As a preface, I’d like to note that this article is a continuation of my last article “Playing a Story in a Believable World”.
Craft Expectations, Keep the Illusion Going
Often GMs forget that players are not truly experiencing the moment to moment tension or excitement their characters should be. In a movie or television show the audience is granted intense facial expressions, specifically planned dialogue, and note-by-note music all geared towards creating an emotional state for the viewer. While in a role playing game you can attempt to recreate those elements, you can also compensate by using homage, cliché, and even TV Tropes to build certain expectations. Players that are at all interested will make assumptions about what is going to happen next in any given game. You are still going to get the chance to surprise them once in a while, but if you apply familiar concepts to your ongoing campaign you can start to control those assumptions. Frankly stated, it feels good to be right; if properly led a player can “cleverly discover” information rather than having it force fed to them by GM exposition. I can almost guarantee more player interest in your game world and plot.
In what was likely the best campaign I’ve ever run, I started by establishing the story I wanted to tell. I realized it was sort of a Pulp, Spy-Tales kind of story, mixed with Paranormal Investigation and Horror. I re-watched the Hellboy movies, as well as plenty of other Pulp, early Sci-Fi, and Horror films. If you don’t have a Netflix account, you may never know how many otherwise awful movies can inspire a great Horror plot. I had a lot that I didn’t want to tell my players from the start, so while I didn’t promote my game as “Action Packed Espionage Terror”, the Pulp genre captured enough as a baseline to let them know how to design their characters.
After establishing the high action theme, I was able to introduce Horror subtly within the game. The first night of play found the group as strangers huddling in a church to take shelter from a raging storm. I created a playlist of soft toned music from Thriller soundtracks and other similar pieces. During that first session I established the “theme song” for my game, of all things Aerosmith’s “Boogie Man (Instrumental)”. This went on to be played at the start of every session to set a mood.
Rain fell in sheets, streets flooded, and thunder rumbled even the stone structure of the old church. The church doors swung open, a group of soldiers entered, a man with them bound in chains. He was dirty, bloody, and his face was shrouded by his wet, long, black hair. He was taken to a back room. It was explained that the weather had made travel too difficult. The prisoner was a war criminal in transit to a high security location and he would have to be held at the church until the storm subsided. Tensions were high, NPCs wailed, a pregnant woman in particular was frightened for the safety of her unborn child with the presence of an unsafe and unsavory criminal. Ultimately, our villain was aided by a support group that had been following the transit, stained glass windows shattered and armed men struck. With his release he attacked a soldier, displaying the danger the party was in he killed the man instantly by sinking his teeth into the victim’s throat and slurping fresh blood. The party battled the pale and unkempt man between church pews, the fight lit by background lightning strikes. He made his escape to the church’s catacombs. The PCs set out for him at the request of dying soldiers and found him in bat-like pose hanging from the roof of a cave near the coast, where his final moments were met with a wooden arrow to the heart.
After the party returned they were invited into a secret organization, one designed to keep the world safe from creatures like the one they faced. By the next session it was clear exactly what the game would focus on: hunting and destroying dangerous entities for a top secret theocratic government agency. The party instinctively knew when they would have help, who they could rely on, and who best not to trust. As the GM, I never had to expressly tell them any of this. I can’t claim to be a great manipulator, but I know I led them to these assumptions by generating a necessary tone scene to scene.
Tomorrow I will be posting another article in this series, expanding on the campaign I mentioned above and a breakdown of tips designed to help set a tone for the game in “Playing a Story in a Believable World 3”.