RPT#213 – Paranoia: Shattering The Trust Part III: Minor In-Game Events
A Brief Word From Johnn
Campaign Design Begins – Rules First
I’m taking a different approach for my latest D&D campaign: designing the rules first. My personal preference is to try and keep game content within the boundaries of the rules. If a plot element, encounter plan, background event, or whatever, cannot be reversed engineered and explained by the rules, then I’ll attempt to tweak things so they do.
For example. A D&D module I’m planning to run begins with an NPC who stumbles into the tavern, bleeding from numerous wounds. He blurts out the plot hook (about a half page of text) and then dies. Whoa, red lights went off in my head when I read that.
I repeated the NPC’s plea for help out loud and timed myself: 25 seconds, or, roughly 4 rounds in D&D. D&D 3.x doesn’t have bleeding rules that allows someone to wander about doing stuff, slowly losing hit points for 4 rounds, until they fall unconscious. What gives? Is this dramatic license or just poor design? Does that mean the PCs should be allowed to wander around, half-dead, delivering warnings to each other? Wouldn’t it be weird that, during the whole campaign, it was just that one NPC out of all the monsters, NPCs, and player characters who lost hit points due to bleeding?
That’s only an example of how I want to make sure things in the game can be backed up by the rules. It’s a fun puzzle, really, when you get into it. And it’s a personal GMing style choice.
So, step one is to consider what variant, optional, and house rules I want in my game before I start world design. That way, my game world will be better able to reflect its “rules reality”, as opposed to building the world first and then customizing the rules.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
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By Ross Shingledecker (~Acolyte)
mejustread ‘at’ triad.rr.com
This group of tips refers to small things that will unnerve your players without radically altering your plot or campaign story. Some of the Major In-Game Events can be used small scale, and similarly, some of the following can become Major In-Game Events. Remember, be subtle and don’t overuse any single device.
- The NPCs Know Something The Player’s Don’tAttack the players’ knowledge base by convincing them that it’s not extensive enough. The best way to do that is to let them know about people who know more than they do. Make those people not just sages and wise people, but lowly rural peasants and beggars to drive home the point of the PCs’ vulnerability.For example:
- The PCs visit their patron after a particularly nasty mission and they find him on the phone. They hear him say “I’ll be sure to take care of–” before he sees them, hangs up the phone, and shoves the papers on his desk into a drawer in a mad frenzy.
- The PCs are looking for a certain individual. They turn onto a street of numerous homes with adults working in front while children play outside. As the players walk down the street, they receive odd stares. When they reach the middle, as if on cue, the parents hustle their children inside and slam their doors. The players can hear the bolts falling into place. In seconds, the street is empty, except for one lonely ball bouncing down the road?
- The players want to know who lives in a tower at the edge of town (or who lives on the docked spaceship). Whenever they ask, the townspeople tap their noses and say “Good joke. I’ll have to remember that one. Ha!” Or “Fancy that, pretendin’ not to know.” In a more sinister fashion, they could gasp, spill their drink and hurry away. Regardless, the players are left without info.
- NPCs can hint at things, use metaphors, or use code words that the players don’t understand.NPC: “So, did you guys visit the castle?”PC: “On the hill? Yeah, it was just an old ruin.”
NPC: “No, that’s not what I meant. Did you (makes quotation marks with fingers) visit the castle?”
PC: “Umm, yeah, we did, like I just?”
NPC: (shouts) “Fools! They’ve never visited the castle!”
NPC nearby: “Hahahaha! I can’t believe it!”
PC: “Umm, will someone show us where this (makes quote marks with fingers) castle is?”
NPCs: (utter silence…they turn away and ignore the PCs like the plague).
