The abandoned mine as a role playing location

Last week I did a bit of writing on how one can improve the scare factor when running a horror game, and thought I would continue the train of thought a bit further in that direction by looking at a great place to take your players if you want them to fear for their lives; an abandoned mine. For this to be effective, you game world first has to include a society that would mine, and for sake of ease all the information presented here will be based on real world post-mechanisation mining, as this is something I know a little bit about after interning one summer at the English National Coal-mining Museum.

There are hazards by the bucket load once you start working underground, even more so when you’re hundreds of feet below the surface. So many in fact, that I doubt I will even have to touch on some of the supernatural shenanigans that had my players stiff with fright last time I took them down a mine. A huge threat to consider, since it’s a slow creeping death, is oxygen supply. That far underground, there’s nothing producing oxygen (we’ll get to the other gases in a bit), so the characters will need to carry their own – in back pack respirators – or make absolutely certain that the ventilation in the mine is working. Although the GM can ask for an easy repair roll to get the fans turning, the fun comes with all the doors that need to be the correct combination of open and closed to keep the air going where the adventurers need to be. This can be a great little puzzle, and if they get it wrong, the first time they’ll notice their mistake is when they start getting light headed, far away from the daylight. There may be a point when you decide to knock realism on the head here; it would be almost impossible to change the doors from inside the mine, and totally impossible to move them by hand. Vacuums are created when dealing with the air pressure necessary to keep fresh air pumping that far and that deep, and if a player gets caught between a door that wants to close and the door’s frame (due to another door getting destroyed for instance) they will be crushed to death or have limbs severed in seconds. Fun, huh?

As mentioned, there’s plenty of other gases down there. Stuff that could lead to suffocation or massive fireballs of death. I’ve found it’s best to be fair to your players when it comes to this, as just walking down the wrong passage could be death in a matter in a seconds from suffocation. Be fair, but don’t feel the need to go too easy on them. If they’re going down a mine, they should be warning signs everywhere about the gases they could encounter, so if they choose not to take precautions, that’s their own problem. What they should expect to find are Davy Lamps. These are handy bits of kit that contain a small flame that can be watched to show differences in oxygen levels or the presence of fire damp etc., that they will want to keep a very close eye on. There are more high tech ways of doing this these days, but we are talking very recent inventions, and they’re far from quick to learn to use, or to use when you’re down a mine. Best left in the hands of professionals really.

Now that the characters are down there, and breathing safely; they’re still far from safe. As mentioned, flammable gas is a big risk. Nothing that could cause a spark was allowed down into a mine at the pit head. The miners were very careful about this indeed, but would your players be? If they have guns, then letting them off just once could be the death of them. A horribly painful, drawn out death. Firearms aren’t the only source of sparks though, so keep a close eye on the characters, and watch what they’ve brought down below. And don’t feel like you have to TPK for one slip up; if the group are spread in a line, only one needs to feel the full lick of flame, and even that doesn’t need to be fatal. One would think that it happening once would be enough to make sure that they’re considerably more careful in future. This next bit probably goes without saying, but fire needs oxygen to burn, and since that’s already a problem in a mine, just imagine what could happen if a lot of it gets quickly burnt away?

Fire brings us neatly onto another huge problem; collapse. Even in modern mines with pneumatic roof supports, the sheer amount of rock being moved can bring down miles of tunnels in one collapse. In an abandoned mine, the risk is even greater, as the supports will have been left without any maintenance for as long at the mine has been left empty. The older the mine, the more likely that it’ll come down when disturbed, and this can be all kinds of fun and terror. Once again, don’t kill the lot of them – unless you’re bored – but have them stuck behind the rubble. This becomes an interesting survival situation as air, water, and food all become very important. Don’t get too worried about the Chilean miners and having the players down there for months; there should always be a secondary draft that will allow the characters to get out. This will mean walking the entire way back up on a one third incline, once they’ve found a way to it of course.

Now, I also had some fun with ghosts when I subjected my players to a Victorian era mine, so feel free to add in anything you like to these little snippets, and if you want to get an idea of just what it’s like down there, find a mining museum that offers underground tours, and wait for the bit when they tell everyone to turn their lights off…

Some advice on running a Horror RPG

This is not going to be a masterclass on how to do it right every time, but more a look at the things you can do as a GM to make the game as memorable an experience as possible for your players, along with a few things that you might want to avoid.

