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.


  1. The trick is to give them a personal stake in the location. To make them want to go there.

    Perhaps the best way of doing this is to look through your campaign notes or players back-stories to find an NPC they really care about. It doesn't even have to be a love interest or family member. It could be an NPC in possession of vital information they need to reach a personal goal.

    As for why the NPC ended up there in the first place? Well, off the top of my head:
    * The NPC was kidnapped by a villain to lure the characters to the location (cliche but it works)
    * The NPC was possessed by a demonic being contained in an artefact brought home by the PC who cares most about the NPC
    * The NPC's ship/carvan/magical mcguffin was destroyed in an ambush or natural disaster. The NPC was forced to seek refuge in the only shelter for miles around -the Dungeon.

    The secret it to pick an NPC who the players (not just the characters) care enough about to not only venture into these hell-cursed places, but to actually stay there till they find the boy/girl/construct/marshmallow of doom or whatever.

    As a final thought: it doesn't even have to be an NPC. It could be an actual item the PC's need to defeat a major campaign foe. Such as an Arrow of Dragon slaying said to be found in the ruins and such like.

  2. In the preliminary thoughts I have been having about making a module for Errant, I was thinking about going with a "Gold Rush" kind of effect to encourage travel to one specific location. The PCs hear about someone going to this place, coming out with a LOAD of money, and then retiring in luxury or setting up their own kingdom/duchy/county/etc.

  3. I hate to say that railroading is an option, but think of how characters in movies or lit would end up in similar situations. Sometimes there's little choice but to enter the cave of destiny. I'll take the (oversimplified) example of the Goonies.

    Mikey and co. are looking for treasure to save their homes--this is really the only option available to them to raise the kind of cash needed to stave off eviction--so there's your overall motivation/goal.

    As far as the trigger to getting them to enter the underworld? They ventured into the basement thinking there wasn't a threat they couldn't escape. Once they got down there, they were basically trapped with only one way out--down into the tunnels. So the only way to escape is to lift the grate and get moving. It also helps that the Fratellis are basically on their heels.

    Railroadish? Perhaps. But it works in the context of the story--and that's really the key. A little bit of "hurry up or you're going to be toast" (escape/chase) seems perfectly acceptable to get them going in the right direction.

  4. I am not part of the OSR movement, nor have I ever read any LotFP-supplements, but I think this applies to RPGs in general.

    First off, if you as a GM are integrating something horrible in a more traditional setting, you need to take great care in how you do it. That is a GM's responsibility, through and through.

    Secondly, before you do something like this, some meta-gaming may be in order. As a GM, you've reached some sort of agreement with your players as to what kind of setting you are playing in. If you're going to stray from that, it might be both fair and prudent to talk it over with the group before you do it.

    When it comes to the writer, yes, I agree that it is his responsibility to provide hooks and plugs that gives the GM something to work with. Otherwise, write a novel or a play.

    As to the first item, that of GM-responsibility. You are the one who presents the setting to the players. Hence you need to take care as to what you put into it. There's nothing wrong with apace-ships in a fantasy-setting, if you can present it in a way that makes sense. It might still put your players off their game if they don't like that kind of stuff mixed with their elves and orcs.

    So, as far as I'm concerned, the buck stops with the GM, but a crappy module is a crappy module.

  5. I think it comes down to what kind of game the players want to play. If they want to play in that sort of module then no railroading is needed. If they don't want to deal with it, then either don't use the module, or leave it for NPCs to deal with. Once the threat is dealt with by the NPCs, then let the players hear about the wealth, fame, and glory the NPCs acquired. This may give them pause in the future to not avoid these situations, modules, locations, or whatever. In fact if they were asked to help, and balked, or quit fairly quickly, then their reputation will suffer. I feel that railroading is always a bad idea.

  6. Zanazaz, I think has got it.

    But to add to his statement, if the PCs decline the module, in one way or another, then just throw something else at them. It's your job, as the DM to throw hooks at the players--allowing them to choose their own fate. Its balance of risk and reward. If the PCs feel the risk isn't worth the reward (either in game materials or enjoyment of the adventure), then throw another hook at them.

