Category Archives: role playing games

The Scary Stuff – Part 2

“Fear isn’t so difficult to understand. After all, weren’t we all frightened as children? Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It’s just a different wolf. This fright complex is rooted in every individual.” – Alfred Hitchcock

…Continued from last month.

Vampire the Masquerade changed not only the wolf but it made YOU into the wolf. But let’s take a step back for a moment and give a quick shout out to another game that I actually bought and played (I believe 1 year or 6 months) before the whole Goth-Vampire-Bomb-shell struck.

Nightlife RPG was the first RPG I played where you reveresed the roles. Suddenly YOU were the monsters. You could play a vampire, a ghost, a werewolf etc. trying to a) fight bigger and nastier monsters and b) staying away from (including killing) monster hunting humans. Night Life was profiled as a “splatterpunk” RPG, where Horror was something to be displayed in all it’s graphic, gory detail. Basically doing what hardcore porn does to more subtle romance. It was loud, in your face and dripping with blood. Just like a lot of the horror genre was at the time as well. The Horror film industry had taken this rout already from 1987 up to 1990 Horror fiction and films had changed the tune to more and more detailed graphical depiction of violence. Going from cheap thrills and mystery to pure dread and maddening suspense. Nightlife RPG embraced this.

Vampire The Masquerade (VTM) came one year later and it was the same thing but refined. Packaged in a prettier cover and art, and also tagged along a strong Gothic theme. Together with all this came, music, clothes, attitude and style. It was spot on the nerve of my 17 year old heart and I was doomed to fail my will save on that one.

I played a lot of VTM. I mean A LOT. Question here is… was it really a horror game? I can argue for it being a horror game, saying that the real horror was internalised and the true monster was within you. It’s true that the mechanics of the game would support this, you had to feed your Hunger and had to keep your “humanity” in check if you did not want to lose control of your character. But… where was the fear? Where was the dread and horror? What started to develop over time was a sense of us playing superheroes with fangs. And our rpg-experience was pretty far from being scary.

That was about to change…

In 1993 Swedish game developers published KULT. And again my mind was blown away. Utterly and completely, pitch black, dark dreadful and very very scary. This game tapped into some of my favourite writers at the time. Imagine a game that was the love-child of Clive Barkers; “Great and Secret Show”, “Books of Blood”, “Hellraiser” etc. and Neil Gaiman’s; “Sandman”. It was fresh, it was contemporary, it was truly horrible, and sure you could play a monster if you liked, but did it truly matter? Did it make you feel safe? Nope.

Kult brought fear back into the players, and it also brought a large portion of mystery back. What it didn’t bring however… was a system that made sense. Mechanically speaking this game leaves a lot to want, and we had to house-rule just about everything. But the setting still blows me away when I think about it.

The important thing was… the “wolf” was BACK!

… to be continued in “The Scary Stuff – Part 3” but in the meantime let’s discuss:

  1. What scares you in RPG’s?
  2. Do you prefer Mystery over Suspense?
  3. The game Kult is a truly adult game, featuring; drugs, sex, torture, black magic & suicide, in all worst kinds of morbid combinations. How do you handle themes like that in your group?
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The Scary Stuff – Part 1

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.” – Stephen King

In this series of posts I want to talk about my journey through the history of Horror RPGs. In short I want to talk about…

The Scary Stuff

I was afraid of monsters when I was a kid. I still remember a lot of the problems that came out of that. Having trouble sleeping at night. Fights with my parents who, thought I was too big to come sleep in their bed. My daughter has the same issues now. She’s 10 and it’s starting to bother us.

Slowly it got better, but it lasted for an eternity. I think one of the reasons things changed is that I got tools to deal with the horror I felt. And one of those tools was this:

I got the Swedish edition of this game in 1985. I was 12 years old. Right now I can’t remember how I got it. My parents certainly would never buy something like this for me considering all the issues I had. I think I might have bought it from a friend.

I could probably say a lot of things about Chill as a role-playing game today. But this is not supposed to be a review of that game. Instead I want to highlight one thing that this game gave me, that I still remember, that I still use and that I have not gotten anywhere else. (Granted. I’ve not been looking for it either.) And that is; a structural breakdown of the Horror genre and how it is used in literature.

