Archive for roleplay

Horror Role-Play – Setting the Stage

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Gloam with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2013 by trivialpunk

Hello and Happy (Canadian) Thanksgiving! Now, I know many of my readers are American, so to them, Happy Monday! Or I guess, Happy Day, because who knows when you’re reading this. Maybe it’s night. Day designations are random anyways, but not so random that they don’t mean something. We often look to the genesis of an event to define its meaning, but doing so can make us forget that its current meaning is equally as important, especially considering our tendency to twist meanings with time. We are born without context, so it’s easy to forget that history is just… ridiculously convoluted.

Anyways, here’s this week’s story. It’s sooort of my take on a Thanksgiving tale. I did something a bit different with this week’s video in preparation for another thing I’m swimming around starting. I’m not going to announce it until I’ve got at least three segments finished. Shhh…

As you may know, it’s Halloween month, and so you might be curious about why I’m not doing a big Halloween thing. I mean, horror blog, right? Well, truth be told, I haven’t been strictly horror for a while, but aside from that, every month is Halloween month for me. I write, think and talk about horror almost every day of the year. So, I’m letting other people have a go at it, while I… okay, maybe we’ll do some horror stuff. But, not video games. This week we’re going to talk about roleplaying.

As some of you may remember, I started to write down my horror roleplay system. It’s in the links of this blog, but it’s not really extensive. The reason for this is that I began writing and, as I wrote, I started editing the system. Eventually, it got out of hand and started turning into a video game. And the game became a project. And the project lost its programmers. It happens. I’ve been a part of a few orphaned projects, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. No way. Where was I…? Right!

Today, I thought I’d give you a few of my favourite tips for setting the mood for your horror roleplay. If you haven’t done a horror roleplay session, then I can’t recommend it enough. It’s like telling an interactive horror story that you can change on the fly in response to your players’ moods. It takes some experience to pull off, but that just means it’s better to start practising now than later! What better time than Halloween month? (Don’t worry, most of these can apply to the telling of horror stories, as well)

First, do your planning way ahead of time. It’s important to stay spontaneous in the game, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also do your homework. Figure out what kind of horror experience you’re providing. What exactly is horrific about your setting? Your antagonist/challenge? Your situation? Try to get inside the minds of your players and figure out what you’re asking them to visualize and the responses you’re going to be asking them to make.

Let’s choose a running example: a horror story set in the woods. With something lurking between the trees and in the leaves.

Alright, so we know where we are. What scares people about the woods? This is an important question, because it’ll affect how you should set up your room. You see, when you experience something, it sensitizes you to related ideas. There’s plenty of research on the subject, but I won’t recount it here. What I’ll tell you is that you should be organizing your space such that it reminds your players of the most salient aspects of the environment you’re asking them to imagine. But, not just any salient aspects, focus on the ones that inspire fear.

Back to the woods: Obviously, the best choice would be to actually be in the woods around a camp-fire. The light from the fire will obscure the shadows in the woods. Ambient noises and gaps of absolute silence will do a lot of the work for you. However, if we can’t be in the woods, we can bring the woods inside. Step one: Plants. Just, ’cause, plants. Step two, gather your group together, around you, facing inwards around a light source. This does two things: it focuses your players’ attention on the light source, thus obscuring the shadows behind them. The other thing is that it leaves their backs vulnerable. You can remind them of that ever-so-subtly by dropping words like “back,” “behind” and “stab” into your descriptions. They don’t have to be direct references. You can say things like, “We have to go back!” or “There’ll be no turning back.” Be sure to look over their shoulders occasionally.

You can do this for almost every setting. Dark, claustrophobic tomb or the underground labyrinth of an abandoned hospital? Pick a smaller room with a tall ceiling, sit on the floor and point a light directly at the ceiling, producing the illusion of an overly-claustrophobic environment. One famous example involves a horror story set on Mars. They wore gas-masks for the authentic view-obscuring,, uncomfortable, hot, claustrophobic feel. Dystopian universe full of the gleaming white lights of arbitrary death? Get a bright room, but find a way to splash colour into it. Basically, find a way for your room to visually embody your brand of horror.

