RPT#285 – Ignorance And Fear
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Ignorance And Fear
A guest article by Andre LeJeune
When we feel safe we are in our comfort zone. Players seated at a gaming table have no reason to _not_ feel safe. At a typical game session, we have food, shelter, and friends all together. There is no hint of physical danger. Why should anyone be fearful in such a safe environment? The difference must come from the game master.
The game should not be a recitation of comfortable themes and cliches. What scares us most? As a child, my experiences of greatest fear involved being in rooms with no light. The darkness was not in itself scary, it was the things that might be concealed. My imagination could create more frightening monsters than I have seen in any book or film. Good gaming must contain an element of uncertainty. Information control is key to creating the desired game climate. Remember, fear and ignorance go hand in hand; familiarity breeds contempt.
Game World Information Is Secret
PCs who know everything will quickly get bored and be unafraid. To counteract this, make the game world a secret to discover. The PCs must learn through painful and frightening experience. PCs will not know most things. Political groups, races, or societies should never be presented as entirely good or bad.
Depending on experience, the PCs will form unique opinions. What is more fearful than putting your life and future in the hands of people you have no real idea about? Even the gods of most fantasy games will perform any act humans would. Black and white is boring. The gray is where is the fun is.
Many Items Of Common Knowledge Will Be Wrong
A world with fantasy elements will not be a methodical and logical one. Local areas will be cut off from the rest of the game world. One village may fervently believe residents in villages over the hills have demon blood in their veins.
People will die for the sake of ignorance or superstition. Many more monsters will be said to exist than is possible. Monsters that do exist would be said to have wildly different characteristics depending on who is asked. PCs will not know what every monster is capable of. The background of a PC will largely determine what biases and wrong information that individual will take into a given situation.
Challenge the PCs to mistrust the information they might read in source books and sit down to roleplay.
Resist The Urge To Volunteer Information
Part of the fun of GMing is creating novel events. A lot of real work and time goes into planning a good game. There is a strong urge to tell the players how cool the encounter they just experienced was.
Everyone raise his or her hand who liked the force broken down to a simple biological element in Star Wars episode one. No one liked that. The mystery was destroyed. Hours spent wondering what the nature of the force was were over.
PCs will like or dislike what the GM does. If what you do really spooks the PCs, let it ride. Layer misinformation upon misconception, add player fear in with that, and you have a recipe for real tension. Do not destroy that dynamic.
Describe Things, Don’t Tell
The expedient description eliminates mystery. If the lighting conditions are not perfect, PCs will not have a good idea of what they are facing. Be descriptive enough to get the players wondering. Then, let the players’ imaginations fill in the blanks. Don’t try to overwhelm people with long descriptions. The way the NPC looks should convey personality. PCs might recoil from that cackling, insane old man on the road.
They don’t need to be told he is “obviously a farmer.” A sound at night does not come from forty-five feet away to the north near the large oak tree. An earsplitting, rhythmic crashing that moves in the PCs’ direction creates apprehension. Small brush strokes make up the picture.
Use Misinformation Creatively
The act of gathering information should not be easy. The players must sift through a mass of conflicting statements. Put it on the PCs to decide their next action. That captured assassin has no reason to tell the truth. He has every reason to lead the PCs into a deadly situation. Why should a barkeep tell the truth to the loudmouth, murdering strangers in his pub?
He tells them anything they want to hear so they will leave. Acting on bad information, the PCs attack and kill the wrong person. Who is served by that? What if the PCs are hunted for crimes they thought to be just deeds? That inner conflict is what the GM is looking for.
Be Honest To Your NPCs
NPCs have personal agendas, dreams, desires, and goals. Don’t play these characters two dimensionally. Evil NPCs are capable of anything. Let the players worry about what the current nemesis is planning. Give hints, clues, and rumors from the game world about NPC plans. Never give the complete story. Maybe that guard captain has no interest in the truth now that he has arrested someone for the crime.
Our good captain just wants peace in his city. So, the PCs are run out of town with no discussion, and maybe even roughed up a little for interfering. The PCs don’t need to know why. The PCs will come up with all sorts of wild speculation about the why, and that is exactly what you want.
Isolate Players & Characters
The introduction of this element breaks down the PCs versus the GM dynamic. I have found a few techniques that work well.
- Strictly limit the knowledge an individual PC will share with the group. The only thing the other PCs will know is what is directly said.
- I am a firm believer in private notes. A seed of doubt is planted that PCs may not be able to completely trust one another.
