Horror Is Not My Thing

It used to be when I was younger. The thought of someone killing you in your nightmares terrified me. Being possessed by a demonic entity who could cause you to projectile vomit was as horrific as it was gross. The thought that a malevolent spirit was haunting my TV gave me a pavlovian response every time that pure white signal appeared. Then Scream deconstructed the slasher movie for me. After that there was Cabin in the Woods which did it again. I started studying storytelling and within that, the tropes of horror movies. Once I got how it worked most of the things I was scared of in media just didn’t affect me anymore.

So horror movies were slayed by horror movies and I moved on. I went to sports media, fantasy, super heroes, Sci-fi. They all became more prominent in what I watched, read, and listened to. Horror was near the bottom of my list. It just wasn’t that interesting.

Then came The Ring. Now that was the first thing to terrify me in years. Something about that movie got me. This new legend about the tape that needed to be copied if you wanted to survive it. It was a modern day Bloody Mary story. But that was 2002 and horror faded once again since nothing else caught my eye. But I was always checking in on these new internet myths that kept popping up. Stuff like The Slender Man and the SCP foundation. Then there was some weird podcast called Welcome to Nightvale. But the thing that cemented my love of weird analog horror stories were four podcasts from Pacific Northwest Stories and the Public Radio Alliance. The Black Tapes, Tanis, Rabbits, and The Last Movie. These four podcasts let me understand what truly scared me. Analog horror. So I looked around for an analog horror ttrpg. I couldn’t find one. So I just kept to myself, ran some weird fantasy stuff now and then, dropped some of these concepts into games where I could, and waited. In 2023 the game I was waiting for popped up as an image that I was instantly drawn to.

So thank you Jason Cordova and The Gauntlet for making Public Access.

Public Access…

…is an Analog horror game. Most of what I’ve mentioned concerning horror media in the previous three paragraphs is in this game. But my favorite part about the game is how it creates horror for the players. It’s not complicated. The game just has you ask the players what they’re afraid of. 

Ok my GM/Keeper friends. Truth is it’s a little more involved than that. I promise I’ll get to it but first, here’s the breakdown of what Public Access will give you if you pick it up and run it.

  • A game system designed to terrify and delve into the traumatic pasts of the player created characters
  • A campaign structure that’s exceptionally well fleshed out with a beginning, middle, and end
  • A bunch of mysteries within the fictional Degoya County in the real New Mexico that’ll give you the people, places, and clues to give Degoya an authentic feeling with true weirdness
  • A Big Man to terrify and delight the players
  • A bunch of weird tapes from a public access TV station that just vanished one day into the ether
  • The nostalgia of a time that’s passed into many of our living memories and is just media history to other younger folks.

Player Characters…

…get to take on the role of one of the Deep Lake Latchkey’s. You’ve come back to Deep Lake, a place you lived for a while as a child. You’re here with some friends you met on a message board that also grew up in Deep Lake. The message board’s primary topic was TV Odyssey, a public access TV station that just vanished one day. You and your friends are young, in your twenties, have rented a house, and are just looking to have some fun for the summer while poking around about TV Odyssey.

Your goal as a player is to look into TV Odyssey and other mysteries that arise in Deep Lake that may or may not be related to TV Odyssey. 

Fear is in the Eye of the Beholder

I mentioned before that the game just asks the players what they’re afraid of. What I’m talking about are the Day move and the Night move. Here they are for your perusal.

The Day Move

When you do something risky or face something you fear, name what you’re afraid will happen – if you fail or lose your nerve, then roll with an appropriate ability.

The Night Move

When you do something risky or face something you fear, name what you’re afraid will happen if you fail or lose your nerve. The Keeper will tell you how it is worse than you fear. You can choose to back down or go through with it. If you go through with it, roll with an appropriate ability.

There’s something about the psychology of this move. By asking a player character what they’re afraid is going to happen after the GM has introduced something to trigger this move does two things. The first is it creates tension for the dice roll. The second and more important thing is the GM doesn’t have to guess what the player is afraid of anymore. The player is helping the GM do it by giving them a target to shoot for. And when the player fails, completely and totally, the GM narrates what happens based on that horrific target, up to and often including the character’s death.

