Archive for the ‘DM Theory’ Category

Social Elements in Fantasy

July 2, 2010 3 comments

“One thing that often surprises me is how much, and yet how little, we change when we create fantasy worlds. For instance, we often radically change the look and feel of the world. We add new wondrous species, awe-inspiring locales and epic legends. However, rarely do we change the fundamental underpinnings of our societal structure such as our views on gender, race, and disability. In these aspects, our worlds are more likely to mirror our reality than our desire.” SarahDarkmagic, The Promise of Fantasy

This harken’s back to my recent article on languages ( What did you say? ), a lot of the answer to this question is that we just do not think about these things in detail when we are building worlds, in fact many people don’t think about these questions in detail in looking at our real world either.

Consider for example these two videos: Aimee Mullins and her 12 pairs of legs and Aimee Mullins: The opportunity of adversity it is unlikely that many of us have considered Aimee’s perspectives on these things, and even reading the comments posted below her talks makes some stark revelations about how people react to these situations. So it isn’t really surprising that this stuff doesn’t turn up in our games.

Now of course some game systems (World of Darkness, L5R, BESM) all cater for playing characters with a physical impairment, but even then the settings are either modern, or have a very “you shall not be stigmatised” response to physical impairment. DnD in comparison stays right away from this stuff.

An important thing to remember of course when looking at DnD is that it is a high fantasy game in the mold of the space operas and swashbuckling adventures like Star Wars, the Three Musketeers. Certainly there are great lashings of the Lord of the Rings and similar, but even in the Lord of the Rings by and large the characters die, or go unharmed (Frodo is the exception). Further in all these settings, and the core genres that DnD is drawn from and inspired by there are bigger things to worry about than many of the social conflicts of our modern era, and even of the historical eras that provide fuel for the game settings.

Why are you worried about skin color – when there is another actual race of creatures in the next valley who do want to eat you? Why are you worried about gender equity – when the woman down the road really can burn you to a crisp with a flick of her wrist? Why are you worried about any of that stuff – when a truely evil alien entity wishes to consume your whole world and the souls of every living thing in it because they taste nice as hors d’œuvres?

This is really the heart of it. DnD isn’t really about social questions in its core assumptions, and the answer to many of the questions Sarah asks is “because it isn’t that important to what the game is about, and it is in no way deliberate”.  The latter being more directed at the why aren’t 50% of adventurers female – the answer is largely obvious in that 50% of the game designers are not female, and so just think up male characters more often, add the fact that “gender bending” play is frowned on (I’ve had female DMs tell me I cannot play a female character for example because “I will not do it right”…) and it is even less surprising that male players mostly conceived male characters.

So is there any value in addressing these things in developing a setting?

I think the answer to that question is more complicated, than the answer to the question of why they don’t turn up in DnD games. The first thing you have to ask is “why will this matter in the game?” if the answer to that question is “it will not” it probably isn’t worth putting any further time into considering it – build your game to your audience. For example I’m thinking of starting a Zombie Apocalypse game – social considerations are very unimportant to the game, getting solid mechanics worked out to support the idea on the other hand is very important. On the other hand if I want to run a game focussing on the political intrigues between two nations taking the time to establish the society and culture of those nations by looking at their attitudes towards women, disability, slavery, magic, religion etc is going to be important for establishing the differences. The danger with engaging with this is making value judgements and placing one position in the role of “good” and the other in the role of “evil” (oh that is another reason WotC keeps DnD away from this stuff). The main issue is you need to be sure of the values you are going to be highlighting and contrasting.

L5R stumbles into this problem from time to time, on the one hand the setting tries to reflect certain traditional Japanese (in particular) social expectations, eg a samurai’s wife stays at home and runs the estate (notice that there are 2 assumptions in that 1 expectation!). Yet at other times it flies directly in the face of this and turns that on its head to the point that “Good little Matsu Wife” is a joke among the player base for the husband of a Matsu samuraiko. The problem is the setting tries desperately to avoid making a judgement one way or the other and so skirts the issue other than some generalised statements about “normal” and the PCs being “special”.

So in setting up a campaign where social expectations and cultural values are going to matter the DM is going to have to take the time to figure out what the values are that are going to matter, where they stand on those things, and how that is going to be reflected in the setting.

There are two basic ways to handle this, the first is “egalitarian vs stereotype” the other is “shades of grey”.

