Friday, September 30, 2011

Helping players out with Hard Mode Investigation

Investigation-based games are hard. You can't just run up to the enemy and roll dice at them until they go away. No, you have to find the clues, understand the clues, locate more clues, understand them, then put together a picture and figure out what to do about it. Add a horror element and it becomes all the more brutal as mistakes can be lethal if the players don't adequately search for clues before busting down that locked door to the room containing that shoggoth.

Its frustrating for players and it's frustrating for the Storyteller.

Introducing the Clue Token.

This handy little device can be rewarded for playing within the genre. Looking before leaping, exhaustively searching the crime scene, making a point to interview witnesses in a productive manner, using ingenuity to solve problems, using teamwork to surmount obstacles, avoiding pain the way real people do, exercising caution rather than just trying to roll dice at a monster until it goes away, showing the strain of the horror situation in character, retaining excellent in-game focus, or anything else that really helps the game.

They can collect up to three of these little babies and they can use them to get free hints of the Storyteller's choice that is to do with the situation at hand. The hints could be pointing out a connection between clues that went unnoticed. It could be negating a bad roll that meant they overlooked an important clue. It could mean creating new clues such as a witness that steps forward or having the password to that computer written down on a post-it note tacked to the side. It could even be letting them notice a particularly spacious closet they can hide in when they're being stalked through a building. Things like that.

I'm going to trial it in my game tonight using the clue tokens from the Arkham Horror Board Game to represent them. I'm going to give them a free Clue Token at the start of the session and tell them that this freebie will disappear at the end of the night in order to encourage them to use them rather than hoard them. Players sometimes never learn the value of new tricks like these because they save them for a rainy day and then forget about them.

Later ones they earn will carry on between sessions.

I'll tell you how it goes. If any of you guys choose to use this trick, let me know how it works out.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Balancing Act 6: Props

Props have numerous purposes. They assist with immersion, provide additional information, make for fascinating clues, and keep players interested. Plus they're a handy way to impress your player base. It's one thing to be told about the journal that you find, it's another thing to have an excerpt to read and hold. If you really want to go all out, you could literally re-make the journal in its entirety, though you may want to indicate which pages are of especial interest and let the players take it home to read should they wish to. Be aware that some players aren't big readers and won't be keen on reading that 100-page painstakingly built journal.
  • Taste. Even food can be a prop if it's in keeping with the theme / mood. Tea and cucumber sandwiches provide a mood different from Mountain Dew and Salt & Vinegar crisps. Bonus points if you play an NPC and hand out the treats in game. It’s a great way to get the player’s to drop their guard and potentially partake of poisoned drink so long as you point out that what is drunk out of character is also drunk in character.

  • Temperature. Environmental changes can also assist in connecting the players to the characters. However, don’t make it too uncomfortable and do allow your players the right of veto. At the very least, let them rug up if you turn up the air conditioner. They'll still get the point about how cold it is even if they experience it in relative comfort. Another thing you could do is keep a glass of icy water handy (preferably with a film of ice over the top) and dare them to plunge their fingers into it when their character dives into the icy water. Never force them to do it but feel free to offer a reward to those who do. Another option is to swap between a cold room and a warm room for when the players are braving the inclement weather or hiding inside. That can provide an excellent incentive if you want the characters cooped up inside!

  • Sight. Pander to your player’s sense of sight by providing photographs of important NPCs, diary props, maps, and other physical clues rather than simply describing them. Don't forget to give them the time to read these props, though, and be aware that some players will want to painstakingly go over them (which might take awhile) and others will cast a cursory glance at them and move on.

  • Smell. Baking cookies can lure them into a false sense of security (especially if coupled with a kindly old NPC lady and some candle light). Incense provides exoticism and may remind them of where they are as they walk into that cultist den. A lit match has a distinctive smell as does fresh leather or perfume sprayed on a card. Just be aware of your player’s limitations and be safe. Some chemicals in both food and containers are hazardous to smell. Also be aware of any asthma or scent allergies. Some people get head aches when they smell lavender oil after all.

  • Touch. Bring touch to the fore with props your players can touch (i.e. fake cigars, diaries, flash lights, and weapons props). Just keep them out of reach of fiddlers! Some people learn better through touch and everyone remembers an object better than a description. This can also be utilised for in-game ramifications, such as the Keeper who handed his player a rusty flashlight that hadn't been quite screwed on tight enough for the batteries to power the light. The player immediately tightened the flashlight lit and it made an awful noise ... that drew down the Enemy. Which is great stuff.

If anyone's created any really awesome props, mention so in the comments below!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Building a Soundtrack

Well, here I was all set to do you up a nice article on creating good soundtracks and Mechspike from bet me to it. Don't take my word for it. Why not take a look at his fantastic write-up and all the helpful thread comments to learn more? And while you're there, you might as well take a look at the various other parts of this wonderful web-site.

Don't wait ... venture over to this thread link today.

(If I'm going to direct people to a link, I might as well be all canned commercial about it.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Investigator

The Investigator is a rare sort of player but one that I think I would absolutely adore, though I think I've only ever ran a game for one once or twice (an American visitor and first time RPer). They're an odd sort of player as they don't possess many of the problems that are generally talked about in ST and DM forums. They doubtless have problems of their own but may be rare enough that there are few complaints about them.

Now then, what exactly is an Investigator?

I guess they're the quintessential Call of Cthulhu players. They adore props, jot down notes, remember timelines, recall names, and due to all of these traits - they solve plots. Readily and easily. They're main trouble for the DM or ST is that you need to keep all of the details straight in your head or get very good at justifying things post-hoc as they will notice logical inconsistencies and plot holes. They don't like bouncing from one plot to the next as they've doubtless already invested a lot of effort in understanding the first one.

They rarely take risks because they can normally think up another way based on information they received a fair while ago. They tend to slow gameplay down as they methodically piece together information but they also speed up plots as they can solve them with admirable speed. The main risk here is that they'll solve the plot as soon as its placed before them so a more Thriller-based approach (you know who and what killed them, so now what?) can really work a treat. They'll also likely get frustrated with more rambunctious players that trash crime scenes, muddy clues, throw off witnesses through eagerness or aggression, and basically make their job harder.