- Don’t let PCs look at others’ character sheets. Make them wonder what one PC might have acquired without the group’s knowledge.
- Use individual rewards for good game play. Players will notice one of the group’s own being singled out. A competitive spirit will emerge that will add to tension and spur player initiative.
Shock The Game Environment
Introduce elements the players do not expect. Incorporate characters and technology that should not be present. Use a dimensional rift to pull PCs into another place or present a unique threat. Have your invincible 20th+ level D&D party encounter a freaked out Klingon commando team with fully charged disrupter rifles. Perhaps that warm, glowing bar is a fission rod sending out slowly lethal radiation.
Maybe a 19th century luxury cruise liner on a mountain lake is set up as the best inn the PCs have ever visited. This will keep the players off balance. They will not be sure about what they will encounter next. The players will react to the GM, and that is what it is all about.
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Readers’ Tips Of The Week:
Crime Pays – Running A Criminal Campaign
From: Dr. Nik
My favourite game: start everyone as a low level street gang and make them work up to eventually being crime bosses of the town. 🙂
I have successfully run Villains games (Heroes Unlimited Palladium system and a few others). I really enjoy it, but think you need to keep the following in mind.
- Players should have clear character goals and communicate them to the GM before game play. (i.e. Make $1,000,000, or be the toughest fighter of the town).
- Decide and communicate beforehand: Bound group or Unbound? Players should be bound together for the big three reasons (Blood, Money, Love). If you don’t have player binding, encourage everyone to make 2-3 characters and rotate them in and out of the game depending upon the “mission.” The non-bound group has more of a “criminal” feel in that the players can role play more options and do the whole, “Hey, is Frankie available? He’s the best safe guy we know!”
- Although it shouldn’t happen every session, Character killing should be allowed unless your players are not mature enough to handle the related issues (i.e. player versus character anger).
- I encourage Character Rotation in Crime games. It allows players to explore various archetypes to a greater degree as you typically don’t always get a chance to play bad guys as protagonists very often.
In terms of the story lines and arcs, how are you planning on playing? Regular campaign (couple times a month) or ad hoc whenever? If you are playing a long term campaign, then I would suggest interwoven story arcs. If you are playing ad hoc or short term, then I would suggest a robust mission generator and a well developed region for the characters.
With a robust region, you’ve got the ability to say, “This week the following jobs are available…” Then make a few dice rolls and, boom, you are off! There are usually four phases to this style:
- Negotiating Terms Of The Job
Add a plot twist or two for good measure and you’re off.
For campaigns, I suggest you have 3-4 story arcs, such as getting in good/taking out the Chinese Tong mafia, working on breaking into the secret government lab, dealing with the vigilante(s) stalking the group, and character goals.
You can weave the stories together and play one session with arc A, next session arc B, next session arc A, next session arc C, and so on. Mix it up to keep characters coming back. Give a greater sense of passage of time, and vary the missions. This might be too deep and hard to follow for less serious players (who was that Chinese assassin again?) but I think it encourages stronger roles and development of character and relationships over time.
The criminal world is fairly tight, word gets around how clean, messy, good, bad, quick, or slow a job gets done. If the group does well with an organization, it will most likely lead to future work from that individual. It will also alert those individuals or groups who were acted against. This allows for developing side stories and recurring NPCs.
I typically recommend developing 5-7 different factions. These should be a mix of possible employers as well as law enforcement. These various factions will interact with each other as well, allowing for political role playing and involvement. The GM should track the actions and reactions of the various factions involved in the story line.
For smaller scale, lower power games, these factions can be rival gangs or teams, local law enforcement, local heroes and vigilantes, organized crime bosses, and other groups.
For large scale campaigns, develop international crime syndicate bosses, government agencies, super spies, other villains teams, and other epic groups.
Here’s a random event generation chart I used for my most recent super hero villains campaign. It’s based on the Villains & Vigilantes game and modded it for my game:
Job 1-3 Robbery 4-6 Destroy/Murder 7 Plot Twist *(special) 8 Supernatural 9-11 Drug Related 12-14 Disable/Rough Up 15-17 Kidnap/Ransom 18-19 PCs Condemned/Attacked 20 Plot Twist *(special) Target 1-2 Rival Gang 3-4 High Tech Individual 5-6 Hero 7-8 Villain 9-10 Artifact 11-12 Building 13-14 Law Enforcement 15-16 Government 17-18 Vigilante/Merc 19-20 High Tech Device Pay Scale 1-3 Pittance 4-7 Low 8-15 Average 16-18 Good 19-20 Excellent 21+ Phenomenal (Add Appropriate Power/Skill/Bonus
to reward, such as Negotiation,
Streetwise, Diplomacy, Charisma.)