  7. I think my response is a mix of Brian and Zanazaz. It would be pretty rare for players in my games to just coincidentally stumble upon a dungeon-type location. They're going to be hearing about it one way or another if they're going to end up there.

    I would try to make it as compelling as possible for them to decide to go, but it would still be up to them. There would probably be multiple opportunities, or hooks, available.

    If they decide not to do something, chances are good that somebody will still go through with it. If they hear about it later, they still have the option of giving it a go in case another group left it partially undone, or perhaps they could seek out the group and either team with them or challenge them.

    The trick as a DM, really, is being able to think on your feet. If you figure out a, b, and c, you can bet they'll attempt z. Thus, you have to figure out the consequences of their actions on the spur of the moment, and.. [digs in the box for another cliche] and roll with the punches!

  8. I ran Death Frost Doom. Its location was on the players' map from the very start of the campaign, and they knew it was bad news, but they couldn't resist going there for long. It was their own curiosity that got them; I didn't have to do a thing.

  9. My players just concluded the Grinding Gear, and eventually we'll be working in Death Frost Doom - I have some practical experience.

    My setting is presented as a wilderness sandbox; the players know they are free to go anywhere. I have a few 'Raggi sites' already seeded and rumored into the background. At one point, there were some thief-adventurer types they wanted to question, the party learned they went to a nearby ruined village; the players also learned the village housed this old inn, The Grinding Gear, and local folklore indicated the owner had buried a vast sum in his tomb beneath the inn.

    That's really all it took - a player-led reason to go, and some rumors of money. I was prepared for them to abandon the site a number of times, but through a sense of pride, stubbornness, or what have you, they persevered. It would have been fine to leave.

    Because Death Frost Doom is much more ominous, I'll be seeding rumors about a key campaign MacGuffin ahead of time; they might even need a patron to hire them. That's not a place to go lightly and the prize will need to be worthy.

    If you're going to run a site-based module like Grinding Gear or DFD, you have to be prepared for the players to leave. Otherwise where is the free will, the choice? And yes - if that happens and the DM wanted the players to persevere, I lay the failure at the DM's feet - he needed to give them a compelling (in-story) reason to go there in the first place. Raggi's stuff isn't typical modules with hooks, events, plots and quests. They are dangerous and evocative adventure sites - if the DM can't or won't integrate the location and tailor adventure hooks to his group, I would pass on them.

    I have the play notes over in my DF campaign journal, if interested: http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=26&t=45047&start=0

  10. For me, Sandbox situations involve no motivations other than the players own motivations on exploring here and there. They look at a map and decide to go west or they decide to go north for whatever reason they created. So what can a DM do to put them in a situation that will essentially either force the players to take on the dungeon / location? I can think of four tactics offhand though I'm sure others can think of more:

    1. Trapped
    2. Catch-22
    3. Compelled
    4. Hope (either false or true)

    1. Once the players have comitted to going someplace, they find the way back is no longer around. For example if the PC's want to go through a valley to the other side, they don't know that the valley at the other end dead ends, but the path they took suddenly becomes blocked by something as mundane as an avalanche to more sinister ala Ravenloft like the path completely gone or they keep finding themselves turned around back into to the valley, or something along the lines of an ambush that led to the collapse / blockage of the path.

    Using this is good for low-level parties who have limited forms of movement.

    2. Another way to get the PC's to go in is that the alternative choice will seem worse. The PC's are exploring an area, but end up chased by terrible and powerful enemies, hunted by roaming demons / a dragon / undead, whatever. They see the ruin / tower etc that will be the start of the module. Player knowledge will dictate logic that the unknown is a safer bet against the known. If the players know that they cannot hope to kill the red dragon outside, they'll have to deal with whatever is inside as their best chance.

    3. A third option is that the PC's trigger a compulsion or curse near the structure and they will reason that going in and exploring has the chance of finding the means of getting rid of it.

    Another way is that during their explorations they come across a scroll / magic item / relic that gives them terrible nightmares / visions. They realize that they are dying or cursed and must journey to the module location to deal with it, the closer they get, the better they feel. They will feel perfectly normal while inside the module location.

