Saturday, December 31, 2011

Play-by-Post Roleplay

For those who like to roleplay but can't do it face-to-face, or who want a chance to do a little bit of roleplay several times a week, or who can't get that particular genre going, take a look at Play-by-Post games. Basically, you play (or run) a game on a forum thread where you post your actions / dialogue / thoughts and a Game Master posts the world's responses to you through typing up NPC actions and dialogue, world descriptions, and the consequences of your actions. Often another web-site like are used to roll the results and record them.

If you'd like to take a look, or get involved, check out which has a really good assortment of Keepers and Players. Don't worry, though, you can run a game within another genre or world though it's generally expected that you use the BRP system. I'm currently in a Zombie Apocalypse game and running a Silent Hill game and an apocalyptic game that's more inspired by Lovecraft.

Here's the main forum game I'm running at the moment if you'd like to take a look at it. It's called Welcome to Silent Hill.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

3: Making Random Encounters Scary.

Firstly, sorry about being a day late. There's no excuses because, in truth, the reason I didn't do it was because I'd forgotten that it needed doing! Oh wait, there's X-Mas and New Years around the corner. It was totally the X-Mas rush. Yeah, that's right....

Well, now that the excuses and rationalisations are out of the way, to business! Those who've played videogames that spawn enemies randomly to keep things interesting or those who've played Dungeons & Dragons when the Dungeon Master rolled a dice on a percentile table with a list of monsters attached know what I'm talking about. Basically, every so often, depending on some random method of generation, a monster turns up.

It might look like this:

10 - 30: A dire tiger.
40 - 60: Three trolls.
70 - 90: Ten owlbears.
90 - 100: Unguarded treasure.

This is often used to simulate the essentially random nature of monster placement, such as when adventurers are trying to pass through a jungle to the city. Yes, there are dangers within the jungle but through sheer luck you might bypass them all. Not only does it add a sense of randomness, but it can actually be quite inspirational to a DM that likes to think on their feet. Where did those three trolls come from? And what are they doing? Basically, random encounters are suggested whenever there's no pre-scripted events or monsters to give the world a big, wild feel.

But is there a place for them in survival horror?


It fits anyplace which either spits out monsters (Silent Hill-style worlds), is full of roaming monsters that could be anywhere and in any numbers (Zombie apocalypse), or is some sort of labrynthe where mapping out the tunnels is an exercise in madness but you don't want to just string out a line of encounters because YOU want some of the excitement of random chance as well.

Especially if you make the player whose leading everyone roll the dice and thus put the onus of good or bad luck on them.

So how do you do it?

Well, percentile tables reek of High Fantasy so I decided to go with a deck of cards. I basically just cut out card paper into roughly card-like shapes and wrote on them either enemy stats (and numbers - like 5 Shamblers or 3 Walkers) or trap details (Shotgun trap or Rock Fall trap) or curious details (Apocalyptic Log - Little lost girl or Decayed stunted corpses from prior misadventures in the caves) or environmental hazards and their penalties (Narrow Passageway or Flooded Passageway). I then mixed them all up. Then, whenever it felt right and they were moving on, I would produce 7 cards. Whoever was directing them got to pick 3 of them. I would then combine those three cards into what happened next.

It gave me a lot of chances to get creative, increased the dread when they plucked the cards (the card chooser was the most nervy of the bunch of them, by the time this part was done), and also simulated the essentially random nature of their journey through the tunnels.

Of course, I put the cards aside when they reached the pre-set 'dungeon' area which was an old Lancea Sanctum temple. That place could be mapped and set up with whereabouts the enemies, traps, and oddities were likely to be so I did just that.

If anyone would like a copy of the cards, email me at with the subject line Cave Cards and I'll scan them all and send them to you in a .pdf so you can see them for yourself. They're not pretty, but they may generate some ideas. I do warn you, though, that X-Mas is coming up so you'll probably get them in January.

Oh, also, you can find a list of the other articles in this series here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Horrifying High Fantasy for Dungeon Masters, pt. 2

The other problem is that part of the implicit gaming contract of D&D is that the characters will fight the enemies (and likely emerge victorious). This isn't a bad thing. Imagine trying to run D&D when everyone is acting like investigators in Call of Cthulhu, hiding and researching everything, always finding a way around the monsters or fleeing the besieged town or village. Good for some adventures but that's not exactly the way to slay the beast and rescue the villagers, is it?

So accept that the assumption will be there, especially in an ongoing campaign where the characters themselves are already used to being able to best the enemy or die trying.

And then undermine those assumptions by cluing them in that, yes, full-frontal assaults work with most monsters but This Monster Is Different. Choose something that looks and acts differently than they're used to. If they've slaughtered plenty of undead before, perhaps outsiders or aberrations could become your Super Scary Creatures of Choice.

Use Knowledge skills to pre-warn characters that the enemy is far more powerful than they are in order to encourage them to run and hide (might be worth decreasing their Perception checks as well). Give them anecdotes about the other adventurers who assaulted them and died. If they do investigate matters, hand out the tattered and bloodstained shreds of a wizard's diary recounting the party following the paladin's wishes to attack every foe.

Give clues that there are banes, weapons or other things out there that might assist with the matter.

Oh, and don't throw in too many bad guys. Space them out all the more so each one is a setpiece battle so the players don't grow used to kicking back doors and slaying monsters. Each enemy should feel special. Each one should have hints and build up to them. The moment the monsters start blurring together is the moment that the players won't fear them as much.

Oh, and be sure to get your player's on side first. If they really aren't interested in playing this sort of sub-genre, even on one occasion, then there's not a whole lot you can do about it outside of the Three Bs: Bribe, Blackmail and Beg. (By the way, a recalcitrant player that digs in their heels might be more prone to accepting a brief sojourn into another genre if the other players are selling it for you - so get potential keen players on board first).

Monday, December 12, 2011

2: Resource Management.

One of the big tropes of survival horror involves resource management. You only have 18 bullets so you'd better make it count! In the weeks leading up to the big adventure, I ensured the player characters were quite aware that what they brought would be all they had. So they built guns, sourced ammunition illegally, bought boxes of ammunition where they had the right permits, created body armour (Lore of Forge) though not enough, and decided on what they were bringing.

Since the other issue of survival horror is realising how handy it'd be if you'd brought that one thing (they had three gas masks, only brought one, and it came up), it's important to be firm that they only have what they've stated they were bringing.

To reinforce the importance of this, I actually went to the admittedly anal and perfectionistic lengths of creating item cards and laying it all out in front of them. They could see at a glance what they had on them and what they could use. When they ask me if they might have something, I ask them to check what they had in front of them. Some of them even brought food (which came in handy) and water (which certainly did).

While I don't suggest that everyone turn their player's inventories into item cards (it does take a lot of room and isn't always worth the time investment), I do suggest creating weapon cards (with the rules on them if need be), armor and flashlights that might be traded between player characters. It saves on having to erase it from your own sheet and transfer it onto someone else's.

Ammunition clips or shell pouch cards are even more handy! I printed off some little details on the ammunition on one side, and ammunition silhouettes on the others. I used a lead to shade in how many bullets they had (up to 12 bullets per ammo card). They erased the bullets from the weapon card as they used them, then erased them from the ammo card as they reloaded the gun. Yes, it sounds rather clunky but it worked out surprisingly well and smoothly ... which says a lot since my players aren't the note-taking, pedantic types (like me) and yet they found it all pretty easy to do. I'll be keeping the ammo clip cards for later use.

The other Resource Management thing I did was actually check their carrying capacity (25lbs per point in Strength, items were assumed to be 1lb or more and roughly calculated) and give them all little tokens for their willpower and faith (using the little brain and love heart tokens from the Call of Cthulhu board game).

I didn't give them any health tokens because I was going with the Invisible Health rule from Armory: Reloaded and keeping the health level damage a secret and only telling them the actual injuries and penalties they were on unless they made a Wits + Medicine check to take a look at it.

Wow, writing that all up makes me really surprised that the players took to it so readily! It sounds like it's a lot of effort but it actually worked out very easily. Passing Faith and Willpower tokens back and forth is way easier than damaging your sheet with an eraser and a pencil.

At any rate, they enjoyed it and it really brought out that Survival Horror vibe.

Anyone else done something similar? How'd it go? Anyone planning to do it in future?

Oh, also, you can find a list of the other articles in this series here.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Some lines just make you laugh

So I've been reading this Choose-Your-Own-Web-Comic at Rookery Comics where this young woman heads into Silent Hill looking for her Uncle James - the protagonist from Silent Hill 2. Well, things quickly go to hell when she enters a hotel building and it's a real hoot watching her growing frustration and confusion as reality crumbles around her. It's just a shame that the protagonists in the Silent Hill series never quite hit that area. The main characters all seem quite low-key about the whole thing.

I think this panel, in particular, made me laugh when the poor young woman entered a hotel room to see curtains billowing in the wind. Already expecting it to be some trick, she heads up, throws open the windows and lo and behold...