In egalitarian vs stereotype, one group has the best of modern values – no discrimination, equal opportunity for everyone etc etc it might even have a democratic government system. The other group adopts what are seen as the worst negative traits from history, women as objects, slavery (with very poor treatment of slaves), killing of the disabled etc etc. This sets the tone very clearly and allows the PCs to make a clear contrast between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” (note I didn’t use evil!).

In the shades of grey setting you use more traditional values mixed with some modern values, each group has values that the players may agree or disagree with, such that it can be hard to choose which group is “best”. This one is going to be the hardest one to set up and run well, and would be something I would only attempt with players I knew well so that I wasn’t tromping all over someone’s values when I made group X the “hero” and group Y the “villain”.

Still next time you are designing a world I think it is worth considering the social elements of the game, in my own world building I draw heavily on historical societies to provide frameworks for my geo-political regions: Ancient Rome, Egyptian Empire, Medieval Europe,  Celtic, Viking etc all turn up in one way or another in my setting work, because my players are familiar with the general concepts and it is easy for them to grasp. But I still don’t get into the details of things like gender equity (it exists though), and so on – those things are not the focus of the game, my games are about “saving our land” and similar things, and “our land” is always set up to be better than the alternative (everyone is a zombie, everyone is orc slaves (which are eaten, abused, etc), everyone is sacrificed to a mad evil god or a worshiper).

Categories: DM Theory

Old School Roleplay & Skill Challenges

June 30, 2010 1 comment

Today I read (belatedly) @SarahDarkmagic’s article There’s No Role Playing in 4e and couldn’t help but think “that was a skill challenge”. Sarah specifically mentions wanting to make the session based on a skill challenge, but not knowing where to start, she also mentions being inspired by @newbiedm’s Red Box (Basic DnD from the 80’s) game. As a person who started DnD with that red box back in ’84 I can see the thread between those “old school” games and 4E skill challenges, and it is one of the tricks to running a good skill challenge.

What Is A Skill Challenge Really?

Well at its heart a skill challenge is a decision tool for DMs. A handy way of deciding when it is reasonable to move on, be it because the PCs have achieved a goal or failed to do so. That is it at heart. The result of this is you have an easy tool to assign xp to an essentially RP activity.

Skill challenges are definitely not railroads or straightjackets, the way many see them as.

Looking at Sarah’s game and its plot element of “investigate the disappeared” all that is needed to make it a skill challenge is deciding how many successes are needed to have enough information to proceed to the next point.

Let’s say we pick 6.

Winging It Old School

Ok so all we have is a plot, and a number of successes, doesn’t sound too much like a skill challenge yet. Still it is plenty to go to the table with if you know your plot well enough. (Incidentally this is why it is hard to just “write a good skill challenge”.)

So you start the game and the PCs start doing their investigation. Maybe, as in Sarah’s case they split up and do their own thing. Oh no! You only have 5 PCs at the table – that isn’t a problem, just change the number of successes to succeed to 4! No one other than you will know, and you will forget soon enough ;).

So then you can get on with the RP, maybe you call for a roll here or there to help you make a decision, those rolls are the ones that will count for success in the challenge. Now the trick is not to deny the PCs information, let them learn it so that the whole plot can move forward. The key is that you can manipulate time! (And again no one will know other than you.)

So maybe they all get a successes, hey only 1 more and they have 6! So having learnt all they can (in their reasonable opinion) they regroup at the Inn and do some more RP. They interact with the innkeeper and make some social rolls – there is that chance for the last success! Now they have 6 successes so the innkeeper makes a suggestion that will lead them to the next clue.

But what happens if they come back with 3 successes and 2 failures – well the innkeeper still gives that last chance.

What about if they got 3 failures?

Then the innkeeper can still make the suggestion but now when the PCs follow it up they arrive only in time to get suspicious about what is going on, not witness everything.

Now some folks would say that isn’t an interesting failure, but the truth is that running the challenge this way is likely to be invisible to the players, and so the only one who will even realise there was a failure is you!


So here is the core of it, all you need for a skill challenge is a problem for the PCs to solve and an idea of what is needed to solve it to get the number of successes. Over-thinking it and trying to bolt mechanics to it rather than letting your players dream up the solutions is not only a lot of work, it might well inhibit a fun session of RP.

