31 October, 2011

How to Scare Your Players

Because, after all, it really is pointless to try to scare the characters.

It’s a natural function of the human mind to want to understand and classify what it experiences. When a person is unable to do this, they begin to experience anxiety. This, my dear dungeon master, is your goal tonight.

A good example of this is the first Phantasm movie. Perhaps I should say ‘my recollection of the first Phantasm movie,’ because I haven’t seen it in a really long time. During the movie there are a ton of things you don’t know:
What are the silver balls, besides deadly?
What the heck ARE those little short dudes?
Why are they killing people?
What do they want with the bodies?
I found the movie really frightening, probably more frightening than Ringu or Juon, and it had ZERO to do with blood. Probably one of the most frightening I’d ever seen. Compare that with one of the later entries in the series, wherein they explain very fully exactly what the little jawa looking dudes are, where they’re from, and why they want to kill people. It was no longer frightening at all. Not in the least.

My players once encountered a vampire. Like any good vampire, he had a personality and didn’t just pop into a dungeon somewhere. They visited him after being warned not to, because he had information they desperately wanted. I showed them a picture of Emile Zola sitting at his desk. He was charming and helpful, but also very odd. They knew something was up, and they were well on the way to convincing themselves he was a vampire by the time hints started getting laid down during the dinner to which he invited them. They were looking for signs. They had already noticed (because one of them specifically asked, not due to observation roll) there were no mirrors in the parts of the house they’d seen so far. They tried to see his reflection in the silverware, but damned if the candlelight and things on the table prevented them from getting a clear look.

This is when you poke a hole in their attempt to classify and understand.

“Is the silverware actually silver?”
me - “You’re pretty sure it is.”
“Is he touching it? A vampire couldn’t touch it, could he?”
me - “The tales you remember say that silver is very harmful to vampires.” Notice I didn’t say ‘All the tales you’ve heard.’ Introduce as much self-doubt as possible.
[more conversation about the McGuffin, while they stew over clues]
me - “He picks up his spoon and chimes his wine glass with it a couple times. The crystal rings out with a beautiful clear note.”
“A silver spoon?!”
me - “It looks just like yours.”

During dinner, the host (even the players have become reluctant to call him The Vampire now) never quite manages to take a bite of the food or a drink of the wine, due to conversation. At one point he even has food on his fork, but puts it down to talk. Yes, I answer, the food does indeed taste like it might have garlic in it.

The underlying systems have to be clear-cut and well defined. Explained and classified. It’s very important that you know exactly what things are, and why they’re that way. It then becomes your job to always keep this information just out of reach, just barely behind the veil, no matter how much you’d like to share it. Get your players to the point where they are absolutely brimming with questions, and then respond to them.. without answering any of them. At least not for sure, and certainly not a simple yes or no.

Then you hide the source of the anxiety. The master retires for the evening. The device sinks into the wall, and it seals up like it was never there. The children go around a corner and vanish. The wizard disappears in a puff of smoke. After the players have a chance to discuss and explore a bit, it’s now time for some incongruent meaningless hints. Odd noises, strange smells, an odd powder or fluid on the wall/floor/ceiling.. things that might mean anything. To you they should make perfect sense.. to the players they should be vague enough to further a dozen different suspicions without confirming any of them. Repeat until their anxiety peaks, then just after it starts to go down a bit.. HIT EM. The vampire attacks, the portal opens, the spawn of Shub-Niggurath pours out of the spear holes.

The most important thing to remember is that you will be tempted, and that you, the DM, must resist this temptation. You will know all the superawesomeneato details of who the professor is, how the dark ones open the door, and why the madman constructed the box.. but no matter how cool it is, or how proud you are of it, you can’t tell! Shhh!

Happy Halloween, and good luck!

28 October, 2011

You Meet in an Inn

Even so, you've used it. You didn't want to, but everybody had their characters rolled up, and you had to do something. Next time you're starting a campaign from scratch, and you're at a loss for how the characters meet, try one of these.

Can you think of another one? I'm sure you can, you're smart. Type it in the comments, and I'll add it to the list. I may tweak it a little, but what the hell.