Her line beautifully sums it up.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Videogame Tricks: Forks In the Road

Y'know, sometimes it's good to push Pure Realism aside for a more interesting Roleplay experience. In my Demon: the Fallen caving adventure, there are two women who are pretty opposed to each other. One is a Risen Dead woman who has been trying to annihilate the Earthbound who heads the cult for several years now ever since she died trying to take down the cult with the rest of her team (who pretty much all died). The other is the Chief Handmaiden, the second-in-command to the High Priestess of that cult, who has been knocked down and de-thralled (she was only a 1 step thrall for those who know about the Earthbound) using a special artifact knife and compass combination.

Basically, the compass, when activated near a person, reveals that person's sympathetic ties. Magical connections can then be cleaved with the activated knife (which has no physical blade, by the way, just a hilt).

Long story short, the Chief Handmaiden wants to come along and finally prove herself by taking down the tyrant Earthbound that she had grown to hate and fear. The Risen won't fight in a group with her because of their past differences and a total lack of trust.

So, naturally, I thought of all kinds of terrible repercussions depending on who they chose, but then I thought to myself -- why not make things more interesting? Why not make the choice mean something a bit more complex than a simple Win or Lose scenario (or even Lose / Lose, as sometimes happens).

In videogames, you sometimes get a choice between two options, both of which have their benefits and drawbacks, and both of which change the nature of the gameplay as well as the storyline and the ending.

The Risen is an elite combatant, superstrong, and with a good skill in shotguns and a machete. Not to mention she doesn't feel pain and can take quite a few hits before going down. She's fairly brutal and direct in her actions, though.

The ex-thrall understands the remaining survivors, the lay-out, and the traps. While some of the traps and plans will have doubtless changed, she's best placed to figure out HOW they might have changed by taking a look at the signs. Of course, she's used to out-thinking the enemy and other than throwing knives, really isn't all that skilled in combat. As a regular human, she also can't take a hit effectively.

Both, obviously, have their own agenda, too, which will influence things again.

So at the start of the next session, I will offer the players a choice and that choice will be a fork in the road - not just in terms of story progression and roleplay, and certainly not as a case of right or wrong, but in terms of how the game itself is likely to play out.

Think about it. It's a fine difference, but a big one.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Horrifying High Fantasy for Dungeon Masters, part 1

Well, yesterday's post led me to realise that running horror in Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, and related systems is actually quite tricky. Since I'm playing Carrion Crown and running the Castle Scarwall segment of Crimson Throne, I'm very much starting to see how hard it is and what sort of tricks of the trade can really help move it from an often gothic horror style to injecting truly horrific substance.

First of all, let's look at the tropes of Dungeons & Dragons and how they get in the way.

Kick in the Door. In a fantasy game, heroes are meant to be brave and face their enemies in open combat. At the very least, they're not meant to cower behind garden walls away from it. In a horror game, caution is the better part of valor, so taking the time to figure out what you're facing, preparing accordingly, and then ultimately considering a stealthy choice, is often the best option,. Running up to a blood-smeared door and booting it open screaming threats is likely to cut your life short.

Kill the Monster. Your average fantasy game involves killing monsters. Often lots of them, in short order, without guilt or (much) fear. The loss of ambiguity removes any tragic element. Familiarity also tends to breed contempt, not fear, so if you simply throw several enemy encounters against them in quick succession that are too high a Challenge Rating, the players are more likely to become frustrated than afraid.

Loot the Bodies. Sometimes its wiser to leave things well enough alone. This is, however, a trope you can play with and is fairly welcome in the horror genre.

Level-based Kick Ass Powers. To make matters worse, not only do D&D characters have kick ass powers but Challenge Ratings factor in certain expectations that might cause a lower level party to literally be unable to even hit a monster several levels above them. Traps and other elements of ingenious tricky are also unlikely to work due to the monster's saves -- unless you decide to get creative with it and allow the players to build much higher DCs into their traps. You could also create two sets of stats for the same monster. One for if the characters are wielding a bane against them (i.e. hit it with salt first!) and one for if they're completely unprepared.

Alignment Issues. While horror games often do play with strictly evil enemies, sometimes the tale is more horrific if people are doing bad things for the right reasons. You can move past this by having such people appear as Lawful Neutral but the alignment system still removes a lot of the moral ambiguity. It can also lead to long, philosophical debates for some players about the nature of Good and Evil that can sometimes derail the game. Also, you don't want Detect Evil solving all of your problems (though at least the enemies doesn't show up until they hit Level 5 in Pathfinder).

Next up, I'll talk about how to coax the characters into having the right mentality for the game. Finally, I'll discuss some techniques I've spotted in Pathfinder horror campaigns that have worked well.

Monday, December 5, 2011

1: Running a Survival Horror adventure within a Campaign

So you have a campaign in quite a different genre to survival horror. Perhaps you are running a High Fantasy Dungeons & Dragons game but you want to delve into something a little darker for a session or two. Or perhaps that Political Thriller Vampire game has sent that unlikely coterie of vampires over the threshold into a Hisil Wound. Heck, perhaps you're running a relatively similar genre like a Call-of-Cthulhu style investigative horror game.

In any of these instances, you've drummed certain trope-like bahaviors into your player's minds (and their character's actions). The High Fantasy players expect to face every physical confrontation and win with few, if any, casualties. Monsters are to be beaten. Shiny objects are to be stolen. Cursed items are few and far between. Obviously, if you're running monsters several CR above them that they're meant to run and hide from -- they're screwed. The Political Thriller Vampire players expect to backstab each other, jockey for position, and pay attention to every which what word is spoken by the others - and thus can often self-destruct their entire party within an hour of a Survival Horror.

Rather than begin a process of re-training (which is often painful enough in the first instance unless you provide your players' with a list of genre expectations), there are a few environmental signals and cues that can often trigger a new set of behaviors. Firstly, let the players know to prepare for an adventure that is a little different and that you're playing with another genre (you don't have to say which). That way all of those conscious positive 'meta-game' considerations like 'attack the dragon even when a sensible person would run like a little girl' don't crop up.

It also gets the players curious and heightens their interest, while letting them know that you haven't just gone mad, there is a purpose behind the re-design.

Then find a way to transition between the two genres. The High Fantasy adventurers are riding across green hills, dealing with bandits and the usual issues, but then the grass is more yellowed, there's darker clouds perpetually over the horizon (that they'll soon ride under) and the bandits they confront are covered with oozing sores and rather than attack, they plead for their lives and an escort to prison.

The Political Thriller Vampires soon realize that a prominent Carthian and Invictus elder who are normally at each other's throats are actually working together on this one ... and they're being genuine about it! They're paranoid about each other but genuinely wish the group well and are too busy trying to ensure success of the operation that they don't plan how to ruin the other (at least not until after it happens). Why? Because that haunted house (with the Wound threshold) is considered to be too dangerous. Local vampires near the area have turned draugr and had to be put down. It's impacting on the Masquerade. Its influence is spreading.

Don't skimp on the transition period. Even if you're tempted to just Teleport your adventurers into the Survival Horror or have a higher up simply order the coterie into the property, don't do it.

Not only does a transition period assist with pacing, building anticipation and dread, and activating both the player's curiosity and imagination, but it provides one other very important function. It allows the campaign to make sense even as it warps into something new. The new tropes don't clash with the old, they contrast with them, play with them, and build something new and more interesting. In the end, the survival horror plotline should be so woven into the campaign that rather than feeling like some aberrant growth caused by a DM's or ST's fancy, it's actually a vital part of an ongoing campaign.

During the adventure, keep providing plenty of clues as to when they should discard certain tropes.

Show what happened to the last coterie that investigated the house and how their pettiness tore each other apart (notes detailing greed stashing away vital objects, diary entries on how revenge will be sort for a prior indiscretion, forensic details, a babbling draugr still caught in a past conversation). Sure, the new coterie will doubtless still bicker and fight but it'll hopefully be in the manner of your usual group-based survival horror. Strain and tensions mounting that seek release in bitching and arguments. Not conscious efforts to destroy other team-mates simply to bring about their end.

I'll do up a big post on Horror in High Fantasy tomorrow as it seems to be growing a little too large to insert here.

Then, you have one final detail once they have survived the enemy, possibly to escape, possibly to end the infection or strike a final blow (a slight differentiation from the usual survival horror where the goal is to survive to reach the center rather than to survive to escape). You have to cap the adventure and transition back to the regular genre. Your best bet is to show that by saving the day, the character's have successfully re-established the old expectations.

The clouds drift away from the castle and all of the signs of spiritual decay wink out. Now let the High Fantasy party of heroes mow down all of the significantly weakened antagonists they have yet to kill. Heck, if you want a real book end, have them attacked by regular bandits out for their gold once they re-enter the free lands.

The Political Thriller Vampires return to report their success to the Carthian and Invictus elder and immediately the two start bickering and trying to blame the other for prior failures. Or there's a glint in the old enemies' eyes as they regard each other anew for the coming days. The vampires soon find out that the status quo has been well and truly re-established.

