Thursday, July 28, 2011

5 Tips for Running Horror 'Con Games

Marcus is gearing up to run the next installment of Fright Night, and asked if I'd be interested in providing some advice on horror games. Looking at my previous entries, I am dismayed to see I haven't spent a lot of time on this subject, so without further ado I present my 5 tips for running Horror ‘con games:

1. Bring the description. As a GM you are the eyes and ears of the players. They depend on you, both for explicit and implicit queues about what is important, and to enhance and aid their visualisation. It is therefore critical that you spend as much effort as possible on your descriptions. As a general rule, there’s no such thing as too much detail. Layer it on. What does a place look like? What does it smell and sound like: what does it feel like? Many horror games take normality and add a fantastical element – be it monster, magic or madness. In order for the players to understand the full impact of this transition, they must first have a clear idea of the baseline. Draw on familiar tropes, or your own experiences – port this detail into your game. Establish the places and people of your setting clearly – it’s easy to get flustered or distracted when running a game. Try and take a conscious effort to stop, gather your thoughts, and then deliberately add details and descriptive elements. Ideally prepare maps or crib notes before a game to help with this– not necessarily to show the players, but so that you can be clear about the lie of the land, relative distances, specific details or even words that you might use. A few carefully chosen words can have a remarkable impact – even if the players don’t let on at the time.

2. Character is King. The essence of horror is the impact on the character. Try watching a horror movie halfway through, and you’ll likely be bemused rather than fearful or fascinated by the characters predicament. Context is everything, and if we have no reason to care about the characters – why should we care what happens to them? This problem is exacerbated by the nature of a horror ‘con. If you’re giving a player a disposable character for three hours, and at the end of that time they know they’ll walk away and, most likely, never think about the character again – what reasons does the player have not to treat the character recklessly? There is no easy answer to this problem. What you really want is for the players to agree to give their best efforts to ‘buy in’ to a character. You can do this explicitly – by asking the players to agree to this before the game, or using other techniques, like really ramping up enthusiasm, or descriptive elements (see above) and hope that the player is willing to ‘buy in’ of their own volition.

Ultimately, my view on the solution is more detailed than I have the space here to present, so here are some basic suggestions. Don't provide too much detail or be overly perscriptive with characters. Make sure you have considered your scenario from the players viewpoint. Try and let the players have the ability to embellish or add to their characters – encourage this. If your scenario is tailored to a genre (e.g. survival horror) communicate this explicitly so the players can get into the spirit of the thing. Always try and give the characters a reason to interact with one another, and the space to do so. Try and come up with roleplaying challenges of minor as well as major order to allow them to own the character (e.g. a grumpy motel clerk, a motorist in distress, someone who’s having a worse day than the characters). Try and leave enough room with for a chracter to fit almost any kind of player, and make sure the characters are linked in a way that leaves no-one out or marginalised.

Try and anticipate likely character actions - if they're confronted by something unnatural, scary, or dangerous they are likely to try and get weapons or flee. Or both. Make sure you've catered for this - ideally in such a way that the players don't feel railroaded or forced in their decision making. If you're going to have authority characters (e.g. cops) be prepared for a player to take this seriously, and assert authority - but don't count on it. Your players are likely to be smart, and well versed in the genre of the game you're running, and they'll be looking for clues all the time as to what the plot of the game is. Good characters, which are designed to support player 'buy-in' will hopefully keep the focus on the drama, and the horror and limit meta-gaming.

3. Pace it right. The pace of a game is important. Like a movie, you want to have a tempo that feels natural, and works to accentuate tense scenes, and allow for lighter moments as well. If you don’t make an effort to structure the pacing of your game, you may find these elements bleed into one another with undesirable consequences. I suggest starting slow, this is where the bulk of your descriptive workload lies. Let the players have some time and space to get into the skin of their characters. If you want to start “In media res” then you still need this space, but it comes later. Then, start moving the game in the direction you want.

Ideally you’ll want to have the pace build – the tension increase. Then perhaps a lull before another build in tension. If you’re using music or sound effects you can use these to give explicit queues to the players. If not, you may have to do the heavy lifting yourself, by increasing the cadence of your narration, the type of language you use or even the volume of your voice. Perhaps stand up to emphasise that this is an important scene. Maybe even mime the key elements, or even take the game in a semi-LARP direction.

If you’re going to use combat, even in the abstract sense then be sure to spend some effort bringing it to life for the players. Again, the more preparation you do, the better your game will be. If there’s some chance of someone being shot, you might want to look up real-life gunshot wounds, and be ready to bring some visceral detail to proceedings. Finally, give some thought to how you want the game to conclude. Is it a free-for-all with all the players involved, will there be a climactic final confrontation, or does it end unexpectedly? You might not want to script it too carefully, but having an idea about the way your game might end, and the experience you want to leave the players with, will help you during the rest to the facilitation. Finally pacing is important for real time. Keep track of the time as much as possible so you don’t run over your allotted slot – ideally you’ll have some optional material to add or jettison in order to fit the game to the time.

