Saturday, 25 September 2021

Game Design #86: Space Horror "The Forgotten" (Discussing Morale & Suppression)

A bit of background

I've often tinkered with my space horror "Forgotten" rules - basically Doom meets Event Horizon meets Mass Effect where the Biblical rapture has occurred and the earth has been destroyed - but humans still live on space colonies and bases, but demons now run things, controlling their own special forces teams which they enhance with their dark gifts. I wanted 15mm sci fi that was NOT Vietnam-in-space (Stargrunt/Tomorrow's War - slightly modern weapons, AI, drones and mechs) or space fantasy (40K - swords, lasers and magic), but something different - sci fi/cyberpunk horror which mixes both and makes it more cyberpunk-y.  Platoon-level Shadowrun with a Mass Effect aesthetic. Something with a strong theme or backstory so it wasn't just generic chicken flavour.

I actually may end up with 2 games: I suspect The Forgotten will evolve into to squad level skirmish (a la Necromunda) as horror is best experienced when outgunned, alone and isolated - bringing several fire teams with heavy weapons makes monsters less scary - whereas Platoon-level Shadowrun (tm) will remain a more conventional 40K-scale game.

While revising my early drafts (Part 1 and Part 2  and Part 3 on the blog - originally only with the aim of removing d6s and replacing them with a better d10 mechanic - I ended up thinking more about the core aims of the game. I'm always more interested in the "feel" of the game or how it should play - the core dice mechanics are secondary. D6, d10, whatever. But does the game feel/play like a horror game? The mechanics should be chosen purely to compliment the chrome.

So what did I want my space horror game to focus on? How will it be different from the 101 other generic sci fi squad/platoon games I could buy and play from say, Wargamesvault. Why bother to make a new game?

Cover matters. I want the game to be cover based (so use strong dice modifiers when in cover vs open). I want minis to be crouched behind doors or crates, scurrying from door to door; if they are an ordinary soldier.  This should be easy - just a matter of strong cover modifiers and powerful ranged weapons.

Ammo matters. This is not so much a key decision point - I just want it to run out at the wrong time! Panicked full auto sprays can jam the gun leaving you at the mercy of some inhuman monster...  Again, pretty easy - an "out of ammo" roll when firing in reaction or when panicky.

Darkness matters. Standing near a light source means you can be engaged from further away - but also light can hold back many predators. Logically, something like a hard limit on all firing due to visibility- say 12-18" - but if you are within 6" of a light source range is up to the weapon's maximum (say 24-36"). However - many monsters need a morale test to enter the same 6" light radius or have penalties to rolls when in bright light.

Wounds matter. This is a strong argument in favour of a shift to a squad level game with solo models instead of fire teams - as tracking wounds is a pain in the bum (and tokens=mess). However a wounded soldier dragging himself away from a monster at half speed just has a good horror vibe for me. Probably a shift from fire teams/platoon (~12-24 minis) to single minis/squad (6-12minis); and also some sort of wound token would be needed. However see Secrets of the Third Reich and platoon level games where wounds are used.

^ As an addendum to this squad vs platoon, I'd suggest facing matters; i.e. soldiers backing away but being blindsided by critters in the air ducts; a further argument for squad level

Monsters matter. Not just Alien style, but possibly trained monsters. We have drones and remotes - why not organic drones - a tentacled chaos panther piloted by a drone operator via a chip emplanted in its neck? Or merely bioengineered pets - hyper-clever space velociraptors? Tyannids look pretty terrifying in 15mm scale.  Maybe some simple "solo" rules for random movement of monsters, or Space Hulk style blips; have a dig in the shed and see what toys that could go with 15mm sci fi.

and finally

Morale Matters. Obviously a sci fi horror game would have to have strong/influential morale rules. Maybe a shared "morale resource pool" that slowly is nibbled away as scary stuff happens? I grabbed out a few random rulebooks to see what ideas I could borrow (originality is overrated imo). That's when I realised how awful most morale rules are. <--This is the first problem I don't have a quick fix for. Unlike activation mechanics which I always pay cost attention to, even when testing rules I regard morale as an afterthought - along with 99% of game designers actually. See my game design rant link above.

