Some Horrific Thoughts

A new campaign for Call of Cthulhu is underway, now approaching its fourth instalment. As a result my brain is full of all things spooksome and grotesque. I’m running it for Encounter Roleplay, at Twitch.tv/encounterroleplay who can also be found on twitter at @EncounterRp. At the moment the campaign isn’t full-on, heavy metal horror, but it’s already had its moments of nastiness and dread. Horror gaming has its own tropes and rules, many them present in horror movies and books as well, and running a horror campaign caused me to think about some of them a lot in the last few weeks.

  • Isolation. Being alone and unable to reach help is frightening in itself, but in horror it is almost always employed as a narrative tool as well. Characters in a horror story have to be prevented from removing themselves from the source of the horror – leaving a haunted house, calling the police, running away, and so on. Horror stories employ a device to keep their characters from escaping, be it a washed-out bridge a cut-off phone, or a conspiracy so all-encompassing that sources of help like the police cannot be trusted.
  • Motivation. As always, characters in a horror game need a motivation for what they do, especially because what they do is likely to be horrific and dangerous. The consequences for not engaging in the horrific plot you have laid out for them must be worse than going through with it. In my Call of Cthulhu campaign, each character has a horrible mutation that is slowly taking over their body, and only by pursuing the evil cult that inflicted it can they remove it and save themselves.
  • Escalation. Horror stories tend to start off slow and ramp up the horror gradually. Some have a gruesome opening to set the tone, but then revert to relative normality gradually escalating to a terror-laden climax. I try to ramp up the horror both over the course of an individual game session, and over a whole campaign.
  • Revelation. Horror is about information. As well as simply horrific sights and sounds, learning the unpleasant truth behind events usually forms a part of a horror story as the implications of what is found add to the horror. This is particularly true of horror roleplaying games, where uncovering information is both a goal of the player characters, and a device to add more horrific elements.
  • Obfuscation. A counterpoint to the above, it is important not to reveal too much about what is going on too early. While it is frustrating for players not to know what is happening at all, it also defuses the creepiness and fear to have too much knowledge, especially at the beginning of a story. Characters should have to work to learn the truth behind the horror, and some things might never be known completely.
  • Atmosphere. It goes without saying that horror games thrive off atmosphere. The sinister, creepy, unwholesome and strangely juxtaposed all help a horror game thrive. One pitfall however, is introduce something creepy solely for purposes of atmosphere that is then seized on by the players as a vital clue. In these cases, be prepared to improvise to make your incidental detail relevant to the main plot.
  • Danger. Player characters tend to die a lot more often in horror games. Compare to Dungeons & Dragons, for instance, where higher-level characters are functionally immortal. A Call of Cthulhu investigator can die from a single gunshot – realistic, perhaps, but a lot different to how other roleplaying games work. Players should be aware their characters are in mortal danger, so they are not too dismayed when their character is devoured by some horror from behind space and time. In return, the increased potential for death lends fun suspense to every encounter.
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Empires of the Worldmerging

The first idea I had for the Brink of War campaign was that of a world where several empires from different worlds suddenly found themselves on each others’ doorsteps. I brainstormed ideas for what each empire might be, with the criterion they had to be very different from one another and immediately present the possibility of conflict between them. Thus the Thousand Kingdoms, a ‘typical’ Dungeons & Dragons fantasy realm, and the demon empire of Harrowmaw became the first two empires into the Worldmerging. I wanted dragons in there, too, and so the draconic kingdom of Soarenscale was added. I set the number of empires at five, enough for a web of alliances and enmities between them but not so many the players would forget which was which. The last two were the undead empire of Dusk (because I always included loads of undead in my campaigns), and the insectoid hive mind-led realm of Nit’Shadar to have a truly alien element in the campaign.

After jotting down some ideas, I made a map in watercolour. I just dived into this, making some squiggly coastlines and filling them in with colour washes. Watercolours allow for some subtle colour staining and blending which work perfectly for slightly murky, medieval-looking maps. I tried to give each empire its own colour scheme, suggesting the endless twilight of Dusk and the hardy, blasted landscape of Harrowmaw alongside the forests and farmland of the Thousand Kingdoms.

