Digital Tabletop: Creeping Up Your Tabletop RPG

I spend a lot of time talking about MMOs and RPGs in this column, but my love affair with the tabletop RPG has never really waned, even as groups have come and gone through my living and dining room over the years. I’ll admit, I’m in a bit of a lull at the moment and am contemplating an actual online table with a few friends and my son, but that’s an idea for the future. What I’d like to do is offer up a few tips for getting your gaming session into a bit of the Halloween spirit. I liked to run a full blown Halloween style adventure, usually based off one of the classic horror movie settings, like the slasher, zombie, ghost or creature feature, or mix it up a bit. I’ve done it more recently with Pathfinder and vampires, especially since the campaign I was running had one built into it, but my Halloween sessions were almost always set in the Rifts universe, because that’s one of my favorite settings and anything goes.

So I guess tip number one is, don’t be afraid to mix things up. It’s okay if you want to do a straight up slasher adventure where the party is hunting the killer down, or maybe a reversal where the killer is hunting the party instead. However, what if there’s a ghost involved helping out, or everyone the slasher kills is turned into a monster? Then it starts to get a lot more interesting and can lead to spin off adventures later, depending on whether the party survives or not. Another way to mix it up is to simply let the clues lead the group one way, but have the end result have a totally unexpected twist, like it not being a slasher at all but some kind of monster that inflicts wounds like you’d expect a slasher to.

Tip number two: atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere. While this is something you should be doing as a GM or DM or storyteller anyway, giving your players the right kind of atmosphere is essential to getting that creepy feeling. In fact, with the right atmosphere and lead up, you can scare the crap out of your players. This was years and years ago, but back in college I started up my Halloween tradition while running a Rifts campaign for my wife and our group. They were kind of a mercenary group attached to a small town outside of the Coalition and Federation of Magic’s border operating on their own, but were at a lull, which made it the perfect time to shake things up a bit. They’d been facing casters and evil overlords one week and squads of well armed Human supremacists the next, so I thought it was time to throw a little monster of the week at them, but have it be a bit in disguise.

I used one of my, then non-infamous, dying child hooks to get them to go check out the next town, only for them to find it completely empty, which is a feat considering over three hundred people had lived there. They find blood trails, evidence of some kind of trauma, and it is deathly quiet. This is all before I got into CSI and crime shows, so I’m sure I can do an over the top crime scene even better now, but they finally pick up on some kind of life signs and go to check out an apartment whose door is hanging off the hinges and rattling in the wind, with a blood trail leading out, smears everywhere, over-turned furniture… but there’s sounds coming from the kitchen. They inch slowly in and realize it’s coming from an over-turned table. They pick who’s going in to flip the table, as they don’t know if it’s a survivor or whatever is responsible and don’t want to lay the room to waste with spells and guns, and creep ever closer, being careful not to make a sound, then flip the table over to find OH MY GOD A GIANT RAT THAT SHRIEKS AND SCURRIES FOR THE WALL! Yes, I yelled that when they flipped the table, scaring the crap out of them. I gave them about a minute to collect themselves and figure out where to go next before I hit them with the real threat, which snatches one of them out of the air while he’s laughing the scare off.

It was the atmosphere of the deserted and bloody town that really got them into it, as well as the mystery and trying to figure out what it was that did it, but the rat of all things literally scared them. Me suddenly screaming when I’d been relatively quiet most of the night with my descriptions and acting probably helped a bit, but that all leads up to it. The monster snatching up a party member and trying to devour them whole didn’t quite as much of an impact, as they went into combat mode recovery pretty quickly after, but as the monsters descended on them, because there can never be just one, they were loving that they’d gotten a good horror story scare just from playing an RPG and a wee little rat with five hit points.

Tip number three: add a little mood music. Now, not every GM likes to do this, and I admit I abused it early on in my GM career. It can be distracting, especially if you’re playing songs with lyrics in them. For a horror or Halloween theme, though, there is plenty of music out there to help set the tone, but even then I’d be careful of using something iconic like the theme from Halloween. Stick to something more atmospheric and a little more generic, something that sounds familiar and creepy and gets to you, but at the same time isn’t completely recognizable and throws your players out of the game. There are some really great tracks off the Alien 3 soundtrack, one of the saving graces of that film, that work for atmosphere and getting you on edge without being something completely recognizable, although Elliot Goldenthal has a very unique sound. There’s also the option of raiding video game tracks. One of my new favorite mood setters would be from Mass Effect 2‘s soundtrack, “Freedom’s Progress” by Jack Wall. It has a feel to it that reminds me a lot of the Alien films, when they’re walking around and you’re just waiting for something to leap out at you.

Tip number four: know your players. I’ve run with a few groups that absolutely would not like or enjoy a horror or Halloween themed session. Some players think it’ll be a lot of fun. Some who play Call of Cthulhu or Dead Reign on a regular basis will probably look at you funny because that’s pretty much the norm for their sessions. I might actually try to do something cute but deadly for those. All I can say is plan accordingly. If you’ve got a group that’s running around slaying everything around the countryside, maybe it’s time to treat them like the monsters and send a group of heroes or would-be heroes out to slay them.

Tip number five: don’t worry about being a little cliché. It happens. Shakespeare told all the stories you’re ever going to hear, we’re just telling them with slightly different details and in a different order. So if you want to take something like Paranormal Activity and build an adventure around that, more power to you, just try to make it your own and don’t fall into the trap of just re-treading everything you’ve seen. It’s an easy one to fall into, and I admit I’m guilty of it on occasion, especially when I’m running off the fly because my players have taken it so far off my planned outing that we’re not only in a different solar system, but another dimension. Above all though, have fun with it. It’s the time for mischief after all.

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