GM Quickies: GMing Horror

When you take it upon yourself to GM a horror game, it’s your job to build a moody experience. If you’ve run a game as a GM before, you know that building mood is a significant task! You share the storytelling stage with the players, and by and large, they react to the game elements you’ve told them are present. With that in mind, knowing how and what you want to present the players with goes a long way toward maintaining the mood appropriate to a horror session or campaign. The following suggestions aim to help you do that.

Create Fear, Don’t Squick

Fear is an emotion that comes as a result of the uncertainty of one’s own well being. Characters in a horror game are right to feel fear — some dark force has turned its baleful eye directly upon them!

Every good GM knows to add sensory detail to their descriptions, the better to immerse the players in the setting. Gory detail should be used sparingly, however. Gory detail more often creates revulsion, not fear, and risks replacing the thrill of fear with discomfort. Resist the urge to devote too much attention to the glisten of viscera or what’s dripping from a ghoul’s mouth. While certain parties may appreciate this sort of thing (and, of course, you know your gaming group better than anyone who’s never met them could), be wary of risking their enjoyment of the game by placing too much emphasis on splatter in place of building a mounting mood of horror.

Detail is like a spice. Too much overwhelms the dish. A little goes a long way.

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Let Imagination Loom

Fear thrives in environments where the mind is left to imagine its ultimate doom. The monster unseen is more fearsome than the monster described. The creaking door, the guttering candle, the faraway howl on the moor: All of these create more fear than revealing what caused them. Ultimately, many questions will be answered and many mysteries will be revealed over the course of a session or campaign, but leaving some time between describing some element of the story and revealing its true nature is the crucible in which horror forms.

This technique works well for everything from small details on up to greater campaign mysteries. Revealing partial information to the players sets their minds to imagining all sorts of worst-case scenarios that help reinforce the mood at the table. Pacing the rate at which you reveal information can trade much on that principle. Introducing strange and incomplete details and allowing the players to ascribe dreadful significance to them lets the players brood upon the unknown. It’s a technique used in mystery stories as well, but it takes on a fearsome gravity when matched with other elements of horror.

Example Details

Minor details: The creaking door, the guttering candle, the faraway howl on the moor, as mentioned above. Footsteps on the ground floor of the inn (who could be visiting at this time of night?)

Story details: A bloody knife discovered in the refectory. Flashes of light witnessed at the castle on the crag from the village below. The missing servants at the tycoon’s mansion.

Campaign details: The construction of the new crypt on the family estate (because the old crypt filled so quickly…). Learning that the librarian is the seventh son of a seventh son. The brewery is owned by the son of the secret police, and every delivery has an extra barrel unaccounted for on the shipping manifest.

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Discovery Through Repetition

Delivering game descriptions with emphatic repetition indicates to players that the repeated detail is important. The repetition reinforces the presence and normalcy of the detail. It creates a pattern that stands out when it’s broken (which allows you to amplify the dread by the players not knowing what has caused the break in the pattern). It creates a subtle signal that makes players feel empowered when they discover.

The chilly castle has a fire stoked in every room that feebly keeps the cold at bay. The perfect array of bricks in the Boston cellar walls indicates attentive craftsmanship. Every envoy sent by the ambassador has blond hair. When the players explore one of the castle rooms with only smoking embers in the fireplace (who or what put it out?), observes a cellar wall with a single missing brick (what’s behind it?), or receives an envoy from the ambassador who is strikingly bald (why is this fellow different?), their minds work to analyze the the change in the pattern. And this lets their imagination loom, as above.

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Steal Their Ideas

A clever GM knows when to rely on the purchased or pre-annotated source material, and when to run with the players’ cues. Packaged stories are commercial products, and are generally written to entertain the broadest audiences. Notes written by the GM before the session starts are, at best, projections of concepts that will challenge and entertain the players. But when your session is underway, you’re getting live, real-time feedback for the game events that you can use immediately so that you can tailor further developments to that player response. If your notes say the Duke is secretly the werewolf, but your players have a more significant connection to the midwife, maybe it’s best to change the werewolf’s identity. If the vital clue is in the publisher’s office but the players are having more fun at the mayor’s inaugural ball, consider relocating the vital clue to city hall.