We used to play DnD with less rules, keep in mind that the rules are only needed to resolve problems and give you ideas. If everyone is having fun at the table then don’t stop that to enforce a rule – go with the fun and call the rule up when it is really needed.

Categories: DM Theory Tags: , , ,

What did you say?

Language is an important part of culture, but it is also a terribly impractical thing in a game. In the real world we have things like the tribe in one valley speaks an entirely different language to the tribe in the next, but in a game world, while entirely realistic this is just annoying, and often easily circumvented by the PCs (Comprehend Language for example).

So how do you justify having a “common” language that is readily understood by most if not all the world’s inhabitants? Well the answer I think is Empire, and 4E handily comes to the party with this in its core concepts and Nerath.

You take an Empire that entirely dominated the region the adventures take place in and have the Empire have a single language – cf the British Empire as a real world example. This then gives you that basis for a common language.

Racial languages then become more important in establishing the culture of those races and their identities as ‘not belonging’ to the empire. Use of the common language is a matter of practicality from when your neighbour was larger than you and learning their language let you prosper from trading with them. Even if you have the Empire be monolithic and say that it once ruled all the lands racial enclaves would still exist where the racial language would be used – either openly or secretly.

Settings like Rokugan exploit this idea, everyone in the Empire must speak the Empire’s language or else they cannot communicate with millions of people. In DnD the idea of the fallen Empire is rampant, Forgotten Realms is the only major DnD setting that lacks a unifying Empire (yes I know there have been Empires in the Realms but none have unified enough of the land mass under them to establish a truly common language that would persist into the modern era).

So why do we care about this?

Well our real world experience tells us that people in different lands speak different languages, and we are often left with the question of “what is common?” as knowledgeable players question why everyone speaks the same language.

Determining the ‘why’ of common helps explain the ‘how’ of the setting, because language is such a key component of our ability to prosper, both through trade of goods, and more importantly the retention and exchange of knowledge.

Taking the 4E default setting you immediately get some obvious hooks. The common language of the PCs is likely closely related to that of Nerath, and the existence of long-lived races like elves and dwarves helps reduce the language drift. So we now have a reason why ruins that are hundreds of years old have a language in them that modern PCs can still understand. Maybe it is a bit like reading Shakespeare today, but you can get the meaning of it.

Then there are the really old ruins from Bael Turath and Arkhosia, they can have their own languages. In fact them having different languages is important as a means of differentiating the two cultures and their ruins. Now Arkhosia seems to be a prime candidate for having Draconic as it’s language, another language that would have limited drift (as even in times of extinction from a region dragons being very long-lived will keep it alive and relatively unchanged). In comparison Bael Turath should have its own language, while some might have spoken Supernal much of the Empire’s existence would be based on a more mundane existence and thus language. Now Turathian isn’t in the PHB so it may be a matter of practicality to have Supernal act as the language in ruins from the Tiefling Empire. Now this means characters have a reason for learning Draconic, and Supernal later in a campaign if those languages are important for understanding what is going on in the ruins your bad guys are using as a base (or if you do time travel etc). Or if nothing else those languages are now more a part if the setting as characters use Comprehend Languages to understand those ancient scripts.

(Primordial serves a similar role in looking at even older ruins as well.)

This brings me to a lot if the point of this, in most DnD games it is my experience that languages are seen as “modern” much like people see languages today in the real world. As such because they often exist separately to a culture they are not something that helps build a world and create links, and thus immersion. By using languages in specific ways and having people react to common for its association with the last Empire (or the Dragon Kings or whatever caused its adoption) that gives it depth and stops it just being another thing on a character sheet.

Categories: DM Theory

Sandbox vs Safety Rails

June 20, 2010 11 comments

Note: this blog has moved to where you can find this article still just fine right here.

A couple of days ago ThadeousC posted a seemingly innocent tweet that asked the following: “In OD&D running from monsters is often a valid option over fighting, does it ever happen in your 4e game?”. The ensuing discussion was spirited and occasionally intense. I wanted to get involved, but 140 characters was far, far too limiting for a topic such as this. So as part of a blog carnival, here’s my own feelings on the subject.

Here’s your blog carnival rules.

1. Your post must be on topic.

2. The first person in the list of bloggers who are participating who replies to each post will be responsible for writing the next piece. (Don’t reply if you are not ready to write it with in the next 24 hours.)