You might prefer the Investigator role if your favourite characters were

  • Easily frustrated by other players rushing ahead and trampling all over clue trails.

  • Geared towards solving problems through skills such as Perception, Tracking, and Investigation.

  • The type who remembered everything so you kept a notebook.

  • The type who could keep timelines straight so you actually drew them.

  • The type who could find connections so you ever did a mindmap of all the information you had.

  • Eager to get their hands on any props so that you could peruse them.

  • Interested in solving puzzles.

  • Liked to take their time to methodically search for clues.

  • Talked to witnesses in a step-by-step way.

  • Similar to characters from police procedurals in the way they spoke or acted.

  • Very good at remembering names, in case they came up later.

  • The sort of person who would return to pick up abandoned plot threads later on to ensure that you finally got to solve them if you were distracted.

  • Bonus points if your character did that after the Storyteller had almost forgotten that plot line.

    They prefer STs who are...

  • Able to keep the timelines straight.

  • Interested in providing a number of clues.

  • Happy to give them time to solve the crime.

  • Willing to provide visible mysteries to solve.

  • Happy to let violence and combat take the back seat.

  • Okay with them solving a plot very quickly.

  • Keen to build actual props of documents.

  • Eager to include some forensic information and brush up on their own knowledge sets.

  • Willing to teach them something, perhaps about the era or the technology used.

  • Enjoy a more episodic format where one major plot line can be attempted at a time.

  • Going to include clue trails.

  • Capable of varying the pace through new clues, sudden revelations, and interesting witnesses.

  • Happy with a more subtle game.

  • Able to keep other players in check so that the Investigator gets the time they need to learn the information before they're sped away to the next scene.

  • Enjoy crafting puzzles.

  • Able to surprise them with the results of the investigation on occasion.

  • Willing to let the Investigator solve the cases if they get it right, however.
Fictional Characters that fit the type:

Sherlock Holmes.

Videogames that support the type:

Any adventure game that is a little clever about it and doesn't rely on simply trying to combine Object A with Object B.
So most of the Sherlock Holmes games.
The Last Express.
The Tex Murphy Series (i.e. Pandora Directive, Overseer).

So what do you think of that? Do you have an elusive Investigator in your party? Are you one yourself? Also, do you know of any other videogames that fit the type because I really enjoy those types of games myself.

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

Monday, September 26, 2011

Hook 'em Good

One oft-neglected part of setting up your roleplaying scenarios is to ensure there is a decent hook. Now a lot of the Storytellers' attention is often put into how to hook the characters into the particular investigation / assault / dungeon but really that's more of a lure. You put cash on the ground or have their wife disappear and the character trundles off and risks life and limb to get what they came for.

The hooks I'm going to be talking about in a series of three short articles use the more literary definition. Basically, how to hook your audience -- the players. After all, it's quite easy to dream up a perfect lure that will have the entire cast of characters running headlong into danger while simultaneously boring the hell out of your players. After all, receiving a diary prop of 40 pages and being briefed for two real time hours on an investigation into your wife's disappearance at the start of a new adventure / campaign may reel the character in but it's not going to be doing much to capture your players' attention.

And when your players aren't paying attention ... boy, does it show!

So make it easier on yourself. Put a little bit of thought into your campaign / adventure / session's introduction. Yeah, you have no idea where they'll take it. That bit of action you'd planned may turn into a 2 hour briefing and that's perfect because your players have just engaged themselves by taking command of the events.

So what does a good hook entail? There are three key ingredients to a good hook. It should do things a little differently, it should clue them into the general mood, and it should tweak the player's curiosity. Basically, it should leave them thinking: "I must get involved in this to find out more." That way they'll be eager to drive the plot themselves.

I'll go into more detail about different types of hooks on a weekly basis (because this post is long enough as it is). The three hooks are:

The Slow Reveal
The Sudden Grasp
The Bizarre Mystery

See you all on Mondays for the next few articles on this!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Balancing Act 5: Playing Environment

The typical image of a gaming group is of a group of friends dressed in casual wear, sitting around a well-lit dining table or a card table on comfortable chairs, drinking Mountain Dew and eating doritoes. This comforting scene of friendship and domesticity doesn’t really lend itself to immersion in a horror game. So, what can you do about it?
Get rid of some of those staples for a start. If it represents comfort and safety, get remove it. Sure it might make for a useful contrast during the cheerier preludes or respites, but otherwise it’s just hampering.

Physical Location.
Change it up. You could game in a cramped and leaky shed during a rain storm (who needs audio files?) or in a musty old garage in the dead of winter with nothing but a space heater and some blankets. You could game outside under the stars by the river on a picnic basket. You can gather around an old desk, seated on uncomfortable chairs or overturned milk crates. You could do it somewhere really unique – like in a child’s bedroom (ideally while the child is having a sleep over). Dare to be different. If it doesn’t work, try something else.
  • Don't let them get too comfortable. Dining tables and chairs will keep them far more focused and worried than comfortable couches. Don't take this too far, however, as you don't want players distracted by real world pain.
  • Never let there be television! Television's flashing lights are a real immersion killer. Have it out of sight and out of ear shot if other people will be listening to it.
  • Use an out of the way place. Horror is not a genre that can be easily played in a main thoroughfare. Have them crowd around the bedroom floor if you have to, just don't let your mum / husband / children interrupt you regularly by just passing through.
Lighting.Think about the lighting. Remember that the players shouldn't have to squint to see their dice so if it's dark, give them flashlights. Don't rely on candles to read your sheets by as they rarely provide enough light for that. Either keep it dim throughout or change it according to the mood that you're attempting to evoke.
  • Bright lights work for daylight scenes and cheery preludes (to provide contrast).
  • Turn out the lights and provide flash lights to help them get into the spirit of a torch lit investigation.
  • Use lamps to give a Noir feel.
  • Use fire – candles, lanterns, fireplaces – to give an old world or otherwise primeval feel.
  • Coloured lights can also work a treat but save them for special occasions or else they’ll lose their flavor.
Let there be music! Music can provide a terrifically moody edge in any game and can really assist with transitions between locations and moods. It can also help differentiate between switches between two sides of a split party – simply switch from the Nightclub soundtrack to the Creepy soundtrack to really give the players an idea of whose turn it is. This is especially good if you’re not going to split the players into separate rooms when their characters split – which, while a valid tactic, isn’t always necessary.

