Category Archives: hints tricks techniques
I’ve put it off long enough; I’ve promised several people I’d give them some GM advice, so here it is. The deepest, darkest, most secretest truth about running games: it’s a big give-and-take. Players have almost as much input as you do in driving things along, and if you can’t keep stringing cogent material along to form a plot, all the GM really has to do is take the player-generated hooks or character details and harness them to the campaign.
See, most of what you have to do is reactive: the players give you hooks, or get interested in something, and bam, you have something to work with. You can tell pretty easily what a player wants to see by looking at their character, their background, their merits and flaws: a player who gives his PC a nagging wife, or even a happy nuclear family; a character with an addiction; a character who is hunted or wanted or has a rival. Having those implies they want these things to show up in a game; that, right there, is player agency. Players and player-characters have big, blinking signals of things they want included in the game, and just as it’s important for the players to follow-up on GM-generated adventure hooks, it’s important for a GM to look into player-generated hooks.
On one level, this kind of thing gives you more material to use… and by use, I mean, however you’d like. Many of my friends are famous for killing off their family members and creating oddly byzantine histories in horror games, just so they won’t have to deal with any obvious tropes, seeing too much character depth as a horror weakness. While it doesn’t have to be a weakness, it’s free world/plot/setting detail; besides, everybody likes it when something they’ve introduced is continually referenced in-game.
Moreover, given the perspective differences—remember, your players don’t think like you do, otherwise they wouldn’t die miserable deaths because they don’t understand your riddles–more often than not the players will look at something in a much different direction than you do. That’s great for creating stupidly annoying “surprises,” like when the PCs create their own red herrings and assume some random NPC inserted for flavor reasons is the big villain they’re hunting, or assuming one area is trapped or a monster lair or whatever. Maybe he is a red herring, but that NPC has some fishy background of their own. Or maybe there is a monster lair/trap around there, or they’re really avoiding some NPCs who would have helped them that they might run into on the way out. Trust me, this comes up way more often than you’d think.
It’s also a good idea generation unit you’re getting for free; on more than a few occasions the players will come up with some answer to a challenge or plot I’ve given them, and I’ve thought you know, that’s a lot more interesting than what I was going to do… and if you change this, and that, and do this, it’d be awesome. That pretty much describes my Exalted game; the players made characters that were nowhere near the plot I’d been working on, so I had to meld their character concepts with the story I’d been setting up, and tried to bridge the directions they were going with the myriad web of subplots I had rolling around.
There’s a train of thought these days that says the GM is just another player—it’s more or less true; the GM is doing everything the players are doing, having fun and rolling dice, only with a certain authoritarian position that’s socially accepted by the group. I’ve known several people who dislike GMing because they don’t like “showing up to a game but not to play,” or that “GMing is working;” I can’t even imagine what kind of hellish existence they live in; sure, the GM is almost always doomed to fail—unlike other games, it’s very bad form for the good guys (PCs) to fail at challenges or lose encounters, if only because you’ve just shat where you eat and killed your own game—but the actual interaction and play should be anything but “work.”
Sure, the GM has to adjudicate the rules, think up a story and setting, populate it with characters and villains, and come up with threats and challenges, but on some meta (and macro-scale) angles, the GM is just another player. Only, their goal is to keep the game going: a good GM never wants to see the party die off, because that means their adventures or awesome story or great tactical challenges will end. The best way to keep players invested is to make things fun and engaging so they keep coming back, and one of the best, time-tested methods of doing this is to play off what they add to the game. If the players throw you a ball, throw it back.
And there’s a lot of ways for people to take this. Some Bad GMs take the GM hat to mean that they’re the enemy of the players, or that it’s a way to keep the game aligned to the one pure story they’re trying to run. Raise your hand if you had a totally awesome idea in your character background or development, but weren’t allowed to implement it, even though it would have made things interesting/deep/entertaining without changing the flow, balance, 0r direction of the game. Again, those are bad GMs, and that won’t fly with most groups unless everyone’s too passive to say no or quit. (Or, heaven forbid, actually likes that kind of shit gaming.)
The best GM is someone who isn’t just there to do their best at killing everyone or to run an inflexible story. The story—or, if you’re anal about terminology, “the series of events that occur within an RPG campaign from start until completion”—this is important, certainly. If you can’t come up with an interesting, coherent plot that people are interesting it playing… then you won’t have any players. It’s about balancing the story you had planned as a GM with where the players—and sometimes, the characters—want to go. The best games I’ve been a part of were the ones where the players wanted to follow the plot, but had the capacity to branch out in their own directions, either as character flavor, as subplots, or as an entirely different campaign.
Of course, you have to learn when and where to draw the line. At the end of the day, the GM is still the GM—even in indie storygames. Just because a player wants something doesn’t mean you should be steamrolled into shoehorning it in; it’s the difference between a player having an itemized wish-list and a player introducing new character/plot depth for you to use. The guy running the game, no matter the system, always has the power to say “What the fuck, are you retarded? What kind of person would do that?” to shoot down any kind of socially unacceptable behavior, blatant stupidity, or Peasant Railgun-style rules abuse.
One more look on the topic of experience and leveling, built on the last few days’ posts.
The way d20 experience works structures encounters so weird as to be silly: for a first-level party, it breaks down to fighting a dozen orcs two at a time, give or take. Hardly a threat when the PCs can outnumber and surround their foes. (The “maximum” challenge, APL+3, is what, eight orcs at second level? That would ruin the players.) By the time the PCs can survive fighting a mob of orcs—say, third or fifth level—the orcs are so underpowered as to make the fight laughable.
I remember a “fight” in Legacy of Fire with nine third-level rogues against four 6th-level characters; the rogues could only hit if they rolled a crit. And during the last batch of RPG Superstars that I paid attention to, the contestants all got flak because they populated their 5th-level dungeons with pairs and trios of CR 2-3s, fights that would make the most unprepared, unoptimized characters shine. That’s neither challenging nor making proper use of d20′s tactical abilities.
