Tricks And Treats For A Festive Halloween Game
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #377
- Tricks And Treats For A Festive Halloween Game
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Tricks And Treats For A Festive Halloween Game
From Michael Erb
Halloween and role-playing are a natural match.
Arguably, trick or treating was most gamers’ first taste of role-playing. A change of clothes, some makeup or a mask, and suddenly, for an evening, you were someone else. A favorite comic book, cartoon, or movie character, perhaps? Or maybe one named by their career: policeman, fireman, doctor or ninja. Some of us were monsters, ghosts, and psychopaths. We were the things that went bump in the night.
What makes Halloween akin to role-playing and so special is that three hundred sixty-four days a year your parents told you nothing lived in your closet, nothing lurked under your bed. All year adults told you ghosts and goblins weren’t real.
But on October 31, they admitted they might be wrong.
Oh, the possibilities.
Set-Up And Early Decisions
You can run a Halloween gaming session in almost any RPG genre, even if the game world doesn’t have such a holiday. In my campaigns, Halloween was always the high-water mark. Players anticipated a unique, yet Halloweenish game. Some of the games were funny, some scary, some just bled a kind of creepy atmosphere. Almost all centered around Halloween actually taking place in the game, but that is not required.
It’s best to figure out the length of the game before it begins. An all-night session will require a different set of considerations than one limited to three hours. Though on the surface this may sound obvious, the length of the game will play a role in the mood you want to establish. It might be hard to keep a humor-based game going for five hours, but an epic adventure might not even hit its stride at the two- hour mark.
It is also a good idea to give players an idea of how long the adventure will last to add an element of session finiteness. For example, you run a one-shot session where the player characters are normal people. They become trapped in the tunnels under New York City, hunted by a creature(s) that can only exist in our world for a limited period of time. Now the game has become a matter of survival; stay alive for three hours in-game and you win by default. Hiding won’t be an option, because the thing(s) can hunt, and there is little chance of help from the outside world, as one heck of a party is being thrown topside. Even if you could make it topside, screaming that some-THING is hunting you probably wouldn’t get much of a reaction. Not on Halloween, anyway.
On the flip side, a quest to prevent an evil god from entering the world might require an entire evening, simulating days of travel and preparation in the game. Even in this case, allowing limited time gives the players a clear idea that failure is possible, and reminds them there is urgency to their quest.
Medieval And Fantasy Halloween Tips
All Hallows Eve is the day before All Saints Day. A common belief was that, since the saints were all busy getting ready for their day, there was no divine protection of humanity on Oct. 31. Humans were left to their own devices to avoid the forces of evil, which they often did by disguising themselves as goblins and demons.
In gameplay, Halloween becomes a time of fear, a night when no clerical magic works, charms of protection fail, and prayers go unheard. Priests and religious leaders attempt to bring their flock to safety or hide themselves within their great monasteries and churches, vanishing for the duration of the day. People bar themselves indoors or hide in an attempt to wait out the night. Cities shut their gates and double the watch, while nearby peasants flee to the great city walls, desperate to get in.
Undead and supernatural activity becomes almost frenzied. The more intelligent creatures assemble groups of unseen things to raze and terrorize unprotected communities. Some form armies and assault the cities themselves.
The key to an adventure like this is to establish early on that certain superstitious beliefs are actually fact, at least for the duration of the day. The PCs may opt to wear costumes to make themselves blend in with the surrounding hoards. Though this grants freedom to move outside the cities, such movement should be tense, for if they are discovered…. Likewise, the day would last from the stroke of midnight Oct. 31 to the stroke of midnight Nov. 1. They only have to survive the night, but no true hero would hide themselves away while so many helpless people are left to the unholy monsters.
An alternative would be to make such events the stuff of legend. Halloween becomes a day and night of revelry, a time when people put on masks and leave their inhibitions at home. The next day will be spent in prayer and penance – best to dredge up some sin the night before.
Whatever truth to the superstitions there might have been, it has all been lost and buried, turned into fanciful stories and children’s games. The church frowns upon such excess and the paganistic undertones of the costumes and traditions, but to quash it might stir up the unwashed masses, and it is only one night a year.
