Monday 30 April 2012

Tales of Blood and Glory: The Eyes of the Dragon

Published in 1988 by Stephen King, the basic idea behind "The Eyes of the Dragon" can be summed up by the blurb on the back "Once upon a time--there was TERROR".  In other words, the novel is a mash-up between the Fairy Tale and Horror genres.  While it captures the mood of the former proficiently, it doesn't do the latter much justice since "The Eyes of the Dragon" is not scary.

One could argue that this is intentional.  Several times, the fairy-tale style made me think that the book was intended for children.  If that is true, then it's possible that King intentionally tones-down the terror.

In any case, I'm more interested in why the book is not scary.  The climax of the book occurs towards the end when Prince Peter decides to attempt a dangerous escape from his incarceration.  At the same time, the evil wizard Flagg has decided to do away with the prince once and for all, and is racing to accomplish the grisly task.

This could have been a scary scene with the proper build-up.  As we discussed before, build-up is critical in creating an atmosphere of Horror.  But, alas, the scene doesn't have the proper build-up.  We've spent the entire novel getting to know Flagg and by the time we reach this scene, he has been thoroughly demystified.  The question is raised whether he is human at all, but it all comes-off as rather superficial, since he has already shown us all his tricks.

I did enjoy the Necronomicon reference, when Flagg's spellbook is described as "written on the high, distant Plains of Leng by a madman named Alhazred".  King is apparently quite the Lovecraft fan, as he refers to him as "the twentieth century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale".  That said, "The Eyes of the Dragon" doesn't live up to that legacy very well.

Saturday 28 April 2012

Supernatural Horror in Gaming II: an alternative approach

In a recent post, I discussed building an atmosphere of suspense and horror in your game sessions and gave a table of random, suspenseful events. That table felt a little ad-hoc and contrived to me, so here is a more polished approach:

Furtive Monsters

When the party has an encounter, don't have the monsters run right away to attack them.  Instead, have them hide.  Maybe then they can follow the party furtively.  Maybe they'll shoot a poison arrow or try to drag-off a party member who wanders too far from the rest of the group.  Maybe instead they'll try to scare the party away or lead them into a trap.

For instance, Goblins in this approach would be closer to Goblins in folklore and pulp fantasy than to Tolkien's warlike Goblins.

Signs of Activity

In addition to actual encounters, the DM can include random events which show the monsters' presence.  This could be footprints, signs of a campfire, etc.  This can be done via a table of such events or via the more general random dungeon restocking.

Tales from the Crypt

Before the characters even head-out, have an NPC who has encountered the monsters.  To create the right effect, his account should be unclear, but ominous.  Maybe he's a hopeless drunk, or maybe an old man who explored the dungeon once in his youth, or maybe the town gossip who tells all sort of wildly inaccurate tales.

Thursday 26 April 2012

The Naive Victim

We recently discussed the importance of building up an atmosphere of foreboding in creating Horror.  One of the common literary techniques for doing this is the Naive Victim.  The author foreshadows approaching danger to the reader, while the soon-to-be victim continues on, brushing-off any apprehensions.  The whole time, the reader must watch Cassandra-like, in growing horror, as their worst fears are realized.

This is a classic and effective technique.  Lovecraft uses it a lot, especially with his his narrators, recounting their tale post-facto.  It can also be seen in some Poe stories, for instance, in The Cask of Amontillado.

Naive Victim in Gaming?

The problem with applying this technique to gaming is that, unlike in literature, the rift between player and character is much more tenuous.  Whereas in a passive medium the reader must watch as the character continues towards their doom, in gaming, when the player senses danger, the character acts with caution.

So my question is this:

(Feel free and post your own experiences/opinions in the comments)

When the Party Wants Something

I recall the following scenario in the OSRIC PBP game I ran a couple years back:

The party crossed swords with a rather notorious bandit game a couple times.  In the second encounter they actually took out the bandit leaders and found a map on one of them.  Suspecting it might be the map to the bandits' treasure trove, they followed it to some remote ruins a few days' trip from civilization.