Then continue on with your campaign, now masterfully pulled together, until the next time you'd like to digress from the 'usual programming'.

Oh, also, you can find a list of the other articles in this series here.

Monday, November 28, 2011

D:tF - A Caving Survival Horror

Well, I realised that I had a whole bunch of topics to talk about with this adventure so I thought I'd break it up into weekly installments as I've run out of Series Posts. I always enjoy doing a bit of a quick summary post first and then following it up with the split up topics. Yes, I know, I could always begin with Part 1, but what are you gonna do? We all have our styles.

And in this case, I'm currently sitting between the two parts of my Survival Horror adventure (where the PCs are the demons) so it's best that I don't give too much away until such time as my players have finished the run.

If you want the actual story premise, you can find it here. You can look out for these articles on Mondays.

So here are the topics for the 15 week Survival Monday series:

1: Running a Survival Horror adventure within a Campaign.
After all, survival horror tends to go one of two ways. It's either a solo game that plays on dread and isolation or it has a high fatality rate. Besides, how do you work in a survival horror's themes into your usual campaign arc? And how do you clue in your players that this isn't your usual romp?

2: Resource Management. Why do it? How do you do it? Not to mention, how do you convince your players that it could be a fun part of the game?

3: Making Random Encounters Scary.
Encounter Cards versus Percentage dice, and when is it worthwhile?

4: Using Maps and Apocalyptic Logs to your Best Advantage. What's an Apocalyptic Log, you ask? Well, tune in to find out.

5: Hateful Enemies and Nasty Environments. You should spend a bit of time selecting your enemies and locations to ensure that it's all thematically appropriate for a true dash of Hi-Octane Nightmare Fuel.

6: Tactical Battle Maps: A Help or a Hindrance? How does it affect players to see the locations in front of them? Will it dampen the survivalicious fun or instead give them an opportunity to truly grasp the full meaning of possible nearby hiding places.

7: Will you let them rest? Nothing helps players realise their characters are human (or at least possessing humans) than when they actually deal with fatigue and other issues, but can giving players so-called pit stops help the horror or damage it?

8: Dealing with Dread. How to build it up without letting it all get a little too much.

9: Madness, sickness, and status cards. How this can all build up to a very nervy ride, all the while keeping secrets between you and one other player at a time. Also, how to tempt players to be jumpy through status bonuses on Adrenaline.

10: Survival Horror Superheroes! How do you deal with super-powered characters during an adventure? What about when you have nine characters and seven players (as I did)?

11: Preparing for a Caving Survival Horror, Part 1. So what happened anyway? How did I pull it all together? How much planning went into Session 1?

12: Running a Caving Survival Horror, Part 1. With all that preparation work out of the way, how did the game itself end up going?

13: Preparing for a Caving Survival Horror, Part 2. So, surely all the real prep-work was finished before the second part. Right? Right? Wrong! It takes effort to make it all stick.

14: Summary for the Caving Survival Horror and also Downtimes in a Caving Survival Horror. What happened, what were they allowed to do, and how did it help build up the tension.

15: Running a Caving Survival Horror, Part 2. And how did the grand finale go? What was the build up? And how to recapture the sense of last sessions' momentum?

So, that should be a nice Series for you. It'll keep me going for awhile, too. I reckon I'll spend my spare time analysing what works in videogames for next year's plots.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Horrific WoD Dungeon Crawl

Well, I've been doing a lot of preparation for the upcoming paired Demon: the Fallen sessions whereby an intrepid segment of the Fallen Court in Adelaide are going to delve into a series of tunnels that begin in Nairne and lead under Mount Barker and then north west toward the CBD. As my players are some of my readers, I won't detail everything about these catacombs (a few already know the reasons behind them due to a prior Vampire: the Requiem game I ran earlier, but not all). Suffice it to say that a minor Earthbound has more recently moved in with the remnants of her cult (only 3, or so they suspect, as the other 7 of the 10 that were brought to Adelaide have been kidnapped by the Infernal Court).

This Earthbound is a Malefactor (a demon that can build all kinds of enchanted objects, play with the earth, and warp existing paths) so you can imagine that a warren of tunnels might be a little concerning to them. Not to mention the fact that she has quite a bit of Death and has actually raised a number of zombies to prowl the passageways (at different states of decay, and thus, speed and mobility).

To prep the rather random nature of these tunnels, I created random event cards that I will make the players draw. They pick five cards, I weave it together into something. Don't worry, they're not D&D-style 3 Wombats and a Dire Kangaroo. No, no, they're environmental things like Crawlspace Passageway (low ceiling means you have to crawl) which don't go away until another tunnel-based card is drawn. Or cards on number (and health) of zombies met. Or ammunition finds from previous, lost explorers. Or traps left behind. Or strange noises.

All kinds of things, really. I call it my Dread Deck as it puts some of the onus for the Terrible Things that will happen onto the players who have to draw from it. It puts their fate squarely into their hands (at least on the surface, really it's Lady Luck), which since their picking which tunnels to go down actually kinda fits.

I've also made a point of creating Item Cards for everything they're carrying as this will be a Survival Horror caving adventure so what you see is what you get. If they haven't mentioned it early enough for me to make cards (in a pinch, I will just write the detail on a new one if they argue well enough before entering in) then odds are they won't get it. If they haven't mentioned it before entering the tunnels ... good luck.

I am nice, though. I have sat down with them and reminded them about things like light sources, water, and ammunition. Those with higher Survival have been given more hints.

Oh, I will be remembering their weight limits, too, as mobility is a BIG issue in roughly made tunnels and caves.

Tune in tomorrow for the starting course of How To Run Cave-Based Survival Horror where I'll go over each bit piece-meal with some advice of what worked and what didn't.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Well ... been awhile

Well, I've been so busy teaching Child Safe Environments to staff and volunteers, setting up for the Volunteer Lunch, and also preparing and running various games over the past 10 days that I've had neither the energy nor the willpower to do up a post. Soon, however, I promise you all kinds of goodies that I've learned or used or prepared for the upcoming Demon: the Fallen game. A nice, horrific 'dungeon crawl' set in a system of monster-made tunnels under Mount Barker. More on that to come.

For now, enjoy the Carol of the Old Ones.

I know I will.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Changing Swear World

And now for something totally different...

Have you noticed how kids 'swear' so much more these days? The F Bomb is less of a bomb and more of a noun / verb / adjective / adverb and all things in between. Words for defecation, urination, and sex are bandied about like there's no tomorrow. And let's not even think about often blasphemies occur and folk taking the Lord's name in vain. It really makes you wonder where the world's headed.


They're not really swears anymore.

Think about it. Those words just aren't taboo and that's why they get bandied around. A strong word for poo? Whatever! Blasphemy? I'm not religious! Sodomy? Meh!

Yet you just try walking into a restaurant and calling someone an N Bomb (racist swear) and you'll hear the sort of silence that followed the swears of old. The C Bomb (sexist swear) is also a crowd startler. In fact, while other racist and sexist terms don't quite have the same bite when said with a wry I'm-kidding grin in your home, you wouldn't use them in public, and even when you use them at home you make sure not to add strengthening words like 'filthy' to it.

So yeah, people don't really swear much more than they used too. It's just that what counts as swears for the generations before don't for us and vice versa and that culture clash has really made it look like we do. We just don't take those particular words seriously and that's disempowered their verbal punch (unless used around or towards cultural groups, such as our elders, who still care about them).

Interesting, huh?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Stepping Stones to a Demon: the Fallen Apocalypse

So I've been running Demon: the Fallen as a solo campaign for a couple years. Well, originally it was meant to be a party-based game but the players who joined in ended up having to drop out. Basically, it has progressed to the point of an apocalypse when Grifiel, the head of the Devourers and one of the three leaders of the Luciferans, found out that Lucifer could be contacted through the Hunter: the Reckoning types.

Basically, in my canon (which was quite different to established canon with a Kult-like Afterlife where people were scourged of their memories by the Loyalist angels and a missing-thought-dead God) Lucifer had been caged on Earth in the Kamchatka ranges while the other Fallen were sent to the Pit as punishment for both. Lucifer managed to exude him/herself piecemeal through the edges of the cavern sigil into the humans that ended up living in a city of marvels in the area. S/he did this until all that was left behind was his/her bones. Basically, Lucifer rendered his/herself Legion and was in possession of a few thousand humans who, to all intents and purposes, were individual and independent-thinking people. A few of them retained their memories and found the summoning rituals to summon out the Arch-Dukes. After that debacle slew the few Legion members who recalled what they were (they simply reincarnate into new hosts), thousands of years passed with Legion being unaware.

