Review: “Director’s Cut: Survival Horror”

FACT: If you hit Mr. Voorhees here with his lanyard, it will do more damage than a car.

My gaming group tried something new this past week. One of our members (my friend Carson from Role-Playing Discussions) wanted to run a game he’d picked up at Gen Con this past August — namely, Director’s Cut: Survival Horror, a survival horror RPG in the spirit of slasher/monster/mostly-unclothed-women-about-to-die-horribly movies. I was pretty excited about this; that particular genre of movies was a staple of my teenage years, and I spent many a weekend night staying up til 4am watching Troma movies on USA Up All Night. So it was that we steeled ourselves for a night of fear and gore and fun.

I Believe In Crystal Lake ‘Cause I Believe In Me

Character generation in Director’s Cut is quick and straightforward. You start off with 50 action points which serve as life points for most purposes. You pick a name and some personal details, you choose some skills and spend some points on improving them, and optionally you can spend some of your action points on “edges”, which let you boost a particular skill beyond normal limits.

We rolled our characters up and found ourselves working as camp counselors. The camp had just closed for the summer, and we were supposed to do a bunch of chores before we all left for home. But there was time for one last beer run and one last bout of skinny dipping with the unpleasant but hot female head counselor, who hates us all but was willing to take off her shirt in front of us anyway.

One of the other counselors and me went on the beer run, and we had a fun encounter messing with some preppy rich kid jerks who would almost assuredly be dead sometime within the next hour. On the way back, we almost hit a deer, and saw a mysterious figure lurking about. Meanwhile, at the camp, the head counselor decides her time on this Earth has ended and stops skinny dipping to go pay a visit to the sylvan ladies’ room all alone in the middle of the night. Her screams shortly thereafter were no surprise.

Up until this point in the game, things were going pretty smoothly. Then things just got, well, frustrating.

When we found the head counselor, our GM read some box text. And by that, I mean a full two minutes of torture-porn about how her flesh blackened and sizzled from her being on fire, her desperate screams for help, how everything looked, how everything smelled. I’m pretty sure this text was meant to shock and evoke horror and disgust from players. It worked on at least one of the group. Problem is, every time we encountered any NPCs who weren’t the killer, we’d get another two minutes of box text — and there were lots. It was long enough and frequent enough that it got boring even to the more squeamish players. As we got to about a dozen dead bodies with frightening cutscenes, we started to wonder who it was intended for. The players? The GM? The authors?

According to the rulebook, we were each supposed to have a long, detailed death horrifying death scene much like the other employees of Camp Whastheshibbitz as the killer shuffled off each of our respective mortal coils. As it happened, he only got one of us.

That was the other problem.

10,000 Maniacs (Or Was That 10,000 Combat Rounds…)

Instead, as soon as the killer started to chase us, we turned around and dogpiled him in a good ol’ fashioned grand melee. Our GM told us later that the killer was rolling terribly. I believed him. Judging by how hard the guy could hit when he did connect, we should all have been dead twenty times over. As for us, we were punching him, kicking him, hitting him with frying pans and umbrellas, and I personally took a big bite out of his evil jugular vein. What? Desperate times call for desperate measures. The guy was clearly a Jason Voorhees kind of killer, where they just keep coming and coming no matter what you do. He had a ridiculous amount of HP to start with, and our GM hinted he had some regeneration ability too. I do not think we were supposed to win or even fight well.

Any time it’s your turn, you try to make a check, usually against a 20. You roll 4d6 and add your skill modifier. If you make it, you can do another action at 3d6. If you make that, 2d6,  then 1d6. If you fail at any point, your turn is over. To make sure you don’t fail, you can sacrifice some of your action points and add them to your roll. It’s an interesting mechanic designed to simulate you exerting yourself, doing unbelievable things because it’s a movie to create cool moments, and eventually tiring enough that the killer can get you. I found it irritating at times that I always had to do the rolls in order, like a very simple action like running toward the killer would blow the big 4d6 I desperately needed to do some damage, and I would have preferred to use a 2d6 on it. The other thing was, everything was always the same difficulty (unless it was harder, in which case it was usually just impossible). I get that my character was stressed, but running toward my death seems like it would be a bit easier than trying to hit a demonic invincible killer with a flaming severed head. (It wasn’t even me that time.)

The mechanic that really sunk the game for me, though, was that anytime you successfully made a roll to hit, you had to roll randomly to determine the location. The rules never really explain why the hit location is random, but they do explain why they have hit locations at all. A 1, which was a headshot, was basically a critical hit and did max damage. If you (or the killer) kept doing damage to the same place, penalties would start occurring.

As it was, I tried to punch the killer in the face several times and wound up punching him in the shins. I can deal with not getting the best bang for my buck for focusing my attacks on a single location. What I can’t deal with is that a game that wants players to be creative in their descriptions and roleplay completely hamstrings their ability to do just that in any combat situation by rewriting it arbitrarily and randomly. There were countless times in our session last week that a player came up with a cool idea for an attack, went to try it, and… something else happened. It feels forced, it wasn’t fun, and it frustrated every last player at the table.

Oh, and somehow we hit the killer with a car and it did less damage than someone punching him in the face. At least now whenever anybody does a relatively small amount of damage to anything at the table, someone can say “at least it did more damage than a car”.