Be careful with this! Ultimately horror revolves around the perception of helplessness. But if players feel that every time they develop an attachment to a character or show an interest in a setting element, the GM turns it against them, they will feel punished for their engagement. Horror relies on hope to contrast the darkness with light, and a sense of accomplishment is critical to maintain even in a horror environment.

Using Decision Hubs

One way to allow greater player agency is to construct a “hub” from which core campaign elements radiate, making for a number of possible action points that are accessible from it. For example, if we assume that the PCs’ starting town is the hub, a storied dungeon, a cavern complex, and an abandoned mountain keep might all be proximate to that starting town. If the starting hub is a space station, a smugglers’ lair may be nearby, along with an asteroid belt where aggressive aliens hide and a dangerous anomaly from a precursor culture.

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The opportunities for action radiating from the hub need not be physical locations, they can just as viably be non-location-based encounters or entities. For example, a vampire coterie’s domain may be immediately affected by rumors of Anarch turbulence, the appearance of fragments of the Book of Nod, and a sudden shift in nightlife that relocates the Rack.

Having a number of actionable choices radiating from the central hub serves both the players and the GM. For the GM, a number of options allows them to control the scope of their preparation. Without having to detail a full sandbox, a smaller number of encounter contingencies is more easily managed. For the players, a number of options allows them the volition to choose the course of action that most interests them, but doesn’t subject them to a decision-halting paradox of choice.

Importantly, decision hubs can scale to whatever challenge level at which the campaign takes place. This is especially valuable for starting or low-level campaigns, which can easily lead the players into feeling railroaded if they don’t feel that they’re making significant decisions.

Opportunities for Action

Description, detail, and lore are widely considered cornerstones of the roleplaying games medium. They tell only part of the tale, however. Certainly, description  detail and lore all have their place in the verbal-literary tradition on which roleplaying games draw. What ultimately defines a game, however, is the opportunity for players to make choices and affect the outcomes of the game environment. Without interaction, these details are simply words, diorama designs that assume no life of their own. The players’ interaction with these descriptors is what defines a roleplaying game as a game.

To this end, players inherently seek opportunities for action, inputs by which their choices determine, define, or react to the game’s events at any given time.

As a GM, it’s part of your job to draw attention to the opportunities available. You don’t have to — in fact, you probably shouldn’t — exhaustively list what the players can do, but suggesting a course of action has a variety of values. It lets the players know that the game state is waiting on them to interact with it, that it’s time to declare an action and “play.” It engenders in players a state of creative thought. And it provides a frame of reference, or an anchor with which to compare their own actions.

Describing the Call to Action

Given the verbal-literary tradition of roleplaying games, word choice when drawing attention to these opportunities is significant. Consider the differences in the calls to action in the following examples:

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Each are viable prompts to act, but each frames the potential opportunities for action differently. Some leave the full breadth of action available to the players, informing them only that the gamemaster seeks their input. Others suggest possible courses of action, and might even be interpreted as subtle clues.

As the GM, your presentation of the game world by definition limits how the players can react to it. After all, they can’t know what you don’t tell them. Each of your words and phrases discloses the presence of a “moving part” that players may attempt to exert control over or otherwise interact with. Choose your words carefully, as they tell the players not only what they experience, but potentially what actions might  be relevant to those events in response.

Importantly, as a GM, you don’t want to mislead your players. Avoid prompting them with opportunities for action that would have negative outcomes (or at least suggest that their outcomes might be negative, as with a quandary in which the players much choose between lesser evils). A GM who bait-and-switches her players with misleading negative suggestions soon loses the trust of those players.

Read Player Cues

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Illustration by Steve Prescott

The gameplay experience shouldn’t be a one-way flow from gamemaster to players. A good GM reads his players’ responses and adjusts the game to be a better balance of challenges and player desires. That’s not to say a good GM hands the players everything they desire on their terms. Rather, customizing a pre-written adventure or scratch-building one to offer the sorts of opportunities for action the players want to undertake results in more engaged players.