This game, in one of the GM sections, explains what horror is, and what tools you can use to invoke it. It illustrates this by examples as well, and does so in a fashion that the 12 year old in me still remembers 30 years later.

The game talked about “isolation”, “alienation”, “twists” and other horror elements and held them up as building blocks to use.

Soon after I was hit by the Call of Cthulhu train… I was blown away by that, but I have to admit that it didn’t explain “horror” to it’s core the same way Chill did for me. Truth be told I encountered CoC earlier than that, but was a little too young to understand how to deal with it. Chill told me how. It showed me how. And when I picked up CoC again the world was forever changed.

I started writing Horror short-stories, and still do occasionally. I started consuming horror literature by the truck-load. Everything from the classics; Shelly, Stoker and Poe to more late-80s-contemporary; King, Koontz and Barker.

Maybe this is why I still regard a really good Horror-Story as the best RPG experience one can have?

During this time; age 15-18 we played a lot of RPGs and a lot of it was Call of Cthulhu. Then in 1991, two things happened more or less at the same time, that took the genre into a very different direction:

Vampire the Masquerade and Kult…

… to be continued in “The Scary Stuff – Part 2” but in the meantime let’s discuss:

  1. What was your first encounter with Horror RPGs?
  2. Are you a Horror consumer outside of the RPG medium?
  3. At what age did you start in the Horror genre?
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“It’s Hammer Time!”

We were playing “Death on the Reik” and during the raid/visit to Castle Wittgenstein the players find it infested with Chaos mutants…

Imagine the scene that unfolds when the Sigmar Cleric in the party opens up the doors to the Sigmar chapel and finds it defiled, by a Slaneesh cult… not only that, but amongst the purple mist he can see human bodies interlocked in unspeakably depraved and vile acts of fornication. It’s hard to see where one body stops and the next begins in this writhing snake-pit. This holy place place had been corrupted by the most unholy of all…

I (DM) tell him to make a Will-test, lest he be overcome with the urge to join the sinners in the copulating frenzy… He makes it. Shakes off the attempt, picks up his holy hammer of righteousness and says, with one last disgusted look at the people in front of him:

“It’s hammer time!”

Awkward Moments

In this post I would like to talk about Player reacting on a personal level to stuff that other player characters do and/or say in game.

In the scenario described above the Sigmar Cleric “cleared out the evil” from the temple of his god. It was a defining moment for that character, filled with drama, and tension. I loved it.

Another player at the table was distraught about the whole thing because in his opinion these were just innocent villagers who happened to have fallen under the curse of Slaneesh. He claimed that the Sigmar Cleric character had just committed mass-murder.

This had all been fine unless… unless we somehow all felt the tension in the room shift, from being between the two characters to instead be between the two players.

I can’t remember who seemed to take things personal first, if it was the cleric-player for being challenged so hard or the accuser for not being taken seriously. I don’t know.

But it ended with the cleric-player saying to me (after the session) that he would never act out his character like that again, because he felt like everyone in the room hated him and was provoked by him. And even though I tried to talk him out of it, I think a piece of his love for role-playing died that day.

Personally I LOVE those situations. They define the drama in a very real sense. I would just love if the players could still be friends afterwards… and most of the time we are. But not always.

Usually it is connected to acting with lethal force without first getting consent from the group:

Like (in another game) when the Military Officer decides to summary execute two P.O.W.s they have because he cannot allow them to compromise the mission. Millions of lives are at stake, and he does not have the resources to handle two prisoners. He kills them. And several jaws around the table drop: “You did WHAT?!”

And you can feel it… It’s not only on a Character-level… It just transcended that and became something else. More personal. They are accusing HIM. Not his character. Or at least that is the way HE feels…

To discuss:

  • Have you ever had a role-playing situation cause grief between players on a personal level?
  • What was the situation?
  • How did you handle it?
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Staying Power!

