It’s late September, and that means October is right around the corner. Or, in other
words, it’s the perfect time to begin preparing those give-your-players-nightmares
games on Halloween Night. Horror RPGs are filled with.. well.. horror stories of how
the whole thing went wrong. Players feel railroaded into the plot. Characters die or
become unplayably insane far too easily, or the opposite occurs and the characters blow
through the horrors of the scenario and never feel any sense of danger. Of all the
various genres of roleplaying, Horror is one of the most tricky to master. Today, I’ll
share a few of the techniques I’ve learned over the years and hopefully help you give
your player’s sleepless nights jumping at shadows.
I like to use a cinematic approach to horror roleplaying. That is, I study scary
movies. What’s more, I’ve tried to study *why* these movies are scary. Players, like
the audience in a dark theatre will experience the story (and thus, the terror) through
the characters they are invested in. And that becomes my first point.
#1 – Invest Your Players in the Game
This one is a simple goal, and often easily overlooked. Whether it is in a Role-
Playing-Game, Novel, or Movie, if your audience doesn’t connect with the characters,
then they could very easily dismiss the events around them, and could end up very bored
over the course of the evening. So, make sure everyone involved with the game is in
agreement as to the type of game being presented. Establish that this is a horror
game, and more importantly, what style of horror is being presented. Creating Colonial
Space Marines for an Aliens Scenario takes a different mindset than creating a team of
investigators snooping around a decaying New England town or a troupe of Vampire
Hunters stalking a centuries-old horror. It’s ok at this point to reveal the setting,
if not the plot. But the important thing here is to work with the players in creating
characters they want to play, and characters that the players will care about, even if
everyone understands that these characters could very well be doomed.
#2 – It’s all about the journey, not the destination
Which is a fancy way of saying that the fun of a horror role-playing game is not
necessarily succeeding, but the fun lies in experiencing the story. This requires some
preparation work on the GM’s part. Actually, it requires a LOT of preparation on the
GM’s part. Antagonists in Horror stories are often so overpowering that they could
snuff the life out of the protagonists without much effort. But that makes for a short
and very unsatisfying story. As GM it’s your job to draw the characters in. Lead them
along a path of mystery until the characters are in way over their heads, but won’t
realize it until it’s too late. The pacing of the game is critical. Build the
dramatic tension, raise the stakes continually. Give the characters early challenges
that they can overcome before giving them a humbling encounter. Leave clues, tease the
players with glimpses of the prize they could earn should they succeed, as well as the
consequences which await failure.
#3 – Isolation
This is very important to increasing the dramatic tension in the game. The characters
have to be separated from their support network as well as be forced to rely only on
each other. This can be accomplished in various ways, but my favorites are Physical
and Social Isolation. With Physical Isolation, the characters are physically removed
from any help they can ask for. Maybe they’re on a distant world, light-years from
anyone, except for the terrors creeping up on them. Or maybe they’re all trapped in a
mansion, and the bridge is washed out. Physical Isolation provides two very powerful
fear effects; being helpless, and being trapped. Social Isolation can be much more
subtle. In this case the characters are isolated because they are “outsiders”. Maybe
they don’t speak the language, maybe they’re shunned because the locals don’t trust or
like people different from themselves. Social Isolation can really stir up feelings of
alienation and ultimately paranoia, especially if it is perceived that the entire
community could possibly be working with the antagonist(s), or worse.. turn out to BE
the antagonists themselves. Social Isolation also caters to an excellent technique of
presenting a single NPC as sympathetic. This NPC is someone the characters can quickly
come to care about, and feel responsible for. And ultimately, become someone the GM
can threaten, kill, or turn to increase the tension in the game.
#4 – Play to your characters’ weaknesses
Be careful interpreting this point. Players don’t often enjoy feeling like their
characters are useless, or worse hopeless. In this case, GMs need to avoid allowing
the characters strengths to dominate the story. Or most importantly, GMs must avoid
allowing a single character’s strength to dominate the story. The characters’
strengths shoud take them only so far. At some point the characters will have to rely
on and overcome their weaknesses to survive. Which builds dramatic tension as the
players understand that their character’s fate is unsure at best.
