Friday, October 29, 2010

A Calm, Cool, Gentle Presentation

Recently, I've been watching through a BBC series, The Nazies and the Final Solution.  It's fairly remarkable in that it adds considerable detail to a subject that I've always thought was treated cursively and repetitively by most documentaries.  I suggest having a look at it.  Overall, the subject tends to get under my skin and raises my anger, making it difficult to watch at times, but I concentrate on the knowledge gained.  I don't wish to close my eyes to it.

With the close of the third episode, which I saw last night, my partner and I had a discussion about certain facets of the Nazi plan.  She pointed out that she was interested in the policy they used of making everything appear very normal, of being polite to everyone who climbed off the trains.  The standard trope of Nazis shouting at prisoners and German shepherds with sharp teeth barking just wasn't so.  In fact, the soldiers were very gracious.  "Please put your belongings here, please stand there, if we could please have the travellers from Warsaw move to the left side of the platform and those from Bialystok to the right ..." and so on.

The greater horror - and horror in terms of roleplay has been up for discussion of late - was that the participants did not see the horror coming, certainly not until they were inside the showers and it was too late to do anything.  It did not take long for the camp guards to recognize that a calm, passive face encouraged everyone to move obediently in the direction wished for.  It's often asked why the Jews were so complacent about walking into the gas chambers to be slaughtered by the millions.

They did it because the Nazis said, "Please."

And this allows me here to make a brief comment upon the loading up of terrifying elements at the beginnings of D&D modules.  And it allows me to comment further upon why a module, even a polite one, wouldn't work on my players.

In a sandbox campaign, where everything is mostly calm and non-threatening as the party moves from town to town, or spends time steadily building up their domains, there's no reason to suspect that I have anything in particular up my sleeve.  I could present a circumstance of peacefulness and comfort for the party, and walk them right into Treblinka without batting an eye ... and they'd never see it coming.

But the instant I pull out a module, that's all blown.  Unless I want to try to memorize the module, so that I can speak it without having to look at notes, the party knows I have something planned, and they won't trust a damn thing I say.

In an ordinary sandbox campaign, the bartender can approach the party, offer a taste of the latest import that's just come in, suggest there are some unusual qualities in the wine that make it very satisfying, and there's a possibility the party will buy a bottle.

But if I have a module open on my table, and the bartender offers a bottle of wine, then the wine is poisoned, the bartender is a spy for an evil duke, the bar is the headquarters for the Hearteaters of the Flatulent Sphinx and so on and so forth.  I have shown my hand and every player has their weapons out and their backs up.

It's no better for all those DMs who are carefully crafting their own adventures, complete with hooks and maps, which are sitting stacked with the books when the DM sits down to the table.  Worse, the originating announcement at the start of the evening is usually, "I've just obtained a copy of ..." or "I've been working all weekend on this fellows, hope you like it."

You cannot hope to obtain the sort of terror that possesses a character in a Lovecraftian novel if the character knows from the outset that they are in a Lovecraftian novel!  See, the reader knows it, he bought the book at the store in the real world, but the characters have no fucking clue ... they're just going about their daily lives, buying bottles of wine and visiting relatives, utterly oblivious that in the next 140 pages something awful is about to come to light.

It was suggested that my failing at Death Frost Doom stemmed from not properly merging the module with my campaign.  It may not have occurred to some - but when reviewing a product, it does little good to make great changes to the product that others wouldn't be able to make if they were to purchase that product.  As a reviewer, it is beholden upon me to present the product exactly as written.  And as written, the party made it clear that, once presented with the dripping horror of the first few interactions, that they wanted nothing to do with the place.  It wasn't Treblinka, you understand.

Railroading the party was the only way to obtain a more thorough review of the material, which is something my party understood.  I had no reason to run the module at all except to obtain perspective through which I'd be able to write the review.  I had no other agenda.  From a personal point of view, no, I wouldn't have run the module at all.  But I could hardly write my review about that.

As it happened, when the players did get inside the module, they found it wasn't very scary at all.  If they had continued on past room 18, they would have found a series of rooms with various low-level undead, all of whom the party had fought before on previous occasions, ending in treasure.  I read these rooms aloud to the party after the insurrection, and their feeling was, "Is that all?"

