG time. I've read many books, watched a LOT of movies, and given nearly every horror TV series a try, at least the ones I could easily get my hands on.
When I started playing RPGs, I tried out a bunch of horror games. It's not that I didn't enjoy these games. I did. I loved Vampire, both the modern day setting and the Dark Ages variant. I tried out a few others, but when playing ordinary people in horror games featuring them, I always ran into one problem.
What do you do when your character dies? Do you whip up another character? Play an NPC? Go home? In games where characters regularly die, some of the bite of losing your character was removed by the fact that you could just throw in with another character and continue on.
That said, we begin the game design journey about twelve years ago.
2006 - Ruminations
About a year before I moved to the Atlanta area, I took a stab at creating a horror RPG of my own. In order to deal with my problems of what happens when your character dies, I hit on the idea of creating a game where the horror story didn't focus on KILLING characters, but rather on the monster turning you INTO something. I started tinkering with ideas.
The game that became Die Laughing was initially (tentatively) titled One of Them. As in, "he's not dead; he's become ONE OF THEM!" Muwahahahah...
At this stage, the game was all in my head. I imagined it as a fairly traditional RPG. A bunch of players portray characters. A GM guides you through a horror story. At some point, your character is transformed into a vampire or zombie...or is possessed or controlled by a demon...or inhabited by a ghost. That sort of thing.
At this point, my RPG freelance career hadn't really gotten going, so I floundered a bit. This version of the game never got out of the "ideas stage."
2010 - I'm a Freelancer
By 2010, I had a dozen or so freelance RPG credits to my name, mostly for D&D. And I was neck deep in pretty regularly freelancing, never going more than a month or two without a project in my lap.
I had started gaining an understanding of how an RPG is put together, how it is designed. So I took another stab at One of Them.
In this iteration, I dove deeper. I actually toyed around with outlining things. Working on mechanics (d20, cuz that's what I KNEW best). I hadn't yet latched onto the idea that certain systems do certain things well and they don't always mesh well with certain game ideas. But d20 is what I knew, so I rolled with it.
It was still a traditional RPG. Players with characters. A GM running games. But this is a point where I started toying with exactly HOW a player whose character had become a monster could continue to be involved in the story being told. I started thinking of "The GM Team." When the game began, it was a GM with players portraying characters. As characters were transformed, their players became members of the GM Team.
I struggled with how to make this happen in a meaningful way, one in which these players would become part of the GM Team but not be relegated to just doing things when the GM said it was okay. I wanted more autonomy for them, but I didn't want to strip too much authority away from the GM.
I imagined a game where the players would start outnumbering the GM but as time passed, the GM Team would grow. Eventually, the final few players would feel "a turn" where they were now outnumbered by the GM Team members. I delighted in the idea of the game play EXPERIENCE this would provoke in players. It was like a horror movie/novel where by the time you get to the end, the remaining players have seen their friends turn and they have gotten increasingly desperate.
This iteration of the game fell to the ongoing freelance work I had. As I continued to freelance for Wizards of the Coast and then Privateer Press, One of Them fell by the wayside.
2012 - The Story Game
By 2012, the "story game" thing was happening. Fiasco came out in 2009. Other designers started creating games in the same vein, story games. These games focused on very simple rules and heavy narrative elements, with NO GM, to allow players to improvise a story.
In 2012, I played Our Last Best Hope at GenCon and then also Fiasco (my session overseen by Mark Diaz Truman of Magpie Games, who designed Our Last Best Hope). I had a blast.
Almost immediately after GenCon 2012, I started wondering if One of Them could be a story game. I contacted Mark Diaz Truman and we corresponded in email for several weeks. He was incredibly kind, helpful, and - most importantly - encouraging. I tinkered and tinkered and tinkered.
I reimagined One of Them as a story game with Mark's guidance. After several weeks of tinkering, I realized that I simply didn't have enough experience with story games to do my game justice. So once again, I shelved it.
But all the ideas I had from this and previous iterations continued to percolate in my brain.
2016 - I'm an RPG Designer
I started work on what would become my first, published RPG, Murders & Acquisitions in late 2013.
By mid-2016, I had successfully Kickstarted the game and was on my way to publishing it (which happened in December of 2016). Once again, my mind returned to One of Them and I started toying with the idea again.