Much of this involves reading your players. For example, when a player asks, “Can we sail around the cliffs?” he may simply be trying to solve a given encounter with the available information. But it’s possible that he’s also saying, “I would like more sailing-oriented opportunities for action in the game.” Reviewing character sheets and skill specializations can provide more insight here. A character who has five dots in boat piloting and who’s asking “Can we sail around it?” is telling you, in the language of the game structures, that he wants to do some goddamned sailing. Satisfying this desire may be as simple as reskinning a travel interlude or as substantial as retooling entire encounters to involve sailing instead of, say, overland wilderness survival.

This is one of the toughest parts of GMing, because it involves not only reading these verbal and nonverbal cues, but also challenge design and balancing the results of that challenge design to a degree that the player ensemble finds engaging. If your players’ eyes are glazing over, you’ve got some work to do, but as the example above illustrates, you may have some work to do even if they haven’t checked out. In the latter case, you’re focused on increasing engagement. (If they’re zoning out entirely, you’re not engaging them at all.)

Spotlighting Relatedness

In campaign or chronicle play, the players’ actions in previous session often open new avenues to them. A hostage rescued in session three becomes a valuable contact in session seven. A sensitive document recovered from the antagonists later turns those antagonists into surprise allies. A trivial favor granted to a powerful vampire later becomes the boon that ensures the coterie’s invitation to Elysium. The barkeep buys the PCs a round and tells them, “Thanks for keeping us safe, dragonslayers.”

All of these examples are chances for players to relive their success moments from earlier in the campaign. Not only are they rewarding in this sense, but they’re empowering going forward — success paves the way toward more success.

Indeed, relatedness need not only spotlight success. Narrative progression may turn a past failure into a new opportunity for justice — or vengeance. One of the keen properties of narrative is that a “failure” in the terms of the story might actually be beneficial in terms of game systems, by opening new plot threads to explore or motivations to entertain. Destroying the wizard’s tower in session one only to be dealt a drubbing by the wizard in session three sets the stage for a showdown in session five.

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Illustration by Moebius

Call these accomplishments out. Give the players time to exult in them. Let their characters cheer each other (or commiserate with each other), and in so doing, grant the players a moment to reflect on the social activity they shared at the time. These moments provide valuable narrative context, and they renew players’ engagement in their current courses of action.

Destination: Pagan Lands

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I’ve been “working on” the Pagan Lands for years. By “working on,” I mean that I’ve been wrestling with my ideas for what to actually do with it. It was originally my home campaign, but then I got a wild hair to retool it as a retroclone, and then I set that aside to do it as a setting-agnostic pick-up supplement, then it returned to stasis as my Belluna and Tarsemine games became active, but it has always remained vital as a work-in-progress labor of love, and it’ll probably be the next extended campaign I run.

While I was straightening the home office this weekend, I went through my notes folders and found myself doodling in the rough regional map that’s grown over the course of the project. The map is intentionally ugly (the better to make quick changes without invalidating a bunch of art) and I’m not a gifted cartographer anyway, but it serves its purpose as a sort of geographical flowchart by which the players can move from one cluster of encounters to another.

Each of these regions represents a different opportunity for action, the “what is happening here?” in which players can involve themselves  — or to leave unmolested if it doesn’t suit their tastes. Think of these regions somewhat like the Ravenloft domains or the territories of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, a themed experience that the players’ choices can directly affect. Most importantly, knowing a region’s theme doesn’t rule out events can occur there, it only suggests the sorts of events the players are most likely to encounter. As with one of the core Magic precepts, if the theme isn’t accessible and discernible from the most common interactions with it, it won’t emerge as a theme.

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Naturally, a separate collection of random encounters also helps to populate the Pagan Lands. Not every event that transpires in a given region needs to touch upon that region’s theme or central event. Most do, however: Each wandering encounter table consists of events or creatures that could easily have connections to the theme. Demihumans encountered in the dead city are probably there plundering the linnorm’s hoard. Pilgrims encountered near Vulcan’s Cliffs are likely deranged cultists of the Sea God. Encounters near the Starfall have probably been exposed to the celestial body’s residual energies.

So it looks like I’ll be headed back into the Pagan Lands soon, and I’m looking forward to it. Although it’s a weird place, it’s like coming home.

Home Base: PC Property

Early D&D assumes that the players were eventually trying to clear an area in which to construct a stronghold. Classic Traveller assumes that the players owned some percentage of shares in a ship that could be used to travel the stars. Vampire often concerns itself with the ever-upscaling struggle to claim domain and then protect domain once claimed. Regardless of genre, the concept of an earned “home” is common to many RPGs.

