Maintaining the Horror Campaign – Chapter 2
Maintaing the Horror Campaign is a series of articles intended to not only make your players afraid of the dark, but to keep them in a state of fear through the length of a campaign. The Introduction and Chapter 1 can both be read at their respective links. In today’s article, we’ll be discussing the plot of your campaign, and what it should look like on the first day.
The book awoke something dark in the woods. It took Linda, and then it came for me. It got into my hand and it went bad, so I lopped it off at the wrist. But that didn’t stop it, so it came back. Big time. For God’s sake! How do you stop it?
-Introduction to Army of Darkness
Start Well. End Well. Sacrifice the Middle.
I don’t know about you, but everyone else reading this article is a human. Humans have this funny trick to how they remember things: They remember how something begins, and how something ends. If they want to remember the middle of something, they often take the beginning or end of the thing and work backwards (forwards?) from there.
Therefore, if you have a great idea for something memorable, you shouldn’t let it stew for further into the adventure. You should do that thing as soon as you start playing.
“But I’d be wasting all my good ideas if I used them up on the first night!” Well, then, don’t use them all up in the first night. After all, our minds can only process so much before overloading on detail. You may have a steamy plot that includes danger, passion, outrage and betrayal, but each theme you foist on your group will only weaken the other themes. There’s nothing wrong with coaxing a story, piece by piece, revealing what the players need to see now, and filling in the terrible details later. Besides, this style of layered story reinforces what the story is about. Players won’t often remember the first names of your characters, never mind the intricate details of how each of your characters responded when they heard that Galina, Heiress to the old Zarkov Mansion, died. Constant reinforcement by adding small details over time remind the players that Reginald is the royal chef, that he is suspicious of Arnold, the Horse Groom, because of his national heritage, that he is fond of out of town gossip, and that he was buying a new pan from Harriet at the general store when his cousin, Arthur, rushed in and told him that The Heiress had an attack. All of this can be digested over time if it is presented in individual, bite sized chunks. Your players will probably forget it all, except for one detail, if it is presented as a full dossier of information.
But this is not the same as holding back good ideas for the climax. Many writers learn when writing their first book that the first few chapters they use to set the story are irrelevant to the plot, are slow introductions and don’t provide information that the reader would not digest later in the book. The solution to this problem is to chop. Chop out the first chapter that explains the topography of the world we’re in. Slash out the second chapter of your novel where two advisers squabbling over a territory about to go to war. Hack out the third chapter where the main character, a Sergeant in the army is armed and anxious about the upcoming battle, and must say goodbye to his wife and children. Cut to the battle, and the action. Show the determination of the main character through his actions. Have the other soldier’s derisive attitude about his country’s enemies lead to an understanding that communication had broken down between two countries, while simultaneously giving you insight to how this soldier thinks and feels. Explain the topography of the region in painstaking detail in the middle of the book, when the reader is more invested and earnest to learn about the world this takes place in. Or, remove that section completely, if it does not help your novel. Chop, chop, chop.
But you are not writing a novel. Indeed, the story you are telling is in many ways harder. You can’t just scribble words on a page, then edit and clean, edit and clean your work until it is presentable for consumption. As you lay your plot, your ideas will be on display for your players as soon as you start talking. You won’t have a chance to rewrite your story after you act it out with the other players, so take pains to make your first impression of the plot hit your players from the beginning. Involve the players in the outcome of your plot on the day one, or they may never get involved.
And use up your good ideas right now. If you want to mix your players with a bunch of gangsters that will rat them out after a couple of nights of running booze, skip the couple of nights part. Make the gangsters out to be likable, family oriented people. Give the players a mission, and betray them immediately.
Why? First, your players will remember this turn of events and will want to see what happens next. But, also, because good ideas beget good ideas. If the concept strikes you as exciting, and your players respond to it in turn, then the player’s response should excite you with another idea that’s tailored to those player’s interests. This sort of feedback loop is what you want to strike on the first day with your players. If, instead, you’re players respond negatively to your plot; for example, one of the players has a personal hatred of being betrayed and is annoyed throughout the adventure; then you will have gotten that leg of the adventure over with instead of having dragged it out over a couple of weeks, and now you can work on giving the players the type of adventure you think they will enjoy.
Tune in next week, when we set the stage for the first game of your horror campaign. Until next time, boys and ghouls, keep the closet doors open, leave a light on and don’t do anything I would do.