There is a truth out there that seems to be valid for most gaming groups I talk to. It certainly is for us. And that is the fact that we rarely actually play a Role Playing Campaign to the end. THE END.

In fact for me personally I think I’ve actually “ended” maybe two campaigns in my life. (Not counting the one or two that ended with TPK’s and every one just gave up after that, because to be honest that is also usually a question of staying power.)

Think about it for a second. I’ve been playing Role Playing Games for 30-some years… and I’ve only ever actually gone all the way to the finish line TWICE! That has to be around <1% or so…

Why does this happen? Is it good or bad that it does? Do we want to / have the capacity for change? That is what this post is about.

We’re all “Nostalgic Utopians” when it comes to gaming.

A big factor here is that we all long for the, usually over rated, past. That gaming-high you got the first few times you were involved in a deep campaign. The bliss you felt when you were 16 and could play for 46 hours straight if you felt like it. And you DID feel like it. Frequently. This is part nostalgia and part trying to go back to something that was probably never really there the way you now remember it… I don’t know if that makes sense.

What I’m trying to say is that we now think of that time in our life as a Utopia of gaming. and we want to go back to that place when we play. But the fact of the matter is that time probably has erased all the negatives of that reality, and we are now different people caring about different things, so even the idea of reaching that same place is a Utopia in itself.

Example: One of our players has always talked about Greg Stafford’s – Pendragon RPG as the best RPG system of all times. There was no reason to the amount of praise he had for it. He loved it to bits and more or less declared all other RPG redundant because this was the best ever and even trying to make another RPG was a waste of time. Perfection was already there to be had.

So when we started up a Pendragon Campaign, he was on that like white on rice. We all were. We were excited. We were frothing at the mouth to get into this legendary game that was supposedly so awesome that… We might get back there, that feeling… that grail of gaming we all seek. It might just be here…

We played it on and off for almost a year. But it only took us one or two sessions to go: “What?” and “+30 Bonus? Well Greg was never big on maths I guess… ” etc. etc. And the person loving this game to bits soon started making different noises: “This game SUCKS!”

In a way I think that the major gaming experiences you have during your adolescence will shape the rest of your gaming life. Just like other experiences you have during that time will shape you. Music, ideology, people you look up to, clothes you wear.  etc. etc. Why should games be any different?

So this whole nostalgia will in the end cause disappointment and you will never reach the Utopia you are hoping for. I don’t know if there is a way around this problem. I mean it’s easy to say we should look to the future instead or focus on the now or any such nonsense. Nonsense because it’s easy to say but hard to do.

Signal to Noise ratio.

This is something I struggle with. Let’s say I have a gaming group of 6 people. I would not want to play RPG’s, continuing on the Campaign if not at least 4 of us were present… preferably this would also be the same 4 people that showed up last time.

This is harder than it looks. We have a steady gaming group. We’ve been gaming ever Thursday night, with exceptions of course, but quite frequently I would say, for the last… 10 or so years.

Yet it seems like mission impossible to keep the story cohesive. Either only 3 show up, in which case we play Board Games instead, or I get 4 people but only 2 of them were her last time, and the other two have missed the last 2 sessions… Bring out the Board Games!

See where I’m going with this?

If an adventure that I was estimating, should take about 3 weeks to complete is still not complete after 10 weeks, because people can’t get their shit together to be persistent. I (as a GM) will start to lose interest, and so will my players.

RPG are about STORY! And for there to be any story at all, the people playing have to participate, they have to care, get involved, and above all; Remember the story!

If the last time you played was 4 weeks ago and you have missed 2 sessions in between, then chances are you’d rather just play a board game, because right now, you don’t see the story at all.

This is also a hard nut to crack. We all have “real lives” to live as well. We all have work, wife, kids etc. and no one can blame us for having to tend to that every once in a while. Even on a Thursday. I have no clue how to fix this. Maybe force players to bring their calendars so we can schedule in a few nights in more “formal” sense? I don’t know.

Oooh! Shiny!

I’m guilty of this. Probably more so than anyone else in the group. This is my Achilles heel. I like to buy and read new games. I also get the irresistible urge to play them. And sometimes that affects my interest in the game we are currently playing. I lose focus.