Brink of War map scanWhile the map took some work to complete, it wasn’t a backbreaking task and the players reacted to it well. A map of any kind helps shortcut a lot of the description necessary in a roleplaying campaign – rather than telling the players where places are in relation to each other, the visualisation of a map makes communicating this information much faster and more immediate. Making it colour allows more differentiation of the areas, suggesting murky, diseased swamps in the blue-greens of Nit’Shadar versus the golden hues of Soarenscale. The map then formed the basis for discussions about travel in the campaign as well as helping evoke the world of Brink of war.

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It’s Been Emotional

Something I discovered while running the Brink of War campaign is how great a difference it makes to the game when the players are emotionally engaged with the story. The strength of roleplaying games is that the story being told is that of the players’ characters – the players don’t just observe it, they experience it and help direct it. As a Games Master, I have come to realise that emotionally engaging the players strengthens the impact of the story on them and leads to a more fun and impactful game.

This has been a learning experience for me. Previously, I was focused on unfolding the plot before the players. The engagement I aimed for was curiosity about what would happen next in the plotline, and the excitement of exploring the world created by the game. Emotional engagement wasn’t something I actively sought, it was at most a useful side product of the game.

I started to realise this was not the only way to run a game. One of my players mentioned to me they wished they had a little more time for inter-character roleplaying. Where I was always focused on moving the plot on, they wanted some time to explore their characters and indulge in the pure roleplaying pleasure of acting as someone else. The next time I felt like hurrying things along to get to the next scene, I let the players do their own thing for a while, and I saw how much they enjoyed making these parts of the story purely their own.

I came to understand the players wanted to be engaged as characters, not just as an audience. One of the simplest ways I tried to react to this was by introducing a potential romantic interest. I can’t say I was subtle, as the handsome, rugged elf ranger with his deep voice and exotic accent was pretty obviously a romantic focus. But it worked, and the players got an extra kick out of the excitement, risk and emotional intensity of a relationship. I started re-using NPCs they reacted to emotionally, as described in a previous blog post – Clade Speaker Vinn’Ket and Lethentia Sovelin were, for very different reasons, characters who elicited strong emotions from the player characters that their players enjoyed roleplaying. Even terrifying situations, such as an unexpected audience with the Demon Prince Demogorgon, got excitement from the players as their characters were struck with dread. The Brink of War campaign has become more enjoyable for the players, and the story became better as a result.

Human beings are emotional creatures and they need to feel emotions. They can feel them too much – I don’t want to make my players feel upset, sad or humiliated, for instance, and still shy away from the putting intensely distressing situations in the game. But eliciting positive and exciting emotions makes the players more strongly engaged, the roleplaying more natural and effortless, and the whole plot more impactful.

Previously I’ve always been a plot-focused Games Master and writer, and the techniques I have used to increase emotional engagement so far have been simple at best. But it’s an exciting journey for me, too, as I am just starting to explore a whole new aspect to Games Mastering along with my players.

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Repeat Performance

In a previous blog entry, I talked about how to introduce villain characters before the player characters fight them. What I have discovered as I create and run the Brink of War campaign is that similar principles apply to all non-player characters. What makes for a truly satisfying encounter with an NPC is for that character to gain emotional resonance with the players, either hatred for a villain or affection towards an ally. One of the ways to help NPCs gain this emotional attachment to your players is to have them encounter those NPCs multiple times.

Initially I began re-using characters out of laziness. I should probably claim it was to evoke the sense of a consistent game world, but in truth it was easy to have them meet the same person multiple times so I only needed to use one set of notes.

However, one particular NPC really caught their attention. He was an ambassador from a realm of humanoid insects, and he was named Clade Speaker Vinn’Ket. His story was a poignant one, as only with distance from the hive mind did he gain a sense of self and an independent personality, but one day he would have to return to his realm and lose his personality again. It was a rather sad story I made up on the fly, but it struck a chord with the players, as did his avuncular voice and general friendliness. Later in the campaign, when the players were at the palace of a queen of an undead kingdom, I wanted to demonstrate the growing intrigues between the various realms by having them meet another ambassador at the palace. Clade Speaker Vinn’Ket fit this role and I remembered how much the players had reacted to him, so I used him again. The players got a kick out of meeting an old friend in an unexpected place.

