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.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Hook: The Slow Reveal (Alan Wake)

The Slow Reveal is a style of hook where the audience is slowly but surely drawn into the tale through a series of off-kilter hints that all is not what it seems. The Alan Wake videogame is a really good example of this - as is Silent Hill 2, but I'll focus on Alan Wake for now.

It begins with an introduction to the characters as they're traveling to a new town. We're introduced to Alan's wife, his agent, and his problems with the blank page. He has a massive dose of writer's block and so they've rented out a nice little holiday home on a lake in order to find some way to break through that block. The characters themselves are the primary hook. They're interesting enough that we'd like to know more.

Then the little hints that all is not what it seems starts turning up and these hints keep the players interested as we want to know what it's all about. You hear about the woman who desperately tries to keep all the lights working in town. You try to speak to someone who's locked themselves in a toilet in a dark corridor (whose light has stopped working) and you meet a rather creepy woman who stands in the darkest depths of this corridor. The videogame also utilises a really nice lighting engine to really emphasise the difference between light and dark spots - though obviously a Storyteller can't really do that.

Then you head to the resort home - a rather old-fashioned and creepy looking wooden home that alerts us that something is likely to happen soon. You cross a long, rickety-looking bridge, head inside, and night falls. When the lights go out, you're well and truly anticipating something terrible happening, especially since your wife has a fear of the dark.

And it all goes worse from there...

What makes Alan Wake relatively unique among videogames is that every Chapter has another Slow Reveal. Generally that's because it begins with daylight and a little bit of research that builds anticipation for the next chunk of darkness which will bring with it a whole bunch more trouble.

See, the Slow Reveal hooks work because they build in anticipation. When hordes of the dead are running at you, you don't have time to anticipate. You don't have time to let your imagination work or to really get immersed into the situation.

They can be a little trickier with players, though, as players often expect that they should be doing something. It's often better if you begin it with a series of small and mundane goals so that they have some direction and don't wander all around the place purposefully seeking out some Big Bad to track down.

The best Slow Reveal game I did involved a series of adventures for a pair of big city detectives who had moved into a small town. They were all fairly ordinary and standard adventures. A petrol station got robbed by some trailer park trash. A series of jewellery store knock offs was actually a collective insurance fraud. Then they get a tip off at a mine and things just go from bad to worse with a conspiracy mobilising against them as well as some signs of supernatural phenomena. By the time the detectives got out of there, they went home, packed their bags, grabbed their wives, and left town.

Part of what made that work is that the players were happy to just play the police officers and that really sucked them into the mundane side of it. They had gotten so used to thinking like cops and seeing the world as a cop would that the supernatural really jarred them. One police officer even rejected the existence of the supernatural, despite all the sightings, until it was almost too late.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

RSS Feeds

Hmm, I know that RSS Feeds are pretty popular and useful - especially for people who don't have their own Blogger account they can follow with. The only trouble is that even after clicking around a bit I'm still a little confused. I believe an RSS Feed will email people when new articles appear if they want it to? Or it lists their blog interests for them? Can anyone clue me in as to how to make one and add it here? Or what they do exactly?

I may have just gotten confused because I have a mouth infection right now. My right tonsil looks heaps deflated... And I got an infected mouth lump on my inner cheek. Too much information? Maybe. But blogs are for sharing after all.

Many thanks for any helpful words sent my way....