My deluge of freelance work has evened out a little, so I’ve had some time to seriously work on Spooktacular, to the point where I’m starting the first playtest. The core idea of it is simply to make an updated and streamlined serial-numbers-filed-off version of the 1986 West End Games Ghostbusters RPG, but it’s been a really fun and interesting project to work on so far. (Also, Amy Veeres is contributing some writing.) As things stand it’s most likely going to be a PDF/POD Yaruki Zero Games release. Most of my printed self-published stuff has been in 6″x9″ format so far, but I’ve been trying out and generally liking 7″x10″ lately. Part of it is just that it’s big enough that my habit of including a bunch of tables doesn’t require too much squeezing. Anyway.
I think I would sum up my overall approach as taking the core mechanics from the original RPG and more or less doing the rest by way of my own ideas and inspirations, creating a take on busting ghosts that’s uniquely mine, based on the related media and games I like and my own ideas about the whole thing. Stuff like InSpectres, Buffy, and Mob Psycho 100 (a currently airing anime series) played into the themes, and games like Apocalypse World, Maid RPG, PDQ, and Risus influenced the design.
Themes and Stuff
Coming at this as an adult fan has let me more seriously examine the themes behind Ghostbusters and write about my own take on it. The original movie was more about running a business, while the remake is more about science and skepticism, and I find both pretty interesting. The appeal of the overall franchise I think is in that where horror movies tell us that the unknown is deadly and only barely survivable, here the paranormal is not only something people can defeat, but something that can become another job. While there are serious challenges and the possible end of the world to consider, Ghostbusters also deal with a lot of ghosts with all the nonchalance of an exterminator spraying for termites.
I’ve realized that while the characters can and probably should be a bit weird and quirky, it’s like Fiasco in terms of being something that works best with relatively normal characters rather than cartoons. A lot of the appeal and humor comes from the juxtaposition of supernatural horrors with that mundane aspect. Ghosts as a verifiable phenomenon and the busting thereof are things that the premise superimposes on an otherwise pretty ordinary world, and it’s really interesting to think about what those ripples result in. (To me that’s one place where Ghostbusters II kind of fell down, since it tried too hard to “reset” the characters back to being nobodies who had to start from square one.)
One of my favorite parts of the book so far (and the one Amy is contributing to) is the “Interesting Places to Hunt Ghosts” section, which profiles various cities in terms of what it’s like to be a paranormal investigator there. I started with places I’m familiar with–San Francisco, Albuquerque, and Washington D.C.–and Amy is adding Philadelphia, Kyoto, and London. While I have nothing against New York, I’ve never been (I’d like to some time), and for me the personalized specificity of SF or Washington is much more interesting to me personally. I can imagine busting ghosts on Capitol Hill or a Google bus plodding down Market Street much more vividly than the streets of New York, and bringing that kind of personal experience to the table helps it feel more grounded.
While I kept most of the very core conceits of the original game, I am making some changes, a mixture of personal preference and general attempts to improve it.
The biggest change I made to character creation was simply adding a bunch of optional d66 tables for the various things you have to come up with. This is a technique I first came up with for Magical Burst (inspired by Maid RPG), and it’s served me well in a bunch of other games since. It’s a way to present a bunch of examples, provide a quick out for anyone who’s stumped, and gently shape the tone of the game, so it’s something I’ve wound up using a lot in my various games. I’m also inordinately happy with adding “Ate a Telephone Once” to the table of Quirks as a nod to the GBRPG rulebook’s penchant for using eating a telephone as an example.
The second biggest change is the addition of Archetypes, which give you a broad character type (Charlatan, Parapsychologist, Esper, etc.) and a special ability that you can use by spending Awesome Points (which are Brownie Points under a different name). While I do like the addition to the game, it’s becoming clear that I need good reference materials to keep it from becoming a drag on character creation.
In 1989, WEG put out a second edition of the RPG called Ghostbusters International, but fans by and large found that it overcomplicated the game. I’ve tried to implement a handful of ideas from it while streamlining it as much as possible. One of the major things that GBI does that looks like it would pointlessly slow down play is to use margins of success a lot. While you have the option to just treat it as a binary pass/fail, the game encourages you to subtract the target number from the roll result and compare it to a chart to see how much the character succeeded by, which is kind of a lot of extra math to pack into every single roll in what it supposed to be a pretty freewheeling game. We’ll see if it survives playtesting, but I came up with the concept of Exceptional Success and Ridiculous Success for when you succeed by 10 or 20 points (respectively), which I’m hoping will make it easy to do something with crazy rolls without excessive math involved. Likewise, I added the concept of damage to stats from GBI (with a little inspiration from Risus and PDQ), but tried to simplify it as much as possible.
I did away with any semblance of initiative or movement rules (not that the original game had a whole lot of that), and instead basically wrote a couple paragraphs about doing it the way Apocalypse World does (which also happens to be more or less how Maid RPG does it).
I’m hoping this will be a fun game, and my own unique take on something that was a defining part of my childhood. (an obsession that the new movie actually rekindled stronger than ever). It’s generally been really fun to work on, and I’ve already commissioned James Workman (who did the illustrations for Fantasy Friends) to do some artwork for it.