While exploring the ruins they began to sense danger: finding strange footprints, seeing furtive figures, etc.  Finally they found a ruined staircase leading down into the earth.  As they climbed one-by-one down into the hole, they were pretty nervous.  And indeed, they had reason to be, as they were quickly ambushed by a tribe of Rabies-Crazed Dogmen.

So is this a case of Naive Victim?  I would say no.  It is a case of building up a sense of dread.  But I would claim that, since the players are in control, it's still not quite as powerful an experience as the Naive Victim.  The players know they are taking a risk, not watching helplessly a character who is oblivious to the risk.

In their Footsteps

I think that "Naive Victim" can be used in gaming when the party stumbles on the remains of previous explorers.  This could take any number of forms:
  • Townspeople tell you about someone who visited the ruins years back but didn't return
  • Old Man tells you about the time he and his brother visited the ruins and only he returned to tell the tale
  • Party finds physical remains of previous group--where they camped, where they buried a party-member, signs of a struggle, bodies, a journal page, etc.

Of course, it needs to be kept brief.  Gamers don't want to sit through a long narration, they want to play.  So I would say that the Naive Victim is still less important in Horror Gaming than in Horror Literature.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

In Appreciation of Justin Sweet

I first ran into Justin Sweet's work on some of the recent Robert E. Howard collections.  A fan of Frazetta, Sweet's style is a bit more mellow, but still has a lot of personality, not to mention beautiful details.  His website has some good stuff too, here's a few samples:

The image above is one of my favorites, a scene from the Kull adventure "The Shadow Kingdom".  You can almost hear the snake-men hiss. The detail of the tapestry and Kull's skirts are great too.

Apparently another Kull scene. This one resembles any number of Frazetta action scenes, with the hero above a pile of aggressors.  Justin seems to be the go-to guy for Frazetta style art judging by his book covers and concept art.

Here's another of my favorites from his site.  Looks like Dark Sun meets Mad Max.  I actually used this one for some NPCs in the OSRIC PBP game I ran a couple years back.

Possibly another Howard one, I'm not really sure.  In any case, it shows a barbarian standing ready, but here his aggressor is the frozen wasteland around him.

I don't know what this is, but it looks awesome!

Sweet also has some great portraits, possibly as concept art.  For some reason, seeing a picture of a Dwarf in the style of a Renaissance portrait feels more 'real' to me.

The treacherous path along lonely seaside cliffs.  You can nearly taste the brine in the foggy air.  Feels just right as the party makes their way from the last outpost of civilization to some mysterious, legend-haunted coastal castle.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Rhialto the Microscope

Having finished reading Jack Vance's The Murthe, I moved on to "Fader's Waft", the next story in "Rhialto the Marvelous".  In it, Rhialto and his peers use magical means to travel through space and time.  This gave me an idea.

The Problem

One of the members of my gaming group told me that the game Microscope can be used in conjunction with other RPGs in the following manner:
  1. Players use Microscope is used to create a game world together
  2. The players then take turns DMing scenarios in the game world using DnD, Cyberpunk, etc.
This sounded like an interesting idea to me, except for the problem of overhead.  This arrangement would require that a new set of PCs be rolled-up each session, depending on the scenario being played that session.  This would eliminate a lot of actual "play time".  It would also require each DM to prepare for each session, which could be quite time-consuming.

The Solution

A partial solution could be achieved by adopting the premise of Fader's Waft's: that the PCs have a magical means of travel through time and space.  Each session, the PCs go off on an adventure in a different location while the current DM's character stays behind to "mind the Chrono-Vortex".  In short, a Dr. Who sort of arrangement.

The problem still remains of how to generate hugely divergent content for each game session on-the-fly.  I'd like to actually try this out to see how much of a issue that would be.  Maybe a skilled DM could provide enough detail without extensive preparation.

