Saturday, December 31, 2011

Play-by-Post Roleplay

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

3: Making Random Encounters Scary.

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

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

It might look like this:

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

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

But is there a place for them in survival horror?


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

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

So how do you do it?

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Horrifying High Fantasy for Dungeon Masters, pt. 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 12, 2011

2: Resource Management.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 9, 2011

Some lines just make you laugh

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

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

Her line beautifully sums it up.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Videogame Tricks: Forks In the Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Horrifying High Fantasy for Dungeon Masters, part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 5, 2011

1: Running a Survival Horror adventure within a Campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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