#5 – Mise en Scène
It’s a theatre term! It’s French! Including French theatre terms makes the blog look
classy! Simply put, Mise en Scène describes all of the elements placed in the
character’s perception. When setting a scene for your players, think about evertything
they can perceive. The environment, lighting, sights, sounds and smells. Extend this
to NPCs, and how they look, smell and sound. Describe it all in detail. A trick I
like to use is to describe a scene with audio and visual descriptors last. Leading off
a scene description with smell, or taste, or feel gets your players’ imaginations
running, and the ability of people to scare themselves is far more effective than any
#6 Don’t tell them everything at first
Leave a lot of mystery in your descriptions. Let the players’ own imagination fill in
the details. It’s never “the Necronomicon”, it’s “an ancient stack of crumbling
papers, bound in rough leather, bearing dark stains and smelling of decay and mold”.
The first description tells too much (because even if the players don’t know what a
Necronomicon is, they have a name for it and that breeds a comforting familiarity), the
second description invites the players to examine the item further, drawing their
characters in to the mystery. Don’t describe monsters by their common names. Describe
the monster, let the players “see” it in their minds, rather than think about an entry
in a Bestiary.
There are other tricks and tips, of course. But these six should help get an aspiring
GM started on running excursions into the Weird and Mysterious. As of today (September
21, 2012) Summer is ending, and Autumn is starting. The nights will grow longer, and
shadows grow deeper. Now, grab some dice, turn down the lights and scare someone at
the game table!
The second iteration of the playtest rules have given the opportunity to run the playtest as more of a free-form campaign. So far, the experience has been more-or-less smooth. The two things that I’d like to see changed in the immediate future are the Armor Chart (which should be a simple fix) and the experience values of monsters (which should be slightly more complex). Both of these areas read as if they’re afterthoughts to the design process at this point. Almost place-holders awaiting proper design and development.
My issue with the armor tables is that it’s too exotic, and especially at the higher values, too expensive for the Armor values they provide. Armors like Displacer Beast Hide and Dragon Scale Armor are either simply too rare for inclusion in a list of generally available mundane equipment, or they imply that such fantastic creatures (and rare ores like Mithril) are common enough to have suits of armor available for general purchase. The varieties of armor types should be made even throughout the categories provided, and internally consistent in pricing and mechanics-value.
Experience values of monsters is a far more concerning issue. Some creatures, like the Giant Centipede have XP values consistent for it’s Encounter Building statistics; in this case Level 1 and 70 XP. But further in the Bestiary we have a Goblin, with similar statistics (indeed the same Armor and Hit Points, with an XP value of 120. Furthermore, a Hobgoblin, who still poses at best a moderate challenge one-on-one with a 1st level player character, is considered a 3rd level monster and worth a whopping 320 XP (!) this means a single Hobgoblin is worth more experience than a Medusa at 300 XP, and she is considered a Level 4 “elite” creature.
As it stands currently, the character creation, spells, and general adventuring sections of the playtest are working well. I’m a bit disappointed that advantage and disadvantage has been scaled back in the design of the monster challenges. Advantage and Disadvantage is the mechanic that makes this version of Dungeons and Dragons distinctive from the others (and is the mechanic most easily house-ruled into previous editions), and because of that quailty, should be utilized more thoroughly.
Last night at Mage’s Realm, we explored our first Playtest game since the August 13 Update to the D&D Next Playtest. Overall,it was a very positive experience. I had been running the Playtest weekly since the first week in June, and by the time last week rolled around, we had pretty thoroughly tested the initial rules release, and frankly, wanted to go a bit deeper into really testing the new edition properly, which means characters and campaigns.