Massacre At Camp Gee-Em

The session lasted almost four hours, three of which consisted of one superlong combat with a short break to introduce a new PC to replace the one the killer finally managed to down. After it was over, pretty much everybody agreed they didn’t care for the game system. It needs to be said at this point that not one person at the table blames the GM. I borrowed his rulebook the next day, and he was playing things very much by the book. I honestly think our GM really only committed three mistakes:

  • Some mild railroading, which is something I can’t really throw stones about *ahem*
  • Allowing a 600lb character in the party (very useful for pinning psychopaths)
  • Not adjusting for frustrated players

There is also the matter that I honestly and truly believe our group wasn’t really playing the game in the way it was intended. We usually have the Serious Knob dialed to about a 4 or 5 out of 10, and we did things up the way we usually do — lighthearted, occasionally-bawdy roleplaying. We probably needed to put ourselves in the roles more and put a lot less camp in this camp massacre, set the mood, be scared a bit. I think it might have been a better experience, and we might have been more emotionally invested in what happened. Also, we would have been running away and getting killed and spending three hours doing something other than swinging away hoping the bad guy drops.

That being said, even if we can get in the right mindset, I still don’t think this is a system I want to play again, at least until they get the kinks worked out. I like the intention of the game mechanics, but their execution got in the way of us having fun rather than supporting it.

I really feel for our GM. I’ve been at the helm for a disastrous session or two, and (as regular readers here well know) it sucks. Touching base during one of the breaks if he saw people were frustrated might have helped, but sometimes, you’re so busy trying to keep track of the story and the combat and 6 lunatics at the table asking crazy things that you simply may not even notice anything’s wrong. I have been (and likely will again be) in those shoes.

As players, we probably should have said something in the middle too. Perhaps not “hey, this sucks, let’s all go home”, but at least a “this is a whole lot of pointless combat and I’m getting frustrated — can we move the story along?” might have helped. We were, perhaps, trying to be too nice. Might have saved everyone some frustration. There doesn’t seem to be, unfortunately, any way to spare someone’s feelings in a situation like this. I just hope he realizes (and we have told him this, and will tell him again until he learns it or DIES) that he just picked an unfortunate horse to ride into the GM arena this time.

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Comments

  1. Sounds like the GM made a few rookie mistakes.

    NEVER read box text verbatim. It never comes across as genuine. Read it to yourself prior to the game and paraphrase it for the players using your OWN style.

    Never have a single combat run an inordinate amount of time. If the bad guy isn’t making headway and the players aren’t making headway, get them separated and get some role play time in the mix. I have never EVER heard of a combat lasting 3+ hours before unless we’re talking about a game like Warhammer Fantasy Battles… And even then games can be significantly shorter than 3+ hours.

    Keep the pulse of the players. The GM should always be able to look at his players and tell from body language whether they are engaged in the story / game and if they aren’t, change their tactic.

    It also sounds like the rules system has some nasty flaws based on your description. Survival horror is about the story. It’s about atmosphere and emotion. It’s not about game mechanics. It sounds like they tried to create a good game mechanic that might be better suited to a different genre (along with some fixes to things like hits).

    Survival horror ala Call of Cthulhu, Chill, etc can either be phenomenal or it can suck horribly. There’s not a lot of in between really. It takes a pretty good GM to pull it off successfully and it almost always hinges on the ability of the GM to be able to accurately create a living, breathing world that the players can believe in and to be able to dance around and modify things to keep an atmosphere of suspense and evil baddies just around the corner out of sight. We all know the best horror movies are the ones where the monsters aren’t seen. They’re FELT. A GM that can pull that off can run me through a game any time. One that can’t… Eh. I’ll pass.

  2. Dark Young says:

    I played this game at GenCon 2011 with, as I understand, some of the designers and artists for the game/company. I have to say that my experience was also less than enjoyable. I got the impression that the designers were really into movies that were gore fests not necessarily horror. The expansive text box and description you mention above makes me think it was more for the authors than the players based on my experience with them.

    The major flaw I found was also with the mechanics. My character ended his time in the game unable to progress through the hospital horror we were encountering because I was down to a single action point and not enough dice to actually succeed in making the test to get to the next room. Since I wasn’t willing to expend the last action point to succeed and thus commit suicide by being out of action points, I stated that my character would sit and meditate asking the other characters to send someone back for me if they made it out.

    As the game was progressing from more tables to less and less as the player/survivors moved onto the next table. The head GM, upon learning my decision from my tables GM, off-handed declared my character dead and then went back to doing something else.

    With that insult to injury I will never play Directors Cut: Survival Horror again, nor would I ever recommend it to anyone for any reason. I only wish I had told you (Vanir) about it that year when we met.

    I realize that this is partially due to my poor experience with the game but I also had major problems with a skill test system that made it impossible for me to succeed at, if I recall correctly, climbing a ladder with out me definitely killing myself.

  3. Dark Young: Maybe the ladder was actually the killer, did you think of THAT? That’s why the guy declared you auto-dead, because you were meditating alone in the room with it.

    Now I’m imagining a horror movie where people keep trying to climb this ladder and dying. In the end you find out the ladder was just getting revenge and only killed BAD people.

    Vanir: I still really feel like this could go into awesome/parody territory and be a great RPG experience, not necessarily with that system but the idea is still stuck in my head.

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  1. […] think I’m in the mood food some scary stuff. Though our group didn’t care much for Director’s Cut: Survival Horror in our last session, changing genres for a session or two sounds like fun. The problem is, despite […]