Plot Twist 1-2 NPC Wants to Join 3 Rival Villain Hit/Attack 4 Authorities Snooping Around 5 Framed by an NPC 6 Stake Out/Explore a possible traitor 7-8 Press Snooping Around 9-10 Hero Snooping Around 11-13 Vigilante Snooping Around 14-15 Contact Turns Good 16-17 Natural Disaster (Quake/Flood) 18 Secret Identity Discovered 19-20 Attack/Capture by: 1-5 Foreign Government 6-10 GPPI/Government 11-15 Law Enforcement 16-20 Rival Gang/Faction
Online Inspiration For Magic Weapons
From: Johnn Four
Check out this page from a MUD site that has short descriptions for numerous magic weapons and items. Creative GMs can find much inspiration from this page, methinks.
“Anointed Morningstar: A platinum rod connects a chain of finest silver to a large, barbed, diamond ball. Incantations of divine power encircle the diamond, protecting it from shattering, while dealing swift and brutal justice to any and all villainy. The weapon moves swiftly and with ease, as if it were an extension of your arm, its spikes like the fangs of a coiled viper.”
From: Brandon Blackmoor
This site is looking for new games and players:
If you are currently running a PBeM game, you might consider adding your game to the RPG Library PBeM News under “Games in progress.” If you are looking for players, feel free to post under “PBeM games seeking players”, as well. Entries in “Games in progress” stay online indefinitely, and announcements under “PBeM games seeking players” stay online for 30 days.
Free Blogs Available At GamingOutpost.com
From: M. Joseph “MJ” Young
Your latest issue (#284) reminded me that Gaming Outpost now makes space available for gamers who wish to publish a blog. I’ve not done so myself, but I’m sure readers who are interested in creating a game-related blog would be quite welcome at the site. (And perhaps I’ll see them on the new forums, too.)
Free Organizer Software
I’ve been searching for a personal information manager that I could import pics and other files into and export if needed. After a checking out about ten free programs, I found the free version of TreeDBNotes. It seems to fit the bill. A nifty free version of the all out model that has more of the insert functions I wanted and tabular interface. All for free.
Here’s a link to the download site. Choose the free one.
Classic Tip: Roll On Your Mousepad
I have a quick tip for GMs who want to keep their dice rolls relatively secret. I’m not talking about the results of the roll, I’m talking about the roll itself. Even rolling behind a screen isn’t enough. There’s always that one player who yells out, “look out, the GM’s rolling something!” I used to punish this by taking 20 points or so XP away from them, but that just lends a negative air to the session.
I find that, when I need to keep the roll itself a secret, I can roll my dice on my mousepad. It’s perfect because it yields a good roll (no half-cocked numbers) and it makes absolutely no noise. That way, my players don’t always know what’s being randomly generated and what’s pre-planned, and that tends to see better reactions to otherwise brushed-off situation in-game.
Helping Calm Rowdy Moods
Issue RPT #48 – 5 Things To Do When Your Players Aren’t Taking It Seriously
Robin has some interesting tricks for bringing a game back on track, but his focus seems to be on “whipping the players into shape” rather than everyone having fun. Maybe it’s because I game with friends and he games with strangers, but my approach is much different.
- Join the fun. Clown around for a little while.
- After you’ve had enough, say “ok, let’s get serious, here.”
- Be prepared for a few dwindling jokes and clown-moves. Laugh, if they’re funny. Make your own retort, then end with “ok, ok…back to business.”
- Depending on how serious you want to get, end your retort with “ok, ok… back to business: everyone roll initiative.” There’s no need to be mean about it. Just have an ambush with a dozen kobolds or something to get them back in the mood.
- Be prepared to can your plans for the evening. Sometimes, the gang just doesn’t feel like focusing on the game.
- Be prepared to either continue in a light mood (I’d not bring out any major plot elements, but if your Star Wars gang wants to hop in a shuttlecraft and buzz Moss Isley, there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe they can have a little mini-adventure against keystone-like cops.
- Maybe do something else. One thing I’m anxious to try with my group is IC “Scruples”, you know, the game where you are asked about moral dilemmas and then you answer. I think it’d be fun to play In Character.
- Break for wild plot advances. Make it a game where each person can talk for one breath (i.e. until they have to inhale) and they try to fabricate the wildest version of how the campaign will go. Has the nice side effect that a good idea or two might come of it.