Another example was a demonologist introduced early in the campaign solely as a means for the players to solve the problem at hand, which involved hunting down a murderous demon. The demonologist gave them an option for succeeding at this task if they set her free from the dungeon cell where she was languishing for horrible crimes. Later, I needed some agents working for the demonic mastermind of the campaign’s plot. The demonologist fitted perfectly. As a reminder of a questionable deal they had made, she engendered particular hate from the players, especially when she escaped from a subsequent combat encounter. Just as a good friend or trusted ally evokes emotions, so does a particularly thorny enemy. In the case of the aristocratic demonologist Lathentia Sovelin, it would be unfair to deny the players the adrenaline rush of finally putting her down. The campaign will almost certainly involve a showdown with her so they can rid the world of her for good.

What I learned from this experience is that NPCs fill certain roles such as authority figures, sources of information, potential allies, tradesfolk like innkeepers or blacksmiths, or enemies. It you already have a character established who can fit a role you need filling, then using that character again can help build the players’ emotional relationship with your campaign. While it sounds obvious, as a principle it has served me very well during this campaign and I have come to appreciate its usefulness. As well as engaging players in the campaign, it saves preparation work and suggests new plot threads as NPCs and their motivations become more apparent and important to the players

Repeat appearances by NPCs can be overdone, like any other technique, and if used too much it can make your world seem very small. In addition, players can not be expected to remember everyone their characters have interacted with over the course of a long campaign, so I always inform them if their characters have encountered someone before to jog their memories. As a rule of thumb if the players reacted strongly to an NPC, I will probably use that character again when the campaign’s plot creates a role for them.  As the players characters’ relationship with figures in your game world grows, so the campaign will grow organically around those relationships, and your campaign begins to write itself.

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OTHER BOARD & CARD GAMES I LIKE

Not a very imaginative title for this post, but there you go. Along with Dungeons & Dragons, tabletop games occupy a lot of my time. RPGs, board games, and card games are all my thing, so I thought I’d dedicate a post to the tabletop games that float my boat.

I have a theory that tabletop games, like a lot of other activities, fulfill a very basic human need to hang about in small groups. Games help facilitate this by giving us a reason to meet up at a particular time and place with people we like, an activity to structure our time together and a subject (the game itself) we can always talk about so there’s always conversation and interaction going on.

So theory aside, games I really like include:

ELDRITCH HORROR

Probably my favourite board game, a sprawling epic Lovecraftian cooperative board game with a really cool theme (haring across the globe trying to stop Cthulhu from eating the planet) and tons of bits. Though the game has an extravagance of components, the gameplay itself isn’t too heavy. Best of all, each encounter is a little snippet of story, creating all sorts of sticky situations for your investigators with an always-thrilling spectre of impending doom hanging over everything. For best results, have players read out encounters aloud for each other, and don’t tell them what happens if they fail until the dice are rolled.

STAR WARS DESTINY

A collectable dice game that, unlike more established collectable games, is still young enough not to have world-beating competitive decks all over the place. I play it with a small group of friends and can take a simple pleasure in slowly improving my deck without worrying about what the top tier of competitive players are up to. Perhaps as the game and the player base matures the game will present an impossible goal in the same way Magic: the Gathering did for me, but for now, it’s refreshing to be allowed to have fun. I love Star Wars and rolling dice keeps things interesting. Sometimes I even win.

PATHFINDER ADVENTURE CARD GAME

A cooperative card game of managing your character’s deck, murdering your way through stacks of cards representing locations, and helping each other out when things get rough. The theme is very D&D-esque (it’s based on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game) and it has dozens of characters to choose from, each of whom is very different. Regular game nights are spent ploughing on through the dozens of scenarios published. Like many cooperative games with a lot of story, part of the fun for me is not knowing what will come up next as new cards are constantly added to the decks used in-game. The thrill of exploration, of never knowing when you’re going to turn up something new, is what sets this kind of game apart for me.

PANDEMIC LEGACY

This isn’t one I play regularly any more because the nerd gang and I blazed through it and completed the campaign. Being a Legacy game, it’s completely different at the end, with stickers on everything, some components destroyed and a whole bunch of extra ones unlocked. Playing a Legacy game is a lot like running a roleplaying game campaign in terms of playing with the same group of people regularly. The concept of the Legacy game is one that fascinates me, because it ramps up the excitement of new discovery and gives it even more oomph by making some of those discovering permanently change what went before. Playing through the whole of Pandemic Legacy was one of the most extraordinary gaming experiences I’ve had and I always recommend it to anyone able to play the whole campaign of 12-24 games (we played 17).