Show us your solution to bad morale rules, O Sarcastic One!

Well, I don't have a good answer. That's why I blog about rules instead of publishing them. A critic is a legless man who teaches running, right? (Also probably why I work as a teacher)

So right now I am not sure if my "maneuver units" for The Forgotten are fire teams of 3-4 minis (like Tomorrow's War) or individual models (like Necromunda/Infinity). I want the former (as I want to use 15mm and they look better in groups) but I suspect the latter is best suited to horror. I'm still keeping my options open at this stage.

I'm thinking of morale in horror movies; how do people react?

Confident/relaxed = happily playing with test tube, unaware of alien in air vent above

Cautiously advancing = gun up, super alert, clearing room (normal wargame posture)

Hold up, I heard a noise = stands ground but not going into the room with the bloodstains leading to it

Fall back! = firing wildly on full auto, backing away into the next room, eyes wide in horror

Run!  = sprinting away from the charging monstrosity (flight)

Paralyzed = rooted to the spot as monster closes (freeze)

Frenzied Attack = running for the monster, screaming and swinging a wrench (fight)

Catatonic/Mind Broken = rocking in the corner/gouging eyes out, sole survivor of abandoned ship

Hmm. Seems like a reasonable selection. Have I missed anything important? How does this line up with typical wargames?

Well, typical wargame morale rule responses are:

1-"Break/Flee" = Unit runs towards table edge ("Run!")

2-"Suppressed/Shaken" = Unit moves to cover or goes prone ("Run+Paralyzed")

3-Sometimes a model must test to move towards a scary monster or tank ("Hold Up!")

OK how does this work for my wargame?

It will depend on the units - am I using individual solders or fire teams/squads? Because it's unlikely an entire squad will be paralyzed or catatonic. Or suddenly become frenzied 'en masse' in response to seeing a monster - unless they have drugged themselves/worked themselves up to it beforehand.

So in a game with "units" of 4-6 men fire teams (aka 40K or platoon scale), I'm left with Hold Up, Fall Back and Run. Actually pretty similar to most wargames, maybe with an extra step. I'm not thinking very out of the box here, sadly!

If however I am using ~12 single models (also bringing down the model count) I could probably have the whole range of more varied responses - as individuals would react far more differently/to extremes than the "average response" of a 4-man squad. 

So the scale of the wargame matters for what morale you use. Am I testing a single guy, or 4-5 guys as a collective "group."

Kill Shots vs Suppressive Fire

I recall reading that the switch to 5.56mm was in response to (a) the fact most firefights were under 300m, and (b) suppressive fire/volume of fire was the biggest factor in a fight, so magazines with 50% more ammo were important.  The math said to "Suppress" you needed a shot every 1-2 seconds within a metre or so of the target. However between 300-500m heavier 7.62mm rounds have better killing power and accuracy, so now the US Army is looking to go to 6.8mm + plastic cased ammo to get the best of both.  Anyway point is, suppressive fire is important. It's job is to degrade enemies or render them temporarily ineffective (i.e. as long as you are shooting). Basically the enemy keep their heads down and don't move or shoot back, enabling your side to move freely and more safely.

All that said, conventional rules that make units pass a Will test or they can't shoot back are pretty logical. Maybe make it two steps - Level 1 "Suppressed" means they can fire back, albeit at reduced accuracy/only using suppressive fire themselves; Level 2 "Pinned" means no firing back at all.

Obviously while not the primary focus, suppressive fire may cause casualties. A bullet is a bullet. So rules where suppressive fire cannot kill minis seem silly. But I'd suspect a unit cannot be carefully aiming for long range killshots when suppressed.

Welp, I still don't feel like I'm adding anything new here. *Shrugs*

Suppression Intensity = AoE 

"Intensity" is the volume of fire vs the target area size - also the weapon's size and impact. I.e. a artillery shell might suppress for 100m and a bullet only 1m.

Perhaps you could assign weapons a suppressive value i.e. 1 each rifle, 2 for SAW/support weapon - and that equals the "frontage" you can suppress. I.e. a fire team with 2 ARs, a SAW and a AR+GL would have 6 suppression or be able to suppress 6" area.  I like this as I think AoE templates are good for creating maneuver decisions.  Perhaps each mini in the AoE zone would take a morale test and perhaps have the chance of receiving a single random hit (at low odds) also modified by training level. 