Halloween For Superheroes
A whole host of baddies can crawl out of the darkness to wreak havoc on superheroes and their turf on Halloween. Alignment of the planets, a full moon, a supernatural villain taking advantage of the strange energies of the night – any of these can lead to a rollicking comic-book adventure. Demons could roam the streets with impunity, feeding and terrorizing at will. (I mean, it’s just some kid in a costume, right?) Or, a group of sorcerers conjure up a Halloween spell that warps the world, making the otherwise harmless stage dressing of the holiday somehow malevolent and threatening.
A specific example would be an old movie theater running a horror-feature bonanza. Classic black and white monster movies, featuring Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon play across the worn movie screen. But nearby, a malevolent spell goes wrong. Things summoned from the other side to raise Halloween- inspired Hell take on the appearance of the classic monsters, colored in black and white. Reports filter in of the Mummy terrorizing trick or treaters downtown, or of the Blob devouring a delicatessen in the market square. The heroes must somehow return them to the theater to break the spell, perhaps first battling the evil coven of witches and warlocks that brought them into existence.
Since costumes play such a classic role, why not have the heroes trade among themselves? For a night, Spiderman bursts into flames and flies, or The Flash flings Batarangs at his foes. Many a villain could be caught flat-footed when they realize they are fighting a hero they were unprepared for. This works in reverse as well – who would want to be wearing Superman’s cape when Doomsday comes wandering through town?
An alternative would be to have someone else dress up as the heroes, either to commit crimes or as an attempt to emulate them. The would-be doppelganger could be a master villain, bent on tarnishing the heroes’ image, or even a deranged psychopath, believing s/he is the hero, gaining power through emulating them. Maybe the fake is an upstart hero who is trying to grasp prestige and fame without first earning it. Conversely, the would-be hero could simply be a smitten fan boy trying to gain the attention/affections of the hero by upholding their sterling name.
An interesting twist on this kind of game would be, as a one-shot adventure, a costume party where the players control “normals,” people without powers who have chosen to look like the heroes simply to have fun. Throw in a case of mistaken identity, perhaps a hostage situation with no real heroes around, and suddenly the otherwise powerless characters find themselves drawn into heroic roles.
Investigative And Noire Halloween Ideas
This is an area in which Halloween shines. A mundane world where evil is more sinister than any beast, and the subtleness of the supernatural unnerves and disturbs more than harms. The mind becomes its own worst enemy and the shadows that follow aren’t always your own.
This genre more than any other can deliver a fright without actually being horror. The game drips with atmosphere, every character has a secret, and people dwell in the darkness of their soul.
Unlike other genres, the investigative/noire game is more centered around unmasking, both those around you and yourself. Halloween becomes the backdrop of all sorts of nefarious doings, such as murder, treachery, deception, and insanity. Humans become the monsters and are made all the more frightening by their normal appearance.
For example, a killer stalks the street wearing a whimsical mask and brandishing a variety of blades. The killer only surfaces on Halloween, his calling card a bloody “Trick or Treat” scrawled on walls and sidewalks near his victim. The gumshoe investigator has only the one night to capture the fiend before he vanishes again into normal society.
Does the killer believe the night grants him some sort of power, a belief that his crimes will go unpunished? Is it a sick, childlike game that he has never outgrown, or a deep psychological scar that boils over every Oct. 31? Maybe it isn’t the same killer at all. Throw in psychological maladies for the heroes (say, a fear of clowns or dark places) and you have a tense adventure.
All Hallows Eve In Space
If full-blown horror in outer space is what you are looking for, look to films like Aliens, Pitch Black, and Event Horizon for inspiration. Play up the isolation, the despair, and the vulnerability of being so far away from home. Creatures can be supernatural, predatory, alien, or even cybernetic. Don’t forget the gaming value of a few psycho humans. Being hunted by your companion is just as unnerving as an alien that wants your brain.
For a more tongue-in-cheek version, have an alien celebration be Halloween-like. Maybe it was a custom brought onto alien worlds by human colonists. Things should be familiar (“Hey, a Jack-O-Lantern …) yet strangely different (“…carved out of some kind of meat…”) or even disturbing (“…that is still moving…”). Things that would be significant to humans might not have the same effect on alien races, which might consider skeletons and blood appetizing, or sugary treats to be akin to drugs. Things they would find frightening would be less so to a human, or perhaps even lethal.
Future And Cyberpunk Halloween
In the future, the Halloween we know has lost its mystique, ultimately replaced by a visceral, dark celebration, with great pyres, alcohol and drug induced rioting, and martial law declared every 31st of October.
