Magical Mondays: Spooky Stuff!   Leave a comment

Skeleton Dance Skulls

It’s October, and that means it’s time to start preparing your Halloween one-shots!  Whether you put the linguistically accurate apostrophe between the Es, or dismiss it as unnecessary pedantry, or only make the decision based upon whether or not spellcheck puts that horrible red line under it, this is the month where GMs have the excuse to add some undead creatures, horrible spells, and villains out for PC blood to their games!

Wait a second…

The fact of the matter is that most adventurers in D&D games face Halloween-appropriate monsters all the time.  It almost doesn’t matter what game you play.  Sci-fi games have their bug-eyed aliens and cyborg terrors, fantasy games have their sinister cults and pacts made with dark forces, and World of Darkness probably has something that’d be holiday appropriate if you really, really, really looked hard enough.  It’s a common occurrence.

The one possible exception? Roleplaying games set in the “real world”, where your character isn’t too different from a standard person that you’d meet in real life.  Games like that tend to focus more on surprising situations and dramatic confrontations.  They can be intensely interesting, even without supernatural elements (I’ve seen a few wonderful sessions of the game Adventure! that would fall into this category, and while I’ve heard that the game Fiasco can get supernatural I’ve never actually seen it myself.)  The thing is, though, real life has it’s own share of monsters, and the most common “real world” monster that would be appropriate would be the slasher killer.  I’m not a fan of the genre myself, but Jason Voorhees from Friday The 13th and Mike Myers from Halloween have both left a solid impression on the horror movie marketplace.

Wayne's World Party On

That’s… that’s the wrong Mike Myers.  That’s… actually, never mind.

Anyway, you might not want to go full-on slasher movie for a villain, and just adding pumpkins to your vampire lair might not be enough.  If you really want to create a Halloween one-shot and make it something other than a silly break from the norm (not that there’s anything wrong with silliness while celebrating a holiday, mind you) then you may want to step up your game.  It’s time to stop putting encounters together, and start telling a story and creating characters.  How do you do that, though?  I’ve got two ideas.

Rain Slick Precipice Of Darkness

1) A Versatile Vocabulary

Note that I’m not saying “Big Vocabulary.”  I’m sure you know all kinds of really nice words, and that’s great.  Your players probably know them, too!  That’s the fun thing about spoken languages: thanks to context clues, if you assume that your players are native speakers (or even fluent speakers) they can probably figure out what any given word means based on context cues alone.  And piling on more words doesn’t help; the monstrous, slavering, quivering fangbeast of doom is probably less scary than the slavering fangbeast.  And please, please avoid telling your players what emotions their characters are experiencing; there’s a time to do that, but it’s an incredibly rare thing.  What I’m telling you to do here is to learn how to make your descriptions do more than one thing.

The podcast Writing Excuses once did an episode on making descriptions do more than one thing, and I recommend listening to it (it’s less than twenty minutes long, you’ve got the time.)  The podcast as a whole has some great advice, and insightful comments, on how to use descriptions in ways that evoke emotions.  Dan Wells (author of a number of horror books such as I Am Not A Serial Killer, among other things) points out that in horror, a lot of the descriptions use words that impart an “environmental” effect on the characters.  Is the hallway narrow, or is it restraining?  Is the ooze on the ground slippery, or does it make a player’s feet stick on the ground for just a moment with every step?  Does the melting snow going down the back of your shirt slide down, or does it slither down?  You don’t want to overdo this, but seasoning your talk with these sorts of descriptions will make the environment feel like its reaching out to grab your players.

I used an image from Penny Arcade’s video game series up above, a game called On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness.  It’s a comedy game, and mostly an adventure story, but one of the surprises about it is that it’s actually a really well done Lovecraftian horror story.  You laugh while you play, fighting your way through hobos and mimes, but the descriptions used in a lot of the story’s locations manage to evoke great emotions.  I need to put a content warning on it for strong language and stronger violence (I’ve got all the overkills on all the characters on Insane mode in episodes one and two, there’s some definite violence there), but if you’re looking at a good example of how to use horrifying words, this is a prime candidate.  (Plus, the game is very silly, so it’s a good model for a one-shot adventure that can be a scary while also being good fun.)

