The First Found Footage Horror TTPRG: An Interview with John ‘Hambone’ McGuire and George ‘Geo’ Collazo, Creators of The Devil in New Jersey (2022)

Justin Wigard

In comparison to hegemonic mainstream tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) like Dungeons and Dragons (Wizards of the Coast), Pathfinder (Paizo), and Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium) that have more or less codified what a “standard” TTRPG looks and functions like, independent or indie TTRPGs have long been a space for creators to experiment with the form of tabletop role-playing games. This can be seen in the voluminous “hacks” that push existing games into unexpected thematic genres—say, the high fantasy of Dungeons and Dragons into a horror or science-fiction space. Indie TTRPGs also often distill AAA properties into playable games on business cards or other media not traditionally associated with pen-and-paper games (cassettes, scratch-off sheets, etc.). Further, short, ephemeral zines have become one of the de facto ways to create and disseminate experimental, untested games or rulesets with unique themes, mechanics, and aesthetics. 

In Summer 2022, TTRPG designers John “Hambone” McGuire and Geo Collazo took to Kickstarter, a popular crowdfunding platform, to launch The Devil in New Jersey, a found footage horror RPG for their original game system, 3,2,1…Action! From the description

The Devil in New Jersey is a love letter to all the great ‘90s, and ’00s Found Footage horror movies, like The Blair Witch Project, REC, and Paranormal Activity, that pre-internet might have been harder to disprove…In The Devil In New Jersey, you are a member of The Berbalangs, a local garage punk band. Riley, your keyboard player, is destroyed after finding out his best friend, Leigh Anne, went missing in the woods a week ago. There were no leads and the search had gone cold until a mysterious VHS Tape surfaced leading Riley to believe there might still be a chance to save his friend. 

What stands out about this description is an explicit acknowledgement of previous subgenre staples and an adherence to several distinctive features: a missing friend in the woods, a found recording (VHS tape), claims of truth and proof playing with new technology (found footage movies in a playable format). Further, while the indie TTRPG scene is vast and rhizomatic, searches on several indie TTRPG repositories suggest that The Devil in New Jersey is one of the first found footage horror TTRPGs. Existing properties include “Found Footage” by Aegis Studios (2014), which is an adventure seed/supplement, rather than a full scenario or game, and Alice is Missing (2020) by Hunters Entertainment, a real-time mystery storytelling game played through instant messaging, but not quite found footage proper. Given that TTRPGs have explored the horror genre in myriad incarnations for decades now, the dearth of actual games situated in such a popular subgenre as found footage horror is, well, fascinating. It begs questions of whether such a subgenre very focused on visual, filmic tropes and traits can be ported to the TTRPG medium, and how.  

Thus, what follows is a critical interview with McGuire and Collazo on the design ethos and adaptive constraints of bringing their system, 3,2,1…Action! into the found footage horror realm. The interview is particularly informed by game studies conventions (asking questions about the design, mechanics, and style of play); horror studies (discussions of horror inspirations as well as how the game evokes certain kinds of affectdread, fear, helplessness); and adaptation studies (retention and loss in moving from a very constrained and claustrophobic medium to an often collaborative game medium). 

1)      To kick things off, in your own words, could you tell us who you are and what you do within the world of tabletop role-playing games?  

Hambone: Ahoy! I am John “Hambone” McGuire, the co-host of The Vintage RPG Podcast, and the co-creator of 3,2,1…Action! 

George: I’m George “Geo” Collazo, a lifelong gamer and writer. 

2)      How did the two of you start working together?

Hambone: Geo and I have been friends for decades and have played in bands and worked on lots of different projects together previous to this. We even had a little Xbox 360 repair business one summer during the Red Ring Of Death’s reign of terror. So the two of us coming together for Action! was a no-brainer. 

3)      Could you tell us about 3,2,1…Action!, and how that game system grew? 