And it’s a very inflexible arrangement, too: you can’t try to modify within the system, but would need to totally revamp it to make changes. Throwing a dozen orcs against the PCs will either slaughter them or have them to level up too quickly, depending on their level, causing the RAW leveling to break down. (I said this tied in to yesterday’s post.) Granted, it’s a common occurance to modify what exactly a challenge for your APL is—the Paizo staff will point out that they change encounters to challenge PCs in their home games—but at that point, it’s clear that encounter balancing and tracking needs a makeover.
The irony was back in 2nd Ed, a fight with twenty orcs was a staple fight, but it was boring as hell and only gave you a few dozen XP. 3.x opened the floodgates on tactical options—flanking, aid another, combat maneuvers—which makes for more satisfying tactical combat. But the system is built for a party to fight fewer opponents than before, otherwise the PCs level too quickly. I long for those epic battles, to utilize the d20 tactics and D&D’s wargame heritage, and have ended up having one in the last two Adventure Paths I’ve run. (In both cases, the PCs had a large complement of NPC support; even without that, they’d have trumped the expanded encounter, another reminder of how out of whack CRs are with mobs of lower-level enemies.)
Challenge Ratings were supposed to be an accurate gauge to balance encounters, but in the end, gauging challenges relies most heavily on the GM knowing how much their group can take: how well they work together, their level of optimization, their reserves of scrolls and potions and get-out-of-death-free cards. There’s a lot of factors which CR/APL/ECL doesn’t take into account: larger parties can take and deal more punishment, richer parties are harder to hit and deal more damage, higher-level parties are less susceptible to poison and disease.
I know I haven’t been keeping up with the gaming-related articles; trying to turn that around now that I’m through listing horror films (for the moment).
Zombies have had a major rise in pop culture over the past few decades: the board games Zombies!!! and Last Night on Earth, Dead Rising, Zombieland, 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, Shaun of the Dead, Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil, Planet Terror, The Walking Dead, World War Z… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s only natural to incorporate them into roleplaying games, given how popular and enduring the genre is.
But how do you make zombies scary? Their horror, along with the “fear” associated with vampires and werewolves, has diminished to naught with the rise of zombies as a trope in and of itself.
Originally they were a parody of life contrasting with the serene peacefulness of the afterlife concept we’ve acquired from the Victorian age; a perversion of what makes us us—life—the forceful and unnatural reanimation of unlife. The Victorians had a strange fascination with death, and made a thing out of taking death photos and wakes: the stillness of death captured on the stillness of photography, a strange fascination with its tranquility. (The Victorians were weird.) Instead of living peacefully in death, our rotting, shambling husks return, showing the decay and grotesqueness of death.
In recent years, George Romero’s vision of shambling corpses has done more to influence the genre than the original mythology of Haitian voodoo. The drive has been to make zombies into the result of a plague, a perpetual motion machine of killing and eating and rising again, which in and of itself is terrifying: something that cannot be countered or defended against by conventional means. And when you eventually die, you are stripped of your humanity, returning, without your bidding, as a ravenous corpse to continue spreading the disease.
But does any of this make zombies inherently scary? Nope. We all know the pieces of this picture: rotting flesh, ravenous hunger, groans, shuffling, soulless stares. They’re even less scary in a fantasy setting, where a holy character might have the power to drive them away (or turn them back into dust, ala Van Helsing). What makes zombies scary, besides the obvious, are the standard things that make all horror scary: the threat of dying, the isolation, atmosphere, tension. Once the world is dark, grim, lonely and atmospheric, that’s when zombies start being scary.
Still, there are quite a number of other tricks to pull with zombies.
Make them ambiguous! Some of my favorite uses of zombies are when they appear to be something else entirely. One of my friends’ games that I borrowed involved a group of FBI agents lurking around in recent-post-Katrina New Orleans, being stalked by what could be either looters or walking dead. My Weird Wars game used a lot of zombies spread all over the place; technically they were humans infected by a Lovecraftian parasite, but let’s not split hairs. Nobody realized they were zombies until they entered fisticuffs with them, and found out after one’s brain case had been split open. In any case, making your zombies act more like something else—or, rather, less like zombies—is a neat trick to play early on, before your players have figured out what exactly they’re in the middle of.
Description! These are rotting, horrible un-creatures. Play up the five senses you may forget to describe: how bad they smell, the squishing sounds they make, the bits hanging off their open rib-cages and their empty eye sockets pecked clean by birds.
People you know! This is a trick that’s showing up with some frequency now: have someone the character knows, or one of the characters, become infected. How long they have before turning, and how the group deals with the problem, now becomes its own narrative driving force. Maybe it can be staved off with something grotesque: eating or using something from a zombie, mayhaps.
In other cases, have a player run into somebody they knew: unless they were already established early on, don’t expect too much roleplaying other than “I’ll miss you” *blam*, but it’s a great time to run fear or sanity checks after blowing away a close friend.
Plague! Again, a new but well-used development. How each plague spreads is different: in some cases, you need to die by zombie attack, while others just need contact, or a simple zombie bite.
Conserving Resources! Not just ammo and food, which will be in short supply during a zombiepocalypse, but also game resources. If you’re in a system that uses bennies or bonus points that can be spent for ingame bonuses, cut down on those: only allow them to be spent ahead of time. No rerolls or post-roll bonuses puts more emphasis on the dice, making it into a make-or-break event instead of something the players have security nets to cover.
Zombie Flavors! Fast zombies, burning zombies, exploding zombies, tough zombies, zombie animals, zombies who can use simple items/guns… the purist in me thinks these are pure cop-out, but if you’re playing a zombie game, your players might want (or might not expect) a variety in undead. Or you could just change them up altogether, and make them into something else entirely… the creatures in I Am Legend were theoretically vampires, acted like zombies, and were unique to that story/film, for example.
Play the other side! Here’s one that I always wanted to do: subvert the trope and have the players play semi-intelligent zombies. Combine aspects of the zombie genre with a heavy dose of White Wolf-style introspection and “personal horror.” Probably a bit too roleplay-heavy and cerebral for most people, but I think it’s a viable idea. (Yes, it’s Harrowed from Deadlands as a party mechanic.)
