Running a Horror Game, p3

Part 3 of 3, by Jay Watamaniuk
The horror continues…

Chapter 5: Recovery

Figure out what went wrong/right with end of night one event and assess the situation. It looks very, very bad. This is a great time to add some of the more complicated puzzles/situations as players are fresh and alert but it depends on where you left players the previous night. I tend to stay away from a ‘To Be Continued…’ super-tense cliff-hanger night one endings because the players will have sat around for an entire day and certainly lost the frantic tension by the time game time starts again.

Chapter 6: Discovery of Solution

The players need to piece together everything to come up with what exactly they need to do to have a shot at surviving. Sometimes the big final event of night one results in an item that is essential to the plot of the second night. Most of night two should be more focused on a clear objective after this chapter starts. Do not shy away from being very obvious if players are just not getting it. You are not there to ‘beat’ the players you are there to make sure you deliver a story that the players can explore. Players also begin to die in this chapter if you are running a game where the element of survival horror is part of the plot. Your group of actors will be creating tension and scary moments throughout both nights. Do not underestimate simply doing nothing when they are expecting something and letting the players freak themselves out. One game a walk in the woods to recover a special item because filled with fear and all I did was tag along making the players think that something was about to happen.

p3Chapter 7: Last Stand

Players need to act on the clues and gather the tools needed for a final showdown in whatever form that takes such as kill a beasty, last man standing, close moon gate, open galactic gate and so on. Expect even more players to die out. In fact, you should be ending up with a small group left at the very end of the game.

Chapter 8: Dénouement

Depending on how your plot runs you may finish the game with the symbolic camera panning away from the small group of survivers. You may also have an end scene where the survivors tie-up any loose ends and walk into the sunset.

Second night tips:

• As you can see the first night is about building tension the next night is more about movement and faster pacing. I have found players like this kind of slow build-up the first night but a possibly shorter second night
• You will need a space closed off to players where your actors can gather and rest, eat and switch costumes if needed.
• Think very carefully about what to do with players who are killed off/ taking out. Do they become actors or do they gather in a particular place while the game continues? If they become actors make sure to be ready with costume bits, direction and general support (nobody likes to ‘lose’ so give them something cool to do for the rest of the game to keep everyone working towards an excellent game).

cor1In closing, there are a hundred things I learned running a few horror games of this nature (i.e. post-it notes are your friend for prop organization). My advice on running a good game comes down to five points:

1. Those organizer ‘gates’ (see Chapter 2 notes) are very important for ensuring you the organizer are in control.
2. Scary moments can be planned but half come from on the fly creativity- look for opportunities to scare your players. Look for opportunities to let the players have some downtime as well to make the scary moments better.
3. Planning and knowing your plot top to bottom is very important. Nothing is worse then an organizer who clearly has no idea what to do next or is making it up as he goes along (see #1).
4. Know your players. Know where the line is and never cross it. Fear is a fine balance between excitement and unpleasant. You are doing this for them to enjoy.
5. It’s a game. One more time: it’s a GAME. Games should be FUN.

Jay Watamaniuk has lived in such faraway and make-believe places like Thailand, Greece and Japan but has always returned back to Edmonton, Canada to put down some roots and to avoid the fricken’ huge insects that lived in those places. He has been BioWare’s Community Manager for over 7 years and has never once- not once- dressed up like a pirate at work. Shameful.

Running a Horror Game, p2

Part 2 of 3, by Jay Watamaniuk

Breakdown of the first night:

Chapter 1: Arrival of Playersmain-floor3

It is either a normal meet and greet (maybe they were invited to a dinner party at a posh house in the woods) and something is wrong that needs to be explored and searched (house in disarray, person they were going to meet is missing).

The initial set-up of your location contains documents or props that need to be pieced together or solved by the players to unlock some of the overall plot. A small example is a picture that has been torn up and scattered around your environment that needs to be put together to reveal a location of a key. You can create as many of these clues as you wish but as long as they all reveal part of the overall plot and the players gain something from putting the clue together (a key to a safe, a weapon, a new document etc.). This gives players something to do immediately and brings them into your story.

Chapter 2: The First Event

Create an event that is not dependant on anything the players do that will usher the game into the next chapter. For example, the arrival of a man who is crazed from his experiences in the house before the players arrive. This allows the organizer to let players explore when they arrive and when they have reached nearly the end of all they can do in terms of piecing together the clues you have left you can start the next chapter- a step that cannot be taken without the arrival of the man (maybe he has a passcode, or book or spell that is critical to moving the plot forward). These organizer ‘gates’ allow some control in running a game where players will always do unexpected things.

page21Chapter 3: Putting the Pieces Together

The players work through the documents and new elements are doled out to the to allow them to progress through plot stages of confusion to having an idea of what is going on and what they need to do. It is during this time several opportunities to scare the players can happen (i.e. ‘the thing/document/key is in the shed down that dark road’).