However, you’ve got more than just the visual to call on. Your arsenal is packed with every sense and thought your players have at their disposal. Every memory. Every association. Don’t be afraid to utilize them. Horror is something that’s best taken seriously in the planning stages, seriously in the telling and whimsically in the experience. Don’t be afraid to let your players have fun, but make sure you build the tension back up.

Soundscapes are a great way to build tension, because it’s something that people eventually lose track of. It fades to white noise, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still having an effect.

Woods: Try to see if you can find a track that has rustling noises on it that are punctuated very occasionally by twig-snaps or bird calls. Constantly play the track at a low volume, but make sure that the sudden sounds are loud enough to be heard in the background. If you can’t find a track, then see if you can find a close approximation. White noise punctuated by the occasional laugh. The wind. A crackling fire. One of those faux-fire videos is actually a pretty great tool here, because the fire snaps and crackles are random intervals, and it’s made to be played for a long time, so you aren’t going to get very much pattern repetition.

If all else fails, you can just pick some creepy music, and keep it at a barely audible level. That way, when the room falls quiet, the sound of creeping music will fill the air, encouraging your players to talk or filling them with the slightest hint of dread. You can also use soundscapes to simulate space. Huge echoes for large halls. Small, staccato ones for enclosed rooms. Slow fades for open spaces.

Smell is a powerful weapon, as well. I’m sure you already know that smell is a powerful memory evoker. Creating an alien smell can throw players off. Something sickly and rotting (like a piece of fruit) hidden in the garbage can be just enough to unnerve your players.

Woods: Pine-fresh candles. Fresh dirt. The smell of watered plants. Smoke from a pack of matches that you’re periodically lighting, like it’s a nervous habit (watch for smoke detectors). You get the idea.

The tactile senses are, in part, related to the embodiment of the room bit, but also consider the posture (vestibular senses) you want your players in. Lying down, sitting up, standing, whatever. Make sure they’re comfortable enough to last out a gaming session, though, or you’ll find that all the preparation in the world won’t protect you from player-fatigue.

Taste is another consideration. Want to really creep your players out? Find a way to link the food they’re eating to a description. The crunch of the leaves, like chips. The rending of meat from the bone, like a chicken wing. You don’t necessarily have to make it that obvious. In fact, it’ll severely damage the effect if you do, but consider something like…

Woods: “You hear the sharp whisper of a quiet crunch *bite chip here* from a copse of pine to your right, the sound of a pine-cone shattering underfoot.” “Its teeth digs into your leg, finding bone and tearing the chewy meat off the bone,” if you’re serving chicken wings. “The gag feels soft and chewy in your mouth.” -Pizza.

A large component of taste is smell, but it’s also tactile experience. If you can find a way to disturb your players through the intimate act of eating, one of the most sensual (literally, affecting the senses) experiences a human can have, then you’re well on your way to getting in their heads.

If you’re a good actor, then try tensing up when you want your players to be tense. They’ll mirror you slightly. You’d be amazed what has an effect. Air temperature. Low vibration. The occasional weird, halting speech cadence. Laughter from somewhere in the distance. The use of proper nouns. Horror is a blend of the subtle and the obnoxious. Tension and carelessness. If you’re careful, your players will never know exactly how much thought you’ve put into the evening, or the experience they’ve walked themselves into.

Remember, you want your players to be a little uncomfortable. You’re trying to create a strange and frightening environment out of a common gathering of friends. However, you don’t want to scar anyone and you don’t want to hurt anyone. Be safe.

Also, remember to use modern technology to your advantage, and don’t forget to account for it in your game. One of the most gratifying experiences I’ve ever had as a story-teller was sliding my phone over to a player with a text-message on it for them and having them fling it away in shock (phone was okay). It was just a picture of a cloaked figure, but under the right circumstances, the banal is terrifying.

The Original Gloam Manifesto

Posted in Gloam with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2013 by trivialpunk

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?

Gloam: Entry 1 – Day 2 – Status: Apprehensive

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Gloam with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2013 by trivialpunk

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.

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!