Also, check out Libris Mortis if you’re into Pathfinder or d20. It’s one of the greatest d20 supplements, and worth every penny.
I’ve been in two games where lackluster atmosphere killed any attempt at horror. Atmosphere is what makes or breaks horror; without it, there’s nothing to be afraid of.
The first one was in my ex-roommate’s Shadowrun game. Our run was to infiltrate some old “mortuary” in the Projects, only we spent over half the session trying to get into the damn place. We showed up to its location only to find two smokestacks jutting out from a lawn in-between some apartment buildings; any attempt to get into what’s now obviously a crematorium were dashed. (Apparently it wasn’t connected to the city grid—in the projects—at all.)
That game (and session) can be a poster-child for weak GMing, but the capstone was when it turned into a horror adventure. In his description the GM casually threw out that a line about the “bumpy unevenness” of the pitch-black wall. I immediately went, “Oh, so it’s a wall made of skulls covered in crematorium soot,” which got me a scowl. It’s an interesting idea—a stock horror motif—but it’s too predictable, as I proved. A better way would have been for the lights to go out, and have some character feel their way along the walls, describe the texture, and when the group finally turned on a flashlight they’d see the bones now that the PC’s hand had wiped the char away.
Or something. It ended up turning into rock-em sock-em zombies with two necromancers—the GM had been reading Shadowrun: Augmentation—and that was pretty short and easy (due to time constraints). Never mind that the horror mood was lost after a frustrating hour trying to find sewer mains, electrical outlets, water pipes, ducts, crawlways, service hatches, or anything else we could use as a point of egress. (The “real entrance” was found by one of our NPCs, which was a secret tunnel in the basement of one of the three apartments.)
The other was one of Keving’s Dark Heresy games. After a bad roll on a random warp feedback chart, we found ourselves pursued by a Greater Unbound Demon; abandoning ship, Keving merged us into a space hulk, an abandoned tech ship in the void of space. For the first ten minutes or so, he layered the details on thick, of flickering hazard lights and darkened corridors, but suddenly stopped the description. When several previously missing players showed up next session, they figured the ship was in new and pristine condition—they’d missed the description.
Things went downhill, again due to some mistakes in GM-player communication. Only half the group showed up, which was problematic; without a driving focus, we just sat around on the bridge. What made things worse—and broke Keving’s otherwise fine description—was telling us that the ship’s engines and power systems were “off;” Rich attempted to turn them on, which led to an argument on semantics (“off” versus “non-functional”) which lasted on and off for over two hours. Keving was frustrated by the griefing, Matt was bored, and I gave up and started my German homework.
The next session was pure botched horror. Keving didn’t bother repeating any description from the last session, so the two players who’d missed out imagined they were in some ultra-sterile, ultra-clean, brightly lit spaceship. The loss of atmosphere was a major blow; if Keving had expanded on his description, and painted a picture of a rusting, dilapidated, lights-flickering-silently space hulk, it could have been salvageable.
Next, things broke down into horribly predictable pacing. Eventually, the group split up, with me (the Tech Priest) and Matt’s Guardsman into the ship to the hold to jump-start the engines. Here it broke down into the atypical haunted house: we’d see blood leaking out from under a door or section of wall, and take aim at it, just before the obligatory weird horror jumped out. That was it: we’d see blood, or hear something, and then something would jump out suddenly, and we’d shoot it dead. Little to no description, too much foresight; the illogical design was worst, like this space hulk was some haunted house carnival ride. (Some Doom III/Half-Life style “corpses pulled into crawlspaces moments would have helped.) Horror’s biggest strength is the unknown, knowing that there is a threat but not where it is or how to counter it. Predictability kills all of that.
There are dozens of good ways to handle this situation; the first thing that comes to my mind is using other tactile senses. Hearing some scuttling off in the dark, the occasional noise heard only by one person, the feeling that something is watching you… that would have been fantastic. Having two characters walk down a winding corridor, killing everything that jumps out at them isn’t scary; unlike in a movie, yelling “Surprise!” doesn’t work in a game. Instead, Keving should have worked on atmosphere and the isolation of leaving the group: make us wonder what’s out there, why it’s following us, how to get rid of it, rather than assume it’s just more of the things we’ve been killing every couple of corridors.
Interesting to note, both examples involved things breaking down before the horror mode is turned on. Handling players is a critical skill, as is thinking on your feet; some improv would have killed either of the two examples rather than make them into horrible memories and some of our group’s memes.
The Shadowrun example was a perfect horror set-piece setup, but too much time was spent finding its single illogical point of access. (The only other thing we could think of was to rappel down the smokestacks, only we didn’t have any rope or climb skills.) If the GM had allowed one of the many “use a common access point” options we’d thought up, I don’t think we would have been as frustrated and uncaring as we were: if this building is so janky that it’s in the middle of the city-funded Projects, but not connected to the city grid, that we need an NPC to hand-wave us into the building, I’m preparing for GM railroading, not serious horror.
Dark Heresy could have been handled much, much better. I’ve had semantics issues between myself and players every now and then—the picture in the GM’s mind is always clearer than what the GM can tell the players in words and maps. This was the worst example I’d ever heard. A simple correction would have worked, but instead, Keving and Rich dug in their heels, which left everyone else bored. The second half of the space hulk session (and final session of that game) didn’t improve our investment, and Keving didn’t try to hook the players who’d missed the previous game. Atmosphere could have made up for the poorly designed “haunted house” feel that the session had, and having all the players interested would have worked wonders.
No, not that kind of fudge. Get out of this thread and into your local Kilwan’s Chocolates. Dam fudgies.
No, I’m talking about fudging in a roleplaying game.
At one point, Matt and I were talking about the use of GM screens. I can’t remember ever seeing used as indented since I started gaming in the ’90s (and back then we were all cheap, and used the top half of the Axis & Allies box). Most of the time somebody brings one along only for quick reference, not to hide rolls. (Dark Heresy screens are a necessity; White Wolf games, not so much.) Matt was wondering why people don’t use them as heavily any more, and in response, I postulated that it’s a change in perspective regarding GM fudging; alter the main reason to have a screen—to keep the GM’s rolls hidden—and that alteration affects how screens are used.
