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  1. - Top - End - #1
    Ogre in the Playground
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    Mar 2013

    Default Handling Horror/Fairy-Tale Situations in RPGs?

    You know a funny thing about psychological horrors and fairy-tales? The correct answer to a situation can be entirely up to the storyteller. Like the stories where they say, "whatever you do, don't look in the X." In some, looking is how you find out they're going to kill you and can escape, and in others looking causes all your agedness to jump out of the box and reduce you to dust.

    This made me wonder how you can give players a situation like this without taking away their agency, to not have it contrived. I mean, if you're trapped in the shadow world where one door could lead into anywhere, or the maze that always leads you back to the centre, or whatever supernatural situation is going on... common methods of deduction aren't necessarily effective. The players can't even do it by trying to stay away from creepy and dangerous stuff, as a big part of the core of fairy tales and horror is that the protagonists are forced to interact with the weird and creepy things, where methods of avoiding them are either ignored or unavailable. Like Silent Hill, where you need to do some unwise stuff to progress, and that's part of the psychological horror.

    You might be able to use some more supernatural skills to aid the players, like Sixth Sense or Communicate with Ghosts or what have you. But that is at risk of just being a hint system players shuffle through before each decision "Before you is--" "I ask the spirits what is going on." "I didn't tell you what--" "I use my six sense to tell me what is safest." You might be able to use that to your advantage to create some group tension, layout your hints to be contradictory and misleading, if you don't roll well enough.
    You could also take a page out of the book of horror games, by giving the players resources they run low on. They only get so many tokens they can spend on sixth sense and communicating with ghosts or whatnot, so you only want to use it when you're really uncertain.


    Any ideas for how to deal with this? The simple answer would be to avoid using these kinds of adventure hooks, but I'm interested in them.

  2. - Top - End - #2
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    Palegreenpants's Avatar

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    Default Re: Handling Horror/Fairy-Tale Situations in RPGs?

    I'd point out that many fairy-stories have an overriding theme of temptation and consumption, as opposed to the violation theme that is so common in horror videogames/movies. 'The Cat and the Mouse in Partnership' is quite different from 'Alien.' They are similar themes, in some cases, but they are different.

    I utilize the theme of temptation liberally in my campaigns. The key to it is to present multiple options. One option appears unsavory/non-ideal (and is in fact the safe course of action,) while one appears fair and easy (and is actually the wrong course of action. The jellyfish trench from 'Finding Nemo' is a good example of this. Above all, make sure that the players, with some work, can decipher which course of action is actually safe before they take it. Otherwise, their choice will feel like it has no impact. Its really hilarious/terrifying if the party splits two ways, and half of them take the safe option, and half of them take the trap (many lols.)
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  3. - Top - End - #3
    Ettin in the Playground
     
    RangerGuy

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    Default Re: Handling Horror/Fairy-Tale Situations in RPGs?

    Quote Originally Posted by Palegreenpants View Post
    Its really hilarious/terrifying if the party splits two ways, and half of them take the safe option, and half of them take the trap (many lols.)
    What happened to Don't Split the Party, or this a rare exception?

  4. - Top - End - #4
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: Handling Horror/Fairy-Tale Situations in RPGs?

    Quote Originally Posted by goto124 View Post
    What happened to Don't Split the Party, or this a rare exception?
    I'll split the party, so long as everyone's okay with it. Never will I switch between two combats, though.

    On a note related to the OP: Fairy-stories can also differ greatly. Anderson's collection is vastly different than Grimm's, in some respects. Both include a lot of dismemberment, disturbingly enough.
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  5. - Top - End - #5
    Barbarian in the Playground
     
    DwarfFighterGuy

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    Default Re: Handling Horror/Fairy-Tale Situations in RPGs?

    Quote Originally Posted by Mr. Mask View Post
    Any ideas for how to deal with this? The simple answer would be to avoid using these kinds of adventure hooks, but I'm interested in them.
    So my current campaign has a bit of both.

    For fairy tales, knowledge nature provides knowledge of the fey. Other knowledge skills might provide hints regarding culture, etc. So I'm using a hint system.

