- How to use the campainging technique for horror games
- An example including tips and techniques of how it can be used to such an extend
In this appendix I will cover the edge case of games that rely on a slow revelation of facts and need to restrain player freedom in order to work their magic. Namely, this is especially horror games.
Though I love and enjoy horror games as one shots, there is also a certain allure in running them as campaigns (or at least multi-session games). There have been some successful attempts at doing so (the best example to me being the Trail of Cthulhu campaign Eternal Lies), but they all include an incredible amount of work. I spent hours and hours just for reading through Eternal Lies, and even more for preparing them (and translating Justin Alexander’s Remix). This amount of preparation load is certainly not what I am aiming at. Imagine the workload if you were to create such a campaign from scratch!
I recently ran a Call of Cthulhu campaign that proved to be very successful. I separated it into four distinct acts that only differed in the locale they were set in. This way, I was able to keep the preparation load for a single session pretty low. Also, I used my Joker Clues approach for the mysteries in there, reducing the time taken up by mystery preparation and adding flexibility.
As for the menace that unfolds when players unveil horrible truths one by one, this works like a charm if the setting is complex enough for the players to always unveil something new and putting it into context with what they already know. (A great example is the Steam game Her Story – it presents a complex enough plot that it is basically irrelevant which route the player takes through the stories. Everything unveiled is thrilling and all the more personal as the player chooses their own path.)
Of course, restricted freedom and unforeseeable disaster is part of the fun of a horror game, so I use pre-scripted scenes much less sparingly than I would in a non-horror campaign. Still, my players were free to explore whatever they liked, and thus peeled layer by layer of lies from the baleful and sinister truth.
The game was set in Arkham and dealt with research and experiments conducted by the alien Mi’Go that the players and their loved ones were drawn into – or rather discovered they were already part of. Maybe some day I will give a more detailed account of what happened during the game.
The techniques I used for the mini-campaign were the following:
- Structured: Dividing the plot into four distinct chapters (one session each) reduced my preparation load for a single session and allowed me to spend more time on both preparing intense scenes and bringing elaborately crafted handouts to the game. The four acts were:
- The first chapter in Arkham, where they made their first mythos contact. Eventually, they were headed for Acadia Creek, a small town in New Hampshire.
- The second chapter was set in this remote town. The PCs were warily ogled until finally the villagers chased them into the town’s mine with pitchforks and torches, were they were sedated.
- The third chapter was all about getting out of the cells and operating rooms within the mine, fleeing through the village and getting somewhere safe. They were eventually found by some kind of self-proclaimed resistance, but were followed and finally were able to make their way back to Arkham.
- The fourth chapter, again set in Arkham, was about both getting information from someone at the Arkham Asylum, and getting one of the PCs out of the same, who it turns out was a fugitive inmate. A final confrontation with the loved ones they thought they lost brought up a fateful decision: Will they trust them (even though they were tangled up in mythos matters), or will they try to flee?
- Node-Based: Most environments involved free movement for the PCs with the freedom to explore whatever they liked, but triggering different intense scenes while they did. I prepared each of these locales individually, with consequences following for whatever the PCs did. Though eventual doom was almost inevitable, the path they took towards their destruction was free for them to choose.
- Elaborate: Since I understood all connections, plans, and underlying workings of all NPCs and mythos entities involved, I was easily able to decide which actions they would take in order to react to things the PCs did.
- Dungeoncrawl: Some elements of the game (namely navigating the mine and getting through the Arkham Asylum) were designed as strictly keyed dungeoncrawls, so there was something lurking behind every corner.
- Terror: What makes H.P. Lovecraft’s work so terrifying is that almost none of the protagonists actually sees the horror that surrounds them. They learn about it, encounter consequences, and even collect evidence, but rarely, if ever, do they see the monsters and deities that preordain their fate. I used the same method – only the final chapter included a mere possibility for the PCs to actually see a Mi’Go. This lead to several interesting situations:
- At one point, they were inside a remote ski lodge that became snowbound due to an avalanche. They had to flee through a crawl space with Mi’Gos following them. But they only heard them and one of them caught brief glimpses of one whenever his gun’s muzzle flash temporarily brightened up the completely dark tunnel (which nearly cost him the last bits of his sanity).
