Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Elevator Pitch (or Lack Thereof)

Although the struggle to transform the Shiverwhen concept into game mechanics is an ongoing one, the hardest part of the design process for me is something that appears simple: how to convey what Shiverwhen is in a short, concise manner. In Hollywood, this is known as the “elevator pitch.”

This difficulty has nothing to do with a lack of clear vision. In my own head, I have a very lucid and detailed picture of what the game and setting is about. I’m simply finding it tricky to communicate a complex concept, one steeped in my own personal likes and sources of inspiration, in a manner that someone with no familiarity with the setting can easily grasp and digest.

The closest I’ve come to an elevator pitch is “slow-apocalyptic, fantastical, alternate Earth,” which neither rolls off the tongue nor paints a vivid picture of Shiverwhen. But despite this fatal flaw, let’s break that phrase down some since I’m not trying to sell you my idea between floors.

What is “slow-apocalyptic?” A reasonable question considering I might have minted the term, myself. “Slow-apocalyptic” is T.S. Eliot and Lord Alfred Tennyson country. It is “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper” and “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” territory. If Shiverwhen (and to some extent, many of my own writings) has a pervasive theme, it’s that things always fall apart over time, whether they be buildings, empires, societies, or morality. Shiverwhen is a place where the world is running down and nobody can say for certain how many ticks are left in the clock.

Long ago, Shiverwhen was known as Summerwhen, a land of endless, warm summer days and placid, halcyon nights. But that’s all changed and the world is now gripped in a state of never-ending autumn. Each year the crops yield slightly less bounty and the air gets a tiny bit colder. Not enough yet to herald the fimbulwinter, but enough that nobody can forget the land’s days are numbered. Although the tagline for Shiverwhen may be “Autumn Never Ends,” that’s wishful thinking, a whistle past the graveyard.

It’s not simply the land that’s winding down, either. Machines, although never the complex engines we’re familiar with on Earth, are failing. Not breaking down, mind you, but just stopping. This phenomenon is tied into Shiverwhen’s slow decline, and while there are gifted individuals that can keep the factories running, the turbines spinning, and engines churning, there’s not enough to halt this process. Matters get worse the farther you go from large population centers. Head far enough into the frontier and you’ll find rusting locomotives stopped in mid-trip, sitting atop corroded rails or you’ll discover the revolver that kept you safe from riverfront thugs in the city no longer fires. And in Shiverwhen, once a machine stops working (or “fades” if you speak the local lingo), it’s done for. No amount of tinkering or repair will get it working ever again. Things most certainly fall apart, my friends, in Shiverwhen.

Let’s look next at “fantastical” because it’s a troubling and imprecise word (and thus an Achilles’ heel in my pitch). Not everyone has the same mental picture when they’re told something is “fantasy.” Hell, even Lovecraft’s stories were considered fantasy once-upon-a-time. What I mean by it is “mysterious inhabitants and processes uncommon to Earth,” which is academic-speak for “monsters and magic.” But unlike a lot of fantasy settings, the monsters and magic of Shiverwhen are not the “high fantasy” kind. There’s a dearth of dragons and fireballs in Shiverwhen. Instead, magic is a subtle, albeit effective, force, one that utilizes props and processes that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone who has some knowledge of Earthly occult traditions. This is intended, since in many ways Shiverwhen and Earth are reflections of one another and there’s been a certain amount of commerce between both places down the centuries.

The same goes for the monstrous residents of Shiverwhen. While you won’t run into a unicorn, there are some critters that might seem a little familiar if you a) know your mythology and cryptozoology, and b) stand on one foot, tilt your head, and squint. Roleplaying games really don’t need more orcs and elves, but there are plenty of other mythologies to ransack for inspiration and urban legends in need of plundering. With Shiverwhen, I do both.

This brings us to the last troublesome part of the pitch, “alternate Earth.” What I mean here is not a place where the Nazis won the war, JFK never took a bullet in Dallas, or the Vikings settled America from ocean-to-ocean. Shiverwhen is instead, as the song goes, “hauntingly familiar.” Were you to find yourself suddenly in Shiverwhen (and you wouldn’t be the first to do so; just ask Ambrose Bierce, Judge Crater, or D.B. Cooper), it’d be awhile before you noticed anything other than an abrupt change of weather.

A single sun shines overhead, if not quite as warm as you might remember, and there’s just one moon in the sky at night. The people dress in clothes that seem a little old-fashioned, much like you remember your great-grandfather wearing in old pictures, but there’s not a tunic, surcoat, or ermine-trimmed cloak in sight. Even the language sounds familiar, although odd, unidentifiable dialects are heard as well. The most noticeable difference is automobiles are uncommon and those you do see passing by appear to be museum pieces on their way to a car show. Looking up, you’d sigh in relief. There’s not a dirigible in sight, which is always an indicator you walked into an alternate timeline.

The reason for these odd, but not completely unfamiliar sights is that, as mentioned above, Shiverwhen and Earth are fun-house mirror reflections of one another. Each has influenced the other in some manner, and, up until relatively recently, Shiverwhen embraced many of Earth’s technological advances, fashions, and social customs. The land’s slow decline has stopped that trend though, and with the failure of machines now commonplace, technology in Shiverwhen hit an apex around the time of World War I here on Earth.

I gleefully admit that this facet of the Shiverwhen concept is one of pure indulgence on my part, and since it’s my idea and setting, I have no shame in appeasing my own desires. Those of you who’ve followed me writing on the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope might remember that I have a fondness for years between the end of the American Civil War and World War I. To me, that was a time where you could see the modern age emerging, but there was still enough blank spaces on the map to believe anything might be out there waiting to be discovered. I intend to play with that belief in Shiverwhen.

I hope this helps clarify my concept somewhat to the reader. It’s going to be both fun and frustrating trying to convey all of the above with the Shiverwhen project, and I know I might stumble along the way. Ultimately, there’s only one way to find out and maybe you’ll hang around for the ride.


  1. This reminds me of Stephen King's Dark Tower series, and that is very exciting. I am looking forward to hearing more!

    1. I think if I had to nail down the two largest genre influences on Shiverwhen, "The Dark Tower" would be one of those two. I'm sipping from the same stream as King in some regards, but hope the end result is satisfying and exciting without being derivative.

  2. A place where the fin de siècle of the nineteenth century and the vibrancy of the Progressive Age are feeling their final echo. It is what happened to Market Snodsbury after 1975. No one in a pointed hat with stars but the maid knows if she butchers the chicken for dinner just right the entrails tell you the color of your true love's eyes. Really looking forward to this.

  3. I look forward to seeing more of this setting. I am sure there will be a number of differences, but what little I got to play test was a heck of a lot of fun.

  4. Once Stonehell 2 is out the door, it's my intent to get a regular Shiverwhen campaign going to do the final playtesting and shakedown. You know you've got a seat at the table for it, Dave, schedule allowing. More info in the weeks to come!