Geo: It was the summer of 2020, and we were deep in the pandemic, so nobody was going anywhere. We went in with the desire to make a cinematic storytelling system that didn’t try to compete with more strategic games. Hambone started trying to develop a new RPG system that was initially Call of Cthulhu based but with a little more action. The first rule was “Fill the Plot Hole in Two Sentences,” which was an ingenious way to handle skills. From there, we deconstructed traditional elements of TTRPGs: combat, health, exploration, equipment, and inventory management. Then we built it modularly so we could add genres. The first two books were action movie based; Rocket to Russia kind of had a Contra/Predator vibe, and the second book, Escape From Point Nemo, kind of had an ordinary person on an island filled with monsters vibe. Then we did a post-apocalyptic Mad Max-style car game called Children of Uma with a stealth-based accompanying zine adventure called Minisub Mania. This brings us to what I was most excited about from the beginning: horror.   

Hambone: Yeah, what he said.

4)      What is The Devil in New Jersey? (You can elevator pitch here, or break it down in your own words, whichever is more fun for you)

Hambone: The Devil In New Jersey is a valentine to all the great found footage horror movies from yesteryear when in the times before the internet was so widely accessible and robust, you might have had a harder time disproving a story. It’s also, oddly enough, an adventure about friendship and the bonds we form with others when we are young out of desperation and necessity. 

There is a wild urgency to youth and a constant longing for acceptance that sometimes makes you a little more willing to take chances and do something risky, even when you know it’s a really bad idea. In Devil, these kids decide to inject themselves into an incredibly deadly situation. They are forced to test their bonds by pushing life to its limit, all while being chased through the Pine Barrens by something sinister. 

5)      And, maybe getting to the heart of why we’re here: how did The Devil in New Jersey come about? Because, ever since I heard about 3,2,1…Action! and got to playtest it back in…oh, 2020 sometime (I think?), I remember mentioning to John that I would love to see how a horror version of the game would work. I’m sure I wasn’t the inspiration, but I’d love to know more about how each of you got inspired to move from the 80s action genre to horror. 

Geo: It was August 2021, and we were elbow-deep in making Children of Uma and MiniSub Mania. But we were chomping at the bit to do a horror book and show off some of the new rules we had created. So when Zine Quest [ed: an annual event on Kickstarter for indie creators to promote and publish new zines] rolled around, we said, fuck it, let’s do a horror zine. There is something about the Zine format that lends itself to classic horror movies; it could be a level of grit and lo-fi that harkens back to classic films. We wanted to capture that, have it set in the early 90s pre-internet, a group of friends going off into the woods to rescue one of their friends. Of course, for our first horror book, we wanted to set it in New Jersey; hey, write what you know, right? And use a classic monster, the Jersey Devil. We had the basic plot quickly and then threw in some twists and backstories. The real fun mechanic was trying to emulate the concept of a jump scare in a TTRPG, which we did by coming up with something we call the Death Clock, a real-time countdown to when the Monster shows up. The best part is players aren’t aware so they can be exploring an area or chatting, and boom, the monster shows up. 

6) So, let’s zero in here: why found footage horror, specifically, out of all of the horror subgenres?

Geo: That was Hambone’s idea. Sometimes we will pick a genre or subgenre first and then try to convey that feeling or vibe. For me, it’s about being able to experience multiple plotlines in one gaming session. The movie Memento (2000) kind of popped into my head. With found footage, we can experience dread twice in one game.  

Hambone: For me, the last time I ever felt truly scared in a movie theater was The Blair Witch Project (1999). There was so much mystery surrounding it and in 1999 when it came out you couldn’t just pull out your phone and debunk it with a quick Google search. Hell, at that point we were generally unsure what was going to happen at the stroke of midnight to ring in the year 2000 because of Y2K. That coupled with the rawness of the footage in Blair Witch, it really made the audience feel closer to it, and yet always questioning its legitimacy. 

That is what horror is, right, a glimpse into the unknown and what you perceive the unknown to be. It will always be so much worse in your own head than whatever is popping up on the screen and that is, to me, what made The Blair Witch Project so great because I genuinely felt it could happen to me. 

TTRPGs have always had a difficult time trying to effectively portray horror because at the end of the day it’s always Monster vs. Fireball and we all know who wins that battle. So what Geo and I set out to do with Devil is to put the players into the position where survival is solely up to them. There is no magic wand that can save them, they don’t even have a gun, they are four punk kids against something much worse than a bully come what may. So found footage was the perfect genre for this story.