- An interesting twist is to let the PCs know something that should be obvious to everyone but that the people ignore. If the PCs see a dragon fly over, or a UFO, or a TIE fighter where it shouldn’t be, or virtually anything loud and visible and out of place, the PCs might scramble for cover. When they come out, the people around them ask why they were hiding, saying “You look like you’ve seen a dragon. Ha!” or “What’s the matter, seen a dragon or something?” When the PCs insist that there was a danger, the people dismiss them as crazy. Even worse, the people might not notice that the PCs were hiding, and any references to dragons are simply ignored. Not mocked or shook off, but ignored. Their faces glaze over at the word dragon and cannot comprehend any PC reference to it.
- Be UniquePlayers feel comfortable when their characters are running up against familiar enemies. Even if they fear the effects of fighting vampires, they know and can expect them.So, sidestep that comfort with new monsters, technologies, spells, ships, villains, races, and items. While you could take the time and effort to create all these things yourself, it is much easier just to look for them. Many great ideas are posted online. Also, look at your own sourcebooks. Take a monster from a book such as Urban Arcana, alter it a bit, and make it a new alien race for your Star Wars game, or vice versa.
Furthermore, you can take ideas from books you have read, art you’ve seen, or games you’ve played. Take the MiB from “Deus Ex” and ally them with the strange organo-mech units from the Brooks’ Sword of Shannara. This tactic may require a bit more work from your end, but it is sure to give pause to even the most cynical, experienced, been-there-done-that veteran gamer.
- Be EasyThis is the “reverse psychology” of the paranoia tactics. It is also one of the easiest, and one of the most rewarding. Rather than crafting your next adventure with difficult pitfalls, plot twists, hidden surprises, and obscure clues, create a problem that a six-year-old could solve–easily. Set it in front of your players and watch how long they dither over the “obvious” deviousness of your “apparently” easy adventure. Another way to think of it is this: craft an adventure that is designed to trick the players, and then remove the trick.For example:
The characters are hired by a powerful, mysterious figure to retrieve an object. They enter the complex (be it a cave, a dungeon, an asteroid, or the sewers of New York) that contains the object, and fight their way past the many denizens and guardians. Finally, they break into the treasure vault, a room roughly the size of a football arena.
On a pedestal, in the middle of the vault, lies the object. The room is otherwise empty. The only lighting is a pale, eerie green glow. After describing this, all you have to do is wait as your players deliberate for hours over the myriad of traps and protections surrounding the object, and over all of the ways the party can overcome them.
When they do make it to the object (after dozens of meaningless safeguards) and pick it up, have the lighting change to an electric purple. Look into their eyes and see the fear. Eventually, they will move toward the door. When they near it, have a chime sound, followed by the noises of sliding ropes and gears. Let them exit the room, shivering nervously.
- “As soon as you…”This phrase is an effective tool. Whenever the players direct their characters to do something, you can use this phrase.”As soon as you crest the hill…”
“As soon as you grasp the drawer handle…”
“As soon as you begin to speak…”
“As soon as you press the button…”
Even if the resulting action isn’t negative, you can pause dramatically before telling the players what it is.
Jon Quickfingers has checked the vault door for traps several times over. He has carefully greased the hinges and has even picked the lock. Robert, his player, says, “I open the door.” You say, “As soon as you touch the handle…” (Robert looks at you in dismay) “…you feel a strange thrill, knowing that the treasure will soon be yours.”
- Inexplicable PhenomenaYour players like to know things. When you describe something happening, they want to know why. If they don’t know, they jump to conclusions…sometimes, irrationally paranoid ones. There is a wise saying: “When you assume something, you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me.” Use this to your advantage:
- When the characters enter a cave system, tell them they catch a whiff of sulphur. You know that it’s because sulphur dioxide gas is leaking into the caves, but your players assume they are going to encounter dragons or evil demons.
- Listening outside of a door, the characters hear moaning. You know it’s from a nearby underground river, but they assume there are ghosts or wounded people nearby.
- Camping in the forest at night, the characters hear a twig snap. You know it’s just a small nocturnal animal, but they assume there is an ambush, wake everyone up, and proceed to beat at the bushes until dawn.