In another sequence of posts I'll start talking about sensory maps and how to connect the environment to the genre to aid with immersion. In the meantime, what playing environments do you use in your game and which ones do you think were most conducive to horror?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

5 Ways to Clue in Characters

So you've created a brilliant piece of investigative adventure write up which has a list of interesting plot points that all lead inexorably to the ending fact - a fact that will shake the foundations of the character's reality. You pull out the dice. You hand out their sheets. Everyone takes a seat. It's play time!

One flunked roll or neglected clue later and the characters are all scratching their heads and having a drink down the pub with no idea where they should go next. No problem! You introduce a handy NPC who's figured out the clue and the team go to the next location only to completely misinterpret the next clue and run off on a wild goose chase.

So what do you do?

Well, here are 5 methods to seed your clues so the characters get the point.

1. The more the merrier. Plant at least two independent clues for every bit of important plot information.

2. Diversity is the spice of information gathering. Vary your clue sources (behavioral, written, forensic, timeline, spoken) so that if characters fail to interact with the NPCs or search the surroundings, they won't miss out on all of the clues.

3. Recognise the value of bread crumb trails.
Include small, more numerous clues to point to major clues.

4. Vital news should be unavoidable to learn. If there is a critical clue upon which the adventure hinges, then don't ask for a dice roll for them to locate it. Make it obvious. Paint a big arrow of bread crumbs toward it. Ensure they'll trip over it.

5. If you make it, BY GOD they should get it.
If you've went to the trouble of making a hand out, invent a few reasons for them to end up with it. That way if they don't bother visiting the newstand, they can still see that front page article on the folded newspaper in their mother's house.

Can you add anymore to this list? Or have any amusing anecdotes of players missing the point?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Action Hero

It’s strange. There tends to be a love-hate relationship with Action Heroes, depending on the system. Dungeons in Dragons idolises these particular role and lifts it up as an example of the sort of fun-loving adventure that can be had in their system. World of Darkness tends to see Action Heroes as backwards Neanderthals who can’t handle roleplay or a decent story (which is so not true). I think part of the issue is that Action Heroes arguably underpinned the pen-and-paper roleplaying system in the very beginning when Dungeons & Dragons was largely about rolling dice and reducing hit points and thus a sort of Action Hero stereotype has formed that more ‘modern’ roleplaying games eschew.

So, before we go any further, take a deep breath if you’re from edgier RP backgrounds like the World of Darkness and say: “It’s okay to be an Action Hero.” Now then, what exactly is an Action Hero?

The Action Hero, like the Explorer, is a player of risk-taking characters but they generally don’t see their wild antics as a gamble with their lives as Action Heroes expect to win. Sure, they’re willing to acknowledge the possibility of defeat (particularly from bad luck and bad dice rolls) but they expect to have a chance. They loathe being frustrated by difficult bad guys (especially ones they must run from) and can’t stand boredom. Their energy and drive to move forward can make them disruptive (causing them to leave team-mates behind or start mashing buttons in the hopes of finding a way forward) or it can lead them to motivate the team (lending real energy and drive to the story arc as they surge forward).

Some people say that Action Heroes lack depth in their characters but this is also untrue as complex psychologies are often due more to experience, interests and/or skill than actual game play style. It’s just that they generally want to play larger-than-life characters and it’s simply more obvious when you have a 2D exaggerated character than when you have a 2D mundane character. A well-drawn Action Hero can be an absolute blast as they often end up stylistic and slick in a way that makes movies like Sin City such a hit.

You may prefer the Action Hero Role if your favourite characters were...

  • Larger than life.

  • Developed based on an iconic image of your character doing something cool.

  • Courageous, even fearless.

  • Always encouraging the other characters to move forward in the plot.

  • Likely to get frustrated if your team-mates were overly cautious.

  • Grew bored if your team-mates tried to talk their way out of every encounter.

  • Prone to taking risks but you were surprised / frustrated if it ends poorly because you were given terrible odds by your ST.

  • But simultaneously were happy to court death, and deal with the risk of it, so long as it was weighted in your character’s favour.

  • Generally quite skilled in combat, athleticism, driving, or some other cinematically awesome technique.

  • Tended to be heroes in ways that were quite glorious, even if the genre frowns against heroism.

  • Always happy to take a hit for a team-mate or lead the enemy away.
They prefer STs who are...

  • Tight with their descriptions (telling details are important but let’s get on with it).
    Describe combat and action sequences well (again, telling details, not whole paragraphs).

  • Willing to be throw in plenty of high-conflict encounters with people who can’t always be placated through conversation.

  • Inventive with ways to inject more thrills into the game (if foot chases are fun, what about foot chases across gridlocked cars and through alleyways).

  • A little more gentle with law-enforcement (so they can attack people without going automatically to jail).

  • High-tension goals with a great big apparent risk of failure but which the ST is happy to let the players win (bank heists, crossing enemy territory).

  • Happy if bar room conversations degenerate into random bar room brawls.

  • Know how to run a good chase scene.

  • Keen to get things moving so that the players can’t just sit on their laurels.

  • Are willing to say: “Yes, you can swing off that chandelier, land behind him, and stick a knife through his back”.

  • Not only are willing to allow it but are happy to reward that sort of ingeniousness.

  • Pleased to have a player that injects a healthy dose of momentum into the game.

  • Aren’t overly focused on consequences (i.e. cops, widows, etc.)

  • Run a more stylised game with larger-than-life characters (i.e. Sin City).

  • Utilise some interesting set dressings (volcanoes, rain-slick tarmac at an airport, church rooftops).

  • Remember the weather to make things more exciting (i.e. wet roads during a car chase).
Fictional Characters that fit the type:

James Bond.

Practically everyone in Sin City.

Videogames that support the type:

Assassin’s Creed.
God of War.

My Action Hero ratio is pretty low so if you are largely an Action Hero and you can identify more character preferences or ST antics that delight you, please comment below. If you’re an ST and have run a game with one of these, also comment. Also, if there are any other videogames that you think fit the style, also mention them in the comments below!