The new update gives me most of what I need for the latter and all I need for the former. So on first blush, I am very pleased. I had 10 (!) players at my table, and we managed to make characters in just about three hours passing copies of the rules (and an iPad with the PDF) between us all. Every player was able to create a character they wanted to make. One player in particular managed to make a Fighter build very evocative of the classic Ranger. Another created a Rogue (Thug) with some minor magic ability, and yet another player created a Cleric of the Sun Domain with the Magic-User specialty, giving her character a very pleasing selection of magic to utilize. Most of character creation went very smoothly.
There are a couple of snags in the system however. Firstly, under the Religion and Arcane Lore features of Clerics and Wizards (respectively), both feature are worded as “You gain training in a skill of your choice: (List of Lore-based skills follow). You must choose a skill in which you lack training.” By this wording it is unclear whether or not a character gains one trained skill, or all of the skills save the one where they lack training, or one trained skill, one skill with which they are not familiar, and the balance being untrained. It is a area that needs clarification.
Likewise, one of my players who made a High-Elf Cleric of War with the Necromancer Specialty, noted that there is no mention in the rules of whether or not a spellcaster needs a free hand to actually cast a spell. Studying the spell lists, we have discovered no mention of verbal or somatic components to spells in the rules. My experience in playing Dungeons and Dragons is such that all spells have at least a verbal or somatic component, and often both (and often including a material component as well). As it stands, a bound and muted spellcaster can still manage to cast her spells without restriction.
The omissions and bugs aside (we all understand that the playtest rules remain a work in progress) our first impression of the new rules is very positive and we are looking forward to venturing into the campaign environment next Wednesday. Our current roster of player characters are as follows:
Strom – Human Fighter (Sharpshooter) – Commoner (Woodsman) – Archer – NG
Ivellios – Wood Elf Fighter – Soldier – Guardian – LG
Dolemite – High Elf Cleric (War) – Sage – Necromancer – N
Vieler Crom – Mountain Dwarf Rogue (Thug) – Bounty Hunter – Magic User – N
Al-uk – Human Wizard – Sage – Necromancer – N
Ashura Miri – Human Rogue (Thief) – Charlatan – Lurker – CN
Thanatos – Human Cleric (War) – Commoner (Innkeeper) – Guardian – N
Brotor of Klarg Baldurk – Hill Dwarf Fighter – Bounty Hunter – Survivor – CG
Wort-Hollow – Lightfoot Halfling – Fighter – Bounty Hunter – Lurker – CN
Alice – Human Cleric (Sun) – Bounty Hunter – Magic User – CG
Last night, the group of intrepid playtesters over at Mage’s Realm braved the farthest (and by far most extensive) cave in that cursed ravine. We chose to send them in at third level, to ensure that all of the abilities got a good workout. The heroes have taken the habit of crossing the caves in the middle of the day, to lower the chances of ambush by the tribes lurking in the outer caves (those tribes are now well-known to not only despise the sun, but to avoid venturing out in daylight if they can.) Their efforts had been rewarded so far, with only a few unfortunate sentries and guards watching their passing from the shadows of their lairs and undoubtedly plotting revenge against the heroes’ trespasses once the hated sun had set for the day.
One such denizen, the Ogre doesn’t mind the sun so much, and on this venture into the ravine, he emerged from his cave to extort his own brand of “toll” from the heroes. What transpired was a fun few minutes of banter with a greedy, but none-too-bright Ogre, and an exploration of the game mechanics as applied to social challenges. The Halfling Rogue drew upon his knowledge of Folklore to learn that Ogres are greedy creatures, but thick-headed. This comes as no surprise to the players, but framing the information in the context of folklore meant that the Rogue’s knowledge comes from stories and tales of how Halflings outwitted and tricked Ogres to overcome them, rather than simply fighting them. Which led to the Dwarf Cleric of Moradin playing on that Ogre Greed to negotiate an “understanding”, the party would rid the Ogre of some pesky problems, like the undead lurking in the cave and return the “best” loot found therein. Diplomacy and Charisma played a big part, and in retrospect, it should have been an excellent application of Advantage, but that opportunity slipped our collective minds.