Of course, the angels were watching even as they slowly went mad without God's guidance and with the need to gather up the souls of their beloved mortals, torture them, and send them back into flesh that would be tormented and tortured by Caine's progeny, dealing with the 'spirits' that were the descendants of the multitude of layers of reality that were torn from Earth with the destruction of Eden, and all the other horrors that ended up sneaking through the cracks in reality to ravage humanity. In the end, most of the angels prayed for the end but only one end could come. The very end that Lucifer had averted by keeping his/her head down through Legion. When they detect that Lucifer had escaped his/her cage, Michael is to defeat him/her as a Final Punishment decreed by God as Lucifer's dying moments would involve the knowledge that the world would be unmade once he was destroyed.

Lucifer knew that the End of Days would come eventually and so had hatched a plan in his cage. She would plant flat stones of lapis lazuli containing notes in 'Hunter Code' (as it's later called) that would be found by Legion once humanity had reached a level where they could finally combat the Enemy. Legion has been stirring, finally re-developing some small level of their powers, as humanity's power over science grew to the point where they could finally stand a chance (a small chance, but a chance). Some found and studied the stones and plans for a Kamchatka Expedition were brought to bear.

One Visionary known as Daniel Carter, an Irish school teacher who fled Ireland for Berlin after an arson attack on a vampire caught police attention, and who gained himself a new identity and worked his way up the corporate ladder in Ophidian's PR Department. Ophidian was a company that dealt with the media and he ended up getting them on board as the documentary filmers (with a demonically possessed co-host called Urza / Alvin Gruber who he'd been having a Redeemer watch / subtly convert over a decade).

Unfortunately, once Urza and the other Fallen (whose players ended up dropping out over time) started looking into things it became more complex. Only a few Fallen, those with low Torment, could sense Lucifer's syllable of his True Name upon those stones, and they gravitated toward the expedition as cameramen, scientists, and researchers (there were some strange events surrounding that particular mountain like fungal insects, and, of course, the tablets that only a few could decipher whose symbols could never be remembered or matched pointed to a city at its peak).

During this time, Lucifer's bugeoning consciousness within Legion caused a manifestation over Las Angeles that knocked all of Legion unconscious. A good distraction to keep the other Fallen looking elsewhere.

After awhile of kicking around and getting drawn into conspiracy after conspiracy, Urza ends up telling Grifiel some of the truth of the mountain range as Grifiel was planning to pre-empt the human expedition with a Luciferan one of his own.

However, all that did was caused Grifiel to figure out how to contact Lucifer using one of the Reckoner Hunters - Daniel Carter, in fact (not realising they were Legion but thinking they were thralls of some sort). The first time, everyone blacked out and suffered aggravated damage as a terrible pain whipped over them and a single word howled through their mind: "Change."

Urza, being of so little Torment, came through it with only a few lethal and one aggravated damage and he woke up sooner than the others. Being a Cryptic (albeit one with staunchly Luciferan undertones who adores and worships Lucifer in his own way), he tells them never to do it again. At the same time, he's rather smug (Pride as a flaw) as he was less injured than almost everyone else and thus figures he has less that he needs to change.

A couple weeks later (weeks packed with investigative goodness that even took Urza into the edges of the Underworld), Grifiel tries again by kidnapping another Hunter, a set in her ways Defender called Caitlin (whose brother was a Mage and thus she had a little Mercy - Innocence to her rating). Urza attempts to come to the rescue using a team of Raveners who had previously killed themselves to possess a Spetsnaz team (they'd previously enthralled them) only to find themselves suddenly a lot more lawful and decent then when they'd started out. The Raveners are too late, however, and the building is annihilated through the brief manifestation of Lucifer. Unlike the manifestation over Las Angeles, this was undoubtedly him, and it truly awoke that piece of Legion, and tripped the Apocalypse.

The Angels that guarded the edges of the Abyss (and everywhere else) came roaring to the surface which allowed all of the Fallen Angels to escape the Pit as well. The force of all the onrushing entities ripped holes in the Realms and the True Afterlife which sent so many of the undead rushing to the surface as well. Since there are only a finite number of souls, a good 50% of our 7 billion people were Nulls - soulless individuals of zero faith and no divine spark that simply existed because the birth rate said they should. This caused the appearance of a Rapture as 3 - 4 billion people suddenly vanished.

Both Angels and the Fallen knew one choice though it was a choice many ignored. All could become physical once more as they truly had been and revel in their power. OR they could be inspired by the screams of help from the dying moments of humanity and reach out to them (thus coming to possess them as regular Fallen). Few Angels heeded the call (Urza assumed none would but he turned out to be wrong) while some of the Fallen who had been in possession chose to take to the skies and others from the Pit (or even a few Earthbound) chose to possess someone thus taking advantage of the suddenly richer intermingling of energies that allows them to safely possess a person.

Michael now stalks the Earth, seeking all aspects of his sword (two of which poor Belphigor, head of the Faustians holds), so that he can wipe out each aspect of Legion before finally destroying Lucifer's bones. The Prime member of Legion, what is left of Caitlin, has her own plans, however. All the while a battle rages in the sky between angels, demons, and the human military, which sees a surprising number of technologically unaware angels and demons to their death.

After all, other than those who had possessed but relinquished their bodies, few fallen or angels would recognise a missile and there's only so much armor can soak as they have both been greatly diminished. The Fallen because they were stripped of their powers. The Angels because they have been stripped of the God that fueled them. Both sides rely on ambient faith ... except for the few that are cunning enough to turn to gather human worshippers out of the broken remnants of this land.

Next up, I'll talk about how this ended up being a dream for my Tactician solo player (and fianc`e) and how Urza has managed to cope with this world.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Carrion Crown Craziness

So, I have to say that if Pathfinder is making a point to diversify their campaign styles so that everyone can have a favorite, mine would be Carrion Crown. I've run Crimson Throne but it just can't compete with the kind of fun that can be had with gothic horror. There's a certain stylistic cool factor that can be had with cults, ghosts, haunted PRISONs (way better than a haunted house), and ghostly serial killers. A cool factor I positively adore.

Last session was also pretty damn cool. We managed to:

* explore the ground floor barring one locked door that nobody managed to unlock so we've assumed there's hopefully a key we can find somewhere,

* re-stock from their infirmary (it creeped my character, Miranda, out that no one had gotten that far to loot it before),

* get ourselves branded by floating irons (Miranda and Ezio did, anyway),

* beat up Ezio rather than let him run away in terror from a poltergeist into the depths of the prison (well, I tried to trip him up - it was Ruttiger, our NPC rogue, who waved at him to distract him in his terror and then tried to clock him one upside the head),

* try to lighten the mood with an intermittent dialogue about the best brothel in town (Miranda's fault, that one, about elven worshippers of a certain goddess who would animate their hair... Boy was Ruttiger annoyed because we'd journeyed near that jungle in back story.)

* and, of course, we actually managed to find toilets. I mean, toilets! When do game designers ever bother to include toilets in an adventure? We were thrilled! We were literally going to break out a bottle of wine to celebrate. But two of the players were P platers who had to drive home later. So we settled for coca cola.

Not much of an Actual Play, I know, but it'll do for now. Maybe next time I'll make it into a story.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Hand on the Wheel, STs

Okay, let me put my Player's Hat on for a moment as this is a topic that I can only talk about from a Player's Eye View. One thing I've been noticing more and more as a player now that I've seen a few different Storytellers and Dungeon Masters at work is that I very much want them to keep control of the game.

Sure, I want to be able to immerse myself into the world and if there's an unguarded and unlocked door I want to be able to go over and open it (though I respect there may be consequences). No invisible clip brushes, thank you very much. And I certainly don't want a Storyteller to tell me 'No, no, your character thinks this' or 'Well, now your character loves him' unless there's a magical effect in play because, hey, all I have is my character as a vehicle for everything I do and if my character becomes a mere puppet then what's there left for me to do?

But I do want the Dungeon Master or Storyteller to retain control. I want them to lead us all into the game world, keep us focused, silence our OOC chit-chat with a glance, and rap us on the knuckles if we're being silly. They're the Alpha. For the game to work, there word has to be law. I want them to be comfortable and confident, able to take issues in their stride (bitching never works and just adds to the problem), and I want them to be able to take charge through tricks of the trade or even through grown up discussions on how this is a HORROR game or a HACK AND SLASH game and how we might be completely floundering and violating the very tenets of the game we so wanted to enjoy.

After all, no one wants to destroy their own toys out of stupidity.

But of course, I want them to do this with kindness, patience, and an understanding that it's really, really haaaard not to be stupid sometimes as a player. That the urge to be silly does come up, especially if there's a moment of boredom (which isn't necessarily anyone's fault - two minutes is a long time for me to do nothing) and that frustration can cause me to button mash in the hopes of somehow hitting the WIN button.

But yes, it's a big ask. I know that. But I certainly will thank you for it!

Friday, October 28, 2011


So, what sort of topics should I start putting up next? What kind of things would you like to see some more of? Personal anecdotes? Player advice? Storyteller advice? Recruitment ideas? Reviews? Ask and ye shall receive....

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Balancing Act 10: Rigging the Challenge

Horror games are scariest when the risks are high and the odds of success are low. It thrives against backdrops of overwhelming odds, tragic losses, and bittersweet endings. Of course, the indiscriminate death of player characters also destroy the immersion factor of the game just as the frequent loss and replacement of the main characters of a horror movie would generally grate on the audience’s nerves.