Missing from this list are miniature games. This is perhaps rather odd because I am a gigantic miniatures nerd. I love painting and modelling miniatures, having grown up with Games Workshop and Warhammer and branched out into ranges like Infinity. However, actually playing the games has never grabbed me, though I’ve tried to get into it numerous times. Miniature games are all competitive and I’m very aware I’m no good at them. They burn my brain and I don’t usually win anyway. I’m much happier painting the figures. Until a true cooperative miniatures game comes along, I’ll probably stick to painting.

What I’ve come to notice is that I like cooperative games and theme is a big deal for me. I like games that tell stories or evoke a world I’m interested in. I’m always on the lookout for more games to really get into, to help me get my regular geek fix.

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Consequences

As a Games Master, I only really have one rule. Players can do whatever they want – but there are always consequences.

This is a flexible rule about both players’ responsibility for the actions of their characters, and the restrictions that paradoxically make creativity easier. On the one hand, if the players know there are consequences to their actions, they are more likely to act in accordance with the goals and personalities of their characters, and to pursue the avenues the story places in front of them. They will not do things just for the hell of it, or try to ‘break’ the plotline by doing something outrageous or inappropriate, because just like sane people in the real world the knowledge of consequences keeps them in check.

On the other hand, consequences are a tool for the Games Master. Planning the next stage of a campaign is made a lot easier if the players have taken actions which will have consequences. The consequences suggested by those actions provide a framework for the forthcoming sessions of the campaign, so that instead of staring at a blank page and trying to come up with ideas, the Games Master already has a some suggestions in place that can act as the seeds for further stories.

I always make sure to be explicit about the ‘Consequences’ rule. I say it all the time, especially when players are debating what their characters should do or contemplating particularly dramatic courses of action. Making such a concept overt is important, so it can help players make decisions for their characters. In addition, if the players know their actions will come back to them in some form or another, they are more accepting when they take a particularly dramatic action and are caught up in the equally dramatic backlash. Because they knew there would be consequences, and did something anyway because it was cool or dramatic or in character, it did not seem unfair or malicious when those consequences ensued.

An example from the Brink of War campaign was the players’ decision to assassinate their king. The king, obsessed with peace at any cost, was standing in the way of an invasion of an empire ruled by demons. The characters agreed with a faction of NPCs that the demon empire had to be invaded, before the demons invaded first. The king had to be removed from power before the invasion began, and so the player characters agreed to assassinate him.

Such a dramatic course of action could not be without consequences. I was very explicit that assassinating a king would cause repercussions beyond the obvious or beneficial. The players understood this, and did it anyway. The consequences that ensued included another faction taking control in the power vacuum, the king’s assassin daughter hunting them down for revenge, and the king’s young son being placed on the throne where he was manipulated by a regent of suspect allegiance. While their characters were dismayed by these events, the players accepted them because I had been clear that the death of the king would have wide-ranging and not always beneficial effects. From my own point of view, I could use the consequences as the foundations for future plotlines in the campaign. In particular, the next few sessions of the Brink of War campaign saw the party hunting down the assassin princess, to find and defeat her before she found them first. It was a satisfying, high-stakes, very personal storyline which gained extra impact from the fact it was the characters’ own actions that put it all in motion.

Roleplaying games are about freedom of choice, creating a world in which the characters can do whatever their players desire. But to give it some conceptual structure, to provide a driving force behind the story, and to imply a world far beyond the players’ immediate understanding, nothing they do should ever be free of consequence.

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Palace Map

I made this map for the Brink of War campaign, to show my players the lower levels of Demogorgon’s palace. While we’ve started using the Roll20 system for combat maps, I also wanted to give the players a sense of how the various areas of the palace fitted together.

palace-mapI made the map using watercolours, which is an inexact medium but works well for blobby areas of colour, with lettering using a cheap calligraphy pen. After I had blocked in the main areas I thought it all looked a bit plain so I added the black tentacle shapes. This then translated into a plot point about the Writhings, a village of mushroom people, being built into the body of an enormous tentacled creature that got trapped in the palace foundations and grew to enormous size.

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