Veteran and rookie might output similar suppressive fire; but how they react would differentiate them - veterans may be unaffected or suppressed, while rookies are swiftly pinned and ineffective.

Lack of Clarity in Morale Rules

One thing I noticed in my trawl through 9 random rule books last night was how ambiguous and vague the wording was in the morale sections. "If you fail a test, move towards your baseline, avoid enemies where you can."

How do I avoid the enemies? What if by moving away from one enemy I move closer to another? If I am shot, should I retreat closer to an enemy? What if one enemy is scarier, but further away? What if you need to move towards an enemy to move to cover? What if the most logical route away from enemies is NOT towards your tabletop end? When do you re-rest morale to rally? And most importantly - What if your opponent disagrees on what you think is the logical response?

Obviously you could say "I only play with mates so we'll just make up a house rule and agree" but that doesn't excuse poor rules design or clarity - it just papers over it.

Flight-Flee-Freeze vs Clarity

I'd like to loop back to the "run" "paralyzed"  "frenzied attack" from my "horror movie morale" examples. It's pretty detailed and would imo only work at Necromunda scale - you know, with less than 12 or so individual minis per team.

In interests of "clarity" I think you could give them some logical if/then triggers. 

What do you do? (when you fail a morale test)

1) Flee if there is clear path to an exit that does not move the fleeing unit closer to a foe

2) Freeze if you do not have a clear exit and score 2 or less than your Will target

3) Frenzy if you do not have a clear exit and score 1 less than your Will target or if your opponent is Hated

We could get complicated and have branching if/then off each of these - like a decision tree. Outside the scope of a normal wargame but probably acceptable in a horror skirmish game.  Or particular minis are more likely to Flee then Frenzy or vice versa.

When to rally (test to regain control of mini/calm it down)

1) No enemy in LoS

2) No "scary" enemy in 8" regardless of LoS (they make scary noises!)

3) The closest enemy is downed  "Yay it's dead!"

4) A leader/hero attempts to rally them "Stand and fight you cowards!"

How do you  

Freeze = You skip a turn and can only defend yourself in CQC

Frenzy = You are immune to further morale tests and must attempt to sprint towards the enemy triggering the morale test and engage in CQC

Flee = You cannot move closer to the enemy who triggered the morale test; you must attempt to move towards the evac point/table edge; ignore cover - you are fleeing crazily away

Now these rules are far from good but they are much more clear and comprehensive than "If you fail a test, move towards your baseline, avoid enemies where you can."

This is definitely a topic I'll explore further (with a focus specific to The Forgotten) but my kids are waiting about impatiently so I can't conclude my thoughts properly. Please share your ideas (or morale rules you regard as "good") as I like talking about rules, but not reinventing them.


  1. Tyrranids are good for mind controlled monsters. The hive mind was pretty well thought out by GW. The loss of the HM didn't make them less docile if come across, just less prone to search and destroy

    1. Can you explain this? I'm not up with 40K and last I recall of hivemind it was just a radius around synapse creatures that gave extra re-rolls to damage, saving throws etc. I.e. it was just a combat boost.

  2. The HM was controlled by the Dominatrix if I remember rightly. It controlled the synapse creatures, Hive Tyrants and Tyrranid Warriors. When the link was lost the lesser Tyrranids went into a 'nesting phase' They would attack within a certain range but not go seeking prey as they would when controlled. This may only have been in epic as that was the version I played

  3. Have you come across FiveCore? The way it handles Kill dice vs Shock dice could be of interest to you when talking about suppression vs shooting to kill. It means that players will approach a machine gun nest very differently to a sniper. There are rules for monsters as well.

  4. Yep I've got it and quite a few of Ivan's other rules.(NSiS, 5 Parsecs etc)

    At the moment I've divided it into two types of fire rather than two types of dice (therefore making it a 'decision' for the player: shoot to kill vs shoot to scare. Shoot to scare can also kill, but it's pretty random and not really dependent on shooter skill.