Let’s face it, horror is also reduced when the participants have a Care Factor Zero approach to the game.

So how do you make the risks terrifying without a character turnover that looks like a fast food joint on a really off weak? Well, there’s a number of ways:

Cheat. Yeah, the dice always happen to roll in the most cinematic light … except in those odd opportunities where you want the players to desperately stare at the rolling dice in dread anticipation of the numbers. They roll high when you need to deal juuuust that amount of damage. They roll low to allow that lucky escape. You could do this judiciously or frequently, depending on your player’s gullibility and your skill with lying. It does take some of the challenge out of the game and your player’s must never, ever find out but it’s certainly a possibility.

Scewing the environment. So the light adverse enemies are meant to harry your protagonists through the woods toward the road and you’re hoping to cause them a reasonable amount of injury without killing them outright. Keep a list handy of possible refuges / pitfalls depending on their needs. If the dice keep injuring them mercilessly, roll a d100 to check their ‘luck levels’ but regardless of the roll have something beneficial turn up. A campfire bright enough to buy them some time. One of those construction stand alone spot lights to injure the enemy. Or if their luck has already been fabulous, you could have them still manage to sneak through unharmed but have it so their cars have been disabled so they now have to somehow make it to town. That way the dice really do land when they fall but you can still make things easier or harder depending on the story’s needs.

Weaker groups versus a powerful antagonist. If you have one antagonist, ramp them up so that they’re powerful enough to hold against all of the protagonists while if there’s a half dozen of them they should be slightly less powerful than each of the protagonists. Also, bear in mind on how you’re going to use these threats. If you set it up right, they might end up being terrified by the sheer amount of environmental damage they’ve done even before a single blow is leveled against a protagonist.

Encourage tactics and guile. Don’t let them keep spamming that ‘Use Dynamite to Solve Problem’ button but do encourage them to use the environment to their advantage. A threat that could only be foiled by dropping a house onto it is far more frightening than a threat that could be downed with a few shotgun shells.

Let it drop but don’t let it die. Some horrific threats might drop when shot up but won’t die no matter what they do. I once had these Undying foes that could be chopped up but their gore and viscera would remain connected to all the pieces and would slowly pull them back together. The protagonists could delay the inevitable by continuously hacking them apart but they would soon grow tired. This way you can have the enemy be a little weaker, or at least a little easier to take down, while still retaining the fear factor. None of their attempts will last … at least until they find the key to the whole problem.

Well, those are a fair few ideas at least. Do you have any other ideas to add to this?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Evil Roses and Pre-Pathfinder Paizo Adventures

Well, last night I got to enjoy my OTHER tasty tabletop game which is run by an old friend of mine. I can't remember the name of the blasted thing (Rose Vale? Something like that) but there's little more fantastic than a forest filled with many styles of roses, evil fairies, and, of course, owlbears! This session I got to drink deep of my awesome subdual damage Rogue (kindly made by my partner) where I get to deal 1d4 + 8d6 + 14 subdual damage with a cosh when sneak attacking an enemy. Once they go down, I do what any rogue would do ... and lovingly slit their throat.

I managed to take down a whole cave load of owlbears like that! Most of them were asleep and I kept winning my Stealth-fu. Thanks to the other players for letting me have a chance in the limelight without running in to make the kill! My rogue does better in stealth mode.

I'm sure them water dragon thingies will give you something far meatier to play with later on.

Oh yeah, we also adopted the Owlbear chicks from the nest.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Carrion Crown's Brilliance

What I love about Carrion Crown is that it's the first time I've ever really needed all of my skill points and where the group really needs all of the Knowledge bases covered. My Inquisitor has quite a few out-of-class Knowledge skills now just to keep things going.

Also, boy, can I say that I'm soooo not keen on exploring Harrowstone? After so much time spent preparing, I'm more than a little worried about what's going to go 'boo' in the dark.

My character, a Dhampyr Inquisitor (previously paladin until she started getting assistance from her captive evil rogue / fighter prisoner in her backstory) is also getting the wiggins. She's usually all tough and stern (think cowboy) but the dark prison kind of reminds her of her vampiric father's ruined mansion and she has old issues with ghosts - issues she can ignore on a day to day basis, but not when it's coupled with a place of such obvious necromantic energies.

Poor Miranda...

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Balancing Act 9: Scaring the Players

In a horror game, your goal is to scare the players as much as the characters. Of course, don’t expect to scare them every session and certainly don’t expect to terrify them. At the very least, each session should have a basis in the players feeling concerned for their character's safety or worrying about what's around the next corner. Creating a check-list of what taboos and issues the players are happy / unhappy about dealing with in-game is always a good idea to determine sensibilities before creating the plots.

Anyway, here are a number of ways to make this happen:

· Anticipation.
This is an easy one. Let them know what's about to happen and then draw out the time it takes to see the revelation. Daddy comes home to find the front door open and a slight smear of blood on the carpet that leads into the bathroom. You can bet he'll be worried about what's in the bathroom. When he comes across his wife's corpse in the bathtub and a photograph of his son at the playground with the words: 'Come find me' written on it, you just know he'll be anticipating the worst when he goes looking.

· Discomfort. NPCs with unpleasant mannerisms, confrontational body language, and worrying back stories can encourage a sense of discomfort in the players. As can locations that embody certain moods and themes designed to unsettle the players, such as taking a typically cheerful place and adding peeling paint and sagging doorways.

· Threat to Significant Others.
Have unpleasant things happen to the protagonist’s friends, family, possessions, and important locations. Be cautious with how you target those significant to the protagonist as the player might grow callous if it’s guaranteed that anything they value will be damaged. Generally, you’re better off using this option sparingly and giving the protagonist the opportunity to save the loved one.

· Pain. It’s easy for the players to feel disconnected from any pain that the protagonist experiences. However, good descriptions and audio cues can help combat this and discourage them from seeing their character's health as simple hit points. So never say 'You take 3 damage.' Tell them how the arrow strikes home. Hide their hit points if you can by taking care of that book keeping yourself. Also, props are your friend. Don’t just describe their leg snapping, snap a twig!

· Disgust.
Vivid descriptions of inventive uses / appearances of bodily fluids and body bits can help disgust a player. The easiest option for disgusting players with bodily fluids, of course, is to make a prop. Sure, it’s easy to say your protagonist will eat the worms to make the ghost happy, but it’s harder to eat the boiled spaghetti while blind folded – or to eat chocolate mouse styled to look like doggy poo. You'll need Player Buy In for this as players rights should be respected. Still, it makes a good point if your player says that his character wouldn't give a damn about eating dog poo when the player is grossed out by styled chocolate mousse. Also, beware, some players will make a point of devouring it happily just to squick the other players, so use with care.

· The Surreal. Where nothing can be predicted, the players can expect anything. Of course, the players will attempt to come up with a list of rules for whatever strange and surreal location or NPC you throw at them so feel free to change the rules now and again. It’s better if this isn’t done dramatically. Abide by what the players assume, mostly, but change a rule here or there, and then change it back.

· Body Horror. A mixture of sympathy toward pain, dread, and disgust can be evoked through body horror which involves visible mutations of the body in out-of-control and hideous ways. Left 4 Dead is an example of Body Horror, but it's even better when the character remains sane right up to the end of the mutations. To make it as scary as possible, make it slow (to build anticipation), seeming irreversible (to build up dread and expectation), and force major personality changes (to evoke paranoia).

· Paranoia. Describe a location to one player and then pass notes to all of the others. During a party split, separate the players into two rooms and then have one set of players behave strangely when they return to meet the others. Have the players show you how they would open a door or a jar. Take one player aside during a Zombie Apocalypse and have a character return with a suspicious cut that could be a bite mark. The players should never be too sure about what they're facing or who they can trust. Of course, it's often better to make NPCs the targets of character paranoia unless you're happy for the characters to wipe themselves out.

· Direct Threats. Direct threats to a protagonist are such a firm staple in the genre that they rarely work anymore. If you assure the players that Anyone Can Die, use set piece events to reveal the terrifying power of the antagonist (did that werewolf just body slam that car over?) and describe injuries to emphasise the pain and the characters might have their protagonists shy away a little more frequently. Bear in mind they may also flee rather than face threats if you do this too well.

· Revulsion. Certain behaviors are repulsive and those who indulge in such behavior are considered as such. Monstrous acts such as rape, pedophilia, cannibalism of the living, and non-consensual incest are the obvious few but they’re not the only taboos. Bizarre taboos such as pyrophilia (say, someone masturbating over burning themselves), regular incest between first cousins or siblings close in age, eating bodily fluids (say, feces) off a plate, or certain forms of self-mutilation can all repulse us as well. Just take care with your use of these and ensure your players can cope with the subject matter.