The trouble is that module-and-planned-adventure thinking has the process entirely backwards.  You don't present the party with a nightmare scenario and then reduce the last few bits of it to poking through boxes and cleaning up critters.  Bilbo does not walk out his door into a horrorscape.  He steps onto a road and starts walking, with rather friendly companions.  The first critical scene in the telling of Frodo's story starts with a Birthday Party.

Suppress every sign that the party is about to encounter anything.  Hide your maps and your descriptions.  Explain that you don't have an adventure planned this week, that we'll just 'wing it.'  Try to present the first few aspects of your campaign from memory, and speak the words with an air of dispassion, that you don't care what the party does.  Give no sign that anything you have to say has the least importance.

You smooth the feathers of the party down, you make it a nice bottle of wine, you demonstrate that they have nothing to fear by having the bartender sit down and tell them a sad story about how his wife is cheating on him ... and from there you build the story, bit by bit.  Please put your things here.  Please move to the side here.  If I could just have everyone over sixty line up here ... yes, Ma'am, we will be serving dinner in the mess hall immediately after your shower.  It's been a very difficult trip for everyone and we'll need to clean up before everyone can enter the camp ..."


  1. Very interesting. I will try this next week on my group

  2. I agree with this post - to integrate a module (effectively) into an ongoing campaign (especially a sandbox game) is a similar effort to creating the adventure yourself and skipping the integration.

    One has to spend time covering all those miles of railroad tracks with dirt and debris, camouflaging the warning sides and dressing the NPC's up in local garb and equipping them with proper names. Then there's the hiding of the module books and running off the same notes or computer files as last week's session... players are a perceptive lot. Obfuscation is tiring.

  3. That is always my favorite part of Lovecraft stories: When the narrator starts out "I'm a rational man." You just know he's going to end up with an abdomen playing host to something eldritch.

    But I know that much of the success in CoC games hinges on players being thrust into a world manifestly more horrifying than most of Lovecraft's stories (because he usually avoided double-dipping and giving you, say, Deep Ones and a Dweller in Darkness). Why do you think those games work, but bringing horror into DnD doesn't? Is it the difference between a campaign with horror elements and one, like Ravenloft, utterly dedicated to that atmosphere? I imagine that horror stretched out over multiple campaigns, with enough false-starts, eventually lulls players down from their high alert.

  4. Somehting to keep in mind as far as approach goes, folks: You don't really need to hide anything if your players are used to seeing adventure modules in and out of your hands each and every session, but know you could be taking as little from them as a map or a list of vittles at the inn.

    I think what your review of the Raggi module chiefly did was to show why and how running a module as-is makes little sense for a regular group unless they choose to or are used to be drug along. That, and your group doesn't seem to like poking and prodding. The latter seemed to me the primary point of difference between you and those defending the module. Play-style.

    Having read Death Frost Doom and enjoyed the reading, I know exactly how I'd get the players to risk it further and further should it come up. The review reinforced why I needed to do so. If they decide to turn around and go home? No worries. It happens all the time. They up and left and lovingly mapped and detailed region once just to see that city I mentioned in passing. I've got plenty of things on standby ready to go or be "faked" at a moment's notice and two weeks between games to prep.

    It seemed through all of the noise and uproar around the review, everybody was at least violently agreeing with that.

    So, what was this post about again? Oh yeah, horror. Couldn't agree more Alexis.

  5. Sorry, must have deleted a sentence above. What most seemed to be agreeing with in the Raggi duscussion is that modules really don't work straight out of the box if the party is not complicity being led along. Alexis demonstrated that rather well. I can't remember EVER having run a pre-made adventure as-is, but I've used plenty.

  6. One thing that all the successful -webcomics- _serials_ i have seen, share in common: they started off as comedy.

    Goblins. Oots. Erfworld. Looking for Group. Girl Genius. Doonesbury.

    All started off very light hearted, then gradually walked down the road of character development, into the ville.

    Cause really, if you want someone to care about you, then you need to make them laugh. (See the recent research on the evolution of laughter among hominids. It kinda begins to explain the preceding truism of narrative craft.)

    I don't link in posts because if you're interested, you'll find the material yourself.

    This rambling brought you courtesy of *vidio* - the many-eyed demon of egotistic entertainment. :)

  7. >>the party knows I have something planned, and they won't trust a damn thing I say.

    I'm confused a bit, both with this and previous comments you've made.

    To me, the entire point of my job as GM is to throw the players into bad situations and see how that shakes out.

