The ORPHEUS Protocol: an interview with Rob Stith

The ORPHEUS Protocol is a tabletop RPG in which you explore a world of eldritch horror, occult espionage, and shadowy paramilitary engagement. Each player take on the role of a supernaturally augmented or impeccably skilled operative of ORPHEUS in their mission to protect the world and consolidate its supernatural power in the process. These operatives investigate strange occurrences, navigate dangerous social situations with cunning and finesse, and do battle with forces inconceivable to the unbroken human psyche. Think of it as a mix of The X-Files, Twin Peaks, and Hellboy.

I discovered The ORPHEUS Protocol listening to the actual play episodes of Role Playing Public Radio. It’s currently in its final day of funding on Kickstarter. I had the pleasure of interviewing Rob Stith, game designer for the book.

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Marcelo: It seems you’ve been working on the game for a long time. What first gave you the idea of making the game?

Rob: There are two potential answers to that question. I’ll give both. In one way, I’ve been working on this game for long enough that I don’t remember the beginning of the process. There are mechanics and ideas in The ORPHEUS Protocol that are living fossils from the first homebrew rules I started tinkering with something like 15 years ago.

The other, more useful answer is that I realized sometime in 2015 that I wished there was a roleplaying game I could play that combined the resource management focus of many Euro-style board games with a horror theme. I started work on creating that game I wished existed right then, and the very first alpha test took place at Acadecon (The RPG Academy’s convention) in a spooky hotel in some middle of nowhere woods in Ohio; you really couldn’t ask for better ambiance for the first outing with a horror system.

Marcelo: What does The ORPHEUS Protocol bring to the horror genre?

Rob: In terms of setting and fluff, The ORPHEUS Protocol is a modern game of cosmic horror and occult espionage. To break that down, we play with cosmic horror tropes in a modern setting, but the players tend to portray powerful, competent people rather than hapless everymen. In our experience, rather than hamper the horror, this has provided a great sense of scale. If you have a professional soldier who can survive all kinds of bad stuff, but the horror of the scenario is still daunting and terrifying — you’ve got a good sense of just how bad the bad is.

In terms of mechanics, The ORPHEUS Protocol is all about resource management. There are systems of resource management interlocked at different time scales (turn by turn for initiative, scene by scene for skill perks, session by session for strain — a spendable resource that PC’s can use to boost their checks — and adventure by adventure for humanity, which players spend as they use their supernatural powers). The tense decision-making regarding whether or not to expend your resources at a given time, along with the dread-inducing dwindling of your resources as the game goes on, helps model the increasing stakes and desperation of a good horror story.

Marcelo: Personally, I see some RPGs more suited to certain people. For example, I think World of Darkness works great against the angst of the teenager and the “tween”; Don’t Rest Your Head is better enjoyed by people in their 40s. Of course, this is my take on it. Do you think there’s an age group you’d say would better “get” The ORPHEUS Protocol?

Rob: Beyond the ability to engage with the rules fully, I don’t see a particular age as “right” for the game. That said, horror is a genre best enjoyed with some emotional maturity and empathy, in my opinion. Puerile or voyeuristic enjoyment of violence or exploitation isn’t that interesting to me, and horror, to me, works best as a vehicle for metaphorical catharsis; a parable told by a narrator with no illusions about how dark the world can be. I’d say most people don’t reach that level of fatalism all that early in life. For me, it was age 15 or so, though, and mileage may vary. I’ve seen teens to 40-somethings playing the game online.

Marcelo: How does feedback work on a role-playing game project? Do you send the game to people to explicit check the rules, invite readers to give pointers, or is each group responsible for a holistic critique of the manuscript?

Rob: With the final version of the rules, I’ll be putting the document in front of a series of beta readers, selected for different strengths; proofreading, mastery of the rules, a sharp eye for tone and style, etc. I tend to ask for general notes and thoughts, before asking leading questions based on what I perceive to be the particular beta reader’s specific area of expertise.

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You still have until the end of the day to pledge in the Kickstarter for The ORPHEUS Protocol. The link is right here.