7) Right! This all clicks with me, especially that tension between games and horror. On that note, you both have talked about some of the game mechanics that are unique to Devil here: thinking of “the Death Clock,” as well as what Geo said just now about players being able to “experience dread twice in one game.” Are you able to elaborate on those? 

Geo: One game mechanic we have in 3,2,1…Action! is the way we deal with health points. In traditional RPGs, your characters have health or life points that diminish, but until they are gone, your character can function with 100-perfect efficiency. Our game calculates health in Luck Points. As that number goes down, your character becomes closer and closer to death. When their luck runs out, they are dead. You can use Luck points to adjust rolls that could prevent you from dying in the short term but could make it worse in the long run. The Death Clock then adds pressure to act because you know the monster is always lurking. 

Hambone: The Death Clock is great because once the Game Runner (GR) rolls to see how many minutes it will be before the monster shows up, the players are offered the opportunity to purchase more minutes using Luck Points. The clock runs in real time, is never revealed and has a max of 10 minutes and is never revealed to the players. So there is a real risk-reward aspect to it because depending on the GR’s roll you may be throwing your Luck away for nothing. Or you might buy yourself the time you need to survive. Either way, mid game when the alarm on my phone goes off indicating that time is up, there is a genuine moment of fear and panic among the players. 

8) I’d also like to rewind just a little to talk more on that bit about multiple plotlines in one game: Geo mentioned Memento, John mentioned Blair Witch, but I’m also thinking of other found footage movies also featuring this kind of temporality. What other found footage tropes did you pull out to implement? And why was that multiple plotlines component important? 

Geo: Lol, we can’t give away too much without a potential spoiler to the story. But I can say the zine format is great because you have to strip down a lot of extra bits. You have just a few pages to put down rules, characters, monsters, weapons, and maps and then get into the story and hopefully have a satisfying ending. With that in mind, we have to describe what happens on the footage and then build scenarios for the players. So we gotta keep it short and sweet. 

Hambone: I have to agree with Geo here because it is really hard to not spoil the adventure by talking about tropes. With that said, having multiple plotlines is always fun because it offers different perspectives on the story through the eyes of different characters and as well as glimpses into other aspects of the world. 

9) The characters, setting, and monster are all pretty unique in light of the larger RPG world, too­—not that there aren’t other RPGs with punk kids, games set in New Jersey, or stories that feature the NJ Devil. Yours is a pretty perfect Venn diagram of the three though. Why punk kids (both, why punk and why teens)? What makes New Jersey special? Why the NJ Devil? 

Geo: What’s that saying? Write what you know. Also, the 80s and metal have been done a lot. There aren’t too many fun 90s horror punk throwbacks. The first couple of years in the 90s had such a great explosion of Punk Rock. I remember taking a sketchy path to the Pipeline in Newark, which had a loose door policy when it came to age for admittance. So many good shows and nights. I think because of the proximity to New York, we would get a lot of spillover of bigger acts looking to fill a weekday night on their tour schedule. Also, I think there’s something cool about the Jersey Devil. It’s a pretty goofy looking cryptid but also kind of unique looking, making it a challenge to make it scary.

Hambone: There is a wild spirit to youth that is both unmistakable and one that gets beaten to death as your responsibilities grow. In your late teens, early 20s, when you have the whole world ahead of you, you feel like you are invincible and are more than willing to put that theory to the test. So if your buddy says “so and so is in trouble” you’ll rush off to help, without question, whatever it takes. It’s oddly heroic and incredibly short-sighted but believe me when I say if the chips are down, you could always count on a Hesher or a Punk to have your back.

Justin: At this juncture, I pause our interview for now, and encourage readers to seek out The Devil in New Jersey. While I hope to speak with Geo and Hambone more at a later date, I also believe strongly in the “less talk, more rock” ethos of the 3,2,1…Action! game system, which has a free ruleset for any reader to try out Like the classic found footage movies it draws upon, The Devil in New Jersey begs, demands, to be played and experienced. If you and your group of punk-friends get to play, drop us an email and give us a play report: what found footage tropes and films your group drew on, how you enacted dread, how the Death Clock loomed over your players, and how y’all confronted the Devil in New Jersey. 

3,2,1… Action! Rules.

3,2,1…Action! Modules.

The Devil in New Jersey Kickstarter. 


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