There’s been a big backlash against GM fudging, and the shift is taking things farther and farther away from the screen’s origin. Originally it was a way to add distance and mystery to the referee: the GM is important, the GM rolls for things you shouldn’t know about, hence the barrier between GM and player. The downside was that some people used this as an excuse to cheat: keeping notes and rolls hidden in order to keep the game going where they wanted it to go, giving them an edge over their players. (Yes, this would be the adversarial GM, the guy nobody likes and everybody has at least run into once.)
The only person I’ve seen who used a screen in recent memory was for the terrible D&D game Matt and I played in, and he fit the cheating, adversarial GM to a T. He had a pair of identical dice which he called his “player-slayers,” which would always happen to roll 18s. (Or higher.) What he thought nobody noticed was that he’d set up one with an 18 showing and just roll the other one behind the screen. He also had a habit of rolling better-than-average damage. Things like that.
So a lot of gamers have moved away from screens because of the preponderance of fudge; most games and gamers I’ve known roll out in the open. It’s a common habit for many GMs to fudge: roll the dice, decide it’s better for some reason to choose a different number, and go with that. And there are weird crusades against this kind of GM on the internet. Most opinions fall into three categories:
1.) If you’re rolling dice but not taking the dice’s result, even if it means my character dies, why bother using dice at all? The dice should dictate the game/story, leaving everything to random chance, because that’s how the best games go.
2.) Fudging is a totally acceptable helper in the GM’s toolkit, and should be used as frequently as the GM decides is correct in order to help guide the story/group/campaign into where it properly should be. The Gamemaster, not the dice, dictates the story/game, because that’s how the best games go.
3.) The GM should rarely, if at all, alter what the dice have rolled, usually in order to make sure lower-level characters can survive. Instead the GM should modify numbers and results outside of random chance: increase/decrease the number of monsters, their hit points, or the damage dealt, for example. There should be a balance between random luck influencing the game, but the GM should be there to make sure the party doesn’t have to suffer through long runs of bad luck, because that’s how the best games go.
I’m kind of at a loss as to how and why there is so much vitriol on the subject of fudging—well, gamers and the internet explains a lot. A lot of it comes back to The Golden Rule (something the people on the White Wolf forums love to bitch back and forth over), and what exactly game mechanics are: set in stone, or flexible guidelines which can be rolled around in order to provide the best gaming experience. Needless to say, I’m a supporter of the latter: the Golden Rule is there for a reason, people show up to games for a reason, and it’s the GM’s job to make things as fun (or interesting, or complicated, or whatever your cup of tea is) as possible.
It is, of course, a trust thing, and dependent on personality. There’s also a huge debate about “running a story” and “running a series of loosely interconnected events which were planned prior by a third party.” (Not just the semantics, but the idea that the GM “railroading”/manipulating things because it’d be fun or fit the story is a good/bad idea.) Trust is important for gamers—we didn’t trust our D&D DM to do anything fun or non-adversarial, and left his game—and I can see why there’s such a hate against GM fiat. (Not that I support it, or think it’s a bit inane, but I can see it.) It’s a lesson in finding the right group for your game.
As for fudging… by rolling openly in front of other people, nine times out of ten, there’s no way to fudge, so I don’t. Some times I’d really, really like it if a monster’s special ability or feature went off—because it’d be fun, or make things challenging, or so that the monster won’t die in two rounds—but it doesn’t stop me from rolling with the dice. That said, I have fudged every once in a while; usually it didn’t break anything, or didn’t matter to begin with. The last time I thought about fudging was running Legacy of Fire, when an undead’s symbol of discord ability went off; as the PCs had been making Will saves with DCs of 24 and 26 with regularity, a DC 19 looked pitiably small, so I thought about bumping it up. Turns out I didn’t have to after all; their highest roll was a twelve. Hilarity (and another Yantar the Monk death) ensued.
I’d align myself closest with the third opinion on fudging. There’s a lot of trust the players are putting into you not to cheat or screw them over, but more important, you have to make things fun but challenging. Most of what I ended up fudging in Legacy was enemy hit points and spell selection, in my attempts to make monsters survive more than the surprise round, which couldn’t even slow the PCs down. Currently in Serpent’s Skull, I end up adding monsters to make up for the stupid-large party (and the Slow track). I felt somewhat vindicated when I saw James Jacobs mention on the Paizo forums that it’s a perfectly valid tactic and something they did in their games.
Fudging is generally a bad tactic—usually, but not always, it’s lumped in with “rookie mistakes” and “adversarial GMing” and “I’m the GM this is MY story” kind of crap. But there are many times some kind of fudging or Handwavium is necessary, like adding health or quietly doing away with a few extra fire giants. (The latter happens real easy when it’s 3AM and you’re not using a battlemap.) When the PCs are lower level, or running at half-strength, or are otherwise disadvantaged, I’ll fudge to get them to survive… until they’ve learned the good heal spells or have ample medkits, at which point they’re on their own. That said, I don’t pull punches when blatant stoopid is involved: deciding your third-level characters can “take” a T-Rex or purple worm will earn your the requisite three “Are you sure you want to do that?” questions; then you’re free to become worm food. And I consider increasing the opposition a valid tactic—reinforcements, max health, or whatever—if the PCs are consistently having too easy a time. Having a few pushover fights is fun and good for player morale; having a non-challenging campaign is no fun to run nor play in.
When I last bothered to do a Supernatural Horror in Gaming post—last week’s doesn’t count—it was about Lovecraft. I was reading a lot of Lovecraft at the time, and figured it would be the first of several posts on Lovecraft and gaming (or, rather, Lovecraftian gaming); most of all, while the tropes and recurring themes of the Mythos work are useful, they’re not clear-cut helpers for running a horror game. As we’re counting down to Halloween and the witching season, it’s time to get the old horror cogs grinding again.