Chapter 4: A Measure of Control

Players learn what they must do in the short term to help themselves. Usually it involves accomplishing some tasks like collecting items to build something or perform a magic ritual/act of science/unlock a vault. This final event should be the closing thing for the evening and should be beneficial in the short term (i.e. zap zombies with science thing to stop from being overwhelmed) but leave them in a bad/uncertain place to start the next night’s events (i.e. science thing works but wakes/activates super zombie).

First night tips:

• Players should not be killed/taken out on the first night. Actors pretending to be players should be used instead.
• Having 1 or 2 players that are actually secret actors makes things much easier as they can be given instructions on the fly and help move plot along.
• This chapter summary does not mention anything about how to build tension, keep the player off balance and when to let them ‘rest’ to figure out clues. That is a whole article unto itself.

Friday- Part 3 looks at the second night and wraps up with critical advice.

Jay Watamaniuk has lived in such faraway and make-believe places like Thailand, Greece and Japan but has always returned back to Edmonton, Canada to put down some roots and to avoid the fricken’ huge insects that lived in those places. He has been BioWare’s Community Manager for over 7 years and has never once- not once- dressed up like a pirate at work. Shameful.

Running a Horror Game, p1

Part 1 of 3, by Jay Watamaniuk

As Ferret in his article on adding horror to your game you need to do some thinking on what kind of group you have, what sort of atmosphere you want to establish and what pacing you want to have to invoke fear in your players.

I have co-organized two successful live horror games with indy game designer Trent Yacuk and acted as an ‘adviser’ on another horror game with a good friend. I call them a success because years later when my friends gather certain scenes come up again and again.

animusI am fan of being scared by a good story and wanted to create a frightening and memorial game for my friends to explore. We are all experienced gamers and had a history of playing one or two day Cthulhu games. ‘Cthulhu’ is still applied to any horror game we run to this day even if it has nothing to do with
Lovecraft’s dire mythos
. Thankfully, I had a co-organizer who had a better handle on over-arcing plot and story. I could focus on particular scenes I wanted to try and create for the players.

What is the basic make-up of a live horror game? My games ran over two days; it had a definite start time and a definite stop time (I never ran anything that ran around the clock- I like sleep). Normally we would start around 7 to 8pm when it was getting darker and play until about midnight on both evenings.

The Planning

Running a live game for about 10-15 people is a lot of work. You will be considered a Big Damn Superhero if you run a good one but boy, you will need to do some legwork. Don’t try and do it by yourself- get a friend or more to help co organize and be a guide for players at the game itself as you can’t be everywhere.

Rules: Decide what rule system you are using. Trent created a very quick and easy to use live game system (about three pages top to bottom) for our games which worked very well. Keep it incredibly simple as the main focus of a horror game is pacing and atmosphere- not being a rules lawyer. Let me stress that: scary games are all about the atmosphere and flow of play not rules.

Location: You need a space to play in. It can be a house, a cabin in the woods, a warehouse. Whatever it is you will need access to it before game start for scouting and then set-up. For this article we will refer to the location as the ‘house’. It also needs to be a place where you can arrange furniture, move in props and even make a few simple changes if need be (we removed a few doors from their hinges at one of the games to give the place a bashed in, messy feel).

Plot: The games I have been involved with generally followed the same rough flow and had a similar template. You do not need to follow this template but it might make things easier for the first time out and see what works for your group.

Helpers: Depending on your plot 4-5 helper or actors who work for you. However one game I heard of had no actors as the players themselves became the ‘monsters’.

Thursday: Part 2 breaks out the first night’s game into defined chapters

Jay Watamaniuk has lived in such faraway and make-believe places like Thailand, Greece and Japan but has always returned back to Edmonton, Canada to put down some roots and to avoid the fricken’ huge insects that lived in those places. He has been BioWare’s Community Manager for over 7 years and has never once- not once- dressed up like a pirate at work. Shameful.

Medieval Fantasy Gaming, p2

Part 2 of 2, by Ferret Baudoin

God or Gods. First off I radically changed my game world’s religious landscape because I just couldn’t imagine the medieval world as I was discovering it without one of its core pillars – the Church. Previously, my games had almost a shopping mall of temples where you could find any of the hundred gods that were about. There was so many gods that it was hard to give more than a couple of them the TLC they merited. Had I seen the HBO miniseries Rome perhaps I would’ve given polytheism a more concerted go, but at the time I couldn’t see it or really grok it.

But more importantly faith is a matter of belief. If you know there’s a God(s), after-life, and that all clergy can perform miracles – then enter the alien society again. I made a rule in my game to never give any definitive evidence that the divine exists. That’s not to say there can’t be miracles – it’s just that God can’t come down and lecture people directly about the importance of dental hygiene. Not every priest should have an array of spells at his command, instead I modeled it after history. Those rare blessed souls that seemed to have a special connection to God. And their miracles were often subdued, and a skeptic could argue it was entirely bunk or outright lies. I wanted room in the game world for an atheist, and for him not to sound like a chump.