Or if there’s anything else. Y’know, to chat.

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

Monday, September 19, 2011

Splitting the Party

Well, it's a bit of a cliche in movies to split up but that's what so often happens. Sometimes the rationale is good ... such as if there isn't much time because a deadline is looming. Other times it's simply to make the characters more vulnerable. This sounds like a good idea in theory, but in RP, of course, your players will spend their time either in the action or waiting for the action so it's got its own pitfalls. Therefore, splitting up the party is an enemy of pacing but a possible friend of tension.

In a split party, be aware that the uninvolved players are likely to grow bored if too much time passes or frustrated if you flick back and forth too quickly. So what can you do to off-set this?

In some sessions, particularly if your players are good at separating meta-game knowledge, you can keep the tension and the interest high by having the players sit quietly and watch what happens to their friends while leaving them helpless to assist.

An alternative is to separate the players as well as the characters. If so, try to keep it short and tense and then bring them back together within half an hour. Any longer and they're bound to grow so distracted that all of the tension will dissipate unless you have very focused players. If you do this, you probably should have the other room be twice as atmospheric and keep them away from the television set. This can work particularly well for non-horror genres though some horror players will quite happily keep themselves anxious for the duration.

You could instead enlist a co-ST beforehand if you see it's going to come up. This is especially true if you're going to be the one to split the party. That way you can talk them through their side of the adventure.

If you don't have any advanced notice, you may be able to get another player to run a combat scene or something similar while you deal with the RP, traps, or room exploration. This can work out just fine for fantasy genres.

Sometimes, if one player decides to do a lone wolf and run off from the pack, you might be tempted to let the lone wolf play through their inevitable demise and let the other players bear silent witness. This can backfire as the player might either be resentful that you orchestrated their demise or dance through the spotlight and eagerly await another opportunity to do more of the same. If they're being poblematic, your best bet is to make their treks on their own incredibly dull. Have all of the encounters, drama, and excitement occur where the others are and have that individual have a remarkable easy and boring route to the end.

Do how do you deal with split parties?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Motivating players to play the game YOU want to run, part 2

In part 1, I talked about how you might be able to coax your players to try your preferred genre and how to dress up the campaign to appeal to them and hopefully lure them into playing it long-term. But let’s say they dig their heels in. Say they can’t imagine that Call of Cthulhu could not be a frustrating meat grinder, is there anything you could do to coax them into trying it?

Perhaps you could run it as a single adventure lasting between one and three sessions (which gives them some leeway if they want to try new things). You promise that if they really give it their all, you’ll run a game in their preferred system, genre and style for the next few months. Who knows? Once you’ve gotten it out of your system, you might realise that your so-called preferred game is not the game for you anyway. There’s also the chance that the players might perk up and get interested and want you to turn that short adventure into a campaign after all.

When you run it, try to reduce all of the elements that they’ve identified as irritating. If they hate boring lead ups, give them something a bit more exciting to jump into that ties well into their characters. You could always have a car chase to grab that relic from the cultists back (with more cinematic than realistic car handling rules) or use a thematic Film Noir introduction for their private investigation firm that perks up their interest. Just remember that the ending needs to be bigger than the beginning, so try to include a hook that isn’t completely outside of the rest of the game.

But let’s say they don’t. They try their hardest (though they doubtless revert to old habits on occasion, but that’s okay, so will you) but in the end they’re keen on that dungeon crawl. Keep your promise and run it to their preference. Don’t complain or you’ll make them defensive and put them off trying new things. Never promise what you won't deliver, after all. Once you’ve fulfilled it and done your best to please them, you could openly have another discussion with them.

Tell them that while you do enjoy their style of gameplay, you don’t think you can stay motivated if you keep running those sorts of games. This kind of advance warning of burn out often makes a lot of players perk up and listen because they’re generally players for a reason. They don’t want to run a game but they do want to play in one. Don’t threaten them with quitting, though, unless that’s a genuine risk. Just be honest and say that particular system, style, genre, just isn't enough to motivate you. Then suggest a few alterations to the themes that might bring their game preferences in line with yours.

Perhaps blend the Action with Horror for a Dark Thriller Dungeons & Dragons game involving sinister artifacts and globe-trotting cultists that worship foul monsters. Or even a Dark Fantasy game where the NPCs are hyper-realistic so that the Barbarian might actually grow as a human being as he sees how terrified people become of him when they see him Rage. (IMPORTANT NOTE: Always attempt to use the themes you’re developing to empower the player characters or interest the players as much as turning the game toward your liking. In other words, don't punish a player for being a Barbarian in your Dark Thriller by only having him scare those he doesn't want to scare. A Barbarian whose rage frightens the villagers might also startle a villain or impress a Knight Commander.)

Also remember that the same can be done in reverse. If your players want a vampire simulator and you want an action game, then put a lot of thought into the nitty gritties but include some explosive moments where they have to use their Celerity and Auspex to handle a car through the busy streets of Manhattan in the pouring rain before that werewolf pack reaches them. There's always an opportunity to blend genres and that can often lead to a lot of fun.

As a Game Master of any stripe, remember that YOU need to be motivated to run the game for anyone to get any real fun out of it. Simply seeing you get motivated might be enough to interest your players so long as you foster trust and ensure your player’s primary needs are being met. If you're bored and just going through the motions, odds are that your players can tell, so see if you can work out a compromise that can keep everybody relatively pleased.

So, any thoughts or feelings on this? Anyone tried it before? How'd it work out? Anyone got other motivational ideas?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Balancing Act 4: Threatening Nature

All good horror games should plumb the depths of the human psyche and examine the issues that keep us awake at night. They should make us doubt ourselves, our fellow man, and consider – if only for a moment – what it would be like if such horrors visited us. Of course, fear is generally an unpleasant feeling and humans have built many defenses to ward against it. So let's talk about how to up the ante, deal with those defense mechanisms, and keep the monsters scary in spite of the player's attempts to keep themselves calm.