3. You must add a link to all of the previous authors carnival posts at the end of your post.

4. No name calling.

Having read the prior two articles they both come from the perspective of sandbox being a predetermined world where the PCs can go anywhere and encounter anything while safety rails is assumed to be DM guided so the only things you can encounter are “level appropriate”. Personally I think this is the main flaw with the core question, the situation isn’t so black and white.

In establishing a campaign I think it is a good idea to establish areas where some things might well be found. Powerful monsters make more sense when they have known locations and you have a rough understanding of how they interact with the setting. For example in my campaign setting I have a place called Griffon Pass, you can guess what is found there, so while PCs of any level could go there both I and the players can tell what the risk is in braving the pass. I have other areas where I know the general type of monster, giants in mountains, orcs in the outer regions of a forest, undead in its heart and so on. All of this lets me theme encounters to an area should I need to because the players decide wander off the campaign’s path.

Then there is my campaign, Heroic tier is the story of the PCs struggle against a growing orc army and their ultimate confrontation with the army and its commander. As a result there are a lot of encounters with orcs. At low levels it was orcs and goblins, at higher levels it is orcs with trolls, and ogres (and soon giants). It is readily apparent that there is a lot of scope for the safety rails approach to running this game.

So now there is both “sandbox” and “safety rails” in my campaign.

But the safety rails are not always safe. The thing is that you don’t have to always have to have encounters that are appropriate to the character’s level in the game. In fact it is best to have encounters that are below, above and at the appropriate level. If you want to challenge the party with something they must run away from there is nothing to stop you doing it inside the constraints of your campaign’s plot. In fact that is the best way to do it, as part of your plot. It even makes a great way to introduce a villain! This is one of the reasons ThadeusC and Wolfsamurai have supported “sandboxing”, but it works even better if the players have a reason to want to go back and beat something that directly matters to the plot, rather than something they “just bumped into”.

So the goal, I think, should be to have a sandbox in which your campaign unfolds. Then in the plot you should use a range of encounters to create appropriate tension. This is exactly the sort of thing WolfSamurai talks about in his example of infiltrating a city to rescue people and kill the cult leader. From the player’s perspective the city was a death trap, from the DM’s it was easily a series of at level encounters. The city is the sandbox, the actual encounters happen in the safety rails.

The trick is convincing the players there are no safety rails, which is easiest done by using a range of encounter levels.

First Post by ThadeousC:

Second Post by WolfSamurai: Phelanar’s Den

Third Post by Obsidian Crane: (You’re Reading It!)

Fourth Post by dkarr: dkarr’s LoreMaster Page

Fifth Post by Adam Dray: adamdray’s LiveJournal

Sixth Post by Tracy H.:

Seventh Post by Deadorcs: Init or What?

Eighth Post by Brian Engard: Gamecrafter’s Guild

Ninth Post by NewbieDm:

Tenth Post by DMSamuel: Overpowered Sandboxes and Just-Right Rails?

Eleventh Post by TheAngryDM: D&D 4e Advice with Attitude

Twelfth Post by Colmarr: The Astral Sea

Categories: DM Theory

Iuchiban Campaign – The World Part 1

I know the Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) setting pretty well, more than well enough to run games there “off the cuff” and so it is easier for me to look at it rather than Dragonlance, which I haven’t taken a serious look at for 15 years or so. As a result I’ll be looking at the ideas for the Iuchiban campaign first.


The first thing to do is work out what world you are going to use. If you are going to use the L5R setting of Rokugan there are a lot of things to consider in adapting this campaign to DnD 4E. Rokugan is a psudeo-Japanese setting, it is easiest to imagine it as “Japan spread over China”, a huge land ruled by an elite warrior caste with limited magic. Taking Rokugan to 4E would require a lot of “refluffing” of things if not large scale homebrewing. Due to this I will not be endeavouring to transfer Rokugan to 4E, but rather use the campaign for inspiration for altering the 4E “default” setting.