With the Ogre satisfied, the party ventured toward their objective. The Cleric’s ability to Turn Undead coupled with the D8 slingstone damage from the Halflings (or as I call them “Halfling Cruise Missiles”) made quick work of the Skeletons. Against the Zombies, the Cleric’s Battle Hymn and Divine Smite really laid terrible waste to the undead shambling masses. And the Fighter, after some shaky dice rolls early in the evening, truly started to cause mayhem when his dice caught up with him against the cultists. Cleave is a powerful synergistic ability when coupled with the increased damage and the Reaper power that the fighter enjoys at third level.
I’ve been running the playtest for nearly a month now at Mage’s Realm. So far the playtest is being very well received. There are some smoothing out points to be made (REACTIONS, I’m looking at you), and the pregen characters have shown both their flexibilities, and some of their limitations (I’m still not pleased with how the Cleric of Pelor plays out). All in all, we’re really looking forward tot he next round of playtest rules. Character Creation especially, and a wider variety of abilities, spells, and powers to introduce into the system.
One final note to the Powers That Be who are making design choices over at Wizards. Please expand the variety of spells that have ritual components. We’re eager to test all aspects of spellcasting in game play, the at will minor spells and the memorized first and second level spells are working well, but having only Alarm as a ritual is proving to be limiting with regards to how rituals are applied in game. We need more variety to really thoroughly test the spellcasting system and discover if the spellcasters in this edition of the game are truly “nerfed” or overpowered. So, more spells and spell abilities please.
For Father’s Day, I got my hands on a copy of the Marvel Heroic Role Playing Game. And I’ve been Digging my way through it. There are a few concepts presented in the game that could and SHOULD be applied to D&D Next. I’m not necessarily talking about lifting rules here, just applying a good design concept to the new game.
The GM in Marvel Heroic works with the players in each scene by trading and earning Plot Points back and forth (I am grossly oversimplifying the Cortex mechanic here). Players can influence the scene (assumedly) for the benefit of their characters, and the GM can add levels of difficulty to add challenge and balance to the encounter. When the GM exercises this ability, the Players “Plot Pool” grows and in some cases the Players earn a small amount of experience. Conversely, when the player’s use their plot pool, the GM’s “Doom Pool” likewise grows. (If it is wrong to love the term DOOM POOL, I never want to be right).
This requires DMs to become more than simple rules arbiters and adventure narrators. DM’s have to learn to engage with the players, to flex the adventure and the encounter. DM’s must learn to provide more than what a computer can. The Caves of Chaos is an adventure that encourages this style of DMing (Ravenloft is another prime example). The Caves as written exposes the players to a variety of means to engage each encounter. Traps, ambushes, reinforcements, and negotiations just to name a few. What I’m suggesting here is that the mechanics of the game encourage further interaction between the GM and the players on this level.
The mechanic that I particularly like with the “Plot/Doom Pool” is that when one party (Players or DM) use the pool, the other party increases it’s own pool size by a like amount. So, if the DM spends Doom Pool points like water, he is slowly giving control of the game over to the players. Likewise, if the Players rely too heavily on their own Plot Pool, they can watch the Doom Pool grow, and understand that they’re making a future challenge that more difficult.
With this initial playtest, the D&D Next designers gave us two different clerics, to help illustrate the flexibility of the Domain System. After playing both clerics several times I’m coming to the conclusion that the Cleric of Moradin, designed to reflect the classic early example of a Cleric with Armor, Shield, Warhammer and Divine Spells is playing as it intended. But the Cleric of Pelor, intended to be a more Mystic-themed, spell reliant cleric is lacking.
Pelor’s Cleric is simply lacking in the ability to cast enough spells to make the intended build worthwhile. When compared to the Wizard, the Cleric of Pelor has a very limited selection of abilities. In the end, he simply ends up using Radiant Lance repeatedly, which quickly becomes monotonous. What the Mystic Cleric needs is a greater selection of Orisons, at least 4 (the Wizard has 6 to choose from) and an extra first level spell at Levels one and two. In exchange, the Mystic Cleric would be restricted to only Light Armors and simple weapons.
