Surviving Creepy Campaigns for GMs – Part 3October 19, 2018 Off By TK
Greetings, adventurers, and welcome back to our series on horror storytelling for new and less-experienced Game Masters. By now, we’ve established healthy communication with your party and using sensory triggers to immerse players in the environment. Now the swords are bloodied, the vampires vanquished (for now), and the zombie hordes dispersed…what now?
Somewhere That’s Green
“When you finally stretch out to sleep, you find yourself searching the hulking silhouettes of tangled thorn bushes for movement, settling on a mysterious pair of blinking eyes that burn into yours.”
“And are these mysterious blinking eyes yellow or red this time?”
“Okay. So not werewolves. The cleric’s on watch. Let’s go to sleep.”
Last week I told you that your players should feel relief when your characters do. This is a little trickier than it sounds, because you can’t keep winding the tension until your players and their PCs break. If you keep throwing one blood-soaked, terrifying scenario after another, your campaign runs the risk of becoming monotonous—a death knell to any story that promises to leave your players quaking in their beds. If your party is yawning or scrolling through social media every time you lead them into a deep, dark dungeon, then it may be time to give them a small break from the life or death struggle.
The empty space between combat and conflicts is the perfect time to let your party take the lead and shape your world. Allow them to unwind and roleplay, encourage the party to talk to one another about their experiences, perhaps reveal backstory. If you feel the need to remind them where they are, consider creating a randomized table (or even purchasing one from the DM Guild — here’s one of my personal favorites) that allows them to explore the world without forcing them into a fatal predicament.
Not every monster needs to endanger the party to maintain atmosphere. Perhaps the party comes upon a wolf teaching her cubs to hunt for the first time, or they witness a group of robed figures calling ghosts from their tombs for a monthly reunion. A farmer’s family may require the party to forage in the nearby clearing for herbs of protection during the solstice and the party may have to sneak around a mist-shrouded wight’s barrow. These are scenarios that reinforce atmosphere and immersion while allowing your party members to release tension in a “low-stakes” quest. All the easier to wind them back up when the innocent family is revealed to be a crafty coven of night hags!
Separating Tragedy from Punishment
“The lich narrows his eyes, snarls with rage, and points a finger at the paladin’s sister, unleashing a ray of brilliant silver light. In the briefest of moments before she vanishes into ash, she sheds a single tear.”
“Wait, she doesn’t get a save or anything?”
“Nope. She’s dead. Sorry.”
“So we went through that whole adventure to rescue her and she’s dead, just like that?”
“Yep. The lich then points his finger at the paladin. Unless his save beats a 34, he’s dead, too.”
It’s incredibly tempting to race for the gut-punch in a darker themed story. The recipe is simple and seems perfect for a horror masterpiece: Your party gets a quest, your party embarks on this quest, your party overcomes every obstacle in their way, and, once your party is celebrating with their quarry, it is snatched from their fingertips and destroyed, with no hope of salvaging it. Maybe this even ends in a total party decimation when it’s revealed they are well out of their element and if they’d only drank from the unlabeled green vial twelve sessions ago, they may have stood a chance.
Tragic twists should not mean punishing players for their investment in the story. 9 times out of 10, only the storyteller is ever satisfied by an ending like this. At best, it is a predictable and boring ploy and, at worst, your party feels manipulated and resentful. If you’re chomping at the bit to pull this type of “gotcha”, ask yourself whether the party will appreciate being told their hard work has amounted to no more than a gained level and some forgettable loot regurgitated from a randomized table. Chances are they won’t and, with a little time, you can write a much better scenario that will put your characters back in charge of a narrative that they will be more than happy to finish.
That’s all for this week, adventurers! Join us next week where we discuss closing the campaign and some techniques for aftercare!
About The Author
TK is a speculative fiction writer and part-time eldritch horror. They can be found as a cast member of The Demonplague, Unearthly Twilights, The Land Between Two Rivers, and Hell’s Belles on the Don’t Split the Podcast, WebDM, and Dungeons & Dragons networks, respectively. Their gothic and cosmic horror stories can be found at tkjwrites.com and very soon in print in a collaborative set of short stories and comics with artist Kayla Cline. TK themself can be found on Twitter @tkjoinsthefray.