Laughter is the best medicine for negative emotions. If you can make someone else laugh, you can probably defuse (or at least reduce) their anger, fear, or sadness. Cracking a joke can also alleviate your own negative feelings. So if your horror game tactics are working, you might be annoyed to find your players cracking jokes and making movie references to break the tension. Out-of-Character (OOC) jokes can ruin the immersion and obliterate tension so encourage such tension relief to occur In-Character. Humor provides increased attachment between protagonists (boosting the humanity of the situation) and thus can make later events more frightening as the losses mean more. That’s why the horror genre often still has the characters themselves grimly try to make light of the situation without losing the overall dramatic tension.

Players will naturally attempt to diagnose the enemy. This is both a reaction to fear (throw it in a category to gain power over it) and also a natural human reaction. Humans try to understand everything around them. Pigeon holes aren’t scary. Neither are known stat blocks. This is another reason why it’s best to keep the full on monster reveal to the last scenes.

Try to play up the ambiguity for a time. A werewolf in human form that crosses into the spirit world at a loci can appear to be a ghost. A vampire that only shows its super strength could really be anything at all. You can also turn expectations on their head. Use a vampire bloodline (sort of like a template to those D&D fans out there) so that this particular vampire can be found eating the still living like a zombie.

This trick also works in D&D and Pathfinder a treat. Spend time looking at the monsters in the Monster Manual and consider how you could describe it – especially piecemeal – in a way that leaves its true identity unknown.

If people make the right Knowledge check to identify it, give them information based on anecdotes but no name. Let them know that the lone survivor of a brave group of hunters was a steward who stabbed it to death with a silver letter opener so that they can still know how to defeat its damage reduction (and that it has one) without allowing the players to immediately figure out its stat blocks. This way their skills still come in handy, you enrich the story world’s history, build immersion AND retain a level of ambiguity about your monsters.

Play up the threat level of the enemy so that in a horror game the enemy is (almost) always a credible threat. The protagonists might be out-classed, out-gunned, or out-numbered so that they’ll think of fleeing the situation. Be aware that this will encourage them to think tactically or, perhaps, flee. If so, allow these options. If you keep railroading them into stand up fights with superior foes, you’ll breed frustration not fear.

Encourage lateral thinking. Each time they don’t resort to fisticuffs against an aberration is a time that you can build on the fear. This can be trickier in Pathfinder / D&D as mundane threats like collapsing ceilings often become more easily ignored at higher levels. Consider weighting it so that such creative solutions still have a chance to trap the monster despite its Reflex Save (particularly if you can justify it through the creature’s size versus the tunnel’s size, etc.)

Play up the desire to not get hurt. Descriptions can help with this. Make it brutal. Health levels are an arbitrary term that is hard for anyone to engage with, so instead give them a vivid description they can really latch onto and identify with, such as a broken arm. Then remember that injury afterwards. Even if there is no in-game effect, reinforcing the pain is often enough to encourage the players to back off from combat.

Certain threats might even toy with the characters or appear to be more dangerous than it actually are through property damage, ambushes, or simply stalking the characters in a way they can't prevent (such as through mirror reflections).

Twist things around. Yet not always. Sometimes the church should give them safe from the demon. Sometimes the ominous house should be haunted. But sometimes that werewolf might be there to save them while that poor, lost woman could be the slasher that wishes to end their lives.

Allow the Action Hero to get his jollies by throwing in environmental hazards that they must brave to flick that switch to drop that blast door on the enemy. Or allow the odd car chase or fisticuffs against regular, mundane foes so that everyone gets a chance to feel powerful on occasion. Just don’t let these events overshadow the Big Bads.

So, hopefully all of that will help you wrap your heads around how to scare your players through the monsters themselves. If you have any other advice to give (or if you just really like this article), include it in the comments below.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Their enthusiasm and willing to peek into dark corners, and interest in the world around them, make them fantastic players, so can their urge to wander off the track, leap unthinkingly into dark chasms, and chase unseen terrors through the night can cause many an ST to gnash their teeth into teeny tiny stubs.

So, before we go any further, just what is an Explorer

The Explorer is a player of risk-taking characters who are willing to gamble with their lives just to know what is around the next corner or to get another piece of the puzzle. They hate when elements of the game world are barred to them 'just because' and relish in pushing buttons and exploring lesser seen paths. They come to the game looking for new experiences that they will never get in real life. They will happily venture into the dark and mysterious places only to grab that unseen terror by the tail, drag it out into the light, poke at it for a few minutes, and then go rushing back to explore caves and waterfalls in the search for the next big surprise.

There's no point trying to rail road them because you can never really guess at what tangent will catch their attention but if you're nice to them and give them the time they need to fully explore (with all the obstacles that a full exploration brings with it) then they will probably mosey on back to poke at your central plot again. Probably. If they remember it was there.

You may prefer the Explorer Role if your favorite characters were...

Driven to understand the story universe itself.

Likely to leap through strange portals into other dimensions with little provocation.

Happy to question their original assumptions.

Like taking risks with their lives so that you could find out more or see a different place rather than because you thought the act itself was conceptually cool.

Like to briefly obsess over plot tangents.

Hated having areas blocked off so much they learned skills that could bypass the usual barriers (lock picking, hacking).

Were happy to read up on or listen to strange tales about interesting locations and people (though are bored if it's generic, overly long, or has no impact on the current situation).

Leap before they look (and are eager to do so).

They prefer STs who are...

Liberal with their descriptions (and describe things well).

Good at running games on the fly.

Willing to be completely flexible with the central plot.

Are happy to have plots solved in a very rambling, round-about fashion.

Inject interesting and eccentric NPCs, preferably of unusual species.

Allow cross-genre interactions (such as a vampire stumbling into a changeling court in the World of Darkness).

Include Strange Locations or turning the familiar strange by pointing out odd, telling details.

Have Plots involving weird science with consequences that can then be explored - rifts in dimensions, etc.

Include a touch of the surreal or unusual in their world histories.

Emphasise a sense of the occult (rituals, superstitions, etc.) rather than the cold, hard rules of RPG magic systems.

Throw in Bizarre artifacts that can be examined and played with.

Allow travel to exotic locations that the players will never visit and then vividly bring these locations to life.

Don't include time limits or other barriers that would prevent them from adequate exploration (obstacles and temporary time limits / barriers are fine, though).

