Deep Dive: Imp of the Perverse

We wrapped up a short run at Nathan Paoletta’s Imp of the Perverse this week. Strap on the air tanks and headlamps, we’re taking a deep dive.

Quick Overview

Imp of the Perverse is a horror game set in the early America of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s called “Jacksonian” but most of the period (1830-1850) takes place after Andrew Jackson’s presidency. The Poe bit provides the supernatural and tonal flavor of the game, and the Jacksonian bit provides the actual horror of this stretch of American history. The more you know this history, the more rewarding, but Paoletta provides a ton of excellent essays both about tone and aesthetics (the Poe) and the history (the Jackson).

The language is period-stylized, which was a slog when I was making sense of the systems. A modern game-reader might look for investigation but here we get ratiocination. You might expect a section called advancement but you get ontogenesis instead. Player characters are Protagonists, the GM role is called the Editor.

The Protagonists are such because they each exhibit a perversity, another old-timey word. It doesn’t mean, you know, being pervy. It’s a behavior the player feels is unseemly in excess.  In our game, our Protagonists’ perversities were entitlement, morbidity, melancholy and meddling. Normal human stuff, but your Imp – a literal, personal supernatural presence – eggs you on to overindulge in those things. Those perversities also provide the Protagonists their Greatest Strength, the positive version of their perversity. So the entitled perversity is also an expeditious mind, the melancholic perversity provides poetic insight, and so on.

The Protagonists’ Imps can provide strength and knowledge, and later supernatural Edges. You might speak with the dead, or mesmerize the unwitting, maybe literally smell deceit. There’s no, like, magic or spells or anything. It’s not Call of Cthulhu in any way.

The game is about what happens to the Protagonists as they investigate and eventually defeat monsters. In this setting, monsters arise from perversities given too much sway. They started as people, alive or dead (“beyond the Shroud,” an anachronistic idea for the early 1800s but rationalized by the massive upheavals and brutalities of post-Jacksonian America) or even returned from beyond the Shroud. Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.

Imp isn’t really about that investigation, though. The Protagonists will always succeed. The more interesting emotional and thematic experience of the game is tied into what these investigations cost the Protagonists. They may find themselves slipping ever-closer to themselves becoming a monster, or shedding their Imp entirely and returning to mundane human life. Characters use up their resources faster than they can refresh them, further driving them toward their eventual monstrosity. The slope is so slippery that it’s nearly impossible to stop once you’ve started, but the promise of redemption is always there.

This is a game squarely in the storygame mold of indie gaming. Characters are measured by personality traits rather than professional capacities, most of the game plays out as a talky-talky freeform, and you only roll dice to resolve conflicts, not actions or skills.

Protagonist Setup

You use a questionnaire to create each Protagonist, Mouse Guard style. The questions are flavorful and interesting, and provide your various starting values as well as a list of relationships. Relationships are important and embed you into your community. Just add up the values, invent a few NPCs, maybe pick a supernatural Edge if you decide this isn’t your first brush with monsters.

You end up with a colorful, not especially deep, biography of your Protagonist’s implied past. The game-mechanical values can help guide play but since you arrive at them via questionnaire, I didn’t feel like the players were especially invested in playing toward them. I suspect if you know how the game works, you play toward your qualities so it makes organic sense to use them when it’s time to roll.

Monster Setup

The meat of the game is prepping the monster. It’s a big GM-facing job with lots of secret stuff you prepare in advance to unleash on the players later.

Setting up the monster was harder than I expected. You start by picking a perversity, just like for a Protagonist. But then you extrapolate way, way out from there.

There are a slew of example monsters in the book, which is a good way to go if you’re just going to dip your toes in. For example, there’s a reporter whose thirst for investigation and nosiness has led her to become a manipulative blackmailer. That’s an example of a living person whose Imp has turned them into a monster. But you can also go past the Shroud and select a monstrous spirit (a ghost that saps your self-worth, for example), or even returned from beyond the Shroud, a physical, supernatural entity (a dead philosopher obsessed with decay). In any case, the monsters are people. Ultimately, the monsters are us.

