Branching the Flow Lines, Pt. I

“Getting into the dungeon” is usually a straightforward affair, and one without a huge amount of significance. It’s often glossed over; on occasion it’s used as a change to spring a tone-setting trap on unwary players or to deliver an ominous expositional portent. Moving through a dungeon is often similarly linear, offering a few more choices, but modern design by and large drives players through a series of escalating challenges to an ultimate “boss fight” or consummating set-piece conflict.

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Movement into and through contained physical spaces can be so much more than this, however. One of my favorite classic modules, Caverns of Thracia, provided numerous avenues of approach from the surface into the dungeon environment itself, as well as from within it to the lower levels. The eponymous Castle Ravenloft consists of a variety of branching hallways and catacombs. In general, when you branch the movement opportunities of a physical space, the emphasis of the game session becomes one of volitional exploration over overt conquest. Finding how and why to move where takes precedence over how to overcome what. (Which isn’t to suggest removing fights or other encounters, it just shifts the emphasis.)

Constructing location-based adventures with multiple choices and multiple points of ingress offers a host of satisfying decisions to players, and are equally as fulfilling to GM while watching the deliberations ensue.

  • Players can pursue an immediate short-term goal of discovering all the points of entry to the location
  • Players can choose their approach to the environment so as to best suit the party composition and strategy
  • Players can “shortcut” to deeper levels when they’re ready to undertake those challenges without retreading already cleared ares — unless a clever GM wants to repopulate the cleared areas to offer additional challenges and rewards

As you can see this provides a wealth of significant decisions for the players to make during gameplay, and it provides them numerous opportunities for action. Stuff like this is why people play games to begin with as opposed to consuming more sttaic media: to see the outcomes of what they do.

Practical Application

Dungeons in fantasy games are the most immediately obvious example.

The original Succubus Club for Vampire was set up with an “open floor plan” that allowed players to move through it and claim micro-territory in this most prestigious of Kindred hangouts, and even included a basement “labyrinth” for clubgoers who deliberately wanted to lose themselves in its environs.

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Bars, dance floors, VIP booths, cocktail tables, the DJ booth, the coatroom, etc. can all be locations in a modern “dungeon,” with numerous ways to approach them.

Multiple choices can also capitalize on the themes of fear present in horror games, whether being lost in the caverns where a cult of Deep Ones worships in Call of Cthulhu or searching for your beloved in the mall’s service tunnels and boiler rooms in Monsterhearts.

Games like Spycraft, Night’s Black Agents, and Leverage can have “dungeon crawls” through environments like corporate skyscrapers, fallout shelters, derelict churches, apartment high-rises, and warehouse complexes.

Mazy spacecraft, military outposts, and planetary strongholds can translate the experience into games like Star Wars, Stars Without Number, and Starfinder.

And of course, post-holocaust games can adapt any of these locations and more, whether as leftovers from collapsed civilizations to new constructions erected by dangerous mutants or reavers.

While Designing…

The following techniques can help you design game spaces that offer a great deal of autonomy.

Make use of vertical space: Level one can have a staircase that goes down to level two, a sinkhole that connects level one to level two from a different room, an airshaft that leads directly to level four, and an elevator that stops at all levels. Giving players options for not only their route but their destination affords them the opportunity to challenge themselves and set their own goals. Used wisely, you will get a lot of mileage out of this design principle. In computer games, level design is a entire discipline, making extensive use of this technique. (And it’s no coincidence that Caverns of Thracia‘s original author, Jennell Jacquays, is an accomplished level designer for computer games.)

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A cross-section of vertical space arrangement in Swords & Wizardry

Favor authenticity over realism: You can enter and exit the monster’s pit by being dropped through the trap door in the throne room floor… but also through the tight, twisty tunnels the vermin in the kitchen have burrowed. Who cares if the vermin don’t actually burrow and that it doesn’t make sense that the kitchen is next to the monster pit? What’s important are the choices and the thematic consistency, and to suggest that someone else down there has an interest in smuggling food to the pit monster….

Staged complexity: Not everything has to be available to the players immediately. Oftentimes, players will enjoy a chance to revisit a known, “mastered” portion of the location that poses new challenges. Over the course of the players’ exploration of the site, open additional options to them. Pulling a lever on level three opens an additional entrance to an unexplored section of level one. A room on the surface that’s initially inaccessible can be unlocked with the password offered by an NPC encountered in a lower level.  An entire floor can rotate, changing the layout of a “known” location and granting access to previously unknown areas. With weird magic or superscience, entire portions may even vanish or be revealed “when the stars are right” or other criteria are satisfied. Thus the additional options open to players once they’ve already been introduced to the location, so they’re not overwhelmed by it.

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.

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.