The key elements of the campaign:

  • Iuchiban was a powerful wizard who used magic to create undead armies and conquer much of the world. He was defeated by heroes, and imprisoned in a special tomb. He escapes that tomb using previously unkown magic and begins recruiting new followers and building a new army. By chance he is discovered before all his plans are ready, and again over thrown and re-imprisoned, this time allowing for his special powers. Iuchiban is imprisoned because he has discovered an alternate path to immortality which allows him to posses the bodies of others as long as his heart (location unkown) is not damaged. All of this happened a long time ago.
  • There are necromantic cultists that worship him as a god, and follow his “teachings”.
  • Even from his prison he can send messages to his followers in dreams, appearing as an “Oracle of Blood”.
  • The initial campaign will be based in a city, and the later portion will be a wilderness treak and dungeon crawl.
  • There are a number of special items needed to access his prison.
  • The City is (in)famous for never having been conquered, but rather having conquered several armies.
  • The cities major export is opium (both medicinal use and illicit use quality products).
  • The city is incredibly corrupt.

These key elements give us quite a bit to work with in terms of setting up the game, and you will notice they are all very generic, rather than tied specifically into the setting of Rokugan (even though many of them are key points for that setting).

Monster Themes

There are few monsters in the setting the major themes are going to be demons (Oni) and undead. However most of the enemies are going to be PHB races.

  • One of the key ideas in L5R is that demons can be bound by name to the person who summons them, doing this makes the demon more powerful in the world, but it also needs its summoner to die to escape. This can be used easily enough, by taking existing demons and giving them new powers etc to allow for their new status.
  • Another idea is that zombies can be controlled by placing a porceline mask over their face when you create them. This is easily enough explained by ritual magic in 4E, and gives the bad guys some interesting tools.
  • Also undead are really scary, while zombies ideally shouldn’t get the “fast moving” approach of recent horror flicks the “Rise Again” power seen on Hobgoblin Soldier Zombies should definately be used when dealing with them. Perhaps tweaking it to make it a feature of zombies with the porceline masks, so that it will feel more like they are only killed by critical hits! (Though obviously killing 1 zombie 3 times will still work, describing that last “kill shot” as taking the head, or breaking the mask will do it as well.)

The City of Lies

In the L5R setting Ryoko Owari, also known as the Emerald City (for its green tinted walls), or the City of Lies (for the many intrigues it hides) is a major holding of the nefarious Scorpion Clan (master Ninjas, decietful politicians (even more than normal ones), those who guard the shadows of the Empire). The city straddles a major river, the wealthy merchant, and noble families on one side and the poor merchants, tradesmen, and disenfranchised on the other. There is also an island in the river between the two halves of the city which holds the “floating world” or entertianment district for the wealthy and nobles.

The city is ruled by the Scorpion Clan, but in Ryoko Owari things are never that straightforward. The Scorpion are divided into two factions, and there are a number of other factions represented among the noble houses. The following groups make up the noble families that have influence in the city and suggested 4E adaptations of them:

  • Scorpion: Bayushi – the rulers of the city in title. These are politicians of the worst sort, backed by the city’s army and ninjas! They control the majority of the opium production.
    • Race: Tiefling
    • Favoured Power Source: Martial
  • Scorpion: Soshi – the cousins of the Bayushi. They would like to control the city but lack the political capital to sieze control for themselves and so must work from the shadows. They are politicians, magic users and priests.
    • Race: Tiefling
    • Favoured Power Source: Arcane
  • Crane: Doji – wealthy and tradition bound. This family controls many of the legitimate business not tied to the opium trade (which is controlled entirely by the Bayushi and Soshi), they are mostly polticians or swordsmen.
    • Race: Eladrin
    • Favoured Power Source: Martial
  • Lion: Akodo – a tradition bound family of virtuous warriors. This family struggles to keep influence in a city of corruption. They are peerless tacticians and well respected for their virtue.
    • Race: Dragonborn
    • Favoured Power Source: Divine
  • Crab: Hida – a family considered brutish by the other families. In a DnD game their money would come from adventuring which their family members are want to do regularly, which causes the other noble families to respect them little.
    • Race: Goliath
    • Favoured Power Source: Primal
  • Unicorn:  Shinjo – a family that several hundred years ago once ruled the city, until the Bayushi camly claimed it back (with no war). The Shinjo are horse merchants and well respected for the quality of the steeds they produce.
    • Race: Human
    • Favoured Power Source: None
  • Dragon: Mirumoto – a family who have largely left worldly matters to the others, and are as monastic as they are noble. As such the other families pay them little head, which suits the Mirumoto fine.
    • Race: Githzerai
    • Favoured Power Source: Psionic

Player characters should be from one of the noble families, giving them standing and influence in the city. In particular after early events in the campaign they should be promoted to the position of “Emerald Magistrate”, essentially the “police of the nobility” and as such the most powerful body outside the Bayushi’s control. This makes the characters critical to the city, but not the absolute authorities, and also puts them in the middle of the cities political games, as the family with the most influence (legitimate or not) runs the city!


