Friday, October 12, 2012

Dungeons and Resources: Halloween Suspense

Right now I am getting fairly excited for tonight because it is the night of the week that my role-playing games group gets together. We use to gather on Tuesday nights but un fortunately that was going to interfere with a couple of members of our crew. Placing a weekly event on a Friday is a little harder than during the week, for most people, myself included, the weekends are busy and Friday is the start of that.

With my eagerness for tonight I thought it was about time for another installment of “Dungeons and Resources”. In the last while I have not done a post on the topic of role playing in a while and thought now would be a good time to start doing it again. The wonderful world of role-playing games is as always ever expansive and open ended so I am trying to break it down for both players and game masters to enjoy.

Today I will be discussing a topic that is more pertinent to those aspiring to be outstanding GMs and DMs. The topic is of course the basic building blocks for creating a suspenseful and heart stopping adventure campaign. The following is 10 pointers for improving an adventure to the point that all the players are on the edge of their seats.

Photo from erebus88
1. Create Fear and Danger
The very first tip I have to creating a suspenseful adventure is an overlying air of danger. This will breed the required terror and anxiety that you are looking to achieve. Make almost every decision seem like it is a life or death choice, if you are feeling super deceptive you can make these life or death choices relevant later down the line.
Make the element of danger that you choose to use semi hidden and worthy of fear, that means bunnies are not scary. Keep the adventure's antagonists hidden but make sure that the Player Characters are aware that they are there or at least only spotted in the shadows. Allow for the player's own minds to dream up all sorts of creepy wonders their imagination is yours to play with.
To make it more immersive have the adventurers find many weird and bizarre things along the way. Ham it up and exaggerate everything from the glow of the lights to the shadows of the strange items scattered everywhere. The exaggerations may just turn out that it was a small weasel, but as long as the element of fear is intact, you're doing your job.
Most players will scare themselves silly and do most of the work for you if you give them the chance and scatter the seeds of doubt in their minds.

2. Foreshadow
This is one of the elements that you should use most often the scarcest thing around is the fear of the unknown. Build upon this basic human phobia by planting little clues that may indicate what the PCs are up against, you could even have some of these clues can be way of base if you choose.
The players imaginations will get the better of them and lead them to make outrageous assumptions like they're facing hundreds of invincible vampires, or that their mortal enemy of has procured access to horrible one shot kill spell.
Usually none of these unavoidable conclusions are anywhere near accurate to what you have in store for them. The number one key to a suspense game is not knowing what will happen around the next corner and that's something an RPG excels at.
For example when watching a movie, the audience wonders if the heroine will notice the axe-wielding maniac silently moving towards her. Meanwhile while playing an RPG, the players should be wondering, "What the heck's is that noise?!" even though it might be nothing or maybe the killer is about to jump through a window.

3. Create Mood And Play With Phobias
The best thing to do is to ask your players what scares them the most in a casual conversation, then wait about a year and work it into your suspense stories. The hard part is to pull this off without seeming cheesy or being overly cliché. Remember what scared you most when you were a kid and try to get the feeling of that into your adventure. Chances are if you are truly afraid or something actually scares you, it will generate suspense all by itself.
It is always best to establish the mood early on in the story or at the start of the session. If players don’t know what you are planning on doing, they might come into the session with the wrong attitude. Heroes have a tendency to take most things without being fazed.
Instead, before you start Inform the players that this will be a deadly mystery and suspense adventure that they may or may not survive. They might not be scared out of their minds as of yet, but they'll at least start to know that you are serious and won't complain so much when a psychopath starts playing in their favorite character's intestines.

4. Embrace The Unknown
The number one best tool in your arsenal of terror is the fear of the unknown.
The way to start portray this fear is to never be straightforward in your answers to player's questions. Open ended descriptions lead the adventurers down a path to the worst parts of their imaginations.
For example don’t say “you enter the room and there is a large spider in the corner” try something like “As you step through the door way into the dark room you feel a sense of dread wash over your being. You hear a noise come out of the shadows at the far side of the room. You try to look as your eyes adjust to the dim light and all you can make out is something dancing in the shadow that over takes half the small room.”
Don't tell the player what they should interpret from the clues or occurrences that they incounter. But you may choose to give them a little help and if you do, make up the worst thing it could be (even if it's not).

5. Red Shirts Die First
Take a page from Star Trek be sure to include a lot of red shirts who can mysteriously disappear or die in strange ways. When someone goes missing without a trace is more frightening than someone actually dying.
Not every one of the characters that are helping the group may be on the up and up or telling everything that they know. If the players are to be scared out of their minds by everything, everyone and any small noises in the night the help being shady may make it worse. If you're doing your job properly, that is probably the best way to add a little twist into the mix.

6. Don't Try To Scare
This may sound counterproductive to what advice I was giving earlier, but really it's not. Never set out your goal to be to scare the players it will more than likely backfire and they will only laugh. Don’t start out by saying something like, "Oh, this is such a scary adventure you'll all be peeing your pants." It doesn't work that way. Every GM worth his weight would love to scare the piss right out of their players on occasion, but it doesn't work if you tell them what you want to do.
If you are a good GM and run a good suspense adventure, and keep up the hard work, they'll appreciate it and they'll still enjoy the game. You might not scare the daylights out of people, but if you do your job there will be just enough doubt in their minds to allow the creeping tendrils of terror and panic to invade.

7. Don't Answer All
Even at the end of the adventure, or outside of the game, don't reveal everything leave them with questions and the doubt will last. For fun at the end have another dead body turn up after the main villain was already captured.

8. Employ Killer Descriptions
One of the finest ways to establish a mood of suspense is to actively work to create it. During the course of a game the players take all their cues about the game world from the GMs descriptions. If you describe something as the most horrible and most terrible area ever, and the fact that if they enter they'll probably die, the players will just turn around and walk away.
I once described a room to be so frightful that my players just turned tail and never went through there. To avoid this little problem be sure to include good motivation for PCs to go somewhere obviously dangerous.
If you want your fearsome description to have any weight, the area must be actually really dangerous. Avoid overusing your fearsome descriptions, as well, or the players will be bored and this will cause problems. If you go for suspense all the time, the players will get used to it and it'll lose that edge you're looking for.

9. The Build up
In literature there is an arc to all stories. The Protagonist is fought at the end, the mask of the killer is removed and the little girl survives the zombie attack with the puppy. In a game, you can't say for certain the players won't kill the bad guy the first time he shows up or at least try to and grow frustrated if you don’t let them win. So it is best to have him not show up for a while, to build up the suspense, start out with small occurrences and strange clues. As the PCs investigate the clues they should find out more about the horror of everything and find that they have more questions than answers, think about the first season of Lost.
Toward the end of the setting, the protaganist should show up and start killing people off  (Red Shirts and silly hero type PCs). Have the toughest, NPCs be the first die. If the players have any common sense, this should freak them out. Let the villain do unreasonable things like kill 30 people in less than 30 seconds. Pull a Scooby Doo and have one of the NPCs have the great idea to split up and search around.
Avoid overdoing the fear, especially if they are just thrust upon the PCs, or your players will just think you're out to get them but don’t go to easy on them. There's a balance to it. Give players plenty of opportunities to foul up their situation on their own. If you do that, they're bound to give you just the opportunities you need to make them sweat.

10. The GM Chuckle
Sometimes just chuckling malevolently and rolling a lot of dice will do the trick behind a screen. The Evil GM Chuckle could be one of your finest strategies for generating suspense.

I hope that these tips help to make help to make your October gaming a very spooky one. 

Sincerely Urban Yeti

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