Or maybe this setup is just way too gonzo...

Supernatural Horror in Gaming

Lovecraft's essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, written between 1925-1927 is an interesting work in it's own right.  In it, the author traces a literary tradition of Horror writing starting with the earliest European folklore, continuing with the Gothic Novel, touching on numerous modern writers, and ending with several of Lovecraft's contemporaries.  What is more interesting to me at the moment, however, is Lovecraft's theory of Horror which he outlines in the essay's introduction.

The Nature of Horror

The essay begins with the oft-quoted statement that:
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
This fear, Lovecraft assert, "must not be confounded with...mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome."  Rather, the fear he is talking about results from:

A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces...and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain -- a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the dæmons of unplumbed space.
 In other words, Cosmic Horror is the ultimate expression of Fear of the Unknown, where the Unknown threatens to overthrow even those venues of reality we think we know well.

Practical Advice from the Master

In any case, Lovecraft asserts that:
Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation.
 This focus on mood over plot is certainly evident in Lovecraft's tales.  In one of my favorites, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the protagonist learns more and more of the horror of his situation, but even so, the story ends with more unrevealed than revealed:
We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y'ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.
 The reader is left with no definite explanations, only with a vague, yet evocative impression of unknown horrors in the murky depths.

In my mind, this is one of the major problems with attempts to codify Lovecraft's writings into a consistent "mythos".  A mythos takes the focus away from atmosphere and places it squarely on plot.  Furthermore, it tips the balance in the mind of the reader from unknown to known.

Application to Gaming

A DM, by nature, has to give a good deal of thought to "plot".  What sort of entities does the party enounter?  How many?  What are their abilities?  Nevertheless, Lovecraft's statements leave me wanting to also add a mood of horror to my games.  How can this be done easily and effectively?  For me the default option is to "add another random generator" to the mix.  So here's one for a specific scenario I have in mind:

  1. Shrine with a hideous idol and a few 1000-year-old coins recently placed in a coffer
  2. The ever-present chirp of crickets stops.  Pack animals must make a morale check or bolt in panic
  3. Raving bum, too drunk to stand, makes ominous references
  4. Dull scratching noises, apparently coming from within the solid-rock walls
  5. An inhuman cry is heard.  Any local hirelings must make a morale check or flee in panic
  6. Pile of freshly removed organs on a stone floor.  Any medical/biological professionals in party will not be able to identify what type of organ, much less the species it comes from
  7. A more well-preserved room with murals on the wall.  The language/artistic tradition is not known, even to an expert.  The scenes depict conical entities going about various indeterminate tasks.  In fact, the shape of the walls seems to reflect some strange non-Euclidean geometry.
  8. You sense movement in the deep bushes.  If party investigates they find a 3 pronged footprint unlike anything they have seen.  If they open fire first, there will also be a thick, whitish ichor.
  9. Some sort of workroom, full of cobwebs and dust.  In it, rows of unidentified implements/substances, not all of them benign.
  10. A broken wall in the basement, which, if explored, connects to a secret door in another building. There, there is a well which continues the network.  How extensive is this tunnel system and where does it lead?

Of course, random tables aside, after this post, Noisms is probably going to accuse me of being a Frustrated Novelist!

Saturday 21 April 2012

Thrill of the Chase

In a recent episode of Zero Punctutaion, Yahtzee criticizes "Silent Hill: Downpour" complaining that it is a Survival-Horror game but is not scary.  He gives two reasons for this:
  1. "Chase sequences are scarier if it isn't clear what's chasing you" but here the game is too well-lit and the entity chasing you too visible
  2. About the monsters he says "they're just dudes.  They're not grotesque twisted monstrosities that stumble around like someone tied their knees to their tonsils"
Now, I've already made some suggestions how to make an RPG session scary in a previous post, but I'd like to examine these two issues Yahtzee raises in better detail.

