Will Hindmarch talks about his new game, Revengers.
It started with a Halloween party celebrating the memory of a dead killer. A young couple had renovated the townhouse that was once his and, learning that they trod the same boards as the neighborhood’s famous villain, milked it in their invitations and party theme. What they didn’t know was that all the attention, all the stirrings of living memories, rattled chains in the After—in the ghost world.
They’d awakened the ghost of the killer, shook him from his half-slumber existence as a rote shade and transformed him into a thinking, doubting, troubling specter.
Fortunately, a dead detective—a ghost who knew the neighborhood beat—happened to catch sight of this ghost wandering the streets of the After, looking confused and terrified. That dead detective had taken it upon himself to settle the affairs of troubled ghosts, to help them make peace with their fate, transitioning them out of the After and on to… whatever came next. No one had come back to say.
We have a word for ghosts that take it upon themselves to resolve the affairs of other ghosts, investigating the truth and passing judgment on parties they deem guilty. We call them revengers.
Revengers is the name of a new game I’m developing with Fred Hicks of Evil Hat Productions. In it, you play the revengers—ghosts solving crimes and passing judgment on the living and the dead for the sake of keeping a degree of peace, earning a shred of power, and hypocritically forestalling your own final exit from the physical world. It’s a game I’ve wanted to make for a long time.
Fred and I once had a conversation about how we were both curious to put the Gumshoe rules up on our workbench, take them apart, and see how we could adapt them to do additional things, maybe giving players even more narrative control and passing the mechanisms of play through what Fred called “a story game filter.” I offered up Revengers as a test case for the experiment and the next thing you know, we’re designing a new game.
For me, it’s important to play in a new game world a few times as early as I can. If it’s part of a new game system, I might use an existing game system for those first tentative sessions of play, just so I can get into the setting as soon as possible. The point is to put the game world in front of actual players and see what grabs them, what they question, what they mock, what they talk about, what jargon they latch on to early. For this first session of Revengers I had it easy. Not only do I run an annual Halloween-themed RPG adventure every year (so I had an occasion to play), I had a game system ready to use: the existing Gumshoe mechanics. I just wrote up a few character sheets, did a quick adaptation of a Gumshoe ability list, composed a new investigation to sort through, and I was ready to play.
The five player characters for this adventure were designed to fall into three quick categories: two veteran revengers (who had both been cops in life, but didn’t meet until After), two rookies (one recently slain, one an old ghost recently awakened), and a reaper (a ghost who shakes shades from their somnambulant existence, making them into thinking ghosts called specters for either selfish or selfless reasons).
This case of a murderous man’s ghost seemed like it might be a straightforward case for training new revengers—and of course it was meant to be a training ground for all of us players, who had never played revengers of any kind before. Would the revengers try to convince the man’s ghost to confess and give up his murderous past so that he might move on from the physical realm or would they pummel him back into slumber so that at least he wouldn’t go acting on the living as he did when he was among them?
It was more complicated than that. The so-called murderer had himself been murdered by a trio of vigilante neighbors who had pinned local killings on him—and it was his own death, not his crimes in life, that kept him trapped in the After. Plus, the so-called killer popularized on the news as an evil man swore he was innocent of those crimes.
To unravel the case, the revengers had to sort out a web of murders, locate and interrogate other ghosts, and possibly risk treading on the turf of a powerful specter who “farmed” shades for their ghostly energies. It fittingly took all night to sort out the truth…
Along the way, the players asked me exactly the sort of questions I love to be asked about a game world. How does the After look? Do objects leave behind ghosts? Are shades and ghosts souls or are they like a psychic echo? Are they whole people or just parts of people? What do ghosts want and do if they’re not revengers? How do ghosts fight? Why do they fight? A million wonderful questions, many of which I answered with extrapolations based on my vision of the game world and some of which I had to think about for the first time—sparking new ideas, new consequences, new game abilities, and new motivations for PCs and NPCs. I love this part of the process.
Not all of the new game ideas I put forward took flight like I’d hoped, but the core relationship between players and their game world seems sound. The current vision of the After, as an echoing psychic overlay on the physical world, physically changes in response to the emotions of the living and the dead. The ghost world reflects the memories of the living and the dead, so a bunch of shades or specters with unresolved stories, all lingering in the After, can leave a place looking like it did back when, coexisting with how it looks now. Not a revolutionary vision of the ghost world, but a fun one.
This means that interpersonal abilities and knowledge of the past are important to shaping and reshaping the atmosphere of a place. When a ghost uses Intimidate or Commiseration or Respect abilities, she physically alters the tenor of a place, possibly causing ramifications in the living world with a big enough spend of ability points. Make the ghost of a building angry, the walls might warp or bleed or rot. Make a ghost relive her youth and the After might become an echo of the days of her youth, all around you. Thus the players have the power to see their actions transform the game world directly, seeing the impact of every point spent as its written into the vision of the game world. Everything comes with a tangible consequence.
This is just the beginning, though. Further play and further thought will refine how all this works and change the way we think about what points really mean in actual play—what they represent and how they’re used.
Ghosts also move through the After along personal connections—affections and rivalries, hatreds and loves—so clues have tangible rewards. They actually unlock new avenues and paths of movement in the game world. The relationship map and the physical map interact to make up the burgeoning networks of the dead. I’m looking forward to playing with this in new ways.
I have lots to do, yet. The game world needs a lot of development and refinement, yet, and as it changes, so too will our adaptation of the Gumshoe rules. When Revengers is finally ready, we think you’ll recognize the Gumshoe mechanisms within it but we hope you’ll be happily surprised by the changes we make, too.
As for the first case for those rookie revengers? They solved it with a combination of ingenuity and force… and turned the metaphysics of the game world on its ear in the process. They stopped the grisly, animated corpse of a murderous ghost from killing again by using the energy released by another ghost’s resolution and departure from this material plane. It wasn’t something I’d considered possible—using the bleed from one ghost’s departure to wash away a dark presence—but it emerged logically from the game world as they understand it, so of course I went along with it.
Now to figure out how that might change the ghostly power economy and game world going forward.