Friday, July 14, 2017

Death is Still Boring

This is insightful:

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is like a Saw movie for kids: it matches grisly fates to the sins of the children who enter the factory. I needed all or most of those grisly fates to be represented in the adventure: blueberrification, being boiled alive in chocolate, being shrunk and stretched, uncontrollably floating, plus a bunch more of my own design. All of them weird and gory and absolutely deadly.

They were one of the first things James Raggi took issue with.

While LotFP adventures have a reputation as being really deadly, he wanted BitC to be for 1st level characters, and specifically new players. All my listed damage was way too high, and all my poisons too lethal. His point was along the lines of “How can characters get weirded out by these if they’re dead?”. He suggested toning down the damage of the adventure significantly, and instead focusing on these poisons and effects inconveniencing players or making them rethink how they play.

This turned out to be a genius suggestion, because it provided a clear through line for the rest of the adventure. Few things in the final draft of BitC are designed to explicitly kill. Instead, they’re designed to unsettle, gross out, and inconvenience players. Body horror carries with it the threat of death, but it’s more about the perversion and grossness of life than it is about death.

This is why death is boring. “How can characters get weirded out by these if they’re dead?” Answer: they can’t. They laugh or shrug or whatever and roll up a new character. “What’s next?” they ask.

And understand, I’m not denigrating that kind of play. If a rolling series of grizzly deaths is what gets you and yours excited to play, more power to you. But if you’re into body horror, the joy isn’t in the death, but all the stuff that leads up to it. It’s the inflation, or the bulging of the eyes and the appearance of gill-like slits along the neck, or the way the xenomorph squirms within your belly as it grows. It’s in the way the body devolves, or turns traitor, or evolves in sudden terrible spurts.

And sure, the victims of body horror often die (Aliens franchise) but sometimes they devolve (“The Shadow over Innsmouth”) or evolve even to a point beyond fleshy existence (Akira). The real challenge for a DM running a game based on body horror is keeping the horrors and transformations new and fresh. Too much of anything gets boring after a while.

And this same principle largely applies to nearly any campaign; death is anticlimactic. It’s got no answer for, “What next?” except shake off that old character and everything they’ve been through up until now, and start a new one. It violently forces the player out of the fiction and thrusts them head-first into the realm of mechanics (though skilled players can hop right back in again). All the work the group has done to build up tension and interest in that character and their contacts is suddenly chopped off. Death is, in terms of fun, expensive.

Which isn’t to say it should never happen. The fear of death creates wonderful tension in a game. As a DM, killing an NPC you love early on is good way to let the players know you mean business. (Hey, it works for GRR Martin and J Whedon, right?) But it’s vital you keep in mind your themes. Death is rarely the best way to support those, and defeat that doesn’t involve death can give you entire new avenues to explore.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Cant do Paranoia

Outside my home I saw a little triangular rock, all shiny and glisteny if you looked at from just the right angle, that made me think of thief and tramp markings, which lead me on to contemplating Thieves Cant.

What are you doing with Thieves Cant in your game? Probably not much, and that’s understandable. Since you likely only have one (if that many) PCs in the game who understand it, they’re not going to be using it to pass messages between each other. Usually when I see it, if I see it at all, it’s a handy way to get the PC rogue in touch with the local thieves guild.

Still, Thieves Cant is a thing in the game, you might have a PC who knows it, so it’s not a bad idea to see what use we, as DMs, can make of it. I treat it as an additional way to give the players information, almost parenthetically so. It’s a bit like riffing in the dungeon; the whole place is mysterious and dangerous, but some joker who was in here fifty years ago has left what amount to footnotes in the place explaining what they saw here back then.

A dungeon I made recently was a little proving-ground test maze. Rogues, of course, cheat, so there were clues left here and there in Thieves Cant, some even pointing the way to hidden tools to make the challenges easier.

The most well-known real-world version of Thieves Cant (at least before Guy Ritchie taught us all Cockney Rhyming Slang) were the Hobo Signs. These are simple and informative, but can be playfully enigmatic as well. For instance, early in the game, the PCs are heading into your traditional haunted house, and as part of the history of the place there’s a Thieves Cant symbol hidden out front that basically says, “BEWARE: this place has been marked for destruction by dangerous powers.” The idea here is that a group with a rogue in it will know that, whatever happened at this place, it wasn’t an accident. Somebody came and inflicted tragedy here (and righting this wrong could be central to putting to rest the vengeful spirits of the place).

All well-and-good, and more than a little useful. But imagine how the players would react if later they encountered the same sign outside the home of a beloved ally, or even their own residence. Now you’re cooking with gas.