Step 1: The Build-Up

As Daniel Obrien points out
"What's the point in every monster movie where it starts to lose the scary?  When they finally actually show you the monster full-on!"
The fear is greatest during the build-up, when the threat is unknown.

In addition, running away from such an unknown threat, increases the effect dramatically.  As soon as players make the decision to fight rather than flee, the fear-factor is reduced.

"So how do I make the players to flee?" you might ask.  You don't--the decision to fight or flee should be up to the players.  Nevertheless, in many gaming circles, fighting is the default option players consider.  With a little bit of preparation, though, the DM can provoke the party to at least consider the option of flight:
  • An old man in town tells the PCs "They say it can't be killed, that bullets cannot pierce it's rotting flesh!"
  • None of the superstitious locals are willing to join you as torch-bearers.  Finally you locate an out-lander who is willing to join for twice the going rate.
  • "One of farmer Yorgeson's cow's wandered off one night through a break in the fence.  They found it the next morning, at least, they think it was the cow--what was left of it."
  • Remains of another adventuring party, their fingers, toes, and kidneys, all conspicuously removed.
  • Hirelings forced to roll morale or flee at the first sign that the monster is near.
  • Wherever you go, you find a trail of freshly mutilated animals placed vindictively in your path (as per The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon)

Even if the players decide to face the danger head-on, the mood has been set and they'll be at their most fearful/cautious.

Step 2: Encountering the Monster

If and when the PCs finally do encounter the monster(s) face-to-face, you don't want it to be a disappointment.  They should live-up to the aura of fear surrounding them as much as possible.  There are two basic approaches to this:

Make it Alien/Other

This is really a continuation of the build-up in the chase sequence: even once the players encounter the monster, it remains alien, poorly-understood.   There are a number of techniques to accomplish this:
  • Give them alien cultures/psychology 
  • Describe the monster to the players, don't give it's name(especially if it's from the DMG etc.)
  • Invent your own monster, or create your own variation of a classic 
  • Not effected by normal weapons(Werewolfs,Vampires, etc.)
  • Not visible to the naked eye(The Dunwitch Horror)
  • Have it live in some outré location with strange Lovecraftian "cyclopean architecture" reflecting some "non-Euclidean geometry"
  • Lives in the dark/water/swamp

Make it Repulsive

Another point made in the video linked above is making the monster repulsive.  It should really make the players/characters uncomfortable.  Some ideas:
  • Make them viscerally grotesque/smelly/dirty/slimy
  • It's attacks are unsettling(Mindflayers sucking your brains!)
  • Make them contagious(i.e. Werewolf's bite)
  • Give it a proboscis, nictitating membrane, vestigial limbs
  • They bring nets to capture people and drag them to their lair below the earth for who knows what purpose

Thursday 19 April 2012

Polish Resistance: Session 5

Session 5 was short due to technical difficulties, more substantial than those encountered in Session 4.  On the other hand, this was the largest number of PCs of any session(3), the party saw a lot of in-game success and even decided on a major change in direction.  Most importantly good fun was had all-round despite the technical glitches. 

 Session Summary

Mid-morning, August 28, 1944, eight days after the adventure began, found the party poking through the deserted village of Kurow.  There they met another wandering resistance member, bringing the party's number to five, plus two horses and a pack-mule.

  • Andre- Boxer/Wrestler turned resistance-fighter
  • Shmengy- Hardened resistance fighter who loves motorcycles and grenades
  • Leora- Doctor turned fugitive from the Nazis
  • Jurec(NPC)- from Lipnick, made his own SMG
  • Ludmilla(NPC)- sole survivor of Kurow massacre

The party continued South on the trail of the zombie-creating halftracks.  As the path went over a hill, they spotted 8 zombies wandering in the fields far-off to the right and another 2 far-off to the left.  Fearing to be caught in between the two groups, they headed directly for the two.  These they dispatched easily enough thanks to Smengy's rifle-skills and found they were the corpses of two German soldiers.  The other 8 did not follow the party.

