A friend of mine played a mortal World of Darkness game in the summer. I did not take part, but I was very inspired by the initial drafts: An old prison converted into a youth rehabilitation facility. A rusty, concrete building with many broken windows, rusty, screechy doors, and old, somewhat unnerving wardens. When I envisioned the cold and dark interiors, with rain drumming on the windows and an old, faulty generator powering the flickering lights, I knew that I had to try to get that atmosphere of creeping horror into a game of my own. From there I envisioned Manor in the Woods.
I got three players, but scheduling started to fall apart. I wanted to have a whole day for the game, since I wasn’t intending to have a longer campaign. Eventually the thought faded and drifted into the background. But a couple of weeks ago it resurfaced and we finally managed to schedule a Saturday for the game. That Saturday was yesterday as of writing. My verdict of the game is that I’ll allow myself to feel satisfied about it.
Manor in the Woods has been one of the most educational of games that I’ve played in some time. I learned a lot about the atmosphere and structure of a horror game, and now I’ll share my findings with you.
Comprehension is the poison of fear
I rarely plan my games in great detail. I usually have some sort of rough outline of the plot and some scenarios that I want the players to experience. But originally, I wanted a very detailed structure for Manor. I drafted the blueprints of the eponymous manor, and decided to form a plot around it. But during the hiatus, I forgot about that. The day before the game I had decided to dedicate towards planning and making notes. Instead, I just ground the last achievements from Rogue Legacy.
As I was sitting in the bus, heading to the ground zero, feeling guilty and very nervous about the lack of preparation, I realised something: If I didn’t know what the evil in the manor was, neither would the players. And people tend to fear that which they do not comprehend.
So my plan was to just toss more or less random clues and mystery towards the players and tie them together as the game progressed. The history of the manor and the significance of the things the players discovered evolved constantly. Whenever I started to form a pattern inside the game, I deliberately broke it. This way they couldn’t anticipate what the Entity wanted. Did it want to kill them? Did it want to make them suffer? Keep them prisoner? Have just some company? In the end this worked very well.
So if you, dear reader, wish to make a horror roleplaying game, I suggest you do not try to understand your main evil. It is in the human nature to make sense of things and form patterns. Resist that nature, and gleefully break your own rules. This will keep the players on their toes. It is frustrating, sure, but the inhuman entity of your game is allowed to be.
Invest in the props
Our usual roleplaying place has been a big table in the hallways of Oulu University. It is a very-well lit space with various amounts of random passersby. I knew that playing there would have been a death knell to the atmosphere, so I decided that we play in the apartment of one of our players (my place is 8 kilometers away from the 1×1 km area which houses the rest of the players). It did not have a lot of table space, but there would not be any distractions.
On-site we closed the curtains, put an 8-hour YouTube video of rain and distant thunderstorm on the speakers and lit some candles when the sun went down. The players sat on a couch and a bean bag, while I took a large armchair and sat with the candles between me and the players.
This worked. The gloom brought voices down and I could keep a low and slow tone in my voice. Everyone was pleased in the atmosphere. I think the game would have lost it all had there been one electric light in the room.
On retrospect there could have been one addition which would have brought a kinesthetic aspect to the game: Flashlights. In the start of the game the manor did not have any lights, and the characters had to rely on flashlights to find their way. If the players would have had flashlights, they could have used them to focus their actions. Talk to an NPC? Shine it on me. Another player? On them. It would have also kept the air of darkness tangible. If the party had two flashlights, then the players whose characters had them would have all the light in the room.
So invest in the props. You are going for an atmosphere, so do everything to achieve it.
Do not let the dice dictate the action.
Let’s imagine a scenario. Your character is in a dark kitchen, looking for candles and matches. The GM tells you to roll a Perception check.
You fail, and the GM tells you that you feel as if something moved behind the cutting table. Do you think “If I had only succeeded I could have seen what it was?”