This has a double-bad attached to it, and that is the fact that sometimes, when we get around to playing the “new” game, I’m almost bored of it already, because it was new and cool to me (had my attention) 6 months ago.

So here is another scenario to consider: I buy a game and / or read through a campaign… 4 months later we want to play it. So I read through the same campaign again… now we get bumps and hick-ups in the gaming frequency so after a couple of months I have to read through the same shit a THIRD time… at around that point I start to lose interest and buy another game to read on the side because the one we are playing is already old to me.

So how do we solve this problem? If we could make sure to “get it while it’s hot” and keep playing it with a better frequency, then I don’t think this would be such a big problem at all really. The trick is to catch the wave and surf it. One thing I have done (I am currently doing that in the game we play actually) is to NOT read new games I buy through and through. I buy the new setting supplement or campaign module, I browse it through, but I did not ready it! I held on, for a couple of months till it felt like we were getting closer to actually see some play, and NOW I start reading. It helps a little.

Ooooh! Shiny… Board Game!

Similarly, we sometimes get side-tracked one night because there is a new board game in the collection that we simply HAVE to try!

This is another “guilty as charged” for me. And it has steadily become worse over the last 5 years. It used to be Board Games was the back-up plan. The thing we did when we were not able to get an RPG group together. But these days we play Board Games because we, at that particular moment, want to play Board Games more than we want to play RPG’s.

I’ve come to have mixed feeling on this.

A) I love to play board games! And sometimes make the mistake of urging the group to play it with me at the expense of the RPG session we could have played.

B) I hate the fact that if we miss this ONE opportunity to continue the RPG campaign… who knows? Next week we might have fewer players and not be able to play anything BUT Board Games. And the week after that might be even worse… considering all the other myriad of small issues that dilute our RPG-sessions this is just another one that makes it hard to follow through.

So many games so little time!

In the end it’s probably simple maths. As we get older we have less time available to play. At the same time our budget for gaming goes up and we can actually afford to buy way MORE games than we could when we were 16.

So the ratio between consuming games/games available to play versus the actual time available becomes worse and worse.

These days I sometimes buy games I’m assuming from the start, will never get played. I just buy them for the read and to have them in my collection. It’s almost like the consumption of games has become it’s own part of the hobby. I guess that is when you realise you have become a “collector”. When you can name, off the top of your head, 20+ games you own, have owned for years, but that you have either played only once or not at all.

I just wished there was more time… like when I was 16… and we’re back to nostalgic utopia.

Conclusions

When we bring in all these factors that distract us from the RPG campaign that we have going. It should come as no surprise to any one that we play the same campaign for, give or take, 12 months. During that time we might have had anything from 7 – 15 actual RPG sessions, out of the maybe 40 game nights during the year. After this we stop and start another RPG campaign. It’s maybe only natural, but at the same time we all feel a little sad doing it.

We have tried shorter campaigns because we thought that maybe we could stay on target till the end if the end was not so far away… But we failed at that as well.

We have discussed playing more “one-shots” to “test” new systems to see if we liked them enough to start something bigger. But some people in the group don’t like jumping around that often from game to game and would rather just pick one.

We also have people in the group preferring Board Games over RPGs… strange I know…

I’ll be honest and say that EVEN if we did not have these problems, even if the group would show up like clockwork every Thursday and wanted to play the next session… I’m not sure I would not lose interest after a years time. I might be wrong of course, because the whole scenario I just described is a little alien to me, but it might be that I would still require a change.

The difference is that it would then be a change after 40 RPG sessions… and that is plenty of room to actually fit a full campaign.

This will continue and we bring it up every year to discuss how we can move forward, but we never seem to actually RESOLVE anything. We just go on and on in our old tracks.

Maybe you have any ideas?

To discuss

  • How many rpg campaigns have you participated in during your gaming career?
  • How many of those have you seen to the end?
  • Do you think this is a good or bad thing?
  • Do you think it is a symptom of something else?
  • How would you go about trying to “fix” it, if you thought it needed fixing?
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