Before burning the bodies, they discovered a business card on one for a hotel in German-occupied Opatow, "Hotel Podekscytowany Pajac".

At this point, the PC's decided that it was hopeless to catch the halftracks without a motor vehicle.  As such, they decided to return North and then turn Southeast towards Russian-occupied Sandomierz in hope of enlisting help to fight the Nazi-zombie-threat.

They headed North, avoiding the road, until they came across an uninhabited hunter's shack in a clearing in the woods.  They discovered the hunter's modest cache in a tree nearby and decided to rest there.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Tales of Blood and Glory: The Murthe by Jack Vance

I tend to prefer short-stories to full-length novels. Maybe I just have a short attention span, or maybe it really is a more focused medium. In any case, here's a short story I recently read, and maybe this post will become a series...

The Murthe is the first story in Jack Vance's Dying Earth novel Rhialto the Marvelous.

The story opens filled with intricate detail and Vance's best flowery prose. The book's eccentric namesake, the wizard Rhialto, sits

at breakfast in the east cupola of his manse Falu. On this particular morning the old sun rose behind a curtain of frosty haze, to cast a wan and poignant light across Low Meadow.

But despite the peaceful surroundings, all is not well. Rhialto is repeatedly disturbed by subtleties in the local flora and fauna and therefore instructs his servant in the extravagant techno-babel of a Dying Earth wizard:

"Ladanque, I will be strolling the forest for a period. Take care that Vat Five retains its roil. If you wish, you may distill the contents of the large blue alembic into a stoppered flask. Use a low heat and avoid breating the vapor; it will bring a purulent rash to your face."

"Very well, sir. What of the clevenger?"

"Pay it no heed. Do not approach the cage. Remember, its talk of both virgins and wealth is illusory; I doubt if it knows the meaning of either term."

"Just so, sir."
Ultimately, Rhialto's walk does not go smoothly and things go from bad to worse when all but one of his Wizard colleagues fall into the clutches of the legendary "White Witch Llorio". Rihalto and Ildefonse team up with a mysterious time-traveling Wizard named Lehuster in a desperate attempt to thwart Llorio's plans and save their colleagues.

In the end, the warring Wizards are reduced to spectators to a much greater struggle between two archetypal forces of Elemental Male and Female. Vance's skill as a stylist is really felt at this point, as Rihalto and Ildefonse's decadent speech contrasts wildly with the regal, poetic tones of Calanctus and Llorio. This makes Llorio's climactic lament all the more powerful.

"Hope?" cried Llorio. "When the world is done and I have been thwarted? What remains? Nothing. Neither hope nor honour nor anguish nor pain! All is gone! Ashes blow across the desert. All has been lost, or forgotten; the best and dearest are gone. Who are these creatures who stand here so foolishly? Ildefonse? Rhialto? Vapid ghosts, moving with round mouths! Hope! Nothing remains. All is gone, all is done; even death is in the past."
Set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting, Vance's Dying Earth stories often carry this theme of lost greatness. A master of prose, Vance expresses this here with the contrast between the rich, Byzantine descriptions in beginning of the story and the classical overtones of the finale. Indeed, the reader feels the loss viscerally, the decadence of the Dying Earth and how all of mankind's greatest triumphs have waned to naught in the planet's twilight years.

Monday 16 April 2012

Used Book Shopping Cart

I recently received a couple crates from my parents' storage, containing my old book collection from High School and various other doodads. So I made my first trip to the used book store to trade-in some old books!

I brought in 7 books from The Wheel of Time series and this is what I got in return. Did I get a good deal? You be the judge :)

The Chronicles of Amber: Volume II by Robert Zelazny
I've never read any of the Amber series, but I understand that it was very influential on classic DnD. I would have liked to start with Volume I, but thus is used book shopping and beggars can't be choosers.