Channelling Divinity needs to be expanded as well, beyond simply Turning Undead (which is a GOOD Channelling option, and should be kept as the playtest moves forward.)
I think what should be done ultimately, is to branch the Mystic Cleric “build” off into it’s own subclass of cleric, with a spell progression comperable to the Wizard, and perhaps extra daily uses of Channel Divinity. Armor and fighting skills would be more restricted when compared to the Moradinite Cleric.
I’m a Traveller Gamer from way back. My Little Black Books are over 25 years old, and I own most published editions of the rules, and was once-up0n-a-time very involved in the online Traveller community. For those of you unfamiliar with Traveller, it is one of the earliest, if not the earliest Science Fiction Role-Playing Game published. Traveller has been around since 1977, and it’s basic campaign, the Third Imperium has gone through a long evolution, some of which was met with a great deal of controversy. (Mention the Rebellion or Virus in some internet communities, and you could ignite an interstellar incident.) In fact, Marc Miller is promoting a Kickstarter to produce the Fifth edition of the game.
Traveller has gone dormant several times over 30 plus years of history, the IP and Licenses have been held by many companies. Some have been more successful in promoting the game than others, but I’ll leave the details to the various champions of the editions. But what holds my interest in the game is it’s sheer resiliency. Traveller is a survivor and is super-adaptable. I’ve played in Traveller Games set in the Third Imperium, in the Long Night, and in home-brewed campaigns which reflect the GM’s own vision of the future. I’ve played using the Classic Traveller rules, the d20 variant, even HERO System and GURPS Traveller. Even though a HERO Traveller game set in a Universe adapted from Larry Niven’s Known Space setting is about as far as we can get from Classic Traveller set in the Spinward Marches of the Third Imperium, both campaigns still feel like Traveller games.
Much like my other RPG passion, the HERO System, Traveller has benefited greatly from the rise of the Internet. Gamers have always been computer-savvy, and Traveller players are even more-so than most. Even in the aftermath of GDW’s collapse in 1996, Traveller players were able to use the internet to connect with each other and designers and keep the game alive, furthermore, the steady interest in Traveller allowed it’s IP to propagate throughout the tabletop market.
Along with the D&D Next Playtest, I’ll be sharing some tales from my experiences in Traveller. It’s a long story, going back to the mid-80s, and my high-school games with my close friend Chuck, and the BEST Science-Fiction campaign I played in as a youth. I still use my Aslan Mercenary Stei’awtliyrl as my handle on the Traveller Message boards.
So, for those of you familiar with Traveller, I present you My Traveller Universe: First in GEEK CODE!
tc+ mgt tm t20++ t4- th ru+ ge+ 3i c jt au- ls pi+ ta he+ kk- hi+ as++ va++ dr+ so+ zh+ vi+
SuperPheemy’s Traveller Universe:
I set my TU in the Hard Times Era following the Rebellion, but before VIRUS sends most of Charted Space into a full-blown collapse. In this era, the Third Imperium has suffered a multi-sided civil war for years, and the principal factions have nearly exhausted themselves. Central authority and control has retreated to zones around faction strongholds less than a sector in area, and in some cases, only a couple of Subsectors. Escalations of War has resulted in large sections of Imperial space being reduced to a virtual no-mans’-land, open to piracy and anarchy. The issue over who will rule the Imperium, or even if the Imperium will survive is still unresolved, but no faction has the resources to conduct grand, sweeping strategic military operations anymore. The War has ground to a ugly, dirty thing conducted by raiders, and spies, and mercenaries.
Megacorporations have filled in some of the gaps left by the ravages of war, but the Economy is in a shambles, and the freighter convoys are prime targets for local Warlords and Faction Admirals alike. News is almost as valuable as materials, and an independent crew with a jump-capable ship can earn (or steal) a good living playing in the grey areas between warring factions, corporate ambitions, and local systems desperate for goods and information.