Serial Homicide Unit, Incarnadine Press, is a game about a serial killer, but unlike so many movies and television shows about serial killers, the mind and motives of the serial killer do not take center stage. Instead, designers Kat Miller and Michael S. Miller focused the game on the investigation into the murders, and especially on the lives of the killer’s potential victims.
This is merely the first of a few ways that Serial Homicide Unit (SHU) is a distinctive and provocative game. SHU resembles American Jeepform games like A Flower for Mara and Under My Skin, although it is also unlike those games in very important ways. Further, the method of play is presented entirely on an audio CD (with a PDF of the script included). The idea is that you listen to the CD as you play and learn as you go. The result is an unconventional package that contains a compelling, easy to learn short-form game. It is a game that requires commitment to the premise from its players, though. If you think your group is up for it, I highly recommend Serial Homicide Unit.
A group begins a session of SHU by coming up with an element called the serial killer’s profile, an element all of the serial killer’s victims have in common. They could all be prostitutes, single mothers, or have the same hair color, for example. As the rules point out, this is not just a nod toward verisimilitude. The group needs to choose a profile that makes the members of the group perk up a bit. In fact, this may be the most important way of creating player buy-in for the session. A profile that piques the players’ interest will help them create civilians – potential victims of the serial killer – that they can connect with. The rules could stand to emphasize this point even more, with some explanation about how this choice helps make the game more interesting.
Once the group has a profile, each player creates a civilian she wants to play. Civilians must conform to the serial killer’s profile, and each of them has a hope, a personal goal that the character will be striving for during the game. Each civilian is then passed around to each of the other players, who take turns coming up with obstacles that the civilians may face on her way to achieving her hope during the game. Again, I think players need to realize that creating civilians – and even obstacles – that they can identify and empathize with will lead to more compelling play. The rules leave this unsaid, unfortunately, possibly on the assumption that it should be obvious.
Once everyone has a civilian with hopes and obstacles, each player in turn plays out a scene where his civilian faces one of his obstacles, asking other players to roleplay important NPCs as he sees fit. These scenes are the final major element that creates buy-in. They let players put emotional flesh on the skeleton that the profile and hope builds, and guiding the civilian through adversity (successfully or otherwise) helps make the civilian seem more real.
After these civilian scenes, the first murder – of a John or Jane Doe, not one of the player’s civilians – occurs. This leads to the first round of investigation. Each player takes one of the six investigator roles – Forensic Pathologist, Homicide Detective or even Psychic, for example. Each role has a card the player takes which provides guidance about what kind of clues that investigator role might provide, an elegant creative aid. The players then roll dice to see how many clues to the killer’s identity they find. Â Once all of the players have told the other investigators what they have found, the clues are organized into “chains” – groups of related clues. Building chains is an important part of the game mechanics that the players use to catch the serial killer.
After the chains have been established, another round of civilian scenes is played out, followed by another murder. This time, however, a randomly selected player-created civilian is the victim. Once the victim is revealed, another round of clues are rolled, presented and organized. This cycle repeats until the killer is caught. The civilian scenes for murdered civilians take the form of memorial scenes – the character’s funeral, NPCs from previous scenes talking about the civilian, et cetera.
The investigators can attempt to identify and arrest the killer at any point they wish. They roll dice, aiming for targets determined by the length of the chains of evidence that they have created. If the roll succeeds, the killer has been caught, and the game concludes with a quick denouement where the group decides if the civilians the killer did not target achieve their hopes or not. If the roll fails, however, the wrong person is accused, and evidence is tainted, while subsequent attempts to catch the killer will be harder.
Serial killers have captured the public’s imagination ever since Jack the Ripper terrorized Whitechapel. I was quite interested in the topic for much of my early life, but a glut of serial killers began to appear in popular media in the early-mid ’90s. Shows like Profiler and Criminal Minds could even be called Serial Killer of the Week. A lot of this material is devoted to allegedly getting inside the heads of serial killers. As a result, a culture of serial killer as pop culture antihero, as Nietzschean ébermensch, as Mr. Hyde without Dr. Jekyll, has taken root. They are terrifying, but at the same time they are fascinating.
Serial Homicide Unit rejects this stance and tries to expose it as a lie. What the cult of the serial killer does its best to ignore is the humanity of the victims, where SHU aims its spotlight. It aims to build a bond between the players and their civilians, revealing their everyday but compelling lives so that, when the killer strikes, it hurts a little. The fictional killer is evil or soulless, not cool.
Although the game offers some support, players need to meet the game halfway if they are going to form any sort of bond with their civilians. Players that remain detached from their characters in other games will probably find that SHU lacks punch. They may even resent having to do so many civilian scenes and grow bored with the game.
If you immerse yourself in your characters and develop empathy for them, SHU promises to be a powerful experience. You will want to stop the killer before your civilian’s life is snuffed out and his hope goes unfulfilled, which should lend some weight to the process of developing clues.
The investigation side of the game is more mechanical, but it is critical. It fleshes out the killer while avoiding the hackneyed trick of allegedly letting you peer inside his mind. Furthermore it acts as the game’s pacing mechanism, since the game only ends when the killer has been caught. The system accomplishes both of these tasks elegantly, but does not require any actual roleplaying. Portraying the tension the investigators feel as they try to stop this monster before he strikes again can only enhance your experience.
Overall, the system maintains a light touch, providing the structure necessary for coherent play, but nothing more. While many roleplayers will find this disorienting, experienced freeformers and storygamers should feel at home.
The physical version of Serial Homicide Unit comes in a standard DVD case, containing the rules CD, plus a nice rules reference card, the investigator role cards, civilian cards (which you will probably want to copy), envelopes for choosing victims randomly and a couple pads of sticky notes for recording clues. The CD also has PDF files of all of the printed materials, plus a PDF version of the script used for the rules explanation audio. It is oddly reminiscent of the boxed set RPGs of old that contained everything you need to play except dice, note paper and people. The cards are on good quality light cardstock, and they are clear and useable without being obtrusive. In the age of four-color RPG rulebooks, SHU may seem a bit bland for a $25 product, but it does the job of supporting play well.
The audio does an excellent job of explaining how to play SHU clearly. It’s not a complex or crunchy game, of course, but all of the explanations are clear, and they are well enunciated by professional voice artist Russell Collins. Collins’ style is a little arch for the material, with a hint American gothic about it, but it’s a minor problem next to how easy he is to listen to.
While Serial Homicide Unit is not every gamer’s cup of tea, I think it is very good at what it does. Players who have a harder time connecting with their fictional alter egos or find themselves at sea with light story games may wonder what all the fuss is about. Even if it does not sound like it is the game for you, it may be worth giving SHU a shot if you have the opportunity. It is unlike any other game on the market, so it may surprise you. It plays in a single sitting, normally, and the rules are brief and easy enough that you can easily play it as a pickup game even with a group full of first-timers. It also does what it can to build a connection between the players and their civilians, motivating the players to try to solve the case as quickly as possible. For those that can quickly engage with a new character, SHU is highly recommended, and it promises a powerful gaming experience for you.