Adding this to the magical effects of the game can be useful if you want to make one magician’s magic seem different than another’s.  Saying that a potent spell’s energy feels like it’s clinging to character’s clothing can make it seem menacing, as if there’s an additive effect to the magic (whether there is or not.)  If the players approach a haunted idol or psychic prisoner, they might feel like they’re stepping “through” something as they get closer to their target, as if stepping through ever-denser waves of ambient power in the air.  This kind of description needs no mechanical effect in your game… it truly is flavor text.  You’re flavoring things with the text.  The important thing is that the players feel like this is different (and through the magic of imagination, it *is* different.)

Amnesia Alexander of Brennenburg

2) Evocative Enemies

When you make your enemies, avoid calling them by a specific monster name even if they’re unquestionably that kind of monster.  Basically, figure out what makes this enemy monstrous before you even introduce them to the story.  A true monster is a plague on its location, not just a creature that the locals don’t like.  I use the image of Baron Alexander of Brennenburg from Amnesia: The Dark Descent because that game pulls off a clever trick with him: they make him a vampire.

Now, the game never calls him a vampire.  He’s also never warded off by crosses or garlic or rushing water, and he’s not able to turn into a bat or wolf or swarm of insects.  Instead, he seems to merely be a being who comes from… elsewhere.  He’s also lived a long life.  How does he do this? Well, he extracts a substance from the blood of his victims and alchemically uses it to prolong his life.  Oh, and he teaches a person on the verge of insanity how to do his dirty work, and might be able to create monsters (monsters who used to be people and might regret their current state of life.)

Seriously, try to tell me that this guy’s not a vampire.

The thing is, he’s never called “undead” and the phrase “vampire” is never used in conjunction with him.  Instead, the writers have him behave in a way that is definitely “vampiric”, literally and metaphorically draining the life of others to extend his own while transforming other people into lesser-monsters that do his bidding.  The game basically gives this person a suite of crimes in his history that bring to mind the horrors of vampirism without allowing the mental defenses that we as players have for the word “vampire.”

Another example, strangely enough, is almost the opposite: go watch The Mummy.  The one with Boris Karloff, not Brendan Fraser.  The Mummy in this film doesn’t really behave as a mummy might, at least not as we imagine mummies.  He’s not a slowly wandering zombie wrapped in rags.  Instead, he’s an intelligent, plotting mastermind who dresses like other people, learns English, and begins manipulating archaeologists in an effort to connect to his long-lost love.  In some ways, Boris Karloff manages to make The Mummy a frightening enemy by being so very human; like a vampire, he’s trying to steal another’s life, but he’s doing it to restore someone he loves, not to extend his own life.  His own life is, apparently, already well tended to.

The Karloff Gambit here is awesome, but I don’t recommend it for a one-shot.  That kind of build-up would likely take a few sessions to establish.  Still, if you’re okay with it being more than a one-shot and having your Halloween night stretch into November, the Karloff Gambit might well work out for you.

Mummy Ardeth Bey

Now that we’ve established my two concepts, don’t forget the most important one: have fun!  You’re not looking at all this dusty English-class info so that you can run a dull horror story.  Halloween is “about” a lot of things, but when people celebrate it they want to dress up and act a bit.  Your bad Transylvanian accent or maniacal cackle is primed to shine.  If you have to choose between imitating the Wicked Witch of the West and finding a good way to describe how the flickering torch-light is making the shadows reach across the floor toward the players… ignore the torches for now, and laugh like the crazy villain you are.  Say “Children of the Night” if you get the chance while playing a vampire.  Have your mad scientist monologue about how everything is being done in the name of SCIENCE!  Play it up, and make the characters wonder why the world doesn’t quite look this awesome every session.

And, hey, some pumpkin-spice flavored cookies and tootsie rolls handed out before, during, or after the session can help people to be in a good mood too.  That’s all for this week’s Magical Mondays!  I’ll try to have a more concrete example for the d20 enthusiasts next week.  Later!

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