    For horror, its mostly an overwhelming (or appearing overwhelming) powerful enemy that eats humans. So not as much horror as enemies that must be avoided until the heroes are more powerful.

  6. - Top - End - #6
    Ettin in the Playground
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    Dec 2010

    Default Re: Handling Horror/Fairy-Tale Situations in RPGs?

    In a game, the challenge has to be in mastering the internal logic of the environment the player finds themselves in, so that they can deduce which the right choice is by distorting their mind to think like the kind of alien thing they've come up against.

    So you have to make something that people could think is just a completely arbitrary, random choice; but at the same time, you have to create enough hints at a consistent if alien pattern which could actually guide the player's choice. Then, succeeding in the challenge is detecting and correctly interpreting that pattern.

    For example, you could have a dungeon where the passages branch, and one branch leads to certain death. That's basically a random choice - there's nothing the players can do about it without resorting to brute force techniques like divinations, sending expendable things down both passages and seeing which ones return, etc.

    Alternately though, up to the branch you could have the party always encounter dangerous things on the left side of each room. It can't just happen once or twice - you probably need at least four occurrences with no red herrings or counter-examples. Now there's a pattern they can notice, even if its an illogical one. The presence of an illogical pattern makes it a challenge rather than a guessing game, and the illogical nature of the pattern is what gives it the fairy-tale or horror vibe.

    The thing is, you can't make these puzzles too deep, because they're already illogical. If you had a message at the branch saying "Don't do what I would do", thats already probably too much.

    Its a very fine line between making people feel like "there is no pattern" and making people feel like "theres a pattern here, but I don't understand it". You're aiming for the second.

  7. - Top - End - #7
    Titan in the Playground
     
    Yora's Avatar

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    Default Re: Handling Horror/Fairy-Tale Situations in RPGs?

    RPGs are all about trying things out and seeing what happens. So whatever you do, don't set up situations in which the players automatically lose if they try something out. There are some infamous published adventures that do such things all the time, but these are meant for games where everyone already expects that their character will get killed at every step, you have a laugh when it happens, and pull out your next disposable character.
    If you don't tell the players at the start "Your characters will most likely be dead in four hours", then never set deadly traps for them.
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  8. - Top - End - #8
    Barbarian in the Playground
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    Default Re: Handling Horror/Fairy-Tale Situations in RPGs?

    Quote Originally Posted by Mr. Mask View Post
    This made me wonder how you can give players a situation like this without taking away their agency, to not have it contrived.
    I'm not sure what you mean. The situation IS contrived. It's arbitrary, and you have a plan for how it ought to go.

    I'm also not sure what you mean by "taking away their agency." It's not taking away the players' agency to tell them at least some of what's going on. Not telling them is likely to have them wind up inadvertently wrecking the game, or spinning their wheels trying to figure it out, and there's no agency in those situations either, because there's no real game and it's not fun.

    Horror and fairy tales are related in that there is often a lot of lore behind them, or at least the lore quickly builds up in the course of the story. The wolf can blow down houses, okay, how do we deal with that. The xenomorph bleeds acid, okay how do we deal with that. Etc.

    That lore tends to come from people going before and failing, perhaps fatally. So, my suggestion if you want to just stick the players in a situation and let them figure it out is to give them an endless supply of characters, so they can try things, die, and have those things entered into the lore somehow. It can just be a straight knowledge transfer, like to one's restarted video game (colored with some in-game excuse), or the players can create a record in-game that their next character has to work from. Erasing player experience isn't really possible, but players who are bought in will try to hew to just what the characters would know.

    I'm not sure how one would keep this interesting, especially if death is frequent, but it's the only way I see to neither "contrive" things or take away "agency."

  9. - Top - End - #9
    Ogre in the Playground
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    Mar 2013

    Default Re: Handling Horror/Fairy-Tale Situations in RPGs?