Include a lot of depth and wonder in their games. The immersion appeal is incredibly important to them.

Fictional Characters that fit the type:
Indiana Jones.

Videogames that support the type:
Fall Out.
Planescape Torment.
Elder Scroll Series (Oblivion, Morrowind, Skyrim).

So, what do you guys think? Bearing in mind that we all have a little of each of the player types in us, does this make sense to you? Know anyone who fits the profile? If you can think up any additional fictional characters or Explorer-style videogames, let me know and I'll add them here.

I originally considered putting up Pen-and-Paper RPGs that support the type but I think that there's a place in every system for every profile.

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

Excuses to ST

Well, I just delivered a full day Child Safe Environment (formerly Mandatory Notification) training to five co-workers and I think I did a pretty reasonable job of it. I remembered the main information and I felt pretty confident as I went over all of the details and took the interruptions and problems rather in my stride as I did so.

I think I have two things to thank for that sort of confidence and easy-going public speaking attitude. One is my experience in a Youth Theatre. If you can take pride in looking like a nonce then you can deal with teaching people to a powerpoint slide. The other includes my years of experience as an ST / DM / Keeper, particularly in LARPs.

I mean, think about it. You get used to dealing with several genereally rowdy, recalcitrant players who can all think of something better to do than your particular game plan and like to drag the game off-topic. You're used to standing up, keeping their attention, and trying to keep them focused. You're also used to everything not going to plan and having to either come up with something on the fly or graciously explain why you don't know the answer to that.

So yeah, the next time someone wonders what you could possibly get from STing / DMing, you now have a response.

Public Speaking and Trainer skills!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Some awesome Gnome Stew articles

Well, I've been perusing the Interwebs and I've found a couple of really decent blogs that I thought I should record here for both your benefit and mine. The first of these is Gnome Stew which is a pretty interesting blog which has a lot of hands on tips. I haven't gone over it with a fine tooth comb yet but it seems to be pointed toward the Fantasy genre though a lot of its articles could work just as well for any other genre. I whole-heartedly recommend you go and take a look.

Here are just a few awesome article examples:

The Smart Villain series of articles.
Do Not Argue to Prove that you are Right, Argue to Convince others to Follow You.
Keeping the Home Fires burning.
Five tips for getting Players interested in Backstory.
Know your Enemy.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Balancing Act 3: Pacing

Pacing is a vital consideration in all genres, but especially so in the horror genre. This article will focus on the slower build ‘chilling horror’ genre as opposed to the more frantically paced ‘action horror’ and ‘splatterpunk horror’ genres as they are a little more easily paced. Boredom, frustration and confidence are all the enemies of the chilling horror genre but to avoid one often leads you to inducing another. Unfortunately, unlike the artist in any other medium, the ST has no control over the most important members of the cast who may attempt to decapitate the threat that should be fled, cower from the enemy that should be faced, or even flee at the first scent of wickedness and try their hand at sunflower farming in the Midwest instead.

So what do you do?

You rely on pacing and you use every trick at your disposal to try to sculpt the session around their actions so that they’re lured into danger with their curiosity, reminded of their vulnerability to make them run, hounded when they grow complacent, nudged when they grow confused, and caged when they try to leave the threat zone for that peaceful sunflower farm they wish for heart and soul.

On the plus side, unlike the artist in any other medium, the ST can observe the audience and judge whether they are scared and want more, whether they’re overloaded and need a rest, when they’re squirming in their seats in horror, when they’re distractible and bored, or when they’re leaning forward excitedly.

Bearing in mind the Three Act Structure helps, though be aware that in roleplaying, the structure is more evoked by the character’s actions than used as a constraint for them.

I’ll discuss using a Three Act Structure in roleplay in a later article, but in short, it can be summed up as Hook, (Threshold of No Return that throws the character into the plot), Body of Escalating Conflicts / Obstacles, (Threshold of No Return that throws the character before the Threat), Final Confrontation / Escape. You can’t pre-set when each instance will happen but you can ponder different possibilities and squee with delight when your characters inadvertently hit those triggers.

The basic rules of pacing a Three Act Structure – and anything can be given this vague structure – is that with each new obstacle the risks increase and with increasing risks you get increasing tension. Allow a few respites here and there. Then heighten the tension to a fever pitch at the Ending.

Do remember, though, that while a game is most satisfying when the most dramatic and tense moments are at the very end, players are far more forgiving than audiences and will understand if it’s not as you can’t control their character’s actions. In fact, they would prefer to stumble across an extremely tense moment three steps from the start on their own rather than be railroaded into a theoretically tense and epic moment at the very end. Let them stumble along and experience things organically. Just do your best to develop the tension toward the end and leave your best and most dramatic scenes until the end.

Every so often the tension must be released (with a temporary win, an IC joke that clears the air, a safe place to hide) but it must only be a partial release that allows you to build the tension further. IMPORTANT NOTE: If you don’t allow these respites, the tension will become unsustainable and will peter out. You can’t expect that incredibly high levels of tension can be maintained throughout even a single session. It can’t. However, a respite of indeterminable length in a place that may or may not truly be safe can also add an anticipation factor that can keep the tension high.

People are interested in the unexpected. When the unexpected could deprive them of something they want – ideally their character’s own survival – then their interest turns to anticipation and fear of loss. Therefore, unexpected plot twists and deviations from “standard” plot timings are important. You don’t want the players to be able to predict how long a respite will last or when the next scare will happen. Yes, the Three Act Structure does play against this, but knowing that the best comes at the end shouldn’t stop you from twisting the rules. A safe place could become unsafe in an instant. An area that appears to be unsafe, such as if it were littered with bodies, might actually indicate that the enemy has already been and gone.

This is especially true in campaigns. For players to really be affected by the unexpected, you need to create a sense of normalcy. One way to do this is to examine plot progressions in previous games you have run so that you can figure out your own patterns and then use that against them. Do respites generally last for twenty minutes? Cut it shorter or have it last longer. Do you always have the bad guys’ first attacks only be to test the characters’ mettle? Then have them aim to kill next time.