Before we get into the advice I just want to say that the horror game I’m talking about running isn’t a splatter-punk/zombie survival kill fest kind of game, although it could very well include elements of any of those things. No, what I like to run are games of creeping terror. Games that stay in your players’ minds and make them nervous to perform even the simplest action while playing. Think about some of your favourite horror movies and how terrified the characters are when all they want to do is close the refrigerator or check on a strange noise. That’s what I want my players to be like when I’m done with them; shivering, in a fetal position and cursing my name.

One of the most fundamental ways of getting this response from them, is letting the players know from the start that they’re going to be playing a horror game. If everyone’s on the same page, it means there’ll be less mood breaking chatter and horse-play coming from your players; something that would be totally totally understandable if they don’t know what kind of atmosphere you’re trying to achieve. If they know what’s expected of them with regard to the genre of the game, they’re going to be more likely to stay in character and respond to in game threats like they’re lives actually depended on it.

Another consideration is the size of your group. This comes from my own experience of trying to keep the intimate ambiance needed for a horror game with a group of seven gamers. Ideally I would try to keep the group at four players, and absolutely no more than six. Smaller games are great, and I really don’t think there’s a minimum number for a horror game. With your group set up, it’s now time to look at the place you game.

I have in the past gone all out on the room dressing for my horror games, but the simplest stuff to get right is also the most important. I know not everyone has as much control over their gaming space as they would like, so take this next bit of advice as what to do in an ideal world. You’re going to want a smallish space, ideally with the players all pretty close together. Intimacy is very much what you should be going for here. Keep the lights low, as this helps just a little bit, but make sure everyone can still see their character sheet and dice. Keep noise to minimum, and if you’re going to use a soundtrack, put some thought into it. One of my favourites for this at the moment is a band named AKLO, who do some great Lovecraft inspired music. Suno))) are also worth a look, as they manage to put together some of the best blackened creeping drone music out there. Maybe not the kind of stuff you can dance to, but it does its job of creeping out the players very well indeed.

One last thought on the room and atmosphere, and this is something I’ve done myself and seen done very well by other GMs too; get the group to sit facing each other, while you as GM sits apart. Make sure everyone can still hear you, but that they will have to keep the noise down a little to catch your disembodied tones coming in from he darkness away from the table. This may not seem like much, but if you can pull it off, it’s well worth the effort.

When it comes to running the game, there’s a few little bits you can do to heighten the tension and thus the fear. First, never worry about splitting the party. Isolation is a great companion to fear. If you do this, impose a strict ‘no OOC chat’ rule around the table, but ideally you should occasionally split the actual group up. If you do this though, try to keep moving between the players, as you don’t want tension you’re building to become boredom. If each player can still hear hushed conversation, the creepy music, or some unexplained noises, you should buy yourself a bit of time though.

Pacing is important in any game, but when it comes to a horror RPG, even the speed that you talk at can be used to ratchet up the horror level. Start slow, and quiet, but shift up when you need to, increasing volume and pitch, but never drop the scare on them when the players are expecting it. If you have the right players, you can even use them to help out occasionally. Dropping a note to a player you can trust, reading, ‘scream when I say the word “door”‘, and then waiting for it to catch the other players unaware is just priceless.

That’s just a few of the things I do to help keep my players gripping the edge of their seats, and since I’ve played more than my fair share of horror games as well as GM them, watch this space for advice for players soon. If you’ve anything you want to add to the above, or you just want share some stories of your own scary horror role playing games, then sound off in the comments box.

Revenge as a game hook.

So, the players have broken up a major crime ring/necromancy lair or some such, and fancy cutting loose and celebrating. This of course would be a great time for the kingpin/necromancer NPC to strike back! That is at least according to every film made ever about such things. But would they? Really?

What’s just happened is a small bunch of people have done possibly millions of dollars/gold pieces worth of damage to his organisation, and the costs still haven’t been counted for if they decide to restart the operation. What profit is there in going after those people? They have already proven themselves to be highly capable and resourceful killers who it would seem foolish to annoy further.

