Monday, August 19, 2019

RPGaDay Challenge 2019 - SCARY

A criticism commonly leveled at my games over the past 10 years or least until that they just aren't Scary. 

I'm not talking about Horror themed games. I'm talking about all my games. Many of my players across a few groups feel I go too easy on them. They say that they never fear for their characters lives or well being. 

I will admit that I have had difficulty bringing that aspect to my games over the past decade. There are several factors that contributed to this, some of which I've discussed before, but the bottom line is I changed my style a little to accommodate less experienced players and then got stuck on 'easy mode' without even realizing I was doing so. 

Initially the idea was to make things not quite so hard, complex, or dangerous that I ended up killing off the characters of newbie players and then discouraging them from continued play. If your character dies in its very first session, before you even get to know them, the world, or anything about gaming in general, you're probably going to shrug and go play video games or watch a movie on Netflix. 

The plan was let them get their feet wet, let them look around and get into some trouble, then kill an important NPC or destroy something they owned*. Now they will see things and people are indeed breakable and watch themselves and their surroundings a bit more carefully. 

This was a mistake. 

The first problem I discovered was that I realized all too late that the group of players I had adjusted for simply weren't the same as my old group.

It wasn't that they weren't as smart, as organized, as creative, or anything of the sort. They didn't have the same skills and experience needed to effectively deal with me. My games are a tad different from the average GM I've encountered. They are more open ended, flexible, character focused, setting focused, and it takes a certain kind of player thought process to play them. Not a better player. A player who gets what I'm trying to do. 

If you have to twist in a screw you don't need the world's best hammer or most advanced wrench. You absolutely need a screwdriver though. 

The second and much bigger issue was that by going easy on them they weren't challenged to get better. There was no need to up their game (so to speak) if they weren't in any real danger. Another way to look at it is if their level of play was working up to X point, there is no real need to change. We (Humans) do not make changes from positions of comfort. If we can get by doing what we're doing we will. 

That's not how I want to be as a GM. I always want to be improving, always striving to be better at the craft. In the end I didn't just stagnate them, I stagnated myself. I couldn't be the best GM I could be if they weren't the best players they could be, but why be better if the level they were at was working just fine?

Now there is another factor that I've noticed more recently.

In the past few years I've noticed that some of the people who say my games aren't tough and Scary enough are also the ones whose PCs are unphased by anything. You know what I'm taking about. The characters who are so cool they bleed ice and laugh in the face of the 100 ft. tall, city-eating space monster. No matter how awesome the spectacle set before them, they toss a wise-crack and head right for it. 

I don't want to completely discourage that. I love that in some cases. Not every game is an Anime however and sometimes things should just freak you out. If you're PC is not freaked out it actually takes the other players and the GM out of the game a little. It's too meta. It isn't a realistic reaction to such an insane situation. Yeah, yeah, I know, your character is too cool for school but could you at least pretend to think this is serious so it makes sense in the context of the game?

Also, it is worth mentioning that buy-in and immersion are also aat play. Not being Scared your character may die may say your PC is a badass but it can also say to the GM that you don't really care about your character. It can also mean you don't understand or acknowledge the dangers the GM is presenting you with. If you act like you don't take a serious threat seriously, the GM is left to  wonder what they are doing wrong. Maybe something...or maybe nothing and you are just looking at it like a computer game. 

Yet another reason I am loving my new FRONTIER campaign is because the Scary is there. The game uses a variant of the Year Zero System which includes rules for Stress and Panic. Characters are just people, even if they're Armored Spacesuit wearing, Cybernetics using professionals. When they see crazy stuff they can potentially lose it and I love that. So do they, as it gives them great role-play opportunities.

One of my favorite moments of the first session of FRONTIER was when we realized one of the people we had rescued from a crashed starship was carrying a gun. A murder victim had been found on the crashed vessel but we hadn't located the murder weapon. Just as one PC mentions this fact over the radio, the guy with the gun slides it out of his jacket. A PC rolls to take it from his hand and succumbs to Panic. He raises his hands and shouts. "GUN!", which alerts the other PCs next to him. 

We discussed afterward the monumental moment that was in setting the tone of the game. As opposed to the numerous games where you and your party are using a bunch of weapons against a large group of enemies also using weapons and no one batting an eye, here a single guy with a gun caused a panic.Just like in real life, a gun can kill you in a single shot in this game.

In FRONTIER, alien wildlife is rare and Scary. Weapons are Scary. Falls from great heights are Scary. You are a Human being in an unknown ecosystem and nature is Scary. 

One of the things I've gotten back is my ability to Scare players. Now if I can just get certain players to see things as Scary, I'll have it made.

Barking Alien


  1. Many people, even people who have played for a long time, are hesitant to invest in a figure that could be taken out with a single sword strike.

    Observe the conversation over at Delta’s right now: a bunch of OSR aficionados agreeing that it’s ok to start at 3rd level.

    I would much rather lose five guys if guy number 6 makes it to, say, 4th level. But that’s not the way everyone likes to play.

    You did a good job talking about Scary games, how yours got less Scary, and why you feel the sting of nostalgia and maybe some guilt over the loss.

  2. Thank you Scott, though I'll be honest, the term 'figure' through me off a bit. Never heard that term used to mean a PC before.

    I think we have indeed lost a little something going so heavily cinematic, and this is coming from me, a fella who is all about cinematic and reflecting the genre you playing. Not too many main characters die on Star Trek or in Superhero movies and comic books. Since these are the settings and genres I run, it makes sense that i see fewer PC deaths than someone playing D&D.

    Still and all, with no threat of death or painful failure there is also no great sense of accomplishment.

    1. Sorry for the “figure.” I am pretty idiosyncratic when I talk about things. I say referee instead of DM. I say “your man” or “your figure” a lot when I mean a PC.

      Old D&D works best when it’s a little like survival horror. Mostly regular people with just a little bit of preparation exploring incomprehensible dungeons full of supernatural evil. And death is near at hand.

      But again, YMMV, etc etc