- Player PhobiasThis can be a dangerous tactic, but a profound one. If one of your players is afraid of spiders, trap his character in a giant spider tunnel, or have him captured by the spider aliens of Alpha Centuri. If one is afraid of heights, go into great detail about the view from the Spire of the World (and describe the biting wind and the lack of a railing). If your players are extremely sensitive, though, this approach should be left alone.However, you can capitalize on player phobias in a different, less personal way. Attack not the player’s phobias but his character’s phobias. If Jon Quickfingers fell nearly to his death while creeping along a wet parapet, then he will have a healthy respect for similar maneuvers in the future. If Jon and his friends are running away from a powerful monster and they have to clamber across a wet ledge over a chasm, turn to Jon’s player Robert and say, “The dizzying height and slick surface remind you of that botched assassination attempt where you fell from the parapet of the Ducal Tower…It looks like this is an even longer way down.”
Whether you want to center your campaign on your players’ irrational distrust or just use it in moderation for flavor reasons, I hope you’ll find these tips useful. Remember the essential rules: don’t let your players catch on, remove their knowledge base, and ignore the escalating signs of paranoia. Good luck.
I would appreciate any comments or criticism of this article: mejustread ‘at’ triad.rr.com
- Don’t reveal the nature of the danger too soon. Rather than tell the players that their characters are dealing with werewolves, let them piece the facts together and draw their own conclusions.
- Backstory. Let the local with the thick accent tell the PCs a local tale of what happened on this very spot ten years ago on a stormy, moonless night, just like this one as it happens…
- Where’s the puppy? Being one of those people who worries more about the fate of the cute furry animal in a horror movie than whatever might happen to the human protagonists, I start getting twitchy if the lonely farmhouse puppy dog suddenly wasn’t there anymore.
- Dead simple one, this – the characters venture into an unlit room and the door slams shut behind them. Just a sudden draught, of course.
- There’s writing on the wall – *but who wrote it?* An example of poltergeist-type activity, such as things appearing or disappearing, objects falling off shelves or walls, musical instruments playing a note by themselves, electrical appliances turning themselves off or on, etc. Obviously, there needs to be a background rationale for this and any other weird stuff, but you don’t tell the players that.
- The herald of doom. There’s a whole sub-genre of ghost stories in which an imminent death in the family is presaged by a ghostly piper or drummer. Any signal, musical or otherwise, could be pressed into this role (Conan Doyle used a big noisy dog). Hint: introduce the signal first, then let one of the PCs find out s/he’s one of the family…
- Have a PC (or all of them) meet an apparently ordinary NPC in an unremarkable encounter. Only later do they hear about the ghost.
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From: Ross Tony Shingledecker
via the GMMastery Yahoo! Group
- For the first session, be over prepared–have everything written down, organized, and accessible. That first session requires the most planning (for any campaign). Once you are able to figure out your style, you can see how much you need to do beforehand and how much you can wing it.
- Be flexible–be willing to change your carefully prepared notes during play, and allow the players to go off away from where you have mapped and what you have detailed. It may be irritating for you, but your players will be a lot happier.
- You are the GM and you are always right. Listen to your players before making your call, but make your call, and stick with it. If the issue needs to be revisited between sessions, that is the time to do it. If you are wrong, then at the start of the next session, say “I was wrong. It should have been like this. From now on, it will be like this.” But work hard to learn the rules.
- Speed is important. You have to manage a lot in your head, which takes time. You can’t afford to take out a string and see if Miniature X has a clear line of sight to Miniature Y. Eyeball it and keep moving. Lots of prep time often results in a fluid and efficient game time, which means more fun for everyone.