    One thing that helps with deadly traps, is to not have them be immediately deadly. Have the man-eating plant drag the ensnared player for a round or two first, give them a chance to grab onto something to escape or slow it down. Then you could even have that it takes a while for the plant to digest the player to the point of death.

    With a doctor character, you could have a trap that wounds a player so that it becomes a medical challenge to keep them alive (healing would be more interesting if you had to roll to stop bleeding and the like separately).


    Another interesting idea for the horror genre would be if players could draw secret objectives, which would give them more points to spend on this and/or their next character. Sometimes these objectives might be to die in a particular way, or to get others killed/tricked, or might be to find something or slay one of the horrors.

  10. - Top - End - #10
    Ogre in the Playground
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    Default Re: Handling Horror/Fairy-Tale Situations in RPGs?

    Unless you're playing a game in which characters are expected to die often and be easily replaced, try to never give players the situation where one option is instant death and the other option is victory. Instead, option A should make the player's life harder somehow and option B should make the player's life easier somehow. For example, if the players have to kill a vampire, and the correct answer to killing it is to specifically impale his heart, you would try to give your players some clues for that before the fight, and then during the fight, let attacks specifically declared against its heart do double damage. This way you reward the players for figuring out (or guessing, as it may be) the correct option, but also allow them to do things the hard way.

    The other way is to use some sneaky DM magic. Think back to that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indy must pick the correct holy grail. In conventional logic, he deduces which grail is correct because Jesus was a carpenter, and for some reason, carpenters in classical times used wooden cups. In RPG logic, however, you could say that the wooden cup was the correct one because Indiana Jones picked it. Had Indy picked a golden cup, that would've been the grail instead for whatever reason. Thus, whenever you need to present your players with an option like that, you ask yourself what is your players' role within the game? Are they heroes who are expected to solve these problems like the main characters in a fairy tale? Are they expected to never solve these problems, like characters in a Cthulu mythos story? Are they expected to generally solve problems after a little of adversity? Based on how difficult it should be for your players' characters to solve the problem, you refuse a number of players' hypotheses between zero and infinity - Remember, your players are right or wrong because the genre demands its, not because of conventional logic.
    It always amazes me how often people on forums would rather accuse you of misreading their posts with malice than re-explain their ideas with clarity.

  11. - Top - End - #11
    Barbarian in the Playground
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    Dec 2014

    Default Re: Handling Horror/Fairy-Tale Situations in RPGs?

    Quote Originally Posted by Yora View Post
    RPGs are all about trying things out and seeing what happens. So whatever you do, don't set up situations in which the players automatically lose if they try something out. There are some infamous published adventures that do such things all the time, but these are meant for games where everyone already expects that their character will get killed at every step, you have a laugh when it happens, and pull out your next disposable character.
    If you don't tell the players at the start "Your characters will most likely be dead in four hours", then never set deadly traps for them.
    Thank you, yes. There can and should be a consequence for taking risks, but if it's PC death and that's not going to be fun for whatever reason then the consequences should be something else.

    Someone mentioned The Crew Game to me, which is where players have several characters that do specific things. The bridge crew handles spaceflight and ship-to-ship diplomacy; the specialists handle science, research and design; the away team handles the action. If, say, the situation is physically very dangerous and the away team keeps getting eaten, replacements can be brought in without wrecking the continuity too much. The crew as a whole gets to work on the problem and find things out.

    In a horror game, there could be a stable core of main characters and then a surrounding group of their dumb associates who exist primarily to die in ways that are horrible but leave some kind of clue or warning.

    In a fairy tale game, there could be a stable core of townsfolk, and the hapless adventurers who keep going off and never returning, at least not the same as before.

  12. - Top - End - #12
    Ettin in the Playground
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    Dec 2010

    Default Re: Handling Horror/Fairy-Tale Situations in RPGs?

    Focusing on the lethality misses the point. Instead of a 'certain death' branch it could just as easily be a 'lose your most valuable possession' branch or 'come under a dark fate' branch or 'release a terrible evil' branch.