A Cthulhu game is a very different animal from most roleplaying games you’ll run or play in. While there are any number of flavors a Cthulhu game can come in—the characters can be pulp heroes, or D&D adventurers, or elite military operatives—the tried-and-true formula for Call of Cthulhu is normal boring player characters, who may or may not have horrible secrets, who stumble upon something much larger than themselves. As everyday working-class joes, the players don’t have access to mystic spells or ‘mecha or the big guns; they have to survive by their wits and through teamwork together.
Neither of which usually happens, of course; most Cthulhu games are one-nighters or short tournament games for conventions, since that’s all the time needed for the characters to die, go insane, and murder everybody else, hopefully in that order.
People tell me you can run full-length Cthulhu campaigns; I’m kind of skeptical. Between the fragility of the characters, and finding 2-6 players who are interested in the methodical, oppressive grind of the Mythos, I just don’t see it going on for years and years. Not that I think it wouldn’t be fun, but it’s hard enough to find people interested in a space opera game, much less “let’s play ‘you’re a speck of dust in the eyes of these all-powerful extraterrestrial entities, and will probably go insane and die from learning a fraction of their secrets,’ mkay?” Your group may prove me different; power to you!
Choose Your Style: The Characters Have A Chance!
There’s been a movement in recent years to make characters more capable, closer to pulp heroes. The Mythos monsters can be killed, or at least subdued for another millenia, or otherwise driven off before they finish eating the world. The two-fisted protagonists can still die, depending on the GM, but they at least have a chance of success. A lot of games with Mythos aspects also fall into this genre: it’s hard to imagine D&D or Pathfinder characters falling to their insane deaths, unless the module is built that way, and CthulhuTech walks the fine borderline between oppressive-depressive and awesome anime heroes.
This is another style of game entirely, and a lot of purists don’t see it as truly Lovecraftian: Lovecraft’s horror was the realization within people that they are nothing more than insignificant specks of dust, lost in the void where greater cosmic powers shake the rafters of the heavens.
Choose Your Style: Grand Theft Normal Boring Life
The standard Call of Cthulhu game puts the characters as normal people: nothing out of the ordinary, nothing too powerful. We’re talking average joes here, bartenders and teachers and whatnot. The Mythos horrors are even more deadly and powerful when the insignificant specks of dust are insignificant specks to the rest of the dust cloud. In theory, characters are less likely to try action-movie heroics when they’re playing pencil-pushers; in reality, when they do, their lackluster characters are unable to pull off anything awesome.
“Gaming the system” and making a soldier or cop won’t actually help; when that character inevitably goes insane, they’re just giving the GM even more fodder to kill the other characters—firearms and/or explosives. The way to game the system is not to play: no matter what the players make, the GM will have some trick up their sleeve. Players may think that having big guns is an asset, but when they go insane (or get corrupted), the other players may think twice on their choices in life.
All Cthulhu games share one general theme in common: investigation. The characters will, at some point early on, hear about some strange occurrence or organization, and will (hopefully) hit the books. It may sound dull—and it is a reason people don’t like Cthulhu games, because they spend so much time researching things that won’t matter shortly since they’ll all die—but it is a stable trope of the genre.
There are some advantages to doing all this research. Knowing what they’re going up against could be a major asset to the PCs, if they choose to pay attention and plan accordingly. It may also be a chance to learn some of the antagonists’ weaknesses: maybe the ancient voodoo cult was terrified by a certain symbol. Or maybe the players could get a bonus to some rolls against the bulbous horror (which would work really well in, say, tactical high fantasy; I’m thinking of the archivist class from Heroes of Horror here).
Madness and Sanity
A central theme for Lovecraft, and something most games latch on to. There’s lots of fun little bits to play around with here. You can always describe the world in more and more nightmarish tones as the characters’ sanity drips away. And it’s fun to play the paranoia card: if someone has something they’re hiding, have the less-sane characters notice it. Or perhaps have someone find something that could be read as incriminating another character. The less sane the characters are, the more reason you have to give them ideas that their companions are actually working against them. Work that inter-party conflict; it’ll come out eventually, when the characters go fully insane.
Characters that Hate Each Other
Speaking of paranoia and party conflict… many great Call of Cthulhu adventures feature pre-generated characters with pre-generated reasons to hate each other. Long-standing hatreds, jealousies, phobias or disorders. Some adventures have intricately detailed histories of why the characters are so messed up, why they hate one another so much, or other reasons to build party conflict. The best one I’ve seen was from one of the World of Cthulhu magazines, where the characters were inbred country folk on a rural island village. Each one had a very grim past, filled with dark secrets; some were jealous of other PCs, while others had personal reasons to hate someone else.
Trust and mistrust are two of the most important tropes to horror, and two that come up the most in a Lovecraft game. Any reason to not trust another PC is another reason the monsters will win: if the party’s focusing on screwing each other over, or are too preoccupied with other things, they’re not going to be looking into the dark for monsters. And are going to be much less likely to do the “working together” parts necessary to survive.
Nobody Believes You
Let’s play What If. What if you uncovered some dark, foreboding secret about that traveling religious group that recently set up shop in town, revealing tales about human sacrifice and elder gods coming to destroy and slaughter, finding all sorts of horrible truths about this outwardly friendly group of pacifists? And what if you took this information to the authorities: the first harness bull walking the beat that you run across, or perhaps the lieutenant at the station itself? What would happen?
Most likely, you’d end up with a breth test on the spot, followed by a night in the slammer to cool you off, and a drug test to boot. Or they might laugh at you to your face and shove you aside, continuing on. Or they might send you to a psych ward, and you’ll end up in… a sanitarium. Or, if you’re really unlucky, the chief of police is in on it, and throws you to the wolves—in this case, the cult you just stumbled upon. And you already know how that’s going down.
Which is why it’s never a good idea to go running to the authorities in a Cthulhu game. Either nobody will pay attention to you, or something bad will happen, be it a $20 fine or death by cannibalism. The only option is to keep delving, looking for more evidence (and a good contact to unload it on), or to prevent the cult’s goals by your own power.