    4. The PC's must have a sense of hope / faith despite the obvious dangers. They meet a cleric who has the gift of prophecy and gives them a vision that they will be great heroes at the location. The PC's believe in this whether the prophecy is true, false, or contingent. However, they must come away with the belief that they will win the day, regardless of what happens. When they actually visit the horrible creepy place, despite whatever happens, those that are surviving will still believe they are the ones who will carry the day.

  11. Neither as a player or a GM do I like fiendish death-traps. I'm not into the gaming to kill player's or to have my player's killed. Mystery I like, and mysteries with deadly elements are fine, but TPK is not a goal I've ever aspired to.

    Player's oughta do something because their player's have a reason to do so that makes sense, ideally, not because of the metagame reason of "it's the adventure." And it's the GM's job do dangle those potential threads in front of the players until they bite at one.

  12. Part of the problem was the presentation of these modules. At least one was a deliberate railroad - "Guess what, you're going to go here so I can review this" - which players will naturally rebel against.

    Other times, either the players know it's a third-party module up front, or the content clues them in, and they realize the style is much different than their party is used to.

    The best way to integrate one of these modules would be to disguise the fact that it's a module from the players, and have hints about it sitting around for a long time beforehand.

    The other thing to keep in mind is that it may be a massive change of pace, and if your players aren't used to really nasty traps, they may be really put off by it. In which case, these aren't for your group, no matter how well written the individual adventures are.

  13. Thanks for all the interesting and thoughtful feedback! It seems like there are two main aspects to the comments: (1) Metagaming factors, such as if players simply like horror or not, or if players will react differently if they KNOW the DM is running a killer module; and (2) effective types of plot hooks that would motivate players to step into danger. All very useful stuff!

  14. It really takes very little work for an imaginative DM to integrate another's work into your own campaign. It's a very simple task of motivating the characters by whatever method works best.
    However, the better question might be "Why on Earth are you having to motivate a group of players and their characters to explore the unknown, battle foes, and acquire treasure"? For the most part, players who have capable characters who avoid "dangerous" adventure locations really need to think about a nice safe game of Monopoly instead...some of the reviews above were laughable in the attempts of the players to run away like little girls when faced with "danger"......grow a pair, jeez.

  15. For the most part, players who have capable characters who avoid "dangerous" adventure locations really need to think about a nice safe game of Monopoly instead...

    Hopefully you will concede there's a difference between adventurousness and foolhardiness. In my experience it's way more fun to DM clever and careful players than players who act like idiots and get themselves killed all the time.

    It's probably fair to say that the danger:reward ratio is way off-balance in the modules being discussed. Or at least the players had no way of assessing this ratio (i.e. insufficient motivation). If someone has spent 20 or 30 hours developing a character, it's not fair to expect them to play recklessly with no promise of significant reward.

    Incidentally, this post spurred a discussion at the LotFP forum where giantbat and Raggi also criticize players for being timid. Ultimately, though, I don't think it's very constructive to blame players. What's the point in talking about how players should act? Player personality is the one thing DMs and modules writers can't really control... thank goodness!

  16. @Cyclopeatron

    I agree. Nothing frustrates me more than to put in a lot of work and effort into a character only for it to get derailed in hopeless encounters. I found that when I played in the RPGA during Living Greyhawk, there were more than a fair share of modules designed to create TPKs instead of just fun. The amount of time and effort to put into an RPGA along with the risk of death is a very high price. The most notable example was that there was an encounter in which 4th level PC's face against a CR 22 undead. While the module stipulated that the PC's weren't supposed to fight the CR 22 creature and do something else (which triggered the real fight at a more equal level), the DM presentation and box text was poorly executed that you cannot help but feel otherwise. That was the one time where I metagamed that encounter and had my character flee instead of fighting the creature.

  17. The more I read the comments the more realize it's not the fault of Raggi or the GM but the damm players. A harden Paladin who's faced the undead is probably not going to chicken out and tell his comrades "lets get outta here" because he sees some blood tricking out of a keyhole, but the player( i.e the guy sitting safely on a couch or at a table with his friends) probably would as he' seen enough horror films to know you should NEVER open the door and now he is living out that situation in his imagination and doesn't want to face it--it's TOO scary for him. lol!

  18. Raggi isn't the first marketer to blame the customer.

  19. Could be, But you gotta admit that it sounded like your session didn't go well as planned--and maybe- you could of had more fun with it.