So miracles were incredibly rare, as was magic in general. But it’s all out there. And the PCs were going to see a heck of a lot more of it than almost anybody else – because that’s what heroes do. Explore past the boundaries of the civilized world and experience true adventure.

After all that (and more) I found that the world held together. That you could have noble intrigue living side-by-side with ancient ruins filled with mythological monsters. That farmers could till their fields and on the sly give sacraments of milk to the fae and there would still be room for the rare and powerful mages. It gave the world, from my perspective, an authenticity it was missing before. It was a labor of love and I’ve enjoyed continuing to refine and world-build ever since. I think the players appreciated it more, too, but you’d have to ask them to know that for sure.

If any of this is striking any chords there’s a wealth of information out there. Ars Magica and Vampire: The
Dark Ages
and its related source material give a high level view of the time period in an adventuring context. Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) is also quite knowledgeable about history and has hilarious shows about it like Medieval Lives and The Crusades. Daniel J. Boorstin has written a series of books which talk about the history of man’s knowledge and belief. The Discoverers especially really blew me away because it made me realize what medieval people knew – but also what they didn’t. Imagining a world where people did math with roman numerals, for example, and without the concept of a zero. Mind-blowing to me. Ask around in many forums and I have no doubt you’ll get other excellent leads.

And if suspending your disbelief isn’t a problem, I recommend savoring it. One day you may be a jaded old coot like me where disblief can agitate you like beach sand in your tennis shoe. Ultimately it’s about what’s fun – and for me as a GM I find it a lot more fun if I can close my eyes and the whole world is there and it makes sense. But your mileage may vary. 🙂

Ferret Baudoin is a lead designer at BioWare. He’s worked as a designer at Cyberlore, Black Isle, and Obsidian. His plan is not to take over the world. So don’t pay attention to the silently encroaching mustelid army.


Medieval Fantasy Gaming, p1

Part 1 of 2, by Ferret Baudoin

There is one time period that fascinates me like no other – the Middle Ages. Knights in armor, kings and queens, and Crusades… what’s not to like? When I was a young kid and played my first game – I had no idea what medieval times were like. Honestly, I didn’t care. I got to kick goblin’s teeth in – wee! But as I got older I found that my suspension of disbelief was harder to swallow. So I thought quite a bit and wondered – what the heck was that time period actually like? On a summer vacation I picked up several books of medieval history and read them voraciously. That’s something I still do on occasion. I realized that the sort of Tolkien-esque worlds I’ve played in or had run, although fascinating, really paled to bits of real history. It also made me realize that the best way to smooth over the disbelief issue is to inject a lot of historical realism into things.

So I’ll tell you a little of my gamemastering journey. Hopefully it’ll make you think of a thing or two or be vaguely entertaining or interesting.

First off, I started thinking about the people. What they believed, why they believed it, and what were their lives like on a typical summer day. High magic worlds like I’d been running really would destroy everything the medieval people believed in. You can embrace high magic and it can make a rich setting that’s fascinating – those to me feel almost quasi-steam punk. But I wanted to take the players into a mythical, fantasy version of medieval Europe – so that didn’t work. So I decided to try and make it that the medieval peasant wouldn’t have to change his whole world view in my game. If magic were uncommon enough I think it would actually reinforce some of their views instead of upending their world.

A lot of my thoughts were about how to inject the fantastical to a player’s perspective – yet keeping it plausible that the peasants, nobles, and clergy wouldn’t seem like dimwits. Humanoids really weren’t a problem because they’re very analogous to barbarians, something parts of medieval Europe were entirely too familiar with. But spells really threw me for a loop. I’d always taken for granted that people could be resurrected in fantasy pen-and-paper games – but as I thought through the consequences I was appalled. If resurrection existed to powerful clerical types – those clerics would be enormously powerful politically, kings and high nobles that could afford their services would be guaranteed a natural lifespan to achieve things. I imagine people would start reacting like the denizens of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld Saga – where strategic suicide could be a legitimate tactic. Any element that started making the society seem alien to me had to go – so no resurrection.

Every spell in the book (and I used two systems over the life of the game setting – Rolemaster and Dungeons and Dragons) I went through with some thought. Some spells got nixed or heavily modified for other reasons. A pet peeve of mine are spells that reduce NPCs into tools, not people. If I can command any Tom, Dick, and Harry on the street to do my bidding and tell me anything about everything – it sort of kills role-playing. You could easily go the other way, because mythical mages like Merlin certainly could have that sort of power. But for me, I wanted people to have to interact with the high and low and use their wits, guile, and persuasive abilities to get by.

Ferret Baudoin is a lead designer at BioWare. He’s worked as a designer at Cyberlore, Black Isle, and Obsidian. His plan is not to take over the world. So don’t pay attention to the silently encroaching mustelid army.