Baiting and-or Switching
Probably the biggest problem with a Cthulhu game: if you’ve played one, you’ve played them all. The first time players run through a Cthulhu game, they expect something other than what they’re in for: sure, it’s got a legendary reputation for character-slaughtering, but would is the GM cruel enough to really… Oh. Apparently so.
After the first couple Cthulhu games, your players probably won’t be looking forward to another one: the goal isn’t exactly to kill their characters, but that’s what happens nine times out of ten. (Unless you’re being very, very nice and softball the hell out of everything.) On a macro level, people are investing a lot of time into the game, and not all players it “productive” or “fun” to continually play in campaigns where they already know what’s going to happen.
So, the first rule: if the characters don’t want to play a Cthulhu game, either don’t run one, or better yet, don’t tell them it’s a Cthulhu game. At this point in time, you can find a roleplaying game in every flavor with elements of the Mythos in it: Cthonian Stars and CthulhuTech for science fiction; 4e D&D and Pathfinder have elements for tactical high fantasy; Trail of Cthulhu and Realms of Cthulhu for pulpy “heroic horror.” If you don’t want to pull a complete bait-and-switch, run one of the pulpy, action-heavy game where players not only have a high chance of survivability, they also can allow the players to save the world.
There’s a good reason I push so heavily for GM improv and the ability to think on one’s feet: it’s a critical skill for every GM to master, because not mastering it leads to… Bad GMing. Not always Bad GMing, but being too inflexible or stalling too often can give this terrible feeling. Become too inflexible and you’re railroading players, and few experienced gamers are willing to chug along on someone else’s rails. Stalling to think is a valid tactic, but doing it too much makes you look bad; it’s a sad but true statement that people (consciously or subconsciously) judge you from how you act and speak, and being the GM puts you in the forefront of the social spotlight.
The opposite of improv and rolling with things is pretty bad: the hide-bound, “my story my game” GM who follows the adventure to a letter, without any deviation therein. Most games fall somewhere in the middle: the GM sticks roughly to an established outline, the players occasionally come up with things that the GM works into the campaign. It’s a valid middle ground; not every game should follow every niggling little thing the PCs come up with, but they shouldn’t be shackled to a single linear progression either. The advantage of tabletop RPGs over films, books, and video games is their amazing amounts of flexibility; harness that power.
So, you’ve finally got your campaign rolling; the players are diving into the plot, trying to follow-up on the mysterious death of a local acquaintance involving random power tools and a greater unbound demon. The players have finally found the info on the deceased’s underworld contact, but—what’s this! Isn’t the last name of this black-market fence the same as that of a minor demon lord? Suddenly, the PCs are off investigating this minor cult, under the impression that it’s somehow involved with the murder. The only problem is that the GM hasn’t planned or expected this; it’s all player-driven information.
The average game will involve a lot of on-the-spot improv from the GM, from a number of factors. The chief one being that the players are not the same person as the GM: they all have different views, goals, and perspectives, so no matter what the GM did to set up an event, there are countless red herrings for the players to hook themselves on. Roleplaying games, by nature, are highly flexible organisms with a lot of give-and-take on each side, and players sidetracking themselves into new and interesting plots is a good example.
There’s only three ways you can go with this; two of them involve changing a lot of details. Hence why the art of GM improv is one of the most critical skills for a GM to have.
Option 1 – Keep Going with What You Had Planned
You’ve set up this killer adventure, or bought this awesome module, and had everything perfectly planned out… except that Morphy’s Laws of Combat kicked in, and no plan survives contact with the players. So, plain and simple, you can always just have it lead to finite dead ends, and try to push the game back on target by getting it through to the players that what they’re doing has little or no basis in the plot.
Perhaps the kinder, gentler option is to just tell the players that they’re sidetracked and just circumvent all the in-character roleplaying. That way, they don’t sink a ton of effort and time into something, which becomes frustratingly wasted when they’re told how far from the truth they were.
But if the players are sinking all this time and effort into it, getting really involved, you might want to consider the next two options. It signals that the players are interested in what they’re doing, are being proactive, and deserve some reward (after a good challenge, that is). A lot of Bad GMing I’ve seen falls into the horrible death pit that is the “my game is my story and you cannot deviate from it in a slightest” school of GMing. You’re not rewarding or endearing yourself to the players if you keep telling them to get back on the one true path.
On the flipside, you have spent all this time and effort into designing the adventure, so it’s a personal stylistic choice. If you prefer the GM to wear the big hat, and be the only person wearing the big hat, then stick by your guns; though the more time the PCs spend on the subject, the less fun it’s going to be for them when it turns out to be all for naught.
Option 2 – Roll with the Punches
Well, if where the players are going is more interesting than what I planned, and they’re getting into it, doing Call of Cthulhu levels of research and investigation, maybe I’ll rewrite this on the fly. It really is an evil doomsday cult trying to bring back some minor god, using organized crime as a front, or whatever. The details need not be complex—as long as you can get through the session, you’ll have all week to figure out the rest and retcon the details. This level of proactive player involvement is something I love; the players should be rewarded for this creativity, even if the reward’s “the plot they came up is used somehow.” The best cases of this usually involve player paranoia, but even those are worth playing on.
One GM I know would come up with excuses to wander off and think about what the hell was going on whenever we players came up with something outlandish or unforeseen, usually to save ourselves from being screwed over by someone. Most of the time it would be a bathroom break, or going to get food, or checking on something, but the frequency of his “breaks”—and that they were always around the time when his plans were unraveled—was a dead giveaway.
Improv skills don’t come overnight, and if you’re having real trouble, just tell your players you need ten minutes or so to “read up” on your notes/the adventure. Or just out and out tell them that you need to think about this since it’s not something you originally planned. It may ruin some of the verisimilitude, as well as your GM reputation, but learning takes experience, and experience takes time.