So at this point we have a rough outline of hte history of the campaigns major villain and how he relates to the world. We have a broad outline of the city, and some notes on how to alter things to take advantage of 4E concepts and preconceptions. We also have a few notes about monsters to help in designing encounters later on.

Next time I will take a more detailed look at the city, and make notes about things that are “must haves” to bring across.

Categories: DM Theory

4E Inspired by..

I have been thinking about a campaign to run and recently thadeousc asked on Twitter what people’s favourite modules were and my initial list was quickly:

  • Living Forgotten Realms module Silver Lining – I love the NPC that goes along with the party.
  • BECMI modules – Rahasia and Castle Amber – I actually used Rahasia in my campaign converted to 4E.
  • Legend of the Five Rings RPG modules – Night of 1000 Screams and Tomb of Iuchiban – I love the way they interconnect with each other and the City of Lies boxed set (which is arguably another adventure in itself).
  • AD&D module – Dragons of Despair also known as DL1 – again the NPCs are awesome, especially those gully dwarves.

The last of these got me thinking about running the whole Dragonlance Chronicles as a 4E DnD game, but not necassarily as a game set in Krynn, and while writing this I realised I could do nearly the exact same thing with the City of Lies etc from L5R.

The thing is to take the key elements and adopt them to make a compelling story for your characters where they overcome great challenges in the face of expanding evil etc etc. Both of these campaigns offer that concept in spades: in DL you have Tiamat turning the eggs of good dragons into the Draconians and using them to wage a war of conquest over Krynn. In City of Lies you have an evil cult attempting to free their lich like master from his prison so that under his guidance they can conquer the empire etc.

So I’m going to start taking a look at adopting these two campaigns into 4E, I’ll start with the shorter Iuchiban campaign from L5R, and then move into the longer one of Dragonlance.

Adopting both of these requires examining the setting, and the core assumptions of 4E and what you care going to do with them in relation to the original settings of the modules. For example in Rokugan (the L5R setting) there are really only humans available as a PC race, and quite a number of classes shouldn’t exist. Dragonlance of course has as part of the initial core premise “no Divine powers” in particular healing magic is incredibly rare, something very against a lot of the 4E assumptions.

I will continue to post encounters but now they will be in the context of one or both of these campaigns, or my current campaign in my Shattered Lands setting. These however will be “as they occur” rather than trying to produce them all the time.

Hopefully folks find these campaign development articles useful as well.

Categories: DM Theory

Inspiration: The Happening

or “what can you learn from a movie that failed to deliver?”

I didn’t see The Happening at a cinema, I happily hired it from the video shop for $1 for a week. I’m glad I didn’t watch it at the movies. But I think there are things that can be learnt from it for DnD adventure or campaign design.

The first thing to realise is that The Happening is set up to be a suspense movie, and ultimately when the suspense is supposed to happen is when it failed to deliver. Its not a bad movie, its premise is ok, and the production is ok. So not a bad show really, but I didn’t get to the end of it with that “wow” factor of say the Sixth Sense.

So there lessons I see are:

1) The Characters Need to be Sympathetic

Ok so when you watch the Happening I’d be surprised if you felt any sympathy at all for several of the characters, including 2 of the main ones. Now for an RPG this is less of a problem – its rare that player’s don’t care for their characters, so the trick is making sure that your NPCs are such that the players can care about them. That way when they are threatened the players have motivation to find a way to solve the problem.

The NPC friend who dies is more potent than the random dude who lets himself get eaten by the monster. If its near the climax your and you are introducing an NPC you plan to kill, making her a creepy old lady who lives alone and has gone crazy doesn’t leave the audience being upset that she dies.

You don’t need to fill a suspense game with a lot of boides you can fill it with a lot of probable bodies instead. When the characters have been chased from their homes by the disaster, the empty buildings of the next town they are finally forced to enter are far spookier than the having bodies everywhere or showing random schlubs dieing.

2) Don’t Go To Far

This is a problem the movie had, turning off the survival instinct is not the same as making someone self destructive. The flaw here though isn’t in the dramatic element of some mysterious thing making people kill themselves, but rather in the level of exposition and explanation about how it all worked.