  • You are all in jail together.
  • You all heard rumors of treasure, and you meet at the dungeon entrance. There is a man camping there who hires out as a lantern-bearer.
  • You are all captives of kobolds, goblins, bandits, etc. inside the dungeon. You were waylaid and brought here while unconscious, and your things are in a room nearby.
  • You all have copies of the same wanted poster.
  • You are all related, or grew up together.
  • You all served in the military or town guard together.
  • A local ruler, merchant or official has put out a call for mercenaries, and you are the ones who have answered.
  • Townsfolk inundate the inn, seeking help from all the guests. Insert 7 Samurai.
  • You all wake up together, lying on individual altar stones in a darkened room. A faint smell of ozone hangs in the air. In the floor of the room wisps of smoke rise from a charred corpse partially melted into the stone. A corpse with what appears to have been a sacrificial dagger clenched tightly in one hand.
  • You are all summoned to the reading of a recently departed friend/relative/colleague's will.
  • You are all traveling with the same merchant caravan when... 
  • You are shopping in the local market when a giant ship's anchor drops from the sky, smashing a nearby market stall.
  • You are survivors of a ship wreck. 
  • You wake up naked, buried in a pile of naked corpses. (stolen from Zak S.) 
  • You are brought together by a major event (refugees from a flood, plague, earthquake, zombie apocalypse, pirate attack, etc.) 
  • You are all outlaws, and are members of a bandit group. 
  • Goblins attack your hamlet. Your parents' old weapons are in your houses. Defend the town! 
  • You are all cursed, and have come together at a wizard's tower to perform a quest so that he will remove the curse. 
  • You are all members of the caravan guard on a trek across the desert to an exotic city of traders. 
  • You meet at a party. 
  • You are all students of the local adventurer's guild. This is your final test before you're thrown out in the world on your own resources. 
  • You all get strange (different) notes inviting you to the same place. The notes make some kind of sense when put together. 
  • You're all dead, and will adventure in hell or the outer planes.

21 October, 2011

Random Backgrounds

Unlike many of my tables, I'll try to make this one more general so it can be used over and over. This means it will require a lot more spur-of-the-moment icing from the DM (or player, depending on how it's used.) With that in mind, I may keep working to expand it a bit, probably in the style of Zak's multi-part tables in Vornheim. One thing about the table: the emphasis is on prior, so some glaring occupational holes exist where a background would necessitate a more profound effect on the character's current lifestyle. Also, if a background is more common in your milieu, have it occupy more spots in the table. Remember when doing so that it signifies a background which is both commonly held, and commonly left behind (thus the 'prior'.)

Prior Character Background

  1. Disgraced Noble
  2. Military
  3. Sailor
  4. Travelling Merchant
  5. Shopkeeper
  6. Caravan Guard
  7. Servant
  8. Bandit
  9. Farmer
  10. Farmer
  11. Farmer
  12. Builder
  13. Clergy
  14. Fisherman
  15. Woodsman
  16. Beggar
  17. Entertainer
  18. Laborer
  19. Laborer
  20. Courier
  21. Miner
  22. Husbandman
  23. Disgraced Scholar
  24. Criminal
  25. Criminal
  26. Criminal
  27. Student
  28. Civil Servant
  29. Scribe
  30. Professional Crowdgoer
  31. Town Guard
  32. Tanner
  33. Miller
  34. Military
  35. Courtesan
  36. Bon Vivant
What did I miss? Remember that entries like 'builder' can mean anything from carpenter to mason to boatwright. Also, I've avoided professions like blacksmith and jeweler, since they would have a more profound effect on the character's current life and abilities. Some things, like 'scholar' or 'wizard' probably wouldn't have much turnover.

-Edited to add some suggestions from comments. Town Guard could mean any police-like or security-related job. Civil Servant would include such jobs as the much-storied rat catcher. A Disgraced Scholar could be any teacher, scientist, historian, etc. A Husbandman could be any animal-related job, such as stableboy. A Shopkeeper is anyone employed in a storefront: butcher, baker, candlestick maker, barber, chemist, etc. A tinker, for example, could either be a Shopkeeper or a Travelling Merchant.