As fate would have it, the great bird of RPG design ideas had taken a dump on my head in the form of the idea for CAPERS. So I was also working on that.
As I rolled into 2017, CAPERS was well underway and in near constant playtest. In between CAPERS design, development, adventure writing, playtest packet sending, and feedback compiling, I started working on my little horror game again.
This time around, several pieces fell into place that have helped make the game a real thing.
I realized my strength lied in more traditional RPG design, as evidenced by Murders & Acquisitions and CAPERS. But what about a middle ground between traditional RPGs and story games? I hit on the idea of having archetype characters, very simple in their basics, but with a few cool choices you could make to create a character that was all yours. There would be traits for these characters and you'd roll dice to determine success or failure, not in an individual action, but in whether your succeeded or failed at an overall encounter.
I combined this with the story game basics of there being no dedicated GM. Other players would help set the scene and create challenges for players whose characters were at the core of the story for THAT encounter. This would make the game a quick-play, zero-prep kind of thing, ideal for a one-shot. And that's what I was always going for, even back in 2010. I envisioned a zero-prep game that could run in 1-2 hours based on how many characters are present.
Now that there was no GM, there was no need for a GM Team. I had lost the buildup of the GM Team to invoke dread and panic in characters. As I toyed with ideas, I hit on each player having a single dice pool for character. They'd roll all their dice for trait checks, but that pool would decrease over time. They'd SEE their character's life draining away.
Demise? Yes, demise. Your character didn't need to be turned into "one of them." The character could die. And the player whose character is gone can still influence the story because EVERYONE influences the story because there's no dedicated GM.
At some point, I watched a bunch of horror movies. Then...
2017 - It All Comes Together
I had an epiphany while seeking a cohesive through-line for the structure of the game. You're not just telling a horror story. You're creating a horror movie. This introduced a movie-style scene structure that I could use to help the players introduce scenes and propel the story, er, movie, forward. I could have a bunch of basic scene setups (determined randomly, as improvisational prompts) in the game with enough info to help the players get the scene going. Then they play it out. Then they make trait checks. Then some of them lose dice. And everything moves closer to character death/possession/transformation/whatever.
Since the assumption for the game is that most or all of the characters are going to die/whatever, let's make it funny. So it became a horror-comedy game. Most characters aren't going to survive the movie, so let the players have a great moment where they get to describe a funny, ridiculous death for their characters. The game was renamed Die Laughing.
And it's a movie! What types of people make movies? Actors (covered by players portraying their characters). Directors (I introduced a Director role that would pass around among the players so they'd have things to do when their character isn't the focus.) PRODUCERS (When your character is gone, you become a producer on the movie and "give notes" (using a Producer Point expenditure system, so producers don't overwhelm the story) and force the remaining players to do things differently, messing with the movie being told and creating humorous situations where certain characters are testing well or the effects budget has been reduced.
And the monsters? Each monster would have its own strengths and weaknesses, its own flavor. And they could be funny and weird. Each would have a special rule called a Wrap Rule (as in, that's a WRAP for Bob). These rules provide even MORE things for players whose characters are wrapped to do for the rest of the movie.
I began playtesting with my own friends and taking the game to conventions to run 1-2 hour demo playtests. It gained traction.
2018 - And Here We Are
Playtesting continued in early 2018 at conventions. A while back, I sent it to several playtest groups composed mostly of people I don't know for fine tuning.
The randomized scene structure was revised into a three act structure where different scenes are available during different acts. Act 1 is all about setup and the initial death(s). Act 2 is all about escalation of the monster threat and character conflict. Act 3 builds the story to resolution.
I added rules for running sequels, where a surviving character can return to face the same monster again (for those players that want more than a one-shot). And I threw in some rules for creating post-credit scenes players can use to cap off their movie.
What began as an idea twelve years ago has come to fruition.
Die Laughing is a short game, in prep time, play time, and book length. It's a pretty tight system, with room for expansion material to potentially be created through some free PDFs or maybe even some slightly longer supplements that introduce character archetypes and monsters in other horror styles (J-horror, anyone?).
I'm pretty proud of the game and am looking forward to bringing it to the masses.