- Whenever the Mi’Go made contact with them, it always was either through the disfigured inhabitants of Acadia Creek, or through electronic devices, like telephones, where they perfectly imitated human speech.
- The mine in Acadia Creek housed a Shoggoth in its deepest section. But because there was no light (and also no reason to travel that deep into the mountain), all the PCs witnessed were its terrible screams in the dark.
- When the Mi’Go took control over Arkham Asylum, they put up a Mi’Go guardian in there. But because the energy was shut off, the PCs were only able to discern a vague silhouette of it against the large windows of the lounge.
- One of the PCs underwent surgery while he was sedated in the mine. He only had faint and obscure recollections of it, including the dreadful realization that one of the surgeons was not human.
- Deepness: One of the PCs was a fugitive inmate from the Arkham Asylum that involuntarily developed a new personality to cope with what he did (his original disorder was caused by a mythos contact). This again triggered some really interesting scenes:
- At one point, wanted posters were handed to one of the PCs, who recognized his companion and discretely decided to not disclose this to anyone.
- I sometimes included dripping sounds in the soundtrack I played. Whenever a dripping sounded, the PC was haunted by some flashback regarding his true past, always bringing an insight with it. One of these insights, for example, was the vision of three legs with no body attached to it. As it later turned out, this is the symbol on the Book of Eibon that played a major role in the whole conspiracy.
- The PC imagined himself to be of German descent. At one point, though, I included a real German NPC that tried to talk to him, but realized that what he spoke was not German, but some kind of invented language that only sounded like German. The NPC pointed out this fact, but the discussion was never able to go far, as this was the precise moment when the avalanche stroke.
- Player Connection: Each and every one of the PCs was connected to the plot in some way, so the whole story was (or eventually became) personally menacing to them:
- One of the PCs was a human-Mi’Go hybrid that was the result of decades of experiments (of which the disfigured inhabitants of Acadia Creek were the rather unsuccessful specimen).
- Another was her brother-in-law, who silenced her real father for good in turn for good money in his Asylum.
- One of them was the already mentioned Asylum inmate, who once shared a cell with the silenced father and learned dreadful secrets from him before he escaped.
- The last PC was a circus showwoman who lost her best friend at the campaign’s very beginning. She was the most sane person involved and always was a kind of stability source for the others. She was also the one who brought a gun.
- Flexibility: When I first prepared the campaign, the course of action I had in mind was a little different from what it turned out to be. But since I used this act structure, I had not yet wasted any considerable amount of preparation work on the later chapters, allowing me to always adjust the setup of the next chapter entirely to the PCs’ decisions and needs.
Since the whole campaign was planned as a multi-session one shot, preparing it in the way I usually prepare my games was ineligible. Also, the kind of free-roaming I allow in my usual campaigns did not fit the kind of horror I intended for this game.
The solution seemed pretty natural: I developed a rough plot, divided it into independent chapters and prepared each of these chapters as free-roaming mini campaigns. This way I achieved both of my goals: I ensured complete player freedom while still retaining control over the general course of the plot, enabling me to intersperse gloomy or terrifying scenes whenever they seemed appropriate without forcing my players down a railroad.
And this is what this article is all about: Whenever your game demands a game structure my Campaign Plantation does not support, think about ways to adapt it so that it does (retaining all the advantages, like minimum preparation time, maximum player freedom and immediate control over consequences). For horror games, a separation into distinct chapters each with a reduced amount of free campaigning complexity (3-6 Entities per chapter should be enough) combines the best of both worlds and still caters to all the needs of horror games. (Although I prefer horror one-shots a bit over horror campaigns, as they don’t require as much investment from the players.)