· Shocks. These are the scary events that happen suddenly and unexpectedly. These are predominately visual in videogames with something jumping out at a player. Due to the pacing of a line of description, it’s harder to fall back on a visual scare. Even suddenly producing a picture of a monster is hardly going to frighten. So look to audio cues. Suddenly yelling at a player, slamming a fist on the table, dropping a book, or setting up a scream amongst the otherwise softly moving soundtrack can all provide these possibilities. You can also set up a milder form of shock by having something sudden and unexpected happen, such as a mild-mannered NPC pull a gun and shoot someone.

· Dread. Construct a sequence of revelations to heighten the player’s fear with each new revelation making the players feel like things are getting worse, not better. Apply tension to your voice like what you’re describing is the most important thing in the world. Build the anticipation, as before, but rather than emphasising curiosity, discourage it so that they really don't want to see what's around that corner. Avoiding clichés (such as blood would be in that example) can increase the dread as it raises the ambiguity of later events.

· Disconcerting facts. This can be set up with certain clues that foreshadow later events and it works well alongside attempts to draw out feelings of dread or anticipation. Use plenty of respites so that both the players and protagonists wonder what will happen next. Show little oddities about NPCs and the situation so that the players will begin making assumptions. Throw their assumptions on their head and keep them off-balance.

· Fake Scare. Often found in movies to release the immediate tension and allow for underlying tension to be raised, this is why cats jumping out of cupboards have become such a terrible cliché. When using these, try to make them interesting and organic to the scene at hand. At all costs, avoid clichés, or else the players might be laughing OOCly about your game world rather than ICly about the foolishness of their own paranoia.

· Suspense. Describe things nice and slowly to give a sensation of time dilating due to their stress. A desperate race across town to stop a murderer can be extended from the usual one-line “You drive to Morrigan’s house” into 2 minutes of hair-pulling terror. Be cautious not to over-stretch the suspense or else the player will snap down on the anxiety and shrug it off. Or worse, grow bored.

· Known Threats. Sometimes players knowing the statistics of a monster can work to your advantage, like a vampire being circled by werewolves in World of Darkness. Of course, the trade off for this is that the players may feel more in control of the situation as they understand the enemies’ capabilities. So where possible, make the threats unknown. Make the werewolf use rites that make them think it might be some sort of Mage or have them use mortal weapons like a Slasher.

So that should hopefully give you something to think about. Can you think of anything else that could be added to scare your players?

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Bizarre Mystery

Another style of hook that again begins very much in media res is the Bizarre Mystery. Something happens ... but the players can't be sure just what. If you take a look at Amnesia, an indie horror game, you'll see what I mean. It begins with a strangely dream-like progression through several rooms from the perspective of an amnesiac who seems to have caused his own amnesia. The scenery wavers. Bugs appear to be crawling over the walls. Fear and anxiety is raised with every step because you're not quite sure what you're going to face or even how you can expect to face it.

The trick with a Bizarre Mystery is to take the initial situation and make it quite off-kilter from the get-go. In a campaign, it could be that the hotel they book into for the night is filled with the sound of buzzing flies but they see nothing untoward. They step in something that squelches but there's nothing there. They climb into bed, and everything's fine, but the sheets start to feel wet and sticky. When they awaken at the strike of midnight, they see the hotel is full of gore and the walking dead.

So it begins with the off-kilter and hooks them that way. Straight away they're making their guesses, both in-character and out-of-character, but they can never be quite sure about what's coming next. This can often draw them in quite thoroughly as the mystery keeps building with surreal clue after surreal clue but they can't figure out the puzzle readily on their own with any one clue because it's so out of this world.

The bizarre can also be evoked with machinery acting strangely, NPCs that seem more eccentric than usual, strange repeated statements that no one recalls stating, and other such details that really show that everything is subtly off.

Hmm, well, those are three main hook styles for your stories. Am I missing any?

Friday, October 14, 2011

15 Ways to Burn Out Your ST / DM

When most people talk about ST or DM burnout, though, they often talk about the gaming equivalent of Writers’ Block. That isn’t what this article about. This article is about fifteen different methods to cause someone to become so down on running games that they may quit in the short or the long-term.

Firstly, definition time. Burnout is a psychological term for when we experience long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in a particular sphere of our life. The Maslach Burnout Inventory uses a three dimensional description of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, which opposes the psychological construct of Engagement which is defined by having energy, involvement, and efficacy. Basically, if you burn out your Storyteller, they’ll grow frustrated, cynical, feel down about their skills, and basically get sick and tired of running games.

Disclaimer: I haven't actually personally encountered each one of these methods but I have heard, read, or thought about them. This is basically a list of the worst options and is meant to be a bit jokey. Now onwards to the list...
  1. Keep the work load heavy. A game that requires a lot of effort compared to the Storytellers’ inner reserves of energy is going to burn them out faster. This may be partly the Storyteller’s fault as they throw themselves headlong into props, histories, NPC charts, and a whole bunch of other wonderful details. So make sure that you demand the Storyteller meets the same high standard with every session and show your displeasure when they don’t.

  2. Make the work load boringly light. Discourage them from trying anything more taxing than a random map and a monster generator when they’re really itching to do something more. Also, you should ignore NPCs and plot in favour of sitting around talking In-Character about golf for hours at a time. If the Storyteller has to start leafing through a book just to find something to do, you’re doing it right.

  3. Be unappreciative and unimpressed. Many retail outlets have known this for years. If you want a high staff turnover, ensure that you disregard any effort they put in as simply being the basic standard.

  4. High demands. Sickness, tiredness, and a hard luck week should be no excuse for your Storyteller giving a sub-par performance. Make sure to point out all of their mistakes in order to keep them de-motivated from trying harder.

  5. Lack of control. Some people like to refer to games as collaborative storytelling and that’s true. However, it should be a collaboration between the players. The Storyteller is just the world map. If they want a Cyberpunk Thriller, you should be sure to turn it into a Cozy Mystery at any cost. Or better yet, turn it into a Comedy both ICly and OOCly. Compromise doesn’t get anyone anywhere.

  6. Punishment through loss of control. If a Storyteller doesn’t do what the player hoped they’d do, the player should punish them by acting out both in-character and out of it. Players can either sit there and tell them off for making that ruling or decision OR they can make their character really go off the deep end and start doing increasingly ridiculous acts in retaliation.

  7. Unfairness. Players are allowed to gossip, chit-chat, forget rules, egg on other players, and try to break the genre conventions. Storytellers, on the other hand, must be completely on the ball, maintain focus, control the actions of other player’s, and reduce rules confusion to an absolute minimum. Players need not assist with any of this. A good Storyteller can produce results in spite of the Players’ actions and desires.

  8. Anti-Community. Storytellers like to juggle so ensure that the party splits as often as possible, goes in separate directions, clashes willy-nilly and does everything short of self-destruct so that the Storyteller must constantly use the world as a Diplomat for the in-game issues. Party cohesion is their responsibility, after all. Bonus points if the players end up clashing with each other OOCly and bear a lot of ill will so that the Storyteller must also be the Diplomat there as well on top of everything else.

  9. Role Confusion. Don’t let the Storyteller know what you want, ever. In fact, don’t ever ask yourself what you want in a game in case you might give something away. Make them guess at it, and then complain when they get it wrong.

  10. Values Clash. The Storyteller wants comedy, so you want seriousness. They want drama but you hate improvised theatre and just want to smack face. Sure, values clash all the time and this is just one aspect of gameplay … but you can completely ignore that there’s a problem so that way no compromises are necessary. Offering to pay more attention to clues so long as they ensure there’s at least one hi-octane moment per session is a big No-No.

  11. Inadequate Resources. The Storyteller must find some way to purchase all of the books, print all of the sheets, fund the snacks, supply dice for everyone, and otherwise ensure the game goes ahead. This isn’t simply a nice thing they may do but a necessity. Never offer to bring food, extra dice, character sheets, books, or anything else. Be offended if they ask you too.

  12. Boring, repetitive tasks. Even if your Storyteller hates it, they should be the one to keep tallies of your arrows, mark down your damage, and do all of the statistical grunt-work. If you can find some way to make them do a job you don’t want to do, then go nuts! Heck, if you need to keep notes, why not ask your Storyteller to do that for you? (This doesn’t count if you’re sick / tired or have a genuine reason to ask them to do it.)

  13. Don’t Consider the ST’s wants. The Storyteller just wants to run a game, any game. Poking the Storyteller is a fun form of entertainment so don’t bother to sit down and ask yourself such questions as: What is this game really about? If they draw up a Gamer Contract so everyone is on the same page, ensure that you pay no attention to that contract. And never, ever, ever ask the Storyteller about what kind of game they would like to run. That’s the sort of thing Storytellers should ask their players.

  14. If you don’t know, don’t ask. If you’re confused and frustration is mounting, don’t ask to make some kind of roll to figure out where to go next. Just sit there and bang your head against the wall in the expectation that the Storyteller will notice … while they run NPCs, locations, and other miscellaneous details.

