Design challenge: Icebound horror

18 Mar, 2021, updated 16 May, 2021 rpg fkr

Jim Parkin likes making and playing very streamlined games. Really, very very streamlined games. He’s into the idea of free kriegsspiel (FK) feeding back into RPGs (the FK revolution, FKR) and summarises it well. This goes past OSR’s “rulings not rules”, and could be encapsulated as “why have the rules? Just talk through the action and agree what should happen”. This requires trust at the gaming table (no /r/rpghorrorstories), and (I personally think) a bit of confidence for the Referee. I barely have confidence that I’m applying rules that are written down correctly, so this terrifies me. Here’s Jim’s words:

You’ve met a person, right? How do you talk to them? Now talk to a person inside of a game in the same way. Context, motivation, and the assumptions of the setting guide your actions and approach, not mechanization. I appreciate arguments made that certain rules and precedures help to emulate genre or setting, but my counter is that those methods are redundant, as even with passing communal knowledge of the setting at the table, everyone can reasonably play anything with imagination and conversation. Rules can be helpful as a framework, but they are not necessary for play. All you need is a world in which to act.

He’s recently made a challenge to make games without rules, from which I’ve taken the quote above.

Now I am the boring fuddy-duddy saying “you’ve got to have rules, otherwise it’s Chaos!” and Jim has been (oh so) patiently trying to explain to me how this works on Discord. So I’m trying to learn, and I’m following his challenge.

My challenge for you all is thus:

  1. Pick a genre, setting, or time period
  2. Write one or two paragraphs on context
  3. Produce one page of random tables
  4. Give advice on tropes and how to use them

So, without further ado (and certainly skipping over me flopping about asking more questions on “how do I do that then?"), let’s have a go. I read Terror by Dan Simmons last year, and the real history (as much as is known) of HMS Terror and HMS Erebus by Michael Palin before that. And right now I’m watching the TV series. So, why not?

Terror on the Ice!

Context

You’re at the end of the Empire, you’ve been here for a year already in an unexpected ice floe. In the summer it’s cool; out of the permanent sunshine. The winter is freezing, and varies between pitch-dark and dim. Your ship was well-provisioned, you thought, but you’ve been away from clear-water to fish in, and land with birds or animals to hunt, for a long time. The embarkation pay and the cheers at the dock were a long time ago. The crew is uneasy, they’d been promised over-wintering was unlikely, and it’s looking like you might have a second winter, here in the white-blue frozen hellscape.

What to do? Stay, and pray for release? Explore on land? Try to fight your villain?

Tables

Reasons not to go out…

d6Weather on the ice
1Clear day, ice halo around the sun, sunburn, cold
2Grey, cold
3Grey, very cold
4Windy, a chill is felt inside near the hull
5Windier, the boiler strains to defrost the ship
6Blizzard, unprotected skin freezes in seconds

Reasons not to stay…

d6What does the nightwatch report?
1Howling on the wind
2Scratches on the hull
3Attacked, d4 limbs missing
4Eyes, glowing in the dark
5Body parts - but nobody’s missing?
6They’re gone

And what is the cause of this misfortune? Why does the crew cower below-decks?

d5Enemies at the ends of the Earth
1Spirit monster
2Outraged First Nations
3Nothing, it’s just the weather
4Rival Western empire is scaring you off
5Hungry ice-bear
6Aliens taking medical samples

Tropes

Some labels and phrases to get into the mood

This can be a straight true-to-life Victorian Britain, or something completely different. The crew can be separated by class, indentured, or a diverse and healthy team working together.

Caution

The true setting is redolent with racism, sexism, homophobia, and basically anything that wasn’t a “well-bred” Englishman. If you play this, discuss in the group whether you want to have any of these behaviours in your game. Or take them out.

Finally

Couldn’t resist, some tropes:

d6Naval Traditions
1-2Rum
3-4Sodomy
5-6Lash

Possibly said by Churchill, possibly another Admiral, possibly a corruption of “rum, bum and bacca” or “rum, bum and concertina”.


  1. The actual HMS Terror and HMS Erebus were retrofitted with boilers from railway locomotives to provide a propellor for windless-locomotion and ice-breaking. The locos were heavy and provided little motive force. The heat from the boiler was also circulated via dedicated channels through the ships. This turned out to be much more useful, while they had coal. But, pretty steampunk, right? ↩︎