4. Don’t be a slave to system. Fairly simple this one - make sure any system you pick will work for the kind of game you want to run. I strongly suggest thinking about the kind of game you want to run first, then selecting a system which will support that vision – rather than picking a system then thinking up an adventure. Ideally you should be the master of any system you use, and be prepared to deal with questions and people who like to engage with systems. My rule is that it should be simple enough to be easily understood by all participants within 5 minutes, and ideally be well supported by game materials (perhaps double side the character sheets with a simple rules summary?). With the rise of electronic publishing there are thousands of systems out there, don’t be afraid to seek out something new.

5.Do the work. You can run great games on the fly. But you can’t trust to that – well you can, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The work starts with writing a great blurb that will attract the kind of players who want to share the kind of game you want to deliver. Spend some time and get a blurb that really captures the essence of the game, and levels a little with the players about what kind of experience they can expect (as players). Then take the time to playtest. A good game can become a great game through a strong playtest – especially if you playtest with people you don’t know or who are willing to give frank and constructive criticism. Every minute of a 'con game is precious, and you need to be sure each scene is fit for purpose - and frankly, by the time you're at this stage, you're no longer impartial. A second pair of eyes can help, and especially help you see things through the players eyes. Just be prepared to listen - and even probe for more detail, even if it's a little painful.

Finally spend the effort you need to be really ready for the game. The other points should give you some idea about what kind of thing I mean. In addition, it’s important that you have the plot – and the PC options – ready to explain to the players once the game is complete. People like to know the details, and they like to have ‘real’ choices in a game. To feel like the outcome of the game is a foregone conclusion can be disappointing to some players – so be ready to level with the players about the game, and how their choices made it a richer experience.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Tonight I finished running the epic Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign for Call of Cthulhu. It’s not the first time I’ve run it – in fact it’s the third time – but it’s the first time in more than a decade I’ve revisited this Cthulhu classic, and I thought I’d share my approach and reflections.
I describe Masks as the James Bond Call of Cthulhu campaign. It features half a dozen exotic locales, improbable villains, deadly threats, all based around a fairly tenuous plot. In short – it is a blockbuster with all the good and bad that entails. The problem with this setup is the lethality of the campaign as written – I usually end up with a box full of character sheets donated by all the players whose characters have died or gone insane during the course of the campaign. Such a high character turnover can have negative impacts, stretching the already weak continuity of the chapters, diminishing player investment in characters, or even initiating ‘the Indiana Jones effect’.

To be fair to Masks, you have to consider the context of the campaign. It was written in 1984, when the gaming world was dominated by modules featuring monsters, treasure and dungeons. It added investigation, glamour and unusual encounters to this framework, even allowing the players to determine the order in which they resolved the chapters of the campaign. Since it's first edition it's had a whole chapter added along with a plethora of entertaining side adventures. Nevertheless, while innovative for its time, the campaign still has its fair share of linear plots, railroads and dungeons. In short - Masks is an imaginative classic that set the benchmark for all subsequent Cthulhu campaigns and continues to attract new Keepers, despite suffering from most of the pitfalls of old-school games. Judging by posts on the Yogsothoth forum there is pretty much at least one Masks campaign happening at any given time, someplace in the world – probably a lot more than that. The oft discussed fan-written Masks Companion has been years in the development and will apparently weigh in at more than twice the size of Masks.

As a GM, when facing the fairly harsh setup of Masks, you have three choices: play it straight and butcher a lot of PC’s; pull your punches and effectively run a watered down version of the game; or, change the game setup to support the campaign style. This run I chose the last option. I wanted more-or-less one set of characters to run through the campaign. I wanted to keep the continuity and play a style of game that supported the tenuous leads and unremitting, escalating and overwhelming danger of the campaign. So I designed the Pulp Cthulhu rules to support this style of game.

Players received an open cheque to create their characters – I wanted over-the-top characters and was willing to consider anything. Most players received a special advantage based on whatever background they came up with, all had the option of starting with Cthulhu Mythos and spells and everyone started with 1D3 Fate Points. Each fate point could be spent to avoid a catastrophic wound, reduce the impact of temporary insanity or gain 2D6 sanity points between chapters with an appropriate narration. In addition each Fate Point would generate a fortune point each session, which could be used to re-roll any failed skill check or automatically pass a luck roll. Characters gained 1 Fate Point for each chapter of Masks they completed.

Because I expected the characters would be a lot tougher I also introduced the major wound rule from Basic Roleplaying, which meant serious injuries would have consequences both in terms of stats and story for the characters, despite their hardy natures. And this system worked very well – we had a sorry collection of severed noses, horrific burns, major muscle damage and scars by the end to add plenty of colour to the characters journey.

All in all, it was immense fun. I greatly enjoyed the characters and the game, and loved traversing the familiar terrain of his campaign through a setup and system that better supported the game than in my previous outings. Many thanks to all the players who helped bring this game to life.

Campaign Statistics
Sessions Played: 16
Chapters: 7
Number of Players: 7
Number of Characters: 8 (plus Bullit the dog)
Total Fate Points Expended: 39
Fate Points Expended in Final Session: 12
Character Deaths: 0

EDIT: You can check out a players perspective of this campaign over at Andy's excellent blog.