    Afterall, just knowing the players are scared of the place , I would for fun plan on anytime the PC's are traveling near the mountainside to describe seeing the gravemarkers sticking out of the ground or maybe seeing old man Zeke off in the distance planting some one and wave to them as they ride by, flashing that rotted tooh grin of his..

    I'll admit, none of these little GM antics are necessarily made to explore the module but i doesn't need to as it help" enhance" the sessions and make the time your playing a memorable one.

  20. I've never had a group back down. This does not make sense to me. Why even play then?

    I've always done weird and nightmare stuff as DM. I have many of Raggi's inspirations in my life. My players eat it up.

  21. To me it's not so much motivating them to go there, that's easy, but having the module/dungeon set up so they would think it makes sense to stay.

    The problem with Raggi's modules is gotcha traps combined with over the top horrorificness that screams get the F out.

    Raggi's stuff might make a good horror movie but most old school players don't follow the horror movie tropes, i.e. they don't do stupid shit. They don't split the party, they don't touch bleeding doors (except with a 10' pole), when they hear the evil theme music they run, they scout and don't let themselves get funneled, etc.

    And if there is too much senseless stuff, there is no room for superior play, your just trying to read the illogical mind of the module designer.

    The only old school motivation that would work on such modules is rumors of large treasure plus actually finding some great stuff early (e.g., magic items) to encourage you to take the risk, even if it was foolish.

    You certainly can't take henchmen with you, no sane henchman would enter these modules as any old school DM would have them refusing to be the next meat puppet.

    I think Raggi has been watching too much Dethklok.

  22. This comment has been removed by the author.

  23. Well, Henchmen--just like players who run supposedly tough and fearless adventures--get scared too. Hence why there's rules to see if they'll stick along with the adventuring party.

    It's obvious DFD is written for the old schooler in mind, but it's not meant to be a traditional D&D module like Keep on the Borderland or Village of Homlet. Now I do agree there's some things within it that most GM's might want to change such as one potential TPK, that although fits quirte well in Raggi's " weird fantasy ' setting, it's as bad as Godzilla waking up and destroying the local countryside. None the less, even with with something that over-the-top, if you have ay ounce of creativity as a GM, you going to find a substitute and and scale things down to make it fit the way you want to--not every door dose/ or has to bleed.

    Maybe if your the type of GM who likes to run traditional games and have a turnkey dungeon ready to go, DFD's probably isn't made for you. But for guys who like good ideas sprinkled about in a module made to be reworked to your hearts desire, it certainly is worth it-at least for myself.

  24. I ran DFD, and my players left about halfway through after a key PC died. To be fair, that was the first PC death of the entire campaign, so I don't blame the party for fleeing, but I also think the atmospherics of that module had them on edge as soon as they ascended the mountain. I see that "fear factor" as a good thing, though, and thanks to an ongoing storyline involving an item they removed from the DFD site, they may not be finished with the place yet! But I will NOT railroad them back there.

    As for player motivation in general, I am with Dangerous Brian -- raid the character's backstories! Find out what their own intrinsic (player-generated) motivations are, then hook those into the plot of the module at hand.

  25. As one of Carter's players in the above mentioned scenario (which I now call Death First Room), I can say that the consequences of taking an item from the place has pushed us to consider taking the stupid thing back there. We ended up in the short term getting rid of it another way, but maybe not for good, and we might get continually screwed until we go back. That wouldn't seem like railroading to me, because I think we'd still have choices about how we approach it. (This falls under Yong's "Compelled" notion above.)

    As for Raggi blaming the players (Alexis), I never read the LotFP forum posts, but he repeatedly says in his weird fantasy rules and elsewhere that players SHOULD be wary of going into places that scream evil and death. There is a tension, however, between his attempts to have introductory material (e.g., Weird Fantasy RPG is aimed at neophytes), and low-level material, which aren't the same. DFD is suitable (supposedly anyway) for low-level characters run by experienced players. It's not an introductory module. On the other hand, Tower of the Stargazer is an intro module, but the lesson it's explicitly designed to teach is: you will have characters killed; low level characters that do foolish things will die; this module will teach you what a few foolish things are; and it will probably kill some characters to do so.


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