Maintaining the Horror Campaign – Chapter 4
Total Player Kill. If you’ve been playing roleplaying games long enough, you’ve probably seen it happen once or twice. If you’re game master is evil, it might happen once a week, or (gulp!) twice in one night. A Total Player Kill, or TPK for short, is when something terrible happens and everyone in the party gets wiped out. Killed. Even the torchbearer and the pack mule outside the cave, and a peasant who happens to be walking by. Everything.
This could be the result of a tragic accident, as in, the players angered the wrong demon. Or it could be a cosmic joke, as in, this adventure was already coming to a close, and no one planned to use these characters again. It could be the result of a crazy string of unlucky die rolls, or the hammer dropped by a spiteful game master, angry at his players. Whatever the reason, it isn’t fun. The best that one can hope for is that no one is insulted, and that everyone is eager to roll up new characters. The worst that can happen? I’ve seen TPKs kill more than characters. I’ve seen it kill friendships.
Players invest a lot of their time and energy in their characters. Game Masters often egg their players to make diverse characters with interesting back stories, to give the game master something to spin his own stories off of. If you spend two hours making a character, a few more hours driving in your car thinking about what motivates the character, then spend two months worth of Saturday afternoons playing out that character, how are you going to feel when I tell you that your elf slid down a trap door and is dissolved into elf pudding by a mindless slime. You know, with no chance of any of the players being able to do anything about it. Now let’s pretend I did that to all your friends as well.
“It’s cool,” you say, “We’re adults. And adults don’t take it personal when something bad happens to them. They pick the pieces off the ground, and move on to the next thing.” Fine. It’s true: not everybody is going to be as damaged by that as some people would be. The problem is that this attitude – the one where you’re an adult, and you don’t need to get invested, so that you don’t take it personal when your characters die – this attitude is what makes scaring the players impossible. If you keep killing the players, they stop being afraid of death. Death is what happens when the game has been running too long. When death occurs, you make a new character and jump back in the game. Death, in this instance, represents more paperwork… but this time, the player won’t spend hours thinking about what type of character they will make. They’ll slap a new character together and charge back into the fray.
But isn’t death intrinsic to horror? If the players know that their game master won’t kill their characters, and the players aren’t afraid that they’re characters will die, how do you scare them?
A simple answer could be to hinder them. Someone breaks an arm, or becomes violently sick. One of the players is having a hard time telling his friends from his enemies. In moderation, this method works: The players will recognize that when they do the wrong thing (or maybe even when they did everything right…) they will be penalized for it, but in a way that doesn’t stop them from playing their characters. In fact, some players will welcome a chance to work against a setback. Aren’t eyepatches supposed to be cool? Sure, it may remove your depth perception, and create a blind spot on one side, but maybe you can intimidate a jail guard. And if that doesn’t work, maybe you can use the eye patch to seduce the guard, if he’s into that.
You need to be careful here. In moderation, hindering your players can shake them up, and act on the defensive. In excess, it becomes a joke, as the bard with one and a half legs, who’s missing his fingers and has been cursed to think that anyone who comes within ten feet of him is a vampire, attempts to strum a tune for the king. Or even worse, you’ve stacked so many negative attributes onto the character that that player would prefer to just end it all, and have his tortured bard jump into the nearest well.
So if you shouldn’t kill the players (often) and you can only hinder them every now and then, how do you keep a sense of horror running from game to game? You kill your darlings. You don’t destroy your player’s playthings, you destroy your own playthings and wave the bloody remains around in the faces of the players. You kill the non-player characters.
To do this, you need to add a large cast of characters. Ones with panache and flaws. Populate your players’ world with people they can identify their own lives. Spend whole adventures where the players are introduced to various townsfolk. Then do something terrible.
Let’s have an example, like a teenage girl who sells flowers in the town square. Gilda is only dressed in rags, and the flowers she sells are wildflowers from outside of touwn. But, if she’s shrewd, she thinks she can save some of the profit to get an old mule. Then she could travel well outside her touwn (she keeps saying ‘town’ in a funny way) where there’s a beautiful valley of flowers. Mostly, tulips, but there’s all kinds of other pretty things out there. Maybe, if she works real hard, she can put herself through wizard school. She knows she’s being a little silly about it, but all she’s ever wanted to be since she was a little girl was a real wizard.
Got that image? Good. Later that night, Gilda hears snarling behind the barn she sleeps in. Afraid to be alone, Gilda walked to the town’s inn and threw a few pebbles at the window of one of the adventurer’s to ask for help. As she apologizes, a pack of werewolves sprint after her. Gilda shrieks and runs, as lights turn on in nearby houses, but the werewolves are too fast for Gilda. By the time the players are at the scene, One of the werewolves is struggling with Gilda in the town fountain as she gasps for air. A couple other werewolves have turned toward the adventures, but many are focused on Gilda, waiting for the kill.
What’s going on here? The situation is tense, made even more so by the fact that Gilda could die if the players don’t do something drastic. In fact, even if the players get the werewolves to focus on them, and somehow tag the werewolf drowning Gilda, they still have to deal with a half-drowned Gilda, collapsed over the edge of the fountain, which could be taken as a hostage, or trammeled upon throughout the fight. In fact, it is more likely for Gilda to die in this scenario, than to live; A fact that will get many player’s hearts pumping. All of this, and your players have invested nothing of themselves. They’re going to lose a portion of your world, that you made up. It may upset players to see Gilda die, but they didn’t spend hours coming up with and playing Gilda; You did. But now, nothing seems safe. People can die. The world is out to get them.
And it’s good storytelling as well. What if nothing bad ever happened to Gilda? If this was real life, that may make us happy. But Gilda isn’t coming over for dinner on Wednesday nights, and she doesn’t share your robotics hobby. Gilda’s a character in a story. If nothing dangerous or exciting ever happened to Gilda, we wouldn’t care about her anymore. She might be a source of information, or she could run small chores, but not much would happen. Over the course of the campaign, the players might see her a few more times, and she may have gotten her mule, and it’s possible that she had enough money to get herself into wizard school. But if nothing bad happens to Gilda, then she couldn’t be ransomed by a marauding band of orcs when she wanders too far out of town, and she couldn’t have her life threatened by a pack of student wizards that don’t like Gilda, because she wasn’t born into their society.
One last thing before we leave this subject. If the idea of making compelling individuals with intriguing back stories with the intent of marching them on stage, then marching them into the meat grinder makes you queasy, you don’t have to do it. You can make your players do it.
I once ran a Ravenloft game of Dungeons and Dragons classic vampire horror. I wanted to murder a high volume of characters in the course of the game, but the adventure module didn’t supply enough of them. So, when the players made their 6th level characters for the game, I asked for each player to also make a 1st level NPC that they could control by proxy. The NPCs would often end up in strange or bad scenarios. The players couldn’t watch all six of them, and one by one they were picked off by zombies, or turned into vampires. If you go this route, make sure your players understand what’s going on. You don’t want that player to make a bruiser of a knight, but have the real personality be trapped in the wry squire that trails behind the knight. Tell your players that, in no uncertain terms, that the extra characters they are making are intended to be lambs lead to the slaughter. This, of course, creates its own source of tension. In most slasher movies, we know that either most every character will die a horrible death throughout the movie. What we don’t know is when and how. If the players know that the NPCs are marked for death, their emotions will run high, since they don’t want it to happen, but can’t wait to see what happens when it does.
Tune in next week when we talk about the strange lives of Miss Calendar and Mr. Grimm. Until then, “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”