Horror Improved!

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Running a horror campaign is very hard work. Imagine a scene where the players should be in horror, frightened, excited and then someone tells a silly joke, a mobile phone rings or your mother calls from the upper floor and asks if someone want some sandwiches. And in an instant all you’ve worked for as a GM is ruined. But there are some simple but efficient tricks to make your work as a GM easier.

  1. Turn down the lights
    I usually darken the room when we play “Call of Cthulhu” or similar games. Then I get some candles and use only them for illumination. If someone complains that he can’t read his character sheet just use more candles. Bright artificial light usually distracts from the creepy atmosphere you want to create. If you run a SF-horror campaign you can utilize a flickering neon lamp for quite a nice effect. But this should be used sparingly because it gets old fast.
  2. Creepy music
    Another easy trick is to use creepy music in the background. And by creepy I don’t mean the latest Britney Spears album! Soundtracks from movies like “A Nightmare on Elm Street” or “John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness” work great. Refrain from using music with vocal and keep the volume down. If used correctly illumination and music set the mood even before the game started.
  3. Props!
    I love using props. When playing games like “Call of Cthulhu” handing out newspaper excerpts and other handouts to the player makes the game feel more real. And this almost everytime improves the sense of horror. A friend of mine has a sheep’s skull that he sometimes brings along when he runs a game and places it in front of his GM screen. This adds a nice touch.
  4. Turn off the mobile phones
    That should be a requirement for every gaming session! Just ask your players to turn off their phones. It makes things so much easier!
  5. No eating at the gaming table
    Nothing destroys the mood faster than someone munching chips at the gaming table while the GM tries to describe the supernatural horror in all its details. Instead of having food at the table all the time, make pauses to have something to eat. During the meals turn of the lights again and let your players relax.
  6. Voice and sounds
    One way to get your players attention especially when it’s supposed to be creepy is to talk with low volume. Usually they will listen more closely (especially if you robbed them of most of their sight by turning the lights down). When something dramatic happens become louder. Some GM even shout, stand up for more effect or even use maniacal laughter (if it’s appropriate).
    In one adventure scratching sounds played an important part, so I scratched with my fingernails over the underside of the gaming table for some great effect.
  7. Don’t overdo it
    The most important advice is: don’t overdo it. If you constantly scratch under the table, flicker the lights, do creaky-door sounds all the time, it gets old fast. After a while your players will not be in fear but they will probably throw their dice at you just to make it stop. So use props, voice and sounds sparingly.

I hope these simple tricks will help you improve the mood in your horror adventures! And if you know of more tricks, please let all of us know in the comments!

Dungeoncraft: “It all started with a map”

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This article is the first part of an series of articles in which I want to talk about the development of a campaign setting. For quite some time I was thinking about what kind of world I would like to create and finally I decided to give it a try and start with some serious work. The series will be called “Dungeoncraft” as an hommage to the classic series by Ray Winninger. Today I want to talk about how the project started and about my basic design decisions.

“Hey, don’t steal our thunder!”
When I finished “Arcanum – Of Steamworks and Magicks Obscura” for the first time, I thought the world Arcanum would make an awesome campaign setting for a pen & paper game. I even contacted the developer Troika Games for their blessing and the publisher Sierra for their green light. The guys from Troika Games loved the idea, but Sierra couldn’t allow the creation of a pen & paper RPG based on their intellectual property even when it was meant to be free.

“It all started with a map”
So I decided to create my own version of Arcanum that didn’t use any intellectual property owned by Sierra. I started with a map of the continent where the majority of the action should take place. I created the map using some computer software and printed it out on 6 DIN A4 sheets of paper in color. Then I obviously stopped working on that project and the map ended up in some drawer. Years later, when I was rearranging some furniture, I started cleaning out some of my old stuff. And that’s when I stumbled upon the map. I had some faint memories of the project but for the life of me I couldn’t remember what software I used to create the map. But I decided to keep the map for future project. So now, I am going to use the map as a basis for my latest project. Having a map of the world makes things much easier to visualize. I probably will have to recreate the map in some point of the future, but it is sufficient for now. For this purpose I already bought Campaign Cartographer 3 some time ago. Although the software has a steep learning curve, you can create some impressive maps.

“Welcome to the lands of <please enter a great name here>”
Since the map is pretty big and the original file is nowhere to be found, I can’t give you an image of that map here. Hmm, perhaps later I can use my digital camera for making a photo. The yet unnamed continent/island has roughly the same shape as the British Isles and is probably of the same size, perhaps a bit larger. I plan to add a bigger continent later but for starters a place of that size should be big enough for my purposes. The climate is mostly temperate but there’s one large desert area that probably was created by unnatural means. The island is also dotted with several cities, some fortresses, towns, ruins and even some other features. I will talk about them in a later article.

“Let’s get down to the basics…”
Now I want to focus on the basic ideas of the campaign. Like in Arcanum I want to confront the players with a world where magic and technology collide. But instead of Arcanum I don’t want to have the whole magic vs. technology dichotomy. Having magic and technology interfere like it has in the computer game needs a solid set of rules that are probably easy to realize in a computer game enviroment but much harder to get to work in a p&p game. The other point is that mixing technology and magic could lead to some interesting results like enchanted guns, airships driven by magic and more wonderous contraptions.