  15. An impossible environment. Remember all those Occupational Health and Safety research on how the environment can cause issues for workers? Well, the same holds true for STs. Put them in a noisy, uncomfortable room full of distractions and you'll burn them out faster. Why not have the television on so they have increased competition? Especially if there's a show you wanted to half-watch. Or invite around people who hate roleplaying games to sit and scowl at the players. Or make sure the area is in an area filled with non-players who can distract, counteract, and converse with the players. Kids and pets give bonus points to this one. Kill the immersion and keep the players pre-occupied with everything but game. While it's true that sometimes there's just no other option, the trick is to ensure this happens even when it doesn't have to!

By the way, this isn’t me dissing players as a Storyteller. In truth, I’ve done many of these things and seen the frustration mount on my own Storyteller and Dungeon Master’s face. I didn’t do it on purpose, but I did do it. So I guess the trick is for us to actually acknowledge our own faults as a player and start giving more care to those who run our games. I’ll do up a Caring for your ST article later on.

Balancing Act 8: Engagement versus Burnout

Many players want to be immersed in your game world. They want to feel like they’re truly a part of something bigger and more interesting than their own lives. We've covered many elements of immersion in earlier segments so today we'll talk about what motivates that immersion - the concepts of burn out and engagement. I'll also be discussing later how players can NOT burn out your Storytellers, but for now let's focus on using those two psychological theories to keep players engaged in the tale.

Engagement is the feeling a person gets when they’re interested, enthusiastic, and really feeling in the moment.

It is affected by the sensation of being an active participant in the story. If the players feel like their characters are on rails and that they have little effect on the story, then even if they don't mind it, they'll be less engaged in what they're doing. Ensure that they feel they're telling a collaborative story by at least sometimes following their character arcs, drawing their goals into center focus rather than constantly relegating them to the sidelines, and allowing the characters to partially choose their own direction.

Emotional exhaustion can also lessen the amount of interest a player has in the game and this can come about if tragedy keeps striking close to home. If favourite NPCs are consistently abused or killed. If their actions lead to disaster more often than triumph. Horror tales are, by necessity, more grim than other stories but there are few players who have the resilience to take an entire campaign based on failure after failure, misfortune after misfortune. Counter it with occasional wins and save your moments of Favoured NPC abuse for the moments where it'll really matter ... ideally with the chance of your PCs helping restore or save them.

So repeat after me: Hope isn't contrary to Horror. Hope makes the Horror feel more real.

After all, if people could handle countless tales of terrible things happening to people, then we wouldn't hear about Compassion Fatigue where people lose compassion over time and become more bitter and cynical in response to frequent calls for compassion.

Players can also become less engaged if the Storyteller other players continually despise their characters or if other characters keep trying to keep them on the outside. All you can really do here, other than quietly taking the players aside and asking them to stop it or help protect that player character's feelings, is to take a look at the characters as they're made and ask yourself if they're likely to clash completely. Players tend to find reasons to chafe against other characters so you'll get more than enough drama without allowing them to build antagonisms into their characters.

In fact, before starting any campaign, though especially a horror game, you should create a social contract of OOC rules.

Establish if mobile phones will be allowed and under what circumstances.
What are the rules governing OOC comments?
What constitutes meta-gaming?
Who brings the cucumber sandwiches?
Can players make assumptions about their own inventory, clear it with you first, or can they only possess what’s literally in their (the player's) pockets?
Also throw in certain issues that other player's can't handle (whether racism or child abuse).
And, if you really want player cohesion, tell the players to either create three characters and you'll pick the one that fits the most OR ask them to pass their character by the other players and give those players the right to veto.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Tactician

When people think of the stereotypical players as ignoring the primary goals and charging headlong into danger, they’re not thinking of Tacticians. These are your more resource-oriented players and they tend to remember what works, what doesn’t, and generally have a bit more in the way of grand schemes. If you’ve ever complained that one of your players, or co-players, keeps wrestling control of the story to point it towards the resolution of some grand scheme, you may have a Tactician on your hands.

Now then, what exactly is a Tactician?

Tacticians are the sort of players who are very goal-focused. They decide what they want and they plot a course to get there. Very often they see NPCs (and even other PCs) as pawns in their machinations, for good or ill. Not surprisingly, considering their name, but they enjoy playing a more tactical game. They may enjoy miniatures for easy visualization or may instead pay attention to your verbal descriptions, taking advantage of cover and using improvised weaponry where appropriate.

They enjoy taking risks but generally only if there is some kind of reward. They often have grand schemes that would take multiple sessions to pull off and are dead certain that they can deliver, if only they could find the right methods or – more often – tools. They make really good leaders, though, as they can apply a certain level of focus and ingenuity that a team really need in order to rise to the challenge. However, they can also change the nature of the game as new goals suggest themselves and new plans bud in their minds.

You might prefer the Tactician role if your preferred characters were…

  • The sort who liked to sit down and lay out a plan of attack.

  • Geared towards Allies and Retainers (or the Leadership feat in D&D).

  • Often the person who took charge and directed the other PCs.

  • Very good at seeing the bigger picture.

  • Readily frustrated by other player’s either rushing off.

  • Or frustrated by other player’s retaining a too-small focus on goals separate from your own.

  • Tend to remember, and even list out, your major goals.

  • Try to think up ways to utilize your assets in new and interesting ways.

  • Always remember a favor.

  • Tend to accumulate favors.

  • Hated when other people ignored their favors.

  • Either had a lot of status, or enjoyed gaining it.

  • Had disdain for those who cared for personality more than status.

  • Unless, of course, they didn’t earn their status and weren’t worthwhile or truly powerful people.

  • Were frustrated when doors were closed to you just because you weren’t of the right class / race / caste.

They prefer STs who are:

  • Interesting in running a tactical fight.

  • Capable of adapting the campaign in line with PC’s goals.

  • Happy to implement status in the game.

  • Willing to run multiple NPCs that can become resources for the PC.

  • Interested in games where PCs have long-range plans.

  • Happy to allow the PC to make lasting effects to the world around them – whether locally, nationally, or globally.Capable of letting the PC shine as a leader.

  • Willing to throw in some tactical missions with complex, or numerous, objectives.

  • Happy to allow the PCs to develop their own way of solving the problems.

  • Keen to keep the game off pre-set tracks.

  • All about creating complex situation with in-depth NPC interactions.

  • Fans of long-running campaigns that give the PCs the chance to keep building on what came before.

  • Able to create interesting enemies and intelligent villains.

  • Fans of status systems, retainers, and followers, that can be used as tools.

Fictional characters that fit the type:

Kaiser Soza (The Usual Suspects)

Videogames that support the type:

The Sims (and other Sim games)
Dead Rising (at least the rescuing people to stockpile survivors angle)

Can you think of any other games or characters? Ever ran for a Tactician before? Or are you one yourself?

You can find the links to all of the five playing styles over here.

The Sudden Grasp Hook

While every good hook starts at least somewhat in media res (in the middle of the action) whether it is as the main character ends the mysterious town or after the strange things begin, the Sudden Grasp hooks make that most obvious. It begins with a bang! Something happens and the protagonists (the player characters) are put on the defensive. You don’t have time to think about it. You just have to react and hope you make it out alive.

Players often really enjoy this hook simply because it’s fairly uncommon. Even videogames normally prepare you with some form of cutscene and roleplaying games often stretch it out all the more with tavern scenes, meetings on dark rooftops, or some other gentler example.

The Sudden Grasp can begin with sudden violence and an attempt to flee or chase someone down like in the Getaway, but it can just as well begin the way Fahrenheit (Indigo Child) does with the protagonist immediately having to cover up a murder scene. What you do here is you give the players some form of reactive objective they have to complete. Bonus points if there’s a time limit on it (sinking ship, ticking time bomb, SWAT arrival).

The trick with these adventures is to take it off the tracks. You really can’t railroad players as planning and cautious thought will fly out the window when the PCs aren’t allowed to feel comfortable, get to know each other and their surroundings. Who knows what they will do? You certainly won’t until they do it.

Also be prepared to still spend a minute or two describing the scene. Who’s there? Where is it? Why are the PCs there?

Your best bet is to keep the motivations simple. Beginning with the Sudden Grasp when they’re in the middle of a drug deal gone sour is very difficult. You’d be better off taking a little time to let them arrive, talk amongst themselves, and chat to the dealers. So keep it very simple with an obvious goal – such as the PCs are all walking through the park on their way somewhere when a bomb goes off or a werewolf pack descends on them all.

If it’s the start of a campaign or new adventure, then the Players don’t even really know their PCs too well so you’re better off not going with hooks involving their children going missing unless they’re very seasoned at jumping into their character’s skins on the fly. If they’re playing existing characters, then it’s a little easier and they can jump into the middle of more complex tales with more complex motivations so long as the setting details themselves are kept rather simple.

But again, take it off the rails. No one can truly predict themselves or other people in a crisis situation. Players are no different.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


The Communicator comes firmly from the improvised theatre style of roleplay. Conversation is their bread and butter and, if left unchecked, entire sessions can disappear into conversations about the most mundane of issues. Especially if you're any good at running NPCs. Believe me, I should know. I am one.

