Gloam

Gloam is the time immediately after the sun has set. It is the time when the light has fled. Darkness covers the land and the day is far off. In essence, gloam is horror. Rather, it is the beginnings of horror. It’s running-through-the-woods, trip-on-a-root, go-into-the-basement, check-if-he’s-dead horror. Gloam is my method for running RPGs.

Now, I’m not an expert on horror, but I do play one on the internet. If you’re here, reading this, then you’ve probably fallen for that cunning illusion. Let’s get down to it…

In this series of blog posts, I’m going to assemble some of my thoughts on running horror RPGs. Those posts will then be assembled on a page for ease of access. You can feel free to use any of the ideas you see here to improve (hopefully) your next horror table-top gaming experience.

Introduction:

The gloaming is the edge where night meets day. It’s a game about the fading of the light in the face of an incontestable darkness. Of course, the light can technically persist, but only with some quick-thinking and careful planning. Created in the void of systems between gaming and story-telling, Gloam attempts to pare down the elements of meta-gaming and rules-lawyering that pull one out of the experience; it is, after all, a horror game.

Simplification and freedom put a strong emphasis on imagination and a heavy burden on the part of the story-teller to make decisions fairly and on the players to trust in those decisions.

Atmosphere, attitude and immersion are key elements. Psychological warfare is also encouraged in playful, creative ways. Chance plays a role (roll lol) in deciding the direction, occasionally, but a clever move by the player should always be rewarded.

Help your players become attached to their characters, but don’t be afraid to kill them. There has to be some risk involved.

Keep in mind the strength, but also the intense fragility of the human being. A large portion of the terror comes from that weakness. After all, what is a small group of regular humans in the face of the hordes of the unknown?

Things to know before we begin:

Horror is a special kind of difficult. Much like comedy, it relies on timing, atmosphere, meaning, delivery and engagement to truly make an impact. All of those are important, really. Losing one damages the others. It’s so, so easy to screw up. It doesn’t take much. You know that tension that builds up in a room, that stress, that permeates the air in an awkward or dangerous situation? That’s the kind of tension you want to be able to create. Remember, also, how easy that tension is to break and, once broken, how difficult it is to pick up the pieces afterwards. It goes downhill pretty fast. However, that does not mean that your game needs to be all tension, all the time. In fact, that’s detrimental. See? It’s a special kind of difficult.

This is the reason why so many horror movies make asides for sex and comedy. They’ve got the same type of physiological arousal, but they have totally different tones. They let you stay ramped up, while also letting you relax. If you do all heavy atmosphere, then it’ll become routine. Routine, my friend, is the last thing you want.

Horror is about keeping people on their toes and guessing. Of course, this is just one way to engage. There are others, and we’ll cover those, but this will be your bread and butter for a horror role-play. You see, you’ve stepped into an intricate problem. Horror role-play is its own special kind of hell. Unlike video games, you’ve got every command a person can think of at their disposal. They can get up and walk away. They directly affect the atmosphere. If they’re not on-board, then it’s just not happening. Unlike movies, you can’t do jump-scares very effectively (although, I’ve got some tips on that coming up), you can’t sell yourself on gore or visual effects. You won’t (always) have a specifically-timed score helping you out. You can’t control where your audience looks and when. You can’t lock them into a story without a damn good character/player reason (We’ll talk about how they’re different later Pro-tip: horror is aimed directly at the player, but has to interact through the character. That’s your point of attack). Unlike a book, you can’t lock someone into a narrative or guarantee their attention at a scene. There are no do-overs. You don’t have control of most of the characters. Contrivances need to be subtle; your players will know if their characters are getting rail-roaded.

In other words, you need to re-think a lot of the methods that we’re used to seeing being used to scare people. We can still learn from them, and even use a few, but role-play is a whole different beast. Hopefully, you can learn a thing or two from my experiences and add a few of your own. Maybe, together, we’ll even create moments of true horror.

Getting Started:

Even a single night of horror role-play begins far before you ever roll a die. (Hell, you may not even use one.) First thing, you’ll need a group of good role-players. This is absolutely crucial, because, unless you’ve just gathered a group of people to tell ghost-stories to, the success or failure of your attempts to horrify will rely on your players. They need to be able to engage the story and the happenings within it directly and have their characters act like a person would in that situation. Here, meta-gaming will do nothing but melt your atmosphere. Your players can do it, and, hopefully, if you’ve managed things well enough, that will work against them (We’ll get to that part later, too. It’s my favourite). Because, your players will meta-game. They can’t help it, especially if you’ve really got them. Then, it will be their only escape. That’s why we’re going to head them off at the pass.

Okay, you’ve got your group of players. That’s excellent. Keep the group small. The more players you have, the more chance there is that someone will get bored, feel left out after they die (Oh, there will be blood), break character, break the tension, or just use player numbers to overcome your obstacles or atmosphere (a type of meta-gaming). Plus, smaller groups are much easier to organize and fit places (which will make more sense later).