I found the monster-creation process super interesting and indirect. The process extracts a thematically interesting monster with clear through-lines back to the core “why is this a monster?” decisions. After picking a perversity, you think about the web of characters surrounding the monster — not just its targets, but folks with an interest in serving and protecting it. By the book, you actually do this before you make characters. The important bit here is establishing the monster’s status quo, the bad stuff it does without the Protagonists interfering. The next thing you do is think through how and where it operates at the start of play, as well as a couple steps ahead (its Escalations) in terms of its area (the physical or social circles it attacks), its horror (the supernatural stuff it does) and its emanation (terrible things NPCs are compelled to do because of the monster’s influence). This is all in service to having solid, consistent answers at hand when the Protagonists start observing the monstrosity and asking questions.

I say indirect because once you’ve gone through its web of NPCs and Escalations, transferring all that to the official worksheet is not a clear 1:1 process. You have to look at your answers and once again reframe and reinterpret what you’ve come up with to fit the worksheet. And then you’re done.

During my prep, I ended up with two relationship maps: One representing the community as the characters understand it, with their relationships and interconnections. The other is monster-centric, with the bad thing in the center and all the other stuff re-arrayed around it. You don’t need to maintain two r-maps, but I always like to present an r-map as a table centerpiece, something for the players to look at. Since we were playing online, I used Miro and shared a link. Then I kept the monster-centric version private, on a piece of paper.

Starting the Chapter

Imp offers only a weak holding environment for the Protagonists. While the purpose of the Protagonists is quite clear – defeat a string of monsters – the rationale for them to work and spend time together is only as strong as the players make it. There is one tool that helps: every PC “admires” another PC, and gets a free (ie not-at-risk) black die in their Exertion pool whenever a scene involves them. If I were playing with system expertise I’d contrive any reason at all to drag my admired PC into scenes with me. Every die counts! But at our table that just wasn’t part of their calculus. I assume they didn’t really sense how the economy of play would end up wrecking their characters’ abilities.

Without the players contriving reasons to have their admired Protagonists with them, the Editor is responsible for scene-framing. It can be a heavy lift! One pressure I felt against forcing Protagonists together early was that engaging the system pours on the gas: Anxiety skyrockets, investigating becomes too expensive, and the monster’s Escalations start showing up before I had even put its initial effects into play.

What Play Looks Like

Imp is a low-contact game. The majority of play time is pure freeform, with nobody engaging the system. But once you do start engaging, the game accelerates fast. I didn’t realize just how fast events would escalate in the game and was caught by surprise.

Players have only four mechanical affordances available to them. They can spend their Empathy to either make realizations about the monster or create new Relationships (which in turn can become additional black dice). They can spend their resources, community standing or their reasoning for Ratiocination (buy ever-more-expensive answers to things they’re investigating). And when a Protagonist does something involving deadly force, meaningful risk, or any use of their supernatural Edges, they make an Exertion roll. And that’s it, as far as the Protagonists go: connecting with the monster, investigating, doing meaningfully risky stuff.

The fourth system is aimed at other Protagonists. Each player has a pool of red Weirding dice. When it’s another player’s turn, you can speak in the voice of their Imp and negotiate a deal to give them one of your Weirding dice. This reminds me a lot of the Shadow role from White Wolf’s Wraith: a fun, scary, possibly boundary-violating chance to be the bad guy.

Ratiocination (the investigation aspect) is quite good: each Protagonist has a budget for asking questions, which get more expensive as Anxiety increases. There’s an incentive to ask early and often, but it’s hard for the players to even know what to ask about before Anxiety has made the questions unaffordable. But even after the questions become too expensive for you to answer, they can always get an answer straight from their Imp…at the cost of one red check. Those checks become important during Ontogenesis, the character-changing phase that comes after the monster is defeated.

Exertion is conflict resolution but for only very specific conflicts: when lethal force is involved, when they’re using their supernatural Edges, or when they’re doing something meaningfully risky. You assemble a pool of black dice from your relevant Qualities, Relationships and your Greatest Strength, all of which will be reduced by one unless you spend successes to protect them after the roll. You also get a red die if the conflict reflects your Perversity, and another if you accept one from another player speaking to you in the voice of your Imp. The GM can also swap your black dice for red dice, which is a bastard move that drives the characters toward becoming monsters.