Property makes for a strong reward in roleplaying games because doing so opens a host of additional endogenous rewards to the players who own it. That is, property is its own reward, and it can create more opportunities for encounters involving that property. Used wisely, property can bring an adventure to the players instead of requiring that players go to the adventure.

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An Investment in a Place

Many settings assume that the characters have some personal stake in the wellbeing of a community, whether it’s Chicago or Sandpoint, and one good way to impart this to the players is to have the characters own property and be responsible for it in that community. In game terms, having the property confer a benefit is a good way to do this, as it invests the players in being able to call upon that benefit. In game terms, the property can be expressed in a variety of forms, and in fact multiple forms, and in so doing, the property acquires meaning to the players.

Property provides context for other rewards, as well. Land ownership can carry with it titles, incomes, or other benefits, as described below. Many fantasy games’ default medieval feudal arrangements are the obvious setting assumptions here, but
different campaigns can impart land with different titles and benefits. For example, the property is question may be a bridge allowing access to an isolated area, and the title may grant the players the right to charge a toll at the bridge. The property may be privateer vessel, and the charter for operating it may allow the players to claim territory in the name of their patron in exchange for a share of whatever incomes or resources the territory generates. A claim of Domain in Vampire, say, might allow the claimants to exact a “tithe” on all vitae claimed in the domain.

Note that the property need not be a static location. A pirate frigate, starship, or floating island are all examples of property that aren’t tied to a specific place, but that expand on the characteristics of places.

Currency Benefits

The property may generate money or other valuables that the players can use to acquire gear, consumables, or other goods. Currency can obviously be exchanged for character needs, whether in terms of satisfying basic upkeep (like D&D 5e’s Lifestyle Expenses or the nightly Blood Point cost for Vampire) or allowing improvements to starting gear.

A steady flow of currency doesn’t have to be large, especially at low levels of play, but it does provide a convenient way to incrementally improve character competency. As well, having an early currency stream can help strengthen the players’ connection to the home community that likewise increases over time. Players won’t necessarily care if their default starting location is threatened, but they will care if some amount of their livelihood is at stake. Across multiple game
sessions, this steady stream of income can build the sense of “home” that property intends to communicate. Even if the income value never increases, and that value becomes ever more negligible in terms of the power scope of the campaign, it will have contributed in the past, and that can create a powerful foundation with which the players can identify through the sense of campaign history it creates.

Examples: A copper mine, a store or business, a recognized region or domain, a title, stock in a for-hire vehicle, a Werewolf caern or a Mage node.

Systemic Benefits

The property grants a special ability or other benefit. This is some sort of mechanical boon or rules-based perk that allows the characters to exercise greater prowess when taking advantage of it. According to your game and group’s style, this can be a soft or a hard benefit — that is, something that relies on GM fiat to provide the details of the benefit, or something that has a specific, codified effect that the players can depend on every time. Tastes vary, but the latter, because they are by design reliable, generally cultivate more valuation in players’ regard.

A systemic benefit shouldn’t break the game or allow players to negate challenges, but it should create enough initial advantage that the players cultivate their own sense of valued relationship to “home.”

Again, over time, this historical value creates a sense of emotional attachment, and “home” can be imperiled, seasonal events or festivals at “home” become more meaningful, etc. Players may eventually acquire enough significance to steer the policy of “home,” and if so, more’s the better — there are the mastery, relatedness, and autonomy needs that all players have, being addressed directly.

Examples: A fashionable estate that offers a bonus to social challenges while entertaining there, a healing spring, a magical nexus conferring oracular powers, a site offering more efficient travel than is normal for the setting

Narrative Progression
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The property has significance to the characters’ story. This is the stronghold that the warlord character builds as a testament to his own greatness, the hideout that the characters renovate to store their loot, or even the humble hearth where the character settles down with her significant other or kids. Narrative rewards work best with personal, character-driven ambitions behind them.