The next thing you do is figure out what kind of story you want to tell. You’re going to need the What, Why, When, How and Where or things right off. Then, if you can, get a basic sketch of your players’ characters. You’re going to need all this information to craft a sterling experience. You want a certain unity of elements to help your players become absorbed by the experience. We’ll cover that in atmosphere, but, for now, we’ll cover why each of these things is important.

Who- Gives you the ability to write personalized encounters, story-lines and decent reasons why your group gets together. Work on creating character dynamics.

What- Knowing what’s going to happen will let you keep things theme-appropriate. Try for “what CAN happen.” Overall, this is the trickiest.

Where- Adds the proper flavour to your events. Is it a familiar place? Easy to visualize? Is it foreign? Is it classic horror? Massive impact on atmosphere.

When- Time of day, passage of days in game, anachronisms need to be weeded out. This is a good place to start your research, since a break in continuity can shatter atmosphere.

Why- Your players don’t have to know this, but (hidden) motivations will help you keep play consistent and events unified. Why DIDN’T it stab him with those scissors?

How- Knowing the series of events leading to your story will let you add, subtract and modify elements of your story on the fly, while retaining a unity of purpose.

Now that you have a loose out-line of the kind of story you want to tell and its elements, it’s time to get writing!

Writing:

…for player freedom

Role-playing games are very open-ended. The suite of potential tools available to your players is limited by imagination and game-master enforcement. I would encourage you to do as little enforcing as possible. If you can get your players to imagine interesting, novel solutions to problems, then you have them engaged. You can run into problems, though.

The first time I ran Gloam, it was a city-wide campaign. I went for a full-scale, county-wide apocalypse. I spent hours writing open-ended script events and making up rules for improvised weapons. I wrote long descriptions and multiple solutions to problems. I slaved over creature design and atmosphere. I crafted an entire room to run the game. Then, about thirty minutes in, my players got in a car and said, “We drive towards the edge of the city.” Oh. They’re just leaving.

For one reason or another, I’d gotten so mixed up in the specifics of the game, that I forgot the overall reason my players were there. I managed to sputter out a weak excuse about giant holes in the road, ripped straight out of Silent Hill, and tailored it to fit the game. It wasn’t a total disaster, but it wasn’t a great start. I suppose the take-away here is that you’re not going to be aware of everything your player thinks to do. My players solved the hospital problem by asking probing questions about its architecture.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I had an architecture-based solution prepared for a one-off puzzle and nothing ready for my players’ attempts to just flee the city. Well, the truth is that I had to cobble it together from three other potential solutions. As you already probably know, running a role-playing session is part story-telling, part improv and part gaming. Your players will hit you with curve-balls, and you’ve got to be ready to dig in and swing. Be confident. The last thing you want your players to think is that they’ve caught you off your guard. Ideally, they’ll think that any subtle dissonance or uncanny scenario is a clue. If you can convince your players to try to dig into the mystery here, you’ve reversed a serious battle.

There are many ways to mitigate this. The least useful of all is to deny your players an action. Once you’ve defined the limits of the experience, your players should be given as much freedom as possible. Naturally, you’ll be puppet-mastering events behind the scenes, but be prepared to let them use a soda machine. Open a door with a crow-bar. Investigate a light. Naturally, they shouldn’t be able to fly if that’s not a part of the world. No four-story back-flips or Matrix-style bullet-play. Your players will understand that, but they’ll be a bit unnerved if they can’t take a nap on a bench.

You can actually benefit a lot from this natural predilection to try things. Small events within the world can help bring it to life, and, if you act quickly enough, you can use those events to drive the central plot. I’m a big fan of letting players sign their own death warrants. That’s why I recommend that you steer away from death-traps or ambushes. When it comes to role-play, it’s never going to be the description of the events that gets your players. It’s going to be the anticipation of those events animated in their imaginations. It’s going to be the other players’ reactions. So, make use of foreshadowing.

To do that in the realm of horror role-play, I come up with a short list of possible clues and multiple routes to acquire them. For instance, in that first game, I had a cult attempting to use the city to complete a large, apocalyptic ritual. Now, in order to let my players in on the events, I had to find a way to let them know it was happening. Here are the avenues they might have used to discover the cultists’ plans:

-One character type was an investigator that was looking into a rash of recent disappearances. He’s in town following up on a leather-bound book one of the families that hired him gave him. It’s written in some strange language and it’s his only lead. The linguist recognizes the ancient language and can decipher the book. It details the rituals and practices of an ancient cult. However, despite the age of the text, the book itself is quite new. The binding is bent in one place. This particular section has clearly seen heavy use. (Unfortunately, neither of these characters was in my player-party)

-Recover a copy of that same book from a dead cultist’s house. The linguist can still translate it.

-The opening scene involves dead kid walking on stage during a reunion dinner. Upon investigating his death, the team discovers his family’s involvement with the cult. This leads them back to the school and the first ritual site.

-If the players stumble upon a ritual site and interrupt it, then they can find a nearby map outlining the other locations.