Do you want to turn a Key?

So I just talked about a character dying but I want to assure you this game isn’t short and people don’t just die after one failed die roll. Characters have a resource called keys. They can turn them to bump up their level of success by one step. So if a player character fails a roll the GM can and should narrate the outcome of the roll. After they’re done narrating the player can then choose to live with the outcome or turn a key. This means what happened didn’t happen in this version of reality but may have happened in a different signal and the GM narrates a different outcome.

So what does a different signal mean? The game leaves it up to the GM to decide and will guide the GM to making those choices as the campaign moves along. That’s part of that quality campaign structure I mentioned earlier.

The Keys themselves come in a few different flavors, Keys of the Child, Keys of Desolation, and the Mystery Keys. Each key has a prompt with them that a player needs to follow when they turn one. This ranges from narrating something about a characters past to shifting some stats on a character sheet. It’s all dependent on which key is turned, but the last key of the Keys of Desolation is called The Pure White Signal. Turning that key means your character is “retired”. 

Day, Dusk, Night, and Dawn

These are the phases of play and they help break up and pace sessions. They also let the GM and players know what actions can be taken when. Here’s a few examples:

  • There are these weird TV Odyssey tapes but they can only be watched during the night phase, otherwise they just show up as blue screens on TVs. 
  • You can only resolve a mystery during the night phase. 
  • The questions posed by the mysteries can only be answered during the dusk phase. 
  • You get experience points by answering dawn questions during the dawn phase. 

I know that’s just a bunch of static in your ears but I wanted to show that the phases of play have a purpose. They’re also not as stringent as they sound.

In reality the Day phase plays like every other typical investigative RPG you might have played. You roam around to various locations asking questions and meddling in mysteries trying to find clues. 

The Night phase has the catch where you can watch an Odyssey tape, but if you don’t it functions similarly to the Day phase – however, it’s the GMs job to make it more dangerous and when a Day/Night move is triggered it’s more often the Night move. 

It’s worth talking about the Day and Night moves here. They’re really more about when things are dangerous (Day move) and when things are extremely dangerous and you’re probably going to die or have something worse happen to you (Night move). So you can have a Day move during the Night phase and a Night move during the Day phase based on the stakes of the situation.

The Dawn and Dusk phases are more like check-ins where we make sure all the players get a chance to take a breath. During the Dawn phase rewards are collected and things are beginning anew. During Dusk the player characters decide what their next course of action is, potentially throw out some theories about mysteries, decide if they’re going to watch an Odyssey tape, act on an opportunity they’ve discovered from answering a question to a mystery, or if they just want to further their investigations.

If you decide to pick this game up and run it I would say follow the structure of the phases but don’t be afraid to be flexible with them. Your players might want to do something that doesn’t make a lot of sense for the structure but does for the narrative. Go with the narrative. The structure won’t break. 

I Love This Game 

As of this writing I’ve been the Keeper for 16 sessions with two different groups. I’m always excited for every session and I’m blown away by how effective the game is at producing an analog horror experience. Also, it’s a pretty minimal prep game, the mysteries are between 2-3 pages and have everything you need.

If you’re interested in anything I’ve mentioned, feel free to check out the game at Drive Thru RPG here and for more mysteries and support of the game you can check out the Gauntlet Discord or the Gauntlet Patreon. The discord has some excellent chatter and very helpful people when it comes to talking about the game, and the patreon has some extra mysteries you can incorporate into your Public Access games – Void Angels, My Dog Told Me, and The Dream. On top of that if you want to see the game being run by the designer you can check out Signals From the Otherside on Jason Cordova’s YouTube page. It’s just Jason running the game. It’s lightly edited but very entertaining and a great aid in learning how to play and facilitate the game.

If you’d like to see another article or two on running Public Access let me know here. I have a bunch of other tips and ideas for how to help make Degoya County feel like a living breathing place and how to utilize the concepts for locations, side characters, dangers, and the mystery system – which I didn’t really talk about at all, in other games.

Have fun with the weird,