But by explaining it at all, the movie opened it all up to examination and thought by the viewer, now maybe the average viewer needed that in the movie, but for me it wrecked the movie as it exposed flaws between the explanation and the narrative. Now in your campaign you have a much slower development time than a movie, so the players have even longer to think about it, this means you need to be even more careful in your exposition.

So you need to be more obtuse in your explanations, certainly don’t just reveal that X is true, until the characters have not only worked out a solution for themselves but they have tested it.

3) Timing Matters

It seems like a silly thing to have to say for a suspense movie or game but it is true. In The Happening key plot elements were revealed before thclimax of the movie, which left the climax being a fizzle of a moment, especially with the unsympathetic nature of several of the characters.

This is most easily understood by comparing Sixth Sense to The Happening. In the former, if you are paying a great deal of attention or know what to look for you can see what the outcome will be before the end, but it is pretty unlikely. The main character doesn’t understand until the audience does is the normal experience. In the Happening the movie explains what is going to happen then does it, this is particularly bad just before the climax where the whole timeline of the movie is spelt out for you so that the climax is more a “oh I see what happened, whatever” moment.

This is of course not an easy thing to do, and where sowing false clues is important – and this is something that The Happening did badly – no false clues. Every clue turns out to be right, so that there is no surprise, instead you can run ahead and make logical conclusions. This inihibits the growth os suspense. Don’t be to liberal with false clues though, to many and it gets frustrating, but there has to be 1 or 2 otherwise the suspense is removed.

This also leads back to the “who to kill” thing as well, killing the less sympathetic characters earlier (nameless NPCs) and the more familiar or sympathetic NPCs later helps build the suspense. Instead of going this way the movie introduces with a sympathetic character (if nameless) and then kills off sympathetic characters, then back to nameless more nameless, then unsymathetic then has the climax. It also does things like make characters mildly sympathetic then have them act like prats to destroy that then kills them. Ah no. Make them sympathetic and more sympathetic then kill them…

Something Good

The one good thing from The Happening is that the main characters cannot do anything to stop the horribl events. The best they can do is hope to survive. This is where much of the movie’s suspense comes from, the need to run and find solutions so that the characters are not next.

This can be done in a campaign for DnD as well. The characters must spend the start of the campaign fleeing, learning the clues they will need and overcoming the obstacles the disaster creates in the process, until they finally reach a stage where they have learnt what to do and can then attempt to rise up and solve the proble as good heroes. At heroic tier that would be levels 1-3 fairly normal adventures to establish the NPCs etc you are going to threaten and kill in the next arc (aka A New Hope), then levels 4-7 are spent fleeing the disaster and learning the clues, struggling to save NPCs and themselves and learn how to stop the problem (aka The Empire Strikes Back), until at last having learnt the “terrible truth” and how to resolve it they are able to undertake a quest to resolve it climaxing at the end of heroic with the PCs hitting level 11 (aka Return of the Jedi).

Something Fantasy

This gives me the idea of looking at the Legend of the Five Rings story arc that is currently unfolding for ideas. In the current story there are two armies attacking from different directions while a plague spreads through the Empire’s lands. Ignoring the armies for the moment, the plague in the Empire has a lot of scope for the sort of suspense horror campaign that movies like The Happening suggest. In the story there is an evil entity causing the plague to be spread, seeding it in places through out the Empire for maximum effect.

The plague kills indiscriminantly, Samurai, Heimin, and Eta all die, and those it kills rise as zombies and spread the plague to new places. So the characters start out in an area that is affected, and they must flee, or become infected themselves. They must lead their uninfected friends through lands that go from being safe to being infested with bandits, samurai wanting to stop the spread of the plague (and thus restrict movement), and worse plague spreading zombies. As they battle through these obstacles they should learn of the person who is spreading the plague, and the threats of plague couldrons and other things until at last they are confronted with a horde of undead and must somehow save a town from them without getting infected before they can use the information they have learnt to beging hunting the instigators of the trouble… and so on. The next stage is then complicated by the appearnece of a new monstrous threat, and the beginings of intereference from nobles and such that want to gain the glory of stopping the problem for themselves. This should continue, with the slow building of information that the person spreading the plague has a master… the PCs then eventually halt the active threat of the person spreading the plague and must now go and bring a halt to their master…

Hopefully there are some useful ideas here for folks.

Categories: DM Theory