Option 3 – Weave the Players’ Plot into the Game
Probably the best middle ground: take what they’re doing and weave it into what you have planned. Maybe there really is a doomsday cult, but it’ll become the end-boss, and this is just vague foreshadowing for future sessions as it grows in importance and intensity. Or maybe it’s a subplot, something for the players to stumble upon and solve while dealing with the main plot at the same time.
This way, the players don’t completely go off into left field investigating worthless stuff, but it doesn’t take away from whatever you had planned. In fact, nine times out of ten, this is beneficial: the players are handing you an established hook they want to see resolved, especially the more work they put into it; the least you could do is throw them a bone.
In this day and age, there’s a sizable chunk of gaming systems for a horror game to choose from, covering all the major genres and styles. But how do they deal with horror? Any game can be an awesome horror game through a good GM: description, atmosphere, working those horror tropes and playing your cards right. But what separates one horror system from another?
Generally, they fall into three big categories; there’s no real downside to any of them, and they’re just my quick observations on the subject.
Games with Horror Elements Attached
Most game systems (and settings) aren’t built to cater solely to horror; instead, what horror mechanics they have are attached to the rules, and amplified by their detailed setting and atmosphere. Maybe the game doesn’t go into as much depth with their horror, or perhaps it splits its focus between horror and another mindset. Not being designed around horror means that the GM will have to do a lot more legwork, but mastering atmosphere will go a long way to making any game a horror game, and any good horror game comes with plenty of great atmosphere.
Ravenloft is a great example of this; Dungeons & Dragons is not a game with a horror mindset, and AD&D was no exception, yet Ravenloft managed to pull it off. The mechanical changes were minimum, and largely to create an air of the unknown—many spells and powers didn’t work as-written in the Player’s Handbook—topped off with corruption features for the GM to “taint” the players through bribes of power. The biggest thing going for Ravenloft wasn’t the tacked-on mechanics, which were slick; instead, it was the setting, atmosphere, and some of the best horror advice for the GM ever penned in a RPG supplement.
This style of game combines form and function by making its horror elements a major part of the core system. Instead of being a normal game that can cope with horror, this would be a horror game that can run without its horror elements.
Deadlands is the game that comes to my mind first. It won a stack of awards in the late ’90s, and for good reason: it is one of the best combinations of form and function in gaming. I’m not just talking about the horror elements, but also the western elements: the Tombstone Epitaph tabloid sections, how the character sheets had little bullets on the sides for the player to track ammo using a paperclip, the text’s vernacular. The supernatural horror elements were highly engrained with the western ones: hexslingers cast spells by making a poker draw against manitou demons; Guts checks (fear checks) and phobias were a major part of the system; characters could, would, and did die in shootouts, only to get back up as an undead Harrowed. And there were the titular deadlands. The game had a fantastic setting, filled with plenty of atmosphere and isolation, carefully tweaking the Old West into the darker, sinister, grittier Weird West.
Games which Create Horror by Character-Threat Disparity
The smallest chunk of horror games are those which create an atmosphere of tense, visceral horror from the vast difference in power level between players and monsters. Players are more powerless and weak, while the monsters are true supernatural entities, vastly more powerful than human comprehension allows. Most authority figures don’t believe the PCs, or just don’t care, or are in league with the evil; thus the players have limited resources and no backup.
I’m actually thinking less Call of Cthulhu and more Little Fears. At least, how I’d run Little Fears. The game is based around children who are terrified by the bogeymen who live under their beds and in their closets (in actuality, doorways to Closetland); this is a game where you play terrified children fighting back against the darkness. The idea takes one of the most vulnerable archetype, children, and sets them against the nightmare realm of soulless children and terrifying monsters. Your parents don’t believe you, of course, and as a child it’s not like you have access to weaponry or magic or anything. You do have your power of believe, but even that can work against you. There’s a huge disparity between a child and a monster, and Little Fears does a great job with it.
So, Where Do Other Games Fit In?
Don’t Rest Your Head: While not entirely horror, it is built around the horrific Nightmare City; madness and horror are close enough to be linked easily. The system is tight yet simple: you roll a dice pool, made up of your Madness, your Discipline, and your Exhaustion; whichever one rolls the highest determines your fate. Rolling too much Madness causes the world to take a step further into Nightmareville; rolling your Exhaustion can cause you to crash, breaking your insomniac connection with the world… but not the connection of the nightmares to you. As an indie game with its own new system, DRYH falls into the second category, as its mechanics are specifically built to fit with the setting and mindset.
CthulhuTech: This is a hard one to place, if only because the game design is balanced between cinematic anime-esque mecha action, and traditional Lovecraftian horror. It has most of the traditional horror mechanics, such as fear and phobia tables, and a variety of Lovecraftian monsters, and a gritty nigh-apocalyptic ending. But CthulhuTech is a lot more of a epic action game with horror elements, where characters have many options to put down these foes at their disposal: characters can be psychics or mecha jockeys or use Mythos symbiotes or spells to fight Mythos creatures. I’d put it in the first category. The game never felt as oppressively horrific as CoC or Deadlands, even though its horror elements are on the surface.
World of Darkness: WoD certainly is a horror setting, but is it a horror game? The characters are notably more powerful than the vast armies of “average joes,” and while there are plenty of threats to put PCs in their place on the feeding order, having supernatural powers gives players a major advantage. I’d file it in the first category, though it could squeeze into the second category: it was first billed as “a game of personal horror,” after all, and most of that was supposed to come out via roleplaying.
Weird Wars: Are we talking d20 or Savage Worlds? In either case, the first category; both Weird Wars are excellent examples of horror setting and atmosphere, but the mechanics aren’t based around horror. Instead, characters exist within a horror world, but aren’t as influenced by the horrors. Weird War II always felt like it wanted to be a serious historical game in its ratio of horror elements to timelines and overviews.
Call of Cthulhu: Probably the only other game to fall into the third category; also, the biggest and most popular. Characters are specks of dust in the eyes of the Great Old Ones, and are treated accordingly.
This is something that’s growing to bother me in the midst of the ongoing Edition Wars D&D is currently plagued with, not just between 3.5, Pathfinder, and 4e but also between those and the various OSR factions as well. And the problem would be that “such-and-such mechanics” don’t facilitate roleplaying, dumb down the game, etc., therefore making at least one of the above a Bad Game in the eyes of many people.