You can’t simply tell a player, “You care about VillageTown” and have that statement carry any weight, but many published settings or adventures assume that they will. Players will either care about VillageTown or they won’t, and it’ll be on their terms. Players’ emotional attachment to property grows, however, over time and at their pace. Pairing narrative rewards with one of the other reward types or having the emotional resonance grow out of those benefits will cultivate a natural attachment. If the players have (and, even better, can improve) those other benefits of property, they’ll be demonstrably satisfying the universal set of player needs in relatedness, autonomy, and mastery, and their emotional attachment to that property will grow in tandem.

Examples: A humble homestead, a craggy castle overlooking the village below, a renovated wing of the space station, a penthouse haven just outside the Rack

Reactive Encounters

Illustration by Dylan ColeCharacters’ investment in property makes for opportunities to bring the adventure to them, as opposed to seeking it out. This may work well with certain groups’ playstyles, but it can also provide a change of pace from more proactive groups’ standard methodologies. Some players prefer setting their own agendas while others wait for a challenge to come their way.

A good action vocabulary can frame these sorts of conflicts with appropriate drama: Defend the ship’s gangway. Retake the keep. Turn back the boarders. Liberate the village. These are all scenarios that bring the action directly to the players.

Loss Aversion

Players, being human, are prone to loss aversion, and one expression of this is that people more greatly feel the exigencies of loss than they do the benefits of gain. It’s great to acquire the deed to the old mine outside of town, but once it starts producing, it’s downright terrible when the mine is threatened by bandits, collapsed by sappers, or overrun by bat-faced devil-horned fire-spiders. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use the players’ property as a dramatic focal point, only that you should do it wisely and sparingly. The “lone wolf” stereotype, the character who’s an orphan and has no social connections and practices sunrise to sundown with his katana is an expression of loss aversion: Without any emotional connections for a GM to hold against him, he retains much more control of his own fate. The same is true of property. If “home” is threatened in every game session, it won’t belong before the players pack up and move away from home, if only to have more control over their own destinies.

GM Quickies

VasilisaGamemastering is a combination of art and science, and like any skill, is improved by doing more of it. As you run RPG sessions, you’ll pick up your own style, voice, and tricks of the trade. Here a few that I use on occasion when I run games — I hope they serve you well.

Open with a Conflict

When kicking off a campaign or chronicle, open the proceedings with some sort of conflict. Deliver a few lines of scene-setting and then let all hell break loose. A fight, naturally, works great for a combat-focused game, giving the players a chance at the beginning to see which of their abilities complement one another and any team tactics or combos that can arise. But opening conflicts can also help set the stage in more cerebral or social games, in which players can learn things about the world through experiencing them firsthand — especially if dubious loyalties are part of the game’s theme. Opening with a conflict allows the game to begin with everyone participating, as opposed to a lore dump that begins with the players’ eyes glazed and hands tied.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone! Take This

Sometimes, an NPC wants the PCs to thrive, no strings attached. No bargaining for favors or information. No desperate pleas to save the village or stop the dread doom. No “I’ll give you this if you do that.” Just a minor boon or item from a person who genuinely wants to see the PCs succeed.

One Down, the Rest to Go

Before entering a combat sequence, describe the heroes’ effortless dispatching of one of the enemies. Minion types work great for this, but feel free to take out a pernicious named underling. Very often, we see “the big bad gets away” or other acts of GM fiat that seem to work against the characters’ interest. This technique reminds them that occasionally, GM fiat works in their favor as well. And it hypes them up for the combat to come.

Loot Drop

lootWithin the first session, the players find a trove of cash, contraband, or beyond-their-level items that pose a dilemma. Do they return the discovered loot to its (perceived) rightful owner? Or do they keep it for its initial advantage and risk being found out and earning the ire of the (rightful?) owner? This initial choice has a meaningful effect on the session/ campaign/ chronicle, kicking it off in high gear with an immediate emphasis on player communication and decision-making.

Blow up the Death Star

Construct an early session so that the players can enjoy a seemingly outsized victory that would normally be out of their league. The players will appreciate the sense of accomplishment, and you can design follow-up stories to take advantage of the initial event. For example, the player could destroy a very powerful vampire in the first session… which paves the way for her lieutenant to become a more powerful, recurring antagonist in the campaign. The entire campaign need not revolve around the initial outsized event, either: a future encounter or three can “call back” or refer to the initial victory can generate a strong sense of relatedness for the players.