-If players go to city hall, they can discover the involvement of the Mayor in the cult’s activities, as well as that of the finance officer. If they root through his office for a while, they’ll discover a hidden compartment in his desk. In it, they’ll find financial information and a cultist robe, along with related paraphernalia. With a little thinking, they’ll figure out that the cult has sunk a large amount of money into renovations on particular buildings, as well as made several land purchases. Investigating those areas will lead players to the ritual sites.

-Interrogating a cultist with yield some of the data. Interrogating many of them will uncover the truth.

-If the security guard is in the party, he can reveal that he worked for the cult. He didn’t know much, but he knows where a lot of man-power was concentrated.

Any one of those situations will lead players down the same rabbit hole. All of them point players in the right direction, and they can be picked up and employed almost anywhere, especially the “How-To Cultist” guide. Yet, they allow your players the freedom to discover the truth in their own way, and the extra work you put in gives you the draw-cards you need in case your players throw something at you you’re not quite prepared for. Now, you’re prepared without being prepared. Although, if all else fails, you can go the old mysterious text-message route. I’ve had to pull that one out a couple times, I’m ashamed to admit. Just… make it make sense.

I find it helps to have someone to write with. You can’t be expected to see your work from every angle, because you’re right in the middle of it. There are things you know about the world you’ve created that you can’t just forget. However, those things might be completely foreign to your players. It helps if you create a unified world, where the rules always apply even-handedly, but having someone on hand to tell you something doesn’t make sense is invaluable. If you can’t find someone who wants to sit and jam out horror riffs, then right your work down. After you’ve finished working on something else, come back to it and see what things you’d think of doing with the information you’re providing.

Taking time to clear your head is incredibly valuable, no matter what you’re working on.

…for flexible encounters

It’s all well and good to talk about creating flexible puzzles, but what about flexible events? Believe it or not, this has by far the simplest solution: modular encounters. There are going to be location that you want your players to visit. For those, I’d recommend writing personalized, flavoured encounters. However, I’ll provide you with two examples to illustrate the difference:

Stage Specific: Breathless (The Manifest Symphony)

-Beams of light spill across the monstrous pile of flesh quivering on the floor. A horrible high-pitched whine, a cacophony of tortured lungs gasping in the darkness, shakes the air around you. The impossible beast before you, seemingly cobbled form the bodies of the restless dead, rises. Air sacks, once lungs, inflate, holding the creature erect. The sacks under one of its many appendages puffs violently, flinging the arm upwards like a reckless marionette. As the arm slams into the trunk of the enormous body, a howl from the skull at the end of the limb racks your ears. Lungs on the trunk send the arm crashing down towards you.
> 1-3 “Heavy” Shoulder wound
> 4-6 The creature is clumsy, newly formed. The appendage smashes into the wooden stage, teeth chipping off and wood splintering.

-The creature, at its full height, is a collection of lungs and ribs, skulls and spines. Well over 10 feet tall, the creature flails its 6 limbs in the air, a symphony of wailing that inches the body forward.

Hoo wiiii daaaa…”

-If the investigators choose to leave the area, the creature will not follow, unless they jump into the gym, whereupon it will topple over on the other side and pursue them. It can strike from all sides.

-It’s easy to outrun. Shooting a lung will puncture it. Cutting it open once all its arms have been disabled, will reveal a hollow core. Light shone inside of it will instantly kill it.

-Killing the creature will yield 1-2 candles of psychological empowerment.

Alright, I know some of that was a bit confusing. Candles and such, but I’m sure you get the gist of it. Don’t worry, it’ll all make sense with time. Now, let’s look at something purely modular.

Modular: The Wittigo (The Empty Man)

-A slow, methodical crunching sound, like the careful chewing of meat and gristle, draws your attention to the corner of the room, farthest from the door, most shrouded in darkness.

-Panning a light across it reveals a man, huddled in the corner of the room, crying. Crying and gnawing on a hunk of fresh charred flesh.

-Startled, the man looks up. Squinting in the glare of the light, it takes a second for you to realize that his lips are mangled stumps of red. They’ve been chewed off. In morphed, half-slurred words, he wails, “I was just so hungry! I didn’t know! How could I have known?!”

“Here piggy, piggy…”

The Wittigo will dive upon its victims, attempting to tackle them to the ground.
>1-2 He has a fire axe.
>3-6 He is unarmed

-If he has an axe, treat it as equivalent to a pistol if it strikes.
>1 – Strike in range
>2-5 – Miss
>6 – Strikes self

-A bite transfers the delusion, which doesn’t dissipate until The Grey One is scared off. [Motivation: Army building]

-The original Wittigo is beyond redemption. Having consumed his family, he must be killed. This leaves you thoroughly shaken. 1 candle of psychological damage.

The Wittigo encounter can be deployed anywhere and at any time. Granted, Breathless isn’t restricted, either, but he’s thematically related to the stage. Writing area-specific encounters allows you to direct some of the action of the story. Having modular encounters allows you to inject a little fear into your players, regardless of where they are. With a little quick thinking, any encounter can be re-written to serve your purposes on the fly. This approach balances the warring factions of narrative direction and ubiquitous threats quite nicely. It is by no means the only solution, but it’s one I’ve found to be quite effective.

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