Now what if you succeed, and the GM tells you that you feel as if something moved behind the cutting table. Do you think “Oh my god, what if I had failed? Would it have immediately attacked me?”
From the perspective of the GM, the outcome is the same: The player notices the threat (or something else), regardless whether he succeeded in the perception check or not.
I used this fact in Manor. That is to say, I mercilessly fudged the results of my own rolls, if I had a more useful (read: Added to the atmosphere) situation in my mind. But remember that fudging rolls is very delicate: If the players feel like their dice rolls do not matter, they get frustrated, and not in the good way. So try to fudge your rolls to advance the situation.
Death is the greatest immersion breaker.
Shamus Young had a good point about horror video games: Killing your player is the worst thing you could do. Because as long as the player is in the game, finding dread secrets and running away from incomprehensible monsters, he is immersed in the world. But as soon the “YOU ARE DEAD. LOAD, RESTART, QUIT”-screen appears, all of that hard-won horror is gone. He remembers that he needed to go to the bathroom. He checks the watch and ponders whether to wait and see the rest of the game or go study.
That is a hard balancing act: Keeping the threat of death in the air, but the player still alive. In the Manor, there was a thing prowling the gardens known as “The Groundskeeper”. It was a 2-meter vaguely humanoid thing, wearing shiny scythes, saws and other sharp gardening tools on its person. At one point it gave chase to one of the characters who wandered too close. The player failed his run away roll, so the thing dealt 1 damage (about third of a character’s hit points), and tossed him in a lake. As the character swam towards the center, the Groundskeeper walked after him, slowly submerging until it entirely under the water. It kept following the characters, and interrupted their bickering on whether they should go to the Mausoleum or the Mansion, which was apparently safe.
The Groundskeeper was a ticking clock: The characters could outrun it and hide in the questionably safe mansion, but outside it would always follow them. If it would have just killed the character, it would have ended the game prematurely for one character, and would have spoiled itself on the one central question: What does it do if it catches you?
So do not put instant deathtraps to your characters. Give them opportunities to evade threats, possibly horrible opportunities. Or, instead of deathtraps, just put traps for them. Mysterious traps. Traps that very certainly do something for the trappee, but what exactly?
- Imagination is the best place to be
The blueprints of the Mansion were based on the Ankh of the Triach, the most evil symbol I know. (It is the Necron icon from Warhammer 40k). I did not want to show the map to the players, because one of them would have recognized it, and it would have killed some of the mystery. So when the players inevitably requested some sort of map, I solved the problem by drawing very quick and very crude perspective images of the various rooms and spaces of the Manor.
The other reason why I didn’t want to have a top-down map is because it would have brought the focus from the players’ heads to the table in front of them. In their head, they hopefully imagined the manor as they explored it, from their perspective. In first-person. With a map, the place would have just become a board game.
I know that some players might be upset about this, but do not allow the players to draw a map (unless their characters have tools for it). Maps bring clarity, which kills mystery. Isn’t the point of a huge mansion with a weird layout to make the players feel like they’re lost?
- There is no satisfying end to horror
When the real-world clock struck 12, the characters had all either succumbed to fatigue, or had gone to sleep in the various bedrooms of the manor. We began to plan for the second session, since the characters had a couple of leads on some of the answers, but then I realised that we could just end it right there. The characters are all asleep. This is the perfect ending.
What would have additional time done? The players would have gone to the Spirit World, found a giant Spirit Spider, evaded it, found a spinning puzzle thing and then would have faced the Entity, which would have probably killed them all. Or not. The atmosphere would have jumped the shark.
Now only questions remain. Do the characters wake up? All of them? Do they find the mystery of the Manor? What IS the mystery of the Manor? Questions arise, and the players can imagine their own answers to them.
So those are the lessons I’ve learned from Manor in the Woods. Now I have a hankerin’ for another horror game, but not a sequel. The Aldritch Manor will live on in the imaginations of the players, and they do not need a poorly conceived sequel to ruin the mystery.
Perhaps Unsung Horrors….