On the plus side, these guys are the most likely to really get into the immersion because they enjoy getting into their character's headspace and anything that assists that will assist them. They're also more likely to be keen to try their hands at Live Action Role Play (LARPing) as costumes, props, and body language are more likely to look like fun to them. Especially if they come from an amateur theatre background (like me).

So what exactly is a Communicator?

They're the guys and gals who'll try to solve things through either negotiation or intimidation. They're not necessarily above stand over tactics but a run and gun method just doesn't suit them. At least, not all the time. Being a Communicator doesn't mean you don't like a good action sequence - far from it - but it does mean that you'll want to get the chance to worm into other people's headspaces and use their own thoughts and feelings against them.

You're a manipulator and, if you've built your character right, you're justifiably good at it. Part of your success in that line of roleplay is that an interesting NPC (or heck, PC) achieves your focus like nothing else. You pay attention to what they say and how they react. Unlike a Tactician, you're not immediately thinking fourteen steps ahead and unlike an Action Hero you're less likely to make assumptions and look before you leap. Oh no, you listen. Why? Because if your ST is doing his or her job right, you're genuinely interested in what makes that NPC tick.

You might prefer the Communicator role if your favourite characters were...

  • Diplomats, negotiators, psychologists, or other people with an understanding of the human mind.

  • Geared towards social skills that were higher than your other skills.

  • The type to draw out conversations with any NPC or PC that interests you and were loathe to end a conversation whose twists and turns surprised you.

  • Good listeners. All the better to understand that particular person better.

  • Irritated when other player characters scared off that NPC that fascinated you.

  • Annoyed when other player characters (or the ST) arbitrarily kept you from using your Social Fu to deal with a situation.

  • Fascinated by surprising or stylistic encounters with complex, or at least interesting, NPCs.

  • The sort to really grow attached to certain NPCs or PCs and become quite protective of them.

  • The type of person who actually tried to convert the enemy rather than destroy them.

  • Always keen to learn about the vices, virtues, and back stories of interesting people around them.

  • Quickly grew bored when dealing with 2-Dimensional or otherwise predictable individuals.

  • Political situations filled with interesting motivations, alliances, and rivalries.

  • Grew and changed over time through both hardship and gains.

  • Had a fascinating character arc involving those changes.

  • Likely to do things - even if it hurt - because that's what the Character Would Do.

  • Had a personality and mind-set that was fun to examine.

  • Particularly complex themselves.
They prefer STs who are...

  • Good at constructing fascinating NPCs with complex motivations and back stories.

  • Capable of talking to themselves by running multiple NPCs at once - allowing the Communicator to see what they're like in public.

  • Willing to accept that more characters than usual will be adopted by the players (all players adopt NPCs, but Communicators do so more readily).

  • Happy to have some combat encounters dealt with through social means.

  • Willing to veto social attempts if it's In-Character for the NPC to fire anyway.

  • Okay with dealing with problematic behaviors from the PC because of In-Character motivations.

  • Interested in exploring the personality of the Communicator's character.

  • Willing to provide encounters, obstacles, and rewards that would deepen the Communicator's character's arc.

  • Enjoy running dialogue.

  • Are quite good at creating easily distinguishable characters through voice, mannerisms, and perspective.

  • Enjoy high immersion games.

  • Are happy seeing characters grow and change.

  • Ensure the NPCs also grow and change in response to the character.

  • Allow the Communicator to shine in social situations.

  • Allow the Communicator the chance to roleplay through deep emotions.

  • Encourage other players to give the Communicator a few moments if the game is more action-oriented.
Fictional Characters that fit the type:

Any con artist, really.

Videogames that support the type:

Noir (focus on reading people).
The Tex Murphy Series (conversational choices).
Dragon Age Series (other party members).

So, are there any other Communicator players kicking around? Oh, and sorry about switching around the Tuesday and Thursday series around. My bad. I will now revert back to the usual programming. Next Tuesday ... The Tactician!

You can find the links to all of the five playing styles over here.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

My Time With Carrion Crown - Ravengro (no spoilers)

Well, my fiance is running Carrion Crown and I've got to say that I'm a fan. It's really, very creepy and has a high focus on investigation with the situation slowly getting worse on all sides, some interesting NPCs, some horrifying back story, and the odd combat encounter to keep things interesting without over-saturating the gameplay and making the combat boring. I know that Harrowstone has become built up to giant proportions and we're all very nervous about the terrors of approaching that place.

Our party consists of a:
  • Rather pragmatic and clever Tiefling Alchemist (we don't let him talk to people because he has needle-like teeth and that's way too off-putting to the superstitious locals);

  • Rather green and guileless Human Paladin who came along to the reading of the will and got swept up in adventure as a side quest before heading off to help at the World Wound;

  • Rather dry Black Powder Inquisitor who used to be a Paladin before her attempts to convert an evil rogue led her to adventuring with him and losing her Paladin abilities (backstory);

  • And the evil rogue / fighter who is an NPC who's been dragged around to all kinds of places by the Inquisitor and the Alchemist and is tired of the horrible places we take him - but who is slowly but surely being converted by the Inquisitor's steady hand.
I play the Inquisitor as a bit of a cowboy, really, and I like to think of her almost horse whispering that evil rogue.

It's been a lot of fun and we haven't even entered Harrowstone yet!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Balancing Act 7: Flow of Information

The Storyteller must also pay attention to the flow of information in a horror game as there's generally at least some form of investigation. If you err on the side of caution in giving out information, your players may feel like investigation is akin to pulling teeth. Others play too fast and loose and the investigation might as well boil down to rolling a dice and waiting for the inevitable information dump.

Too much information can also be terrible for tension because it may mean that the mysterious monster is quickly found out to be a Rahu Storm Lord who is obeying a promise made to a spirit. Shining a light on a monster weakens its fear factor - especially if the players know anything else about it that they might be able to piece together. Ask yourself whether certain information needs to be known and if, yes, you want them to know just what they were facing and why it did what it did, give the information piecemeal so that there's growing dread as player's suspicions start whirring into gear.

So, other than that, what other tips can I give you?

Well, always give them something for their successes - especially if they get an exceptional success, roll a natural 20, or get 01 on a percentile dice. Even if there’s not ‘meant’ to be anything there … could there be? Or could that successful roll at least point them back in the right direction? If a player rolls an exceptional success, you’re better off rewarding them and seeing their eyes light up than making them wish they could save that die roll for combat.

The same goes for when they come up with a really clever avenue of investigation. Sure, the neighbours weren't meant to know anything, but players learn by experience and are more likely to retry tactics that worked before - and ignore tactics that didn't. If you want them to ever try talking to the neighbours again, see if there might be even the smallest hint of something there. Or at least make it so entertaining and interesting in its own right that it builds up immersion and makes the players care about the neighbour. You know your players and how to reward cleverness.

Generally speaking, each piece of information given should suggest another avenue of investigation as well as provide a clue to The Answer. Provide more clues and more avenues of investigation than are strictly necessary in case the players don’t make the connections to begin with. If they seem stuck, allow them to roll your game's equivalent of an Idea Roll and point out a few other avenues of investigation they haven't tried yet that might provide some insight. All of these avenues don't have to amount to anything. Just give them the options.

Never tell them The Answer but do ensure they can follow the clue trail to the Resolution. If they resolve the plot without figuring out the answer, so much the better. Horror doesn’t generally wrap itself up in a bow and a problem that the players didn't manage to fully understand is one that'll stick in their heads longer. Don't overdo it, though. If they do figure it out, don't always change the answer on them.

Resist the urge to explain! If they come up with the wrong interpretation or end the plot without learning what happened and then beg you for the answer, simply smile sagely and say they’ll have the opportunity to find out later. Perhaps give them that opportunity … but never make it easy on them.

Keep the horror mysterious and otherworldly, but do play fair, if they’ve almost solved it, then let them solve it! Not every session needs a lack of closure.

Restrict the players to knowing only what their character knows – find a way to make the obvious seem surreal. Make them doubt if it were a werewolf or something else. Use written notes and take players aside and speak to them privately to inform them of things that only they notice. Making characters actually speak to one another to share information plays an important role in this as 9 times out of 10 they'll explain the information incorrectly and a game of Chinese Whispers will begin.

Also, avoid giving a full description of the monster early on in the game. It's far more frightening when they glimpse glowing eyes in the darkness or something vaguely humanoid dissolving into a puddle in a rear view mirror. Let them see what it can do, sure. Perhaps have that werewolf rush out onto the road and knock the car on its side, but don't describe it as a werewolf. Mention hair and massive shoulders. That's probably all they'll manage to take in, anyway.

It's a tricky balance in a horror game when it comes to giving out information and in the end it comes down to pacing. Give them enough information to stay engaged and keep interested. If they start looking bored or frustrated, give them another clue or even a sighting, but try to pace it out and lure them into their own understanding of the threats that stand before them.