The setting is already a dark one, and the supernatural has been replaced by a loss of humanity. Technology and greed are the true terrors of this genre. Halloween can be played as either a chance to cut loose and join the dangerous revelry, or an even darker time for those already riding the razor’s edge. Think a cross between Blade Runner and the Crow.
The return of supernatural forces could add an interesting wrinkle to the game as technology’s effect on demonic or shadowy forces could be minimal at best. The hunt for history – old knowledge of fairy tales and superstitions – could spur a frantic search for otherwise mundane or antique items, such as holy relics, garlic, or silver bullets.
Halloween Tricks And Tips
There are all sorts of ways to celebrate Halloween in the context of gaming, but for simplicity’s sake, I will try and limit my suggestions to just a few.
Players In Costume
May sound silly at first, but having the players come dressed up in costume might lend great flavor to your game. Costumes could range from random choices to specific themes. Players could also try to recreate the look of their characters, though it could get tricky (ever tried to make a suit of full plate mail out of cardboard and tin foil?).
Gamesmasters seeking to add an extra layer of complexity to such a game, or those with a twisted sense of humor, could require each player to game in character with their costume. In other words, Boba Fett sits down to play an elven ranger, or an axe-wielding psycho takes a turn at being Superman. Diabolical gamesmasters might not let players know about this stipulation until they actually sit down to play.
Characters In Costume
Medieval characters could be asked to attend a lord’s costume ball. Futuristic or cyberpunk characters could attend a costumed rave, or seek to disguise themselves during a corporate raid.
One Halloween I ran a cyberpunk/superhero game in which the PCs had to meet a contact at a gigantic costumed party in the middle of the city, like a Times Square New Year’s celebration with ghosts and goblins. Each player was asked to come up with an idea for a costume before the game. They didn’t know about the party or that their character would be wearing said outfit.
We ended up with a seven-foot-tall Elvis, a pink bunny that could shoot electricity, and a gun-wielding mime running amok in the middle of the city. Good, clean fun.
These are almost always fun, if for no other reason than the novelty of the game. Sometimes having little to no emotional connection with a character frees the player to push their own limits, to risk themselves in situations that would otherwise have been played conservatively.
Games such as Chill, Call of Cthulhu, and other horror-based ones are often built on the premise of having characters with limited replay value. Success in such games is based on the “didn’t go insane, didn’t get eaten” concept. Perfect for a one-shot game.
Similarly, there are games on the market designed almost solely for the one-shot session. Some can be downloaded from independent game companies for relatively small fees, so check out some reviews and keep an open mind. Good things don’t always cost a fortune.
Above all have fun and enjoy the holiday. Eat some candy, wear some orange and black, play spooky music, and turn the lights down. Watch a B-grade horror flick after gaming. Go crazy.
Halloween, just like role-playing, is what you make it.
A Brief Word From Johnn
Johnn Away – Next Issue Will Be Week of Oct 21
I’ll be away this week, so Issue #378 will hit your inboxes in two weeks’ time. Hopefully, the Halloween tips in this issue give you enough time to plan something special for your games this month.
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Mobs Made Simple With Brute Squads
From John Gallagher
In keeping the rules from bogging down a game while dealing with mobs, and with a big grin, I turn once more to my favorite game: 7th Sea. There is a mechanic for mobs that is simple, effective, and best of all, allows the players to use mobs as an opportunity to show off a little. They get to feel superior and happy with themselves before my villain’s pounce.
Foes in 7th Sea are divided into 3 categories: villains, henchmen, and brute squads. Villains would be fully fleshed out, individually statted characters or critters. Henchmen would be similar, but with fewer abilities and hit points. (In D&D, for example, a villain would be an ancient dragon, a henchman a fairly immature one.)
Then there’s brute squads. The rules are extremely streamlined for them.
First, they attack as a group. One die roll for each squad (up to six brutes per squad). If they hit their target number they get one hit. For each five points they make their roll by (in d20, it might be every two points, as a rough conversion) they gain an extra hit. They don’t even get to roll damage – it’s a set number per hit.
Second, if a brute gets hit, it falls down. Pure and simple. Players can also opt to take out more than one brute with a single attack. Think of Inigo Montoya in Humperdinck’s castle wiping out all those guards in the hallway. That’s what I mean about players getting to show off a bit. They do this by raising their target number by five for each extra brute they try to take down. And it’s an all or nothing roll. They either get them all, or they get none.