What makes it painfully laughable is that compared to my indie-hippie storygames (namely FATE, and The One Ring once I can afford it), hell even compared to the ’90s RPG paradigm shift (Storyteller, roll-and-keep, Deadlands, etc.), many of these same complaints can be applied to all the various D&D editions. In the grand scheme of things, most of the Edition Wars complaints are hypocritical; being based on personal opinion is one thing, but trying to argue that X is logically and statistically the best vision out there comes across as lacking if you bag on things your chosen system contains.
For example, the “X dumbed down D&D,” the prime contender being the skill system introduced in 3.0, modified for Pathfinder, and revamped for 4th. No need to roleplay or improvise; just roll your die, note your result, and wait for the GM to tell you whether you succeeded or not. Or, the “I rolled X and succeeded, now let’s move on” effect.
And it is part of the mentality for a lot of newer players; it was worst in my Tomb of Horrors game, when one of the two/three 3.5 fanatics got vaguely annoyed when I made him try to improvise or roleplay his rolls. Several other players I’ve had drifted into the same category. I wouldn’t blame video games or mumorpugers like many people do, though; it’s more an issue with newer players, or people who like a good hack-and-slasher, and therefore either based on their knowledge of the game or their style preference.
But while you can blame the rulebooks for lacking the emphasis you’d like on roleplaying, or thinking creatively, or putting themselves into character or whatever… This is all up to the GM: if you don’t emphasize those values, teach the player those values, or explain those values to them from day one, it’s hardly fair to take it out on them. If you want them to roleplay their Diplomacy check, tell them that. And cut the guy a little slack, people only get better at roleplaying with practice; it doesn’t come easy for everyone.
And even mechanics that sound bad still have a lot of potential. Take 4th’s Skill Challenges: roll a certain number of successes before you roll a certain number of failures. This is an idea that I thought was idiotic at first, but grew on me. If all you’re doing is making six skill rolls, yeah, it’ll be boring as dirt. Roleplay it out, and make it a little more interesting. The examples under the link have a lot more depth than “roll X skills, total five successes, don’t screw up three times or more.” There’s a series that replicates a prison break, and another about rescuing people from a burning city. Roleplayed out, those could be pretty awesome set-pieces.
Personally, I like pushing for a little more roleplaying, even when doing Pathfinder. The whole “all in-character, no rolling dice” game isn’t my thing—there’s a reason I don’t like Vampire lARPS. Not that I like RPGA/Pathfinder Society mini-module Monty Hauls either. But this is a “roleplaying” game, and even in high-crunch games like Pathfinder, roleplaying has its place. (This is also coming from my Exalted background, where describing actions can net you stunt dice, and from my unnatural ability to yammer in-character when Matt is nearby.)
Another big complaint that comes to mind are the use of miniatures… something that has plagued the game since it split forth from the head of Chainmail and became the Little Brown Books, yet an argument which has reared its ugly head frequently. 4th isn’t the first game to push for using maps and minis in a game; it’s hard to imagine that Pathfinder and 3.5 players have forgotten 3.x, where they’re explicitly pushed for in the DMG, and 3.5, where all the speed values conveniently listed the distance in squares. Or that most versions of D&D had rules for attacks of opportunity, reach, special attacks (charges, trips), and the like. Glancing through my AD&D books, all of those features were a part of the game in the ’80s… even grappling was included, in AD&D’s trademark variant subsystems. Hell, AD&D measured distance in inches. No amount of “NOT IN MAI D&D” can apply to miniatures and maps.
Besides, it’s such a simple thing to leave out if it bothers you: I’m a sucker for maps, so I like to draw out battlemaps or throw down some gaming tiles, but there are a number of situations that don’t need them. Not every encounter is epic enough to necessitate the ~10 minutes spent drawing a tactical map. Minis and maps speed up combat and play, but a large part of RPGs is, and has always been, using your mind. One big bitch about the new Pathfinder miniatures line is that they might not have (because the spoiler isn’t released yet) the all-important commoner miniatures. Proponents argue that they could be put in “rare” slots, so customers end up with 15 goblin raiders instead of pig farmers. Because I love spending $4 to get a “rare” pair of halflings with pigs and pipes.
On the one hand is the argument that games don’t necessarily need maps, and that it should be kept all in your mind, and any deviation isn’t “roleplaying” but some war/board game aberration; the other is that figures can’t sub-in if they have weapons, that innkeeper and commoner minis are necessary to replicate innkeepers and commoners, and that there are enough situations where these are used to require prepainted $4 figures instead of the cheap batches of metal ones several companies put out. These two extremes exist solely to irritate the hell out of the logical center.
Gamers. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.
Look, I had my knee-jerk reactionary moments about 4th, and while it’s not my ideal system my opinion of it has softened now that it’s actually out. (That it’s having its own weird Edition War issues between the hardbacks and the Essentials just further complicates the Edition War Clusterfuck, and is pretty ironic to boot.) I also had some knee-jerk reactions against 3.0, but for some reason apparently I’m the only person on the internet who actually thought the 3.5 improvements were worth it. (Then again, I didn’t spend any money 3.0 books; the ones I own were gifts.) It’s not like the game system you’re chest-beating for didn’t have its issues—I seriously can’t think of a game I own that I can’t find a complaint for, however minor—or that it had a short life and deserved more sourcebooks. (Though Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium could have used a character guide.)
The bottom line: there are no bad games, only bad GMs. Well, bad interpretations of rules and game design. No game actually emphasizes roleplaying (well, besides my indie-hippie storygame swine RPGs), and that’s something a lot of people tend to forget. What emphasizes roleplaying is the GM: the way the GM runs the game, the way challenges and skill checks are handled, that kind of thing. The GM has always been the most important part of the game, because it’s through them that the rules are presented and adjudicated, and the simplest resolution to fix any system you don’t like is to Golden Rule it and cut the Rules-As-Written you don’t like.