“We don’t serve your kind here”
Arcanum uses a tolkienesque world as a premise and then introduces an industrial revolution. “Tolkienesque” means that you have a world with several intelligent races that are similar to those seen in the “Lord of the Rings” or perhaps D&D. Although my world will have several trappings that are reminiscent of a tolkinsque world, I have decided against other intelligent species than humans. Magical creatures like dragons will exists but they will be simple beasts instead of highly-intelligent beings they are in other settings.

“History 101”

Let’s talk about some history. Millenia before the campaign starts humankind was still organized in small tribes, sometimes even clans that had a more or less nomadic lifestyle. It was during these times that the first children where born that carried the “mark”. The mark looks like an elaborate tribal tatoo and normally is invisible to the naked eye. When these children were in stress or in great fear the mark starts to glow and they were able to do impossible things like hurling fireballs, creating things from thin air, heal wounds or teleport themselves. Each time they used their abilities the mark glowed in an eery blue-white light. Sometimes these children were feared and even killed, sometimes they were revered. In time they learned to control their abilities and they called it “Magic” or the “Art”. Often the “marked” grew to become great leaders of their people and so the first sorceror-kings were born. Normally the children of sorcerors inherit their parent’s abilities but it is not unheard of “normal” people bearing a “marked” child. But this was becoming less and less common.

For several millenia the most common ruling system was magocracy. But this was about to change with the advent of the first industrial revolution.
This concludes the first part of the series. I will talk about the fall of magocracy and the industrial revolution in a later episode.

UPDATE: Following an advice from The Chatty DM and the Questing GM I tried to break the article into paragraphs to make the text easier to “swallow”. Since I hadn’t thought of readabilty when I wrote down the article, it’s still very much a “wall of text” but I hope it’s a bit easier to read now. I will try to work on that in the future. And thanks to all of you for the helpful advice!

Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide – A first look

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When I first opened the brand-new FR campaign guide, I was disappointed. I was hoping for new races, new classes but the book did contain almost no crunch, only fluff. Then I remembered that the crunch probably comes with the upcoming FR players guide. When I continued reading I was surprised, since the book starts with the description of the town of Loudwater and an adventure. When I am not mistaken this is the first time in D&D history that a campaign guide starts with an adventure. Since I am not overly interested in published adventures (I prefer to write my own), I skipped a few pages and came to the chapter called “Adventuring”. And from this point on I was starting to love the new book. I don’t want to go into too much detail here. There are quite a few detailed reviews on the net and this is just a first look since I haven’t had the time to completly work through the 280+ pages book.
Wizards of the Coast have really managed to reinvent the Forgotten Realms without destroying the flair. In one of my earlier posts I wrote about my fear of the Realms. Although I like the setting in general, I always preferred other settings as a GM. With the FR you always get the feeling you’re running someone else’s campaign. And with the changes in the 4E version of the setting, Wizards has given the Realms back to the players. And although this was claimed when the 3E version came out, this time it’s true!
Ok, let’s recap what has changed between the two editions:

  • 100 years have passed
  • Cyric has murdered Mystra, which destroyed the Weave, changed magic, shifted the planes and let part of Abeir merge with Toril.
  • Gods have died or have been revealed as Exarchs working for more powerful details (which greatly reduces and simplifies the pantheon! This is detailed in the “Pantheon” chapter)
  • With “Returned Abeir” a new continent appears (bringing Dragonborn with it)
  • The destruction of the Weave caused the Spellplague that tainted certain areas and created mutations in creatures, effectively creating a new kind of monsters, the “Plaguechanged”
  • Whole nations have been replaced by areas from Abeir

Ok, this if of course not a complete list of changes (yeah, I am lazy). The important thing is that they’ve changed enough to give us a lot of new stuff to play with. It will still feel like the realms but there are a lot of areas that are new and that not even your Forgotten Realms veteran has ever seen them. High-level NPCs like (in)famous Elminster and the Simbul have more or less retired and there are a lot of opportunities for the players to earn money and fame.
The largest portion of the book is claimed by the “Faerûn and Beyond” chapter which gives detailed information on all the regions of Faerûn and Returned Abeir. Usually every region like “Cormyr”, “The Dalelands” or “Vasaa” consists of two or three pages including a small map and descriptions of the area, lore, settlements and features and adventure sites.
The “Threats” chapter concludes the FR campaign guide with description of monsters, NPCs and organizations that could become enemies or even allies for the player characters.
All in all I really like the direction Wizards has taken with the new Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide. Perhaps I should mention the artwork before moving to the conclusion. The whole book contains beatiful artwork on par with what we’ve seen in the core rulebooks. The included map is ok, but not as good as the one we got with the 3rd Edition version of the Realms. The cover features a female drow riding a dragon and not Drizzt Do’Urden as shown earlier. This is a welcome change in my book.
I am now eagerly awaiting the upcoming Players’ Guide. From what I’ve read in the campaign guide we’ll get at least one new class: the Swordmage. I am pretty sure that the Drow and perhaps the Gnome will be available as fully detailed player races in the upcoming book. I also would like to see some FR-themed paragon paths like Harper or Purple Knight.
If you were hesitant to run a campaign in the FR before, the 4E iteration of that classic campaign could be interesting to you. The designers made enough changes so that you can regard the updated campaign as a whole new thing much as the 4th Edition of D&D is something like a complete new game in many regards. In any case, you should at least have a look at this great book at you Friendly Neighbourhood Game Store.

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