So, a brute squad’s “character sheet” is nothing but a few shorthand notes, and might look like this:
Threat Rating: (a number from 1 to 4 representing their attack ability and how hard they are to hit) Damage: 15 (firearms), 6 (fencing weapon)
And there’s also a d20 version of 7th Sea available, called “Swashbuckling Adventures.” I’ve never looked at the book, but there’s probably a d20 mechanic included for dealing with brute squads.
Just something I thought you’d be interested in hearing about.
From Fred Ramsey
Our group took an idea from Savage Worlds. The DM assigns an HP total for a single creature (like 4 for a kobold). If you do 4 or more points to the kobold in a single attack, it dies. Otherwise, it lives. This works pretty well, and there is zero tracking involved. If you want to make the mooks a little more dangerous, give them a few more hit points.
Idea: Mobs Transform Into Boss With Blood Awakening
From Andreas Rönnqvist
I have a great idea I used once when my players were meeting a tribe of barbarian kobolds connected through an ancient spell. This spell was called the Blood Awakening, and it meant that, as soon as one of the kobolds were killed, his blood would animate and flow into the tribal members closest to the fallen and empower them.
In the beginning, this effect was unnoticeable for the players, but as they began encounters by essentially mowing the enemies down, they soon realized something was wrong as they noticed they no longer could take down one kobold with one attack.
They started noticing the flowing blood, the wounds of the kobolds healing as the blood flowed into them, and by the time they had slaughtered most of the tribe, they were fighting three 7 feet tall kobolds who sent characters flying with their attacks. In the end, the final, giant kobold was a memorable “boss” and the encounter was one which was referred to as “surprising and great” by the players.
This same effect can be done in sci-fi where each member of a mob has a small amount of nanobots, and the more of them that die, the more concentrated the nanobots become – increasing regeneration rates, speed, strength, or even adding new features to the mob.
Another idea is using undead or robots, and with each kill, more “parts” are added to a leader of some sort. Perhaps the skeletal dominator at the back attaches lost but still animated body parts to itself and grows from it, or the combat mecha adds more cannons by attaching those that are blown off in combat. Same idea, different approach.
You could extend this idea to a big adventure, in which case the characters must make hard choices, such as sidestepping enemies, sneaking past them, or perhaps leaving them alive but unconscious to ensure their final enemy does not become more powerful.
Editorial: The Aging Player
From Ryan McHargue
I am not old, but I lost my “new car smell” years ago when it comes to role-playing. When I first started gaming seriously, my characters could be likened to an action movie where they had a one-line motivation and a few catch phrases. They were like the TV and movies I loved so much at the time: Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Bionic Man, The Greatest American Hero, The A-Team. Light hearted and roguish fun, there was no need to give them a dark feel. There was usually a good hint of tragedy to their past, but the character used that for good, not to feel angry and hate.
As I aged so did my characters. They went from early twenties or late teens to mid-twenties. They also started to get darker and take on an anti-hero feel. I was influenced by characters such as Marvel’s Deadpool, Darth Vader, Dirty Harry. These characters had lots of tragedy, and it didn’t affect them for the better, it twisted them. My characters became twisted and motivated to do good, but on their own terms. The random property damage that was with my earlier characters was replaced by the more purposeful violence of an anti-hero who found themselves in a hero’s role.
This dark feel continued to grow, as well as my desire for more realism. Heck, I was tired of being able to shoot off 30K rounds into the kidnapper’s white van and having them step out with no blood. I wanted to point a gun at someone’s head and have them put their weapon down. The threat of death I wanted all the way around, and so the game evolved.
As I hit thirty (yes I am that old guy the young laugh at in the comic shop, although I didn’t try to cover my acne scars with a scraggly beard, and I have a full head of hair) my characters hit the range of 34 to 50 in age and started to lighten up. My hard-liner view of reality wavered with my black and white view of good and bad. I stopped forcing reality into every square inch of my characters, and gave them a balanced view of motivations. I came to the decision I wanted to have fun, not fight over rules and fight for actions, and wanted to pull off ridiculous cinematic pistol shot car explosions again.
Now that I am in my thirties, no longer thirty, I am experienced enough to give my character’s tragic pasts that motivate them to be heroic, but who are light-hearted enough to take on adventures that an anti-hero wouldn’t. Yes, I can help Captain America despite his patriotic view of life, I can give a high-five to Cyclops…well maybe not that, but I can play on many levels now.
So the question comes up, what about in my forties, what will my characters become then?