There’s some hint that succeeding at Exertion means the player gets to narrate their own success, an old conflict-resolution thing I haven’t heard about in years. But only a hint! It’s not spelled out in the rulebook. There’s also some talk about additional successes being “better,” but if it’s on the player to narrate their own success, I’m not really sure how that works. But as a practical matter, nobody ever used extra successes for anything other than keeping their at-risk qualities/relationships/Strength.

Two dynamic values drive play: Lucidity, which represents your connection with your Imp and sets your target number (lower is better!), and Anxiety, which represents how bad things have gotten as the Protagonists battle the monster. Lucidity only goes down during the investigation, as players make Exertion rolls and want to generate more hits on their rolls. After a roll, each die equal or greater than your Lucidity is a “hit,” which you use to either succeed at Exertion or protect the qualities and relationships you put at risk to buy dice. You can then Embrace the Imp after a roll, lower Lucidity once, and count hits using your new, lower target number. Meanwhile, Anxiety only goes up, each time a Protagonist Embraces the Imp but also the first time they see the monster or its horrors, and the first time they face it directly. Each time Anxiety goes up, Ratiocination questions get more expensive and everyone (Editor included) gets an additional red Weirding die.

As the text makes clear, the point of Imp isn’t beating monsters. The Protagonists will beat the monsters every time. They literally can’t “lose” in that regard. The real game is managing your Lucidity, keeping it below 6 (at which point your freed of your Imp and go on to live your life) and above 1 (at which point you become the game’s next monster). That management mostly comes down to the checks you make along the way – black for your human-ness, red for your Imp-ness – and how quickly you use up your various stats.

Once the Protagonists defeat the monster, the game enters the Ontogenesis phase. Those red and black checks become pools of red and black dice, which the player rolls and tallies. Whichever color’s total is higher either lowers (red) or raises (black) Lucidity by one step. Then the players spend those checks on refreshing their various pools, maybe picking up a neat new supernatural power, or authoring new facts about the Shroud.

The system is an elaborate clockwork, and it can be hard to see how things will play out the first time.

Story Time!

I set our game in the Republic of Texas, 1840. Imp‘s default setting is either Poe’s Baltimore/Boston/some other East Coast city, or the plantation-era South, like Richmond or Charlotte. The pre-Old West western frontier fits into the game, but the vibe is quite different: big open spaces, long travel times between homesteads, and deep cultural divides. We chose San Antonio as the farthest-west frontier between American and Mexican societies. I have a personal fondness for the time and place, and fell down a research hole anyway to flesh it out for the players.

Our Protagonists were: a scion of a wealthy Irish empresario family, a former officer of the Mexican army, an escaped slave turned journalist from Back East, and a Methodist circuit rider arrived to convert the locals away from Mexico’s mandated Catholicism.

In terms of setup and then play, I should have more tightly entwined everyone’s relationships and NPC triangles, as well as the monster’s immediate connections. I had to weigh that against the time I wanted to take establishing the setting itself. The not-Old-West Republic of Texas was hugely fun to research but, I think, hard for the players to hook into. So I spent a lot of time trying to paint that picture when I should have been engaging them with the investigation.

Because of Imp’s weak holding environment, I had to work hard to contrive scenes for the Protagonists to show up together. The setting was novel, and I wanted enough one-on-one time with each character to get a sense of what their status quo looked like. That’s just good horror facilitation. But that takes time, and it leaves the other players with not much to do other than listen and enjoy. That’s a lot of freeform just-talking, at least at first, so the other players don’t even get a chance to speak in the voices of each other’s Imps and hand out Weirding dice. Later, when folks are making Exertion rolls with some frequency, that can happen much more. Unfortunately, at our table, it just … didn’t. I’m not sure why, but I speculate our online play environment makes it hard to telegraph when you might want to get impy.