- At the beginning, keep it simple. Don’t start off with high powered characters involved in a political scheme with 30 NPC aristocrats and courtiers. Don’t start off in a large city unless you have it pre-mapped and detailed. Keep the plot for the first few adventures simple.You might not want to even think of the start as a campaign, just as a collection of adventures. There’s nothing wrong with stereotypes as long as you are flexible with theme. The PCs can meet in a tavern, or join together in a coming of age ritual, or all sign up for the same job. There’s nothing wrong with that–most probably, that first adventure won’t take that many sessions and you can move on to bigger and better things.
- Let your players do the work: mapping and note-taking yes, but also for the start of a campaign. Let them decide how their characters meet. Have them make up back stories about their characters. Have them describe, and indeed, draw the hamlet you start in, complete with NPCs. Reward them for their work, but ask them do it.
- Give your players stuff. This follows an earlier thread. Players love getting stuff, be it a coffee-aged map or a lemon juice secret message. Draw those indecipherable runes and give them to the players. It will make them think you are a great GM.
- Remember that this is supposed to be fun. If you make mistakes, admit them and move on. If you underestimated an encounter’s difficulty, fudge the die results a bit and let them win anyway. Oversights shouldn’t kill the PCs in the first session…that leaves a bitter aftertaste. Later on, you can either not fudge or fudge according to your preference.
- Keep it simple at the start. Ask your players what they want–hackenslash or in-depth roleplay–and deliver it. If they say they want mostly hackenslash with some roleplay, give them the standard evil temple fight (or whatever), but with a run-in with some prisoners who they might free. But, if the prisoner is a former member of the evil cult that ran the temple, and he got jailed only for disobeying a draconian rule like stepping on the 5th block from the East side of the Chapel of Blood, do you really want to release him for the info he could provide…or is that a greater evil?Throw in a nearby hamlet with one or two minor missions among the notable NPCs, such as a conflict between two adults or teenagers engaged to be married but who don’t want to and you have a basic combat, problem solving, roleplay, and lesser-of-two-evils problem solving.
The world that my players and myself have created has become very detailed with a huge timeline of events. Keeping a list of who did what has been a bit of a headache – yet another task for a busy GM…
So, I’ve come up with a tip – ask the players to write an “In Character Journal” after each session. This is then distributed via e-mail. To encourage my players to write, and reward interesting / accurate / fun Journals, I give a small XP bonus.
So far, it’s worked really well with at least 2 players sending their own version of events each week. As a GM, this Journal has not only helped me keep track of who is doing what, but it has also helped to get events ‘lodged’ in the players’ minds. As an added bonus, the journals help me keep a track of what information the PCs have picked up on and what clues they have misunderstood / forgotten /overlooked.
Here’s a tip for groups that have a tendency to lose pencils between sessions, and GMs or hosts who get tired of handing them out.
If your gaming group is like mine, then you tend to hand out pencils at nearly every gaming session. Someone forgets theirs, no one brought extras, etc. Well, here’s a tip to keep you well stocked and at a great price! Buy your pencils from the Oriental Trading Company [ http://www.oriental.com ]. Just go to their site and search for “personalized pencils”. There, you’ll find that you can get personalized pencils (with your campaign name, character name, your name, etc.) for $3.95 for 2 dozen. That’s enough pencils to pass out, keep a few on hand and have plenty left over.
Johnn, just an fyi on a tokens deal for use for in-game coins. I have used plastic coins from the Oriental Trading Company. They have many different types and you get them in bulk. Just do a keyword search for “coins”.[ http://www.oriental.com ]
If you use a Yahoo! group for your campaign stuff, be sure to check the legal-ese on the use of Yahoo! Groups and ownership of the material. I am not certain, but if you are planning to publish your campaign material later, make sure your use of the group site does not compromise your ownership, resale, publication, or distribution of your own material.
Make “retired”, high-level characters primary NPCs for the area they have retired to. When you have an adventure in that area, invite the player of that character to play the NPC. This has the double-effect of allowing them to play their character in a new role (albeit directed in part by the DM) and take the burden of playing the NPC off of the DM’s shoulders.