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Campaign of Terror


A fundamental premise of the horror genre (and Call of Cthulhu in particular) is the idea that the universe is actively hostile towards those who pry into dark places. PCs as well as NPCs are fair game for any scenario antagonist, be it monster, sociopathic killer or homicidal cult.

This genre convention presents the GM with a unique challenge, the need to create an atmosphere of tension, mystery and fear. It takes a lot to convince players that their characters are in a dangerous situation beyond their control, that they do not lead `charmed lives', that their characters are not the most important thing in the universe.

Regular players in lethal horror genres such as CoC quickly learn to accept the hefty toll of casualties or they wouldn't continue roleplaying. New PCs appear on a regular basis to replace the casualties. This death toll tends to promote episodic scenarios. Unlike other RPG genres, players don't necessarily get used to one character in horror games. This has an advantage in that storytelling takes precedence over dice rolling and reward-oriented powergaming cannot become the norm. But how do you keep players coming back for more and how do you keep things fresh?

An often used GM trick is have a mix of PCs and NPCs available when the killer strikes. A favoured NPC gets the chop, a PC gets a glimpse of the nasty and is spurred on towards a confrontation. After confrontation and death(s) comes the denoument then it's on to the next scenario. Ho hum. Use this trick more than a couple of times and even the best roleplayer will get a little blas, possibly getting her character killed at a later stage. There are plenty of variations on this theme but all of them are temporary solutions to that genre problem.

Roleplaying and TV soap operas have a lot in common. A bunch of people get together at regular intervals and live out daily dramas. Occasionally characters leave and new ones arrive. It just so happens that horror RPGs involve a lot of danger and death but who wants to roleplay a one dimensional boring businessman? Soap operas tend to get sneered at. Just like RPGs. But good soap operas are very popular. Why? Because they are character led and maintain consistency. So why don't we learn from the soaps and use that knowledge in RPGs?

My proposition: create a living campaign for your players. Don't view the campaign world as a series of episodic scenarios which may or may not involve your PC's. Plan out the next six months of gaming by modifying your proposed scenarios to fit the campaign and the PCs. Give the PCs a chance to shine instead of merely investigating, running, fighting and dying. Sure, it means some work but if you can't stand the heat, get out of the cauldron.

The first resource often overlooked by GMs is the PC background. Every player should have a detailed character background detailing her appearance, personality, habits, quirks. It doesn't have to be a manuscript but it should contain material that gives both player and GM a handle on the character. Grab those handles and shake to see what happens.

Debbie Dangerfield is a gutsy 1920's reporter struggling against chauvanist attitudes? Make that scenario involve a cult of Dionysian witches instead of a generic cult of Shub Niggurath worshippers. And make the High Priestess her old history teacher, the one who taught Debbie where to kick Louie Linebacker when he got fresh. How will Debbie react?

Ricky Remington is the ultimate big game hunter, an independent, hard-as-nails type? Lead him off to Alaska chasing Bigfoot sightings. Isolate him and his companions, making sure that cute lady pilot is with them. Then show him half a dozen sasquatch who fancy tender, civilised long pig for dinner. Ricky has a good chance of surviving but what about his friends and will he be the same afterwards?

Another good resource is the player. Listen to players talking about their characters and their characters' aspirations. The player thinks her character Debbie Dangerfield would fancy Professor Petulant? Resist the temptation to kill the Prof as revenge motivation or victim example. Start a romance between the two characters. When the Prof knocks on Debbie's door at 3 AM, scared out of his wits, Debbie has the best motivation in the world for pursuing that unknown terror; love, the staple of the soaps.

The last resource tip is scenarios themselves. Most scenarios are written in isolation with specific lead-ins and endings. They tend to get used in a serial fashion and players come to expect episodic play. This is the death of a campaign, avoid it all costs. One day publishers will catch on to the idea that multiple lead-ins will make scenarios more applicable to a larger audience. Until that time it falls to the GM to integrate the scenario into the campaign.

For example; you plan to play a variant of the movie "The Thing" in the future. Start raking through it now for elements that can be intertwined with the ongoing scenario. The players need a scientist to identify a blood sample? It's the doctor who will be off to the Antarctic in six months. The players want funding for an expedition to Ponape? Their benefactor is arguing about an Antarctic survey when they arrive to present their case. Ideally you will have three or four scenario strands going at once, all at different stages, allowing you to blur those dividing lines.

The ultimate goal in campaign play is to present a seamless, living world to your players. Their characters can live, grow in and perhaps change that world. They have a frame of reference for character and the world. The characters grow without powergaming, the player comes to enjoy that alternate personality. And when you present a challenge that threatens the character, her acquaintances or her world, the player will come out fighting.

And character death? Don't give special consideration to PC survival, simply go with the flow, roleplay the NPCs instead of forcing the scenario aims. Not all sessions have to involve danger and death but when they do the required tension and fear will be there, of that you can be sure. Characters will die fast enough without the GM actively working towards that end. When death occurs the player will be upset but if you are doing your job properly she will have ideas for new characters. The measure of good horror roleplaying is not the passive acceptance of genre conventions but the quality of shared experience that keeps everyone coming back for more.

Peter Devlin

Feedback encouraged to devlin@rpg.net!

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