Do have at least one ‘ending’ in mind. Preferably, think up multiple ‘endings’. Never decide on The Ending. It won’t happen. In fact, it probably shouldn’t happen as it won’t accurately reflect the plot thus far nor the character’s mentalities by the end. Writers who write by a synopsis will often change the endings if their novels end up deviating significantly from that synopsis so why should you be any different?

So why come up with an ‘ending’ at all? Well, that’s just so you know that there is at least one solution. It clues you in to how difficult the adventure is and whether the characters have a chance at solving it and will clue you in to when you might be approaching the ending. It’s far too easy to create a plot that can’t be solved without a ridiculous amount of ingenuity and luck. If you still want to encourage an ingenious solution, well, include a greater reward for the Good+ ending but always consider a mere Good ending based off logical reactions.

Happy horror gaming!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Five Types of Play Styles

Well, every player is different but I've found that there are around five different play styles that people tend to fall back on. Sure, they'll test out a new play style with a new character now and then. Maybe they'll even have two or three play styles they tend to alternate between or perhaps they will blend two styles within the same character. Some players will find their desires morphing over their gaming experiences so that their original preferences are no longer true for them anymore.

Players also tend to have their own general play style based on their internal preferences and a chosen play style that matches their current character. Still, I find the categories help me as it allows me to consider if a player might need a bit of a pick-me-up by including more opportunities for their internal play style to come to the fore. Bearing in mind their chosen play style also ensures that their characters have plenty of chances to shine just how they wanted them to shine.

Sure, no ST should try to please all players all of the time nor should they generally create a schizophrenic campaign where each session pleases a different player and favors a different play style. However, that doesn't mean that you can't include a few more action sequences in your deeply political Vampire: the Requiem game, even if it's just shaking a police tail or intercepting an encoded package.

If you don't like categorising yourself or you players, then that's cool. You might get some mileage out of seeing these as different session formats or styles to help round out your campaign, or even to see if your own Storytelling style favors one particular set of skills or interests. Or you could use these to help the players construct characters that will fill a niche. It's at least as good as the thug, thief, and talker constructs.

And obviously, these are not 'true' categories. A player will always be a blend of play styles. The question is simply a matter of which flavors are generally stronger than others.

Putting all of the categories into one post would lead to a very long, overwhelming post, so I'll be splitting it up and posting them each weekly on Tuesdays.

The Player Types are:

Action Hero

Stay tuned!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Genre checklist

This Genre checklist is largely designed for use with Earth-based games, specifically Urban Fantasy and Modern Horror. Still, it's usable for any system as Dungeons and Dragons can focus on a Rogue and a Fighter working cases in the City Watch in a Police Procedural style game. It's probably a good idea, though, to substitute a few specific fantasy sub-genres such as Sword & Sorcery for Action and add sub-genres such as Low Fantasy and High Fantasy.

Okay, so here's how I did it. I went and got a Checklist format from Microsoft Word and changed the five categories to Hate it! Dislike It! Don't Mind It! Enjoy It! Love It!

Then I included this list of genres and information:

Police Procedural (Tracing leads, interrogating suspects, finding witnesses)

Action (Fight scenes, extreme sports, car chases, daring escapes, explosions)

Comedy (NPCs played for laughs, farcical situations, funny events)

Adventure (Journeys to epic or distant places to accomplish a mission or goal)

Espionage (Tailing cars, wearing a wire, stealing information)

Romance (A story about falling in love and dealing with it)

Fantasy (Magic, myth, supernatural forces, places of staggering beauty that shouldn’t be)

Politics (Scheming figures, betrayals, long-spanning goals)

Historical (A story about a real event of person, whether dead or alive)

Splatterpunk Horror (Gore, grotesquerie, often sick and twisted humans, Clive Barker)

Chilling Horror (The slow build, ever-present danger, lasting fear)

Survival Horror (Vulnerable people put in risky situations that must be endured / fled)

Paranoid (Conspiracies glimpsed but never fully understood, cults, hidden worlds)

PVP (Player versus Player, awful secrets between players, hidden betrayals)

Drama (A focus on character development and interpersonal relationships)

Slice of Life (A story that represents a portion of everyday life)

Crime (The seedy underbelly, committing crimes, heists, cons)

Resource Games (Changing the face of the local area through money, allies, and retainers)

I'll pass it out amongst my players and see what their choices are. I figure this is a fairly simple and easy one to hand out with their character sheets and it doesn't take as much time as the short answer idea. Remember, though, to ALWAYS allow players to opt out of filling in one of these surveys. Don't threaten, cajole, or annoy them. Some players just like the game you have going for them or just don't want to invest as much thought. Hell, some players just hate surveys. There's no point irritating your players if your end goal is to keep them entertained and happy.

Learning Players Desires Tip #2: The Questionnaire

Okay, so let's say you want to find out more about your player's desires but you don't think a face-to-face interview is appropriate (or you just can't arrange it). There is always the email questionnaire. The main thing to remember here is that your players probably haven't spent nearly as much time analysing their own desires in a game as you have. So assume they consciously know less about what they want than you do but subconsciously know all kinds of juicy tidbits that would really draw them into the game. What you have to do is tap into that.

Firstly, you could start off with some tick boxes like a survery and have them tick how much they agree or disagree with certain statements. Remember to swap the positive / negative on each sentence so that they have to pay attention. In other words, some of these statements should mean "I don't want this" and others should mean that "I do want this".

"There's nothing more fun than having a well-optimised character."

"Moral dilemmas really ruin a game for me."

Fill in the blanks can also be pretty helpful as they spur thoughts a lot better than asking them to write an essay based on something as ethereal as Likes / Dislikes in a Game. Also remember to let them distance their words from your own behaviors to encourage honesty. Refer to STs in general rather than yourself.

"I hate it when my ST..."

"The best thing my ST could do for me is..."

Expect a few humorous responses. That's all good. But look for the gems.

The other thing you can do is do a survey-style series of genres / sub-genres and have people tick their preferences. Just make sure you have a definition underneath them.

Police Procedural

(Tracing leads, interrogating suspects, finding witnesses in a lawful manner)

So yeah, I hope that helps. I'll do up an example one (that I can also force upon my players) and then list it up here. Beware ... the formatting will suck. Blogger may be good but the new Word lets us do so much more.