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov
I have a weakness for Asimov short-stories. The retro robots, the (often corny) twist endings. I've never read any of his novels though, so this was an easy pick.

Beyond the Farthest Star by Burroughs
I didn't recognize the title of this one, apparently being one of Burroughs' less popular works, but I immediately recognized Frazetta's work on the cover and then saw the author. The weird space-plane leaves a bit to be desired, so apparently Frazetta later did another version of the cover with a dude with a raygun and a lion-thing, but I included the picture of the cover from the edition I have. I've only ever read A Princess of Mars so I'm interested to see how this compares.

Night World by Robert Bloch
I never heard of this, but I recognized Bloch's name from the introduction he wrote to The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. I see he wrote Psycho and was a member of the Lovecraft Circle so I'm curious to see if I can spot any of HPL's influence.

Hyperborea by CAS
I had just about given up finding any other books when I pulled this out from behind another book: a short story collection by one of my favorite authors! I've read plenty of his stories over at Eldritch Dark, but I've never owned any printings of them. Just goes to show: with used book shopping, persistence pays!

Monday 2 April 2012

Local Flavor: Creating Mood in a Sandbox

One of my goals as GM is to create a mood for the setting. Published adventures often help you out with this by providing descriptive/evocative passages to read aloud, but what if I'm running my own on-the-fly sandbox-style setting? Tables like this one for Sandbox Weddings can help, but they're not very general purpose, and you can only use it once or twice in an entire campaign.

I've been playing with some of the In a Wicked Age Oracles over at Abulafia and having a lot of fun. For the uninitiated, In a Wicked Age is a story game which provides Random Sentence Generators, or Oracles, as part of it's setup. The sentences are generally quite evocative, giving a full dose of mood along with quite a few potential adventure hooks.

So here's my idea for creating mood in your RPG setting:

  1. Make a table of Oracles that apply to your game setting from here
  2. When the PCs arrive in a new town/landmark/hex etc. choose an Oracle at random
  3. Use the first sentence or two generated by the Oracle to create your mood element

Example for Polish Resistance
For an example, I chose the following Oracles for my Polish Resistance game, which I see as having a sort of Post-Apocolyptic/Noir/Occult mood:
  1. Casblanca Oracle
  2. Pulp Oracle- Weird Science
  3. Noir Oracle- Down These Mean Streets
  4. Pulp Oracle- I Love a Mystery
  5. Modern Occult
  6. Demon City Blues
  7. Cascadian Folklore
  8. Pulp Oracle- Rip-Roaring Twenties

Now let's roll up a few examples:
Scenario 1: Party enters a small village
  • Roll: 5/A violent demon passes from host to host by touch.
  • GM Says: You see a few villagers peering into the front door of a small farmhouse. A young man turns around, his face pale, and vomits on the ground.
Scenario 2: Party is walking along a long forest road
  • Roll: 1/A Limousine, delivering a beautifully-dressed couple to a fashionable address.
  • GM Says: A fancy horse-drawn carriage passes by. Through the window you glimpse a beautifully-dressed couple.
Scenario 3: Party enters a Large Town
  • Roll: 2/A gyro-jet pistol, found at the scene of a crime.
  • GM Says: You overhear two Polish Policemen talking "...and then we found this!" he says, brandishing a strange chrome pistol.
Scenario 4: Party checks into an Inn
  • Roll: 7: Once a Great Lake, full of voices, now a hot Desert, where the spirits meet
  • GM Says: From the window in your small third-story room you can see the outskirts on the East side of town, where the forest stops abruptly and the ground slopes down into a deep bowl. Not a single tree can be seen growing in that abrupt valley.
*Note that the first and third roll also present a potential adventure hook, without shoving it down the players' throats i.e. NPC X says "I'll give you 100GP if you solve the murder".