Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Horror in the Sandbox I: Learning From Failed Runs of Raggi’s Modules

I like creepy and cosmically horrific kind of stuff. Like a lot of DMs, however, I've had problems in the past with getting players to make the stupid decisions that would lead them into creepy and cosmically horrific situations. How many of you DMs can recall sessions where you designed an awesome creepfest, only to have the players (wisely) get the hell out at the first sign of weird danger? It's hard to fault players for this kind of reaction, really - I can't blame them for not wanting their characters to step into an uncontrollable situation that would likely result in death. This is especially a problem in more sandboxy campaigns, where the players always have the choice to move on. Obviously, this is less of a problem in railroads or one-shots.

It's been very interesting over the last few months to read reports of players reacting exactly like this to the new horror-themed Lamentations of the Flame Princess modules. When some experienced DMs have tried to integrate modules like Tower of the Stargazer or Death Frost Doom into ongoing campaigns the players got wise pretty fast and turned tail, either leaving the module unplayed, or forcing the DM into railroading mode. Here are some quotes:

“With the quick death of their new hireling just entering the tower, they knew that this was a deadly place. After exploring the second level of the tower, they made their way up a flight of stairs, discovering some blood trickling out of a keyhole. They checked for traps but remained uncertain about what to do next, when Wagstaff commanded Olav to try the door. Olav the Dwarf was afraid after seeing what had happened to the last guy, and declined. The porter, poor fellow, was asked and also declined. Wagstaff suggested they all draw lots, but the porter didn’t want to be included. He finally relented that he would include himself in a drawing for a large bonus sum. This was too much for Wagstaff and they decided to call off the whole business, leaving the tower!"
  - ze bulette on running Tower of the Stargazer
“They wanted nothing to do with the site, with its treasure, or with any investigations thereof. It seemed like the stupidest idea in the world to go anywhere near the place, and they only did because I railroaded them.”
  - Alexis on running Death Frost Doom

“I'm a little late to this thread, but I found that I had the same experience with The Grinding Gear. The party took one look at situation and wanted to keep on trucking.”
   - Blaise in response to Alexis’ post

“Ironically, Raggi's 3 Brides does a better job of providing the motivation/plots than his other modules. You have to work really hard to integrate his modules, almost rewriting them in terms of plot/story to make them work.”
  - ChicagoWiz in response to Alexis’ post

“The "motivation" part of the module (of all my modules, really) is intentionally vague, because the point of a module is to be integrated into the whole of a campaign, not stick out like a sore thumb...”
  - James Edward Raggi IV in response to Alexis’ post

Alexis' original post at the Tao of D&D was a stinging criticism of Death Frost Doom at many levels, but most of the post's comments dwelt on whether it was the responsibility of the DM or the module writer to provide the motivation for PCs to walk into deadly and nightmarish situations. My opinion on the matter is that, while ultimately it is the DM's responsibility to make a campaign fun and thematically compelling, if someone is going to charge money for a module they should at least provide some options for the DM to work with in terms of motivation - treasure, escape, stopping a threat, whatever... For instance, I can write an old school location-based module called Nebraska, but what's the point if there's no compelling reason to run an adventure there? I think the challenge of writing a location-based module is inventing a place that is interesting and rewarding for players to visit. The players should WANT to go there. So how do you cultivate this kind of inherent motivation while also adding horror to the mix?

I pose the question:  

How do YOU motivate players to willingly walk into weird and horrific situations?

I have some of my own playtested ideas I'll outline in a subsequent post, but I am curious to hear about experiences and insights from anyone else who has thought about this.