    The point was that for it to be a challenge rather than a random walk, the choice can't be truly arbitrary and random. There must be some information provided by the environment and the events so far that can be figured out without resorting to trial and error, such that resorting to trial and error is basically the same as failure. That's actually a critical part of how you preserve agency here - the choice made has to matter.

  13. - Top - End - #13
    Barbarian in the Playground
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    Dec 2014

    Default Re: Handling Horror/Fairy-Tale Situations in RPGs?

    Quote Originally Posted by NichG View Post
    Focusing on the lethality misses the point. Instead of a 'certain death' branch it could just as easily be a 'lose your most valuable possession' branch or 'come under a dark fate' branch or 'release a terrible evil' branch.
    Yes! Thank you for this. Death as the only way to fail is incredibly boring and limiting.

  14. - Top - End - #14
    Ogre in the Playground
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    Mar 2013

    Default Re: Handling Horror/Fairy-Tale Situations in RPGs?

    I guess in some ways I'm more interested in the horror adventure where you're rarely sure if your choice was the right one or not, where you progress but you're not sure if that is a good thing. But, working on that premise, all you need is for your progress to seem negative or more negative, without too many cases of extreme good or extreme bad from a choice. For those choices that aren't predictable (peeking in X when told not to), you offer small punishment, and for those which are truly obvious (don't hug Pyramid Head), you can offer extreme punishment (death... or worse).


    So the question becomes how best to punish players.

    The normal way is to wound them, or drive them insane, both acting as character de-buffs and perceived scarring of their characters. Killing characters requires you to make having a new character simple, which in turn reduces investment in characters.

    You can have abstract resources which can be harmed. XP, Fate Points, Second Chance Counters, Bonus Points, Good Ending Points, there are various possibilities.

    You could simply have a roleplaying negative effect. You describe something bad happening as a result, and if you do it with enough atmosphere, players who are invested will want to avoid those happening again.

    A card has to be drawn under certain situations, and all or most of them have bad effects. Some could merely be extensions of wounds and insanity, going so far as giving your character new motives, "abandon the group at the next opportunity", with the ability to remove these cards later.

    Similar to the removal of tokens, you could have a build up of tokens. Black Counters which give higher chances of bad occurrences, make monsters more fearsome, can cause a major antagonist to catch wind of you (Slenderman?), or even cause you to automatically lose the game (Slenderman!).

    Finally, you can simply give the players situations to deal with based off what they instigated. This could easily cause some of the above things to happen, of course.


    Other than that... not sure what else there is.

  15. - Top - End - #15
    Ettin in the Playground
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    Dec 2010

    Default Re: Handling Horror/Fairy-Tale Situations in RPGs?

    One of the most common forms of failure is to change what can be done in the future in a very visible way. Essentially, the structure of this is to first build up players' interest in potential avenues of exploration/action/etc and then have failure take the form of a loss of future opportunity in a way where the loss is implied but obvious. In order for this to work, you need the game to have a structure which is sufficiently non-linear that shutting down branches doesn't overly impoverish the game or even halt all forward progress.

    A classic example is a trap which collapses part of the dungeon. Even if you survive, you lose the opportunity to explore the collapsed branch. However, that opportunity is only meaningful if e.g. there were hints in game as to what might be contained within that now-destroyed branch. If it's just a random branch, it won't have impact.

    Another example would be in a game of intrigue, if the PC has a number of spies in play. If the PC screws up, it might reveal one of the spies and get them imprisoned or killed (or even just force them to flee), causing the PC to lose access to future information from that spy. In general, if failure leads to specific named NPCs being killed, that has this sort of effect.

    Failure can also lead to complexification or obfuscation of a previously simple arc. For example, if you're running a heist there might be a straight shot to the object of interest at first. But if you trip an alarm, lots of security doors/etc come down, and the PCs need to adopt their plan to a significantly more complex situation.

  16. - Top - End - #16
    Ogre in the Playground
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    Mar 2013

    Default Re: Handling Horror/Fairy-Tale Situations in RPGs?

    Yeah, that is a good way to go. It could range from missing out on a useful item or pathway, to temporary separation with an ally, to a more serious or permanent loss.

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