Friday, September 2, 2011

One player's compliments

Well, one of my players just told me on our tabletop's forum: "You're evil, ruthless, manipulative, lethal and sometimes ruinous to people's self esteem but thats not all bad is it? At least, its funny when you do it to other players - and funny for them when you do it to me!"

Is this a bad or a good sign of my STing skills?


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Learning Player's Desires Tip #1: The Interrogation

All right, first you find a nice, quiet room and you put on some tranquil music. You have them sit down, relax, take a few deep breaths, then you slam the core book on the table, direct a lamp light in their face and ... wait, no, maybe not. Perhaps you should just sit them down and ask them a few simple questions. You could email these to them but you won't be able to question their responses and they're likely to answer them pretty off the cuff (if the answer them at all).

Oh yeah, and you should give them pre-warning and let the players opt out of it if they want. Some people just want to come over and play and are perfectly happy with your game, or happy enough to complain during the game, and they don't want to be psychoanalysed as part of their gameplay experience. This is particularly so if they don't trust you much because you've steamrolled over their hopes and desires beforehand. Let's face it, we've all done that in our haste to craft the perfect story, haven't we?

So, you sit them down and you ask a few questions. Keep them open-ended. Write down the responses. Don't counter their arguments. In fact, your only responses should be more non-judgmental questions to clarify responses or gain more information. Don't argue with them.

Some good questions are:

"What have STs done before in a game that really annoyed you?"

"What have been your best moments in a RP game?"

"What made you want to quit the game beforehand?"

"What anecdote did a friend tell you that made you really wish you were in their game?"

"What's your favorite videogame genre? Why?"

"What attracted you to WoD / D&D / Pathfinder? In other words, why this game? Why not another one?"

"What are some of your favorite moments in my game?"

"What are some of the most teeth grinding moments in my game?"

You notice how I don't ask what the best and worst parts of my game are? That's because wording it that way will either net you some hurtful criticism ("I hate your stupid NPCs. They're way too arrogant") or will cause them to clam up. By talking in terms of moments, you can both kid yourselves that you're only talking about single instances, and they're more likely to be honest about it.

I would suggest giving no more than 10 major questions UNLESS your game really needs more or you have a player who will quite happily be quizzed for hours. Generally, the only time when you need the equivalent of a Gaming Personality Inventory is when you're running a game that taps into their deepest psychological fears - and even the average horror game should avoid that as most players don't want to delve into their traumas around their peers.

Balancing Act 2: Dealing with Competent Heroic Personalities

Horror has many themes and spawns many emotions which are generally shades of fear and disgust. The trouble with fear is that one of humanity's greatest fears is that of loss. Loss of loved ones. Loss of status. Loss of control. Loss of self. If the loss actually occurs, than fear can become grief or anger. It is when the loss is anticipated, but yet to occur, and when the threatened object or desire is in jeopardy, that fear is at its strongest point. The greater the risk of the loss, without its guarantee, the better, and that risk is automatically stronger for vulnerable characters who lack the resources to muster against it.

The difficulty is that players generally want to be more awesome than they are in real life. They prefer to play someone who is interesting more often than they want to play someone vulnerable. Awesome people either have nothing left to lose, care not for your simple quandaries of loss, or are simply capable of beating back the jeopardy and winning without much more than a frown and some focused might.

Unless you’re lucky enough to have players who deeply desire a chance to identify with the trembling protagonist from REC rather than Jackie Chan, you’re also likely to have to deal with – at the very least – providing a supernatural or otherwise heroic template / class to keep the players interested.

• Sit down and discuss with the players what horror is, what horror isn't, and try to get them all on the same page with character creation. Pretty much any class / race / concept can be tweaked to fit a horror campaign, from a fearless paladin who underlines the fear of others and the folly of ignoring one's terror, to an arrogant vampire who doesn't see what they have to lose until they lose it. Still, it is harder to mesh certain concepts so it's best to bring it all out into the open before players get their hearts set on that wise-cracking, sleazy P.I. who refuses to take anything seriously (which could work, by the way, if the player is happy to watch their P.I. slowly lose their cool and become as scared as the rest of them).

• Even if their character is larger-than-life, help the player find those identifiable bits to connect with their own character. Sitting down and discussing the character's history can often help with this. Try to get into the character's head. Ask several questions, particularly focusing on motivations and drives. See if you can work out with the player where certain personality traits have come from. Do bear in mind that some absolutely fantastic roleplayers can't describe their character's psychology, especially before the game begins, so this might be something you delay doing until the game has been underway, or in the event that a character doesn't make sense to you.

• Occasionally humble the character and increase the threat level by forcing the protagonist into a situation where their powers don’t work or their technological marvels fails. Don’t overdo it, though, and do sign post it quite vividly. If they’re playing, say, Mage: the Awakening, part of the gaming contract was the ability to use Arcana. If there's a session or two where they can't then that can be a unique and interesting experience so long as you define it as such. Think of television shows (Buffy, X-Files, and Supernaturals) have weakened the protagonists during certain episodes to reduce their options. Those episodes are cool because the plots are vivid, interesting, and with a visible end point.

• Focus on questions the characters can’t answer through the use of their powers to encourage players to use mundane and identifiable means rather than relying on their super powers.

• Force the players into a reactive mode when they investigate too deeply into the unknown forces so that they understand that the enemies aren't just going to wait for them.

• Ensure rash behavior sparks off serious consequences, perhaps not to them but to others. If their brusque treatment of several school employees during an investigation into the school sets off the monster on a murderous rampage early, killing off a few students in the meantime, then they're more likely to step gingerly the next time.

• Be up front with the players. They may take it personally if even their allegedly heroic and larger-than-life protagonist is getting stomped on. Let them know there’s going to be more difficult genre conventions in play.

• Reward them for being ordinary. If someone’s playing a typist and another is a military commando, make sure the typist gets plenty of opportunities to shine. Otherwise, they might as well make a commando the following day!

• Focus on the little details and personal plots such as the land lord who they’re helping through a difficult divorce. It’ll hopefully encourage them to see the world through humbler, more human eyes, and give them another attachment as well.