We played two sessions. The first session was spending some time with each Protagonist to get a sense of their life in San Antonio. I ended that session with an inexplicable situation on an Irish homestead: a widow and her children barricaded inside their own home, every door and window sealed shut from the outside. The empresario and the circuit rider arrived to discover this weird scene, did some Ratiocination, and started feeling out what the heck was going on.

The second session, we engaged with the actual system quite a bit more. As the Protagonists spent time in the presence of the monster, they started spending Empathy to get solid answers about the monster’s about-ness. It was motived by the need to protect, interpreted protection as ownership, and eventually decided the only way to protect the things it “owned” was to destroy them with fire. The finale of the session featured all four Protagonists arrived at another homestead set ablaze by the monster. The Mexican army officer realized (via Empathy) the only fire that could have consumed an unsettled spirit was…the siege of the Alamo itself, a few years prior. And the officer had been tasked with burning the bodies of the Texian dead. Pretty great, very personal, grim! They defeated the monster when the Methodist priest consecrated the grounds of the Alamo where the Texian dead had been burned.

In retrospect, I really like the shape of the fiction that came out of the game. In practice, though, everyone had a heck of a time locking into how the systems worked, what they were capable of doing, and maintaining a clear player/character split. One big point of confusion was that there are lots of ways to “get answers” in a game that’s largely concerned with investigation. Ratiocination is the main way, but you can also use Empathy to understand the monster’s backstory, and several Edges are also good for getting information but require Exertion rolls to use. That all felt blurry on the player-facing side. What kind of information-gathering are we doing here?

Probably our greatest difficulty was Empathy use. The players can use it when in the presence of the monster or its horror, but I frequently had to say, non-diegetically, that yes this is a time you can use your Empathy. Or even recommend they do so. It produced good results but the players never felt comfortable invoking the system on their own. Now is a good time to get clues, now is a good time to use an Edge, now you’re going to need to Exert, now someone should offer the player a Weirding die.

We wrapped up the chapter so we could see the Ontogenesis cycle in play. Turns out Ontogenesis can knock a new character out of play immediately! I think this is because players weren’t cognizant of how the black/red checks would play out at the end of the chapter. In our game, the Methodist circuit rider mostly did black-check things and only called on his Imp once. But he was also a first-time monster hunter, and his Lucidity started at 5. He only had one red check but three or four black checks, so of course his Lucidity went up to 6, which freed the preacher from his meddlesome Imp. If I ran this again in long-form play, I would mention this early to the high-Lucidity folks so they could aim for extra red checks in play and keep their character in the game.

Last Thoughts

I really dig the aesthetics and themes of Imp of the Perverse. Love the period, even though I’m usually scared out of my gourd about getting historicity ”wrong” in play. I really like that you can dig into hard topics – slavery, racism, sexism, all the bad stuff – because of the period. Talking with my buddy Jay about how he’d run it during playtest, he name-checked The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I totally didn’t get that vibe, but I think I can see how one might end up in a more high-adventure mode evolving out of moody Poe-style psychological horror.

The clockwork of the game, with early Ratiocination leading to Empathy and eventually to Exertion and then Ontogenesis, is formally quite clever. I never had a player try to bypass the investigation by cashing in Empathy and just asking “how do we defeat this thing?” They did, in fact, eventually ask that. I think this process works so well because the players don’t know what they don’t know. In our game, I was even able to give the players that answer – find the remains of this damned soldier and consecrate it – but doing so wasn’t straightforward. The whole thing felt organic.

I found it hard to guess at what a good tempo might be. An entire session of establishing characters and setting was probably too much. Not responding more strongly to the players’ need to be in scenes together was a technique failure on my part, but I think not a universal one: some players just get more enjoyment out of listening and watching each other’s scenes for a while. I’m quite sure a second run at the game would go a lot better on that count, mostly through harder framing of characters together in scenes and tying the relationship maps together much tighter.

It’s an interesting game! And such a pleasure to play something that isn’t sitting atop any of the big indiegame platforms. It’s not PbtA or FitD or Fate. It is very much a conflict resolution-style storygame with a clear lineage back to earlier storygames. It also has some of the features and problems of those earlier games, like the need for players to take an active interest in other characters’ efforts and the need for the GM to push them through the session rather than, say, having Moves pull you along.

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