    And their job as players is to plan as best they can but basically march into some sticky situation or another.

    Players show up because I have "something planned." Nothing happens unless the players willingly jump into the pool to find out what's in it.

    That's the game. There's literally no point in showing up to play if one is going to reject out of hand foolishly dangerous situations. It's a game about adventurers, after all.

  8. I've also never run an adventure "straight out of the box". I treat them more like a good story that could use a lot of tweaking.

    Part of a DM's repertoire should be misdirection. I don't know how many times I placed a copy of S1 Tomb of Horrors or something similar on the table as we gamed something completely different just to freak out the straights (even going so far at times to flip through a copy of Grimtooth's Traps when NO traps of any sort were present in whatever adventure I was running at the time). Paranoia? I love that shit. If a group was weirded out by bartenders offering them bottles of wine, hell, I'd have EVERYONE from the local bartenders to the baker to the friendly farmer offer them free samples and goodies. The party would be starving to death within a week.

  9. Every time I've seen a game in progress were the GM is allowing the book or module to dictate the flow of the session, rarely dose it comes of well. But this is an entirely different topic altogether...

    In regarding DFD,I think Raggi made a really great module that pays homage to those classic horror films from the 70' and 80's by George Romaro, Sam Raimi, and the late Lucio Fulci. Without giving any spoliers there's quite a few things I would of done differently and underplay some of the antics, but I'm glade their put in as this is a module was made to be tinkered with without drastically altering the inner core of the story.

    This module works best when you just spring it on your players from out of nowhere and let them decide what they want to do. Even if the PC's don't take the bait and just move on. From a GM's perspective there's something quite amusing seeing that you've shaken up the players and creeped them out and they really don't understand why.

    In closing, I for one would love to see Raggi do a sequel-- even a trilogy--as some of the descriptions ( especially ONE in particular) hints to the possibilities of one major hell-raising campaign.

  10. I have all my material on my laptop - both purchased modules and my own creations. So the players never get that tell-tale clue.

  11. I just ran this module for the second time on Saturday night. It was perfect for Halloween. Some spoilers below!

    The first time through the players reacted much like yours only in a much, much milder way. Several of them wanted nothing to do with the place. I simply told them that the setting in this world is harsh and grim and that any chance at wealth was worth facing death for. That's why the characters became adventurers in the first place. They continued but were still not very 'in' to exploring the place.

    After reading your previous post here about your players objecting to continuing the adventure I realized that due to the horrific nature of this adventure you really need a *damn* good reason to be going here. Otherwise you're just flat out insane! And no matter how cool the adventure is, no player will appreciate it when they feel that they are being forced to do something.

    So I changed the setup for the second group: A person of note went missing 50 years ago and was suspected to have a magical artifact in his possession. He was known to have passed through the area around the cabin. The party bumps into Zeke who mentions the big book of victims. The party enters the cabin and finds the missing person's name in the book. But more importantly, they see the magical artifact resting on the alter in the Painting in the sitting room. And the reward for this artifact was *huge*. As creeped out as they were, they couldn't wait to crawl down that first shaft. Raggi even mentions this option in the text of the adventure in the description of the alter room.

    Perhaps your players aren't objected to modules, maybe they are just objecting to perceived railroads. As a player saying 'no' should always be an option but if the reward is juicy enough they won't be able to resist...

  12. Hello !

    It's my first time posting a comment, and on an old article at that, but I'm fond of all I have read so far here. You truly offer glimpses of insight into RPGs.
    Can't say I'm sold on everything, but it's only a question of gaming style; your point is always well made, clear, and devastatingly useful.

    On to the comment ...

    I felt enlightened reading your post and feeling it becoming so clear. The oh so common situation of players getting all defensive and ready for everything at the smallest sign of preparation. Full blown paranoïa, or at least getting the wrong mindset for the incoming adventure.

    And the simple solution proposed, brilliant ! I have a desperate need to try it as soon as I can, it seems to hold lots of promises ...

    But the most thrilling part of the article ? The end. All the pieces falling into place, and the conclusion with the Nazi "gentleness". That, sir, is what sent shivers down to my spine, and that reaction gives me all the more of an inpulse to try that.

    Many thanks, for this article, and for your time.


If you wish to leave a comment on this blog, contact with a direct message. Comments, agreed upon by reader and author, are published every Saturday.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.