This post is inspired by the soon to be released film Taken 2, and the comic book series Sin City: Hell and Back by Frank Miller, touching on how the idea of revenge as a plot device could be handled in an RPG. A lot of what you take from this blog comes from the type of game you’re going to be playing. I’m not talking about sci-fi versus fantasy, but high adventure/Hollywood movie action versus dark and gritty/life on the line kind of games. If you’re rocking some high adventure kind of game, then you’re going to have players who are nigh invincible, especially if all the bad guys have to throw at them are mooks by the bucket load.

In this instance, I would advise sticking to using revenge as a motivator for the characters. It may be tricky to think of something that will drive all of the party to action. If the group are already well established this could be easier, as they may already share common goals and associates that could be compromised by the bad guys. In this kind of story the avenging angels (read:player characters) will almost always succeed, but the reverse is never true. Boss bad guys will look at the damage wrought on them by a group of heroes and send wave after wave of increasingly tougher mooks against them, all of whom will die without being much a challenge to the PCs. Only in the final act will the party face a real challenge other than attrition, usually in form of a right hand man, who’s been itching for a chance to take them out from the start. Even this will be an easily surmountable obstacle that will open the way to final Boss who will be the only real challenge before the thirst for revenge is satisfied.

This kind of thing is certainly fun, but the final speech from the head bad guy in the comic book mentioned above is far more realistic,

Revenge is a loser’s game. There’s no percentage in it. All that matters is profit… and power. …As for Wallace… let the man be on his way – and prey we never see his like again”.

After watching the trailer for taken 2, all I could think was, Why the hell don’t more bad guys think like that?!

Not every band of heroes is a mook grinding machine though, and if your game lends itself to more realistic combat, then it’s much more likely that the threat of revenge from a powerful criminal consortium, or even dark wizard, would be something worth worrying about. Handled well it will drive the players away from their safety zone, away from friends and allies, and will make them watch over their shoulder every second. It will take some thought on the GM’s part to give a sense of genuine peril without just killing someone,but there are plenty of ways to do it. My personal favourite is to play the first round of bad guys that are sent after them as way more clever and well organised/disciplined than the players would expect from a random group of NPCs.

Expect them to know how to use the terrain; know that trying to take out the PCs in a single rushed charge will do very little, but whittling away at them while keeping themselves as safe as possible makes a lot more sense. They will also know when to withdraw from a fight, and know to keep an eye on their own resources, not wasting anything while doing their job, but doing what they can to reduce the party’s supplies. It’s also a foolish evil overlord indeed who is stupid enough to send out only the one team. Don’t feel the need to swamp them with everything all at once, but use a second team to stymie the PCs as they seek to get themselves squared away after the first attack. Markets or inns that they would run to in times of trouble will be nothing but scorched remains, or closed to them, the owners fearing threats of violence for helping them in any way.

This all sounds very much like the characters are eventually going to die, or just stay on the run, fleeing for their lives for as long as the bad guy keeps his attention focused on them. There are a few ways to combat this, but if you have a strong group of role players, I’m sure they could figure a way out of it that their GM would never see. The opportunity to turn the tables on the  bad guy should be presented though, just to keep them interested.

Maybe one of an attack party over plays their hand and could be captured and ‘persuaded’ to give up some goods on the antagonist? I’m not going to do all the work for you, but you see where this could go. As long as nothing that happens is easy, and the threat from the bad guy remains constant, then there’s a lot of fun to be had with the consequences of your players’ actions, even if they were carried out from the moral high ground and especially if they thought they were doing the right thing. Eventually though, they will want to take the fight to the big bad, and this should be a hard slog indeed,but still a workable option. To deny the players closure after putting them through so much is just plain mean.

So, I hope that’s been useful, but if you have any ideas of your own, or some examples from play that you want to share, sound off in the comments and let us all know.

RPG Blog Carnival – What’s in your backpack.

This is my first attempt at a Blog Carnival post, and the hosts this month are the lovely people over at Game Knight Reviews. The question deals with what one would expect to have in a backpack. This could be a real life backpack or one from a game you’re either currently playing or have played. Since I’m not doing much playing at the moment, apart from a few mini adventures with pre-genned characters, I don’t have that much control over my possessions apart from what’s gained through play. So just for fun, I’m going to rock my zombie survival pack first, and then take a look at a game I’ll be running in just over a month and what people should reasonably expect to have about their person when running the edge in Cyberpunk 2020.

First off, the zombie plan. I have put some thought into this, and have even checked if all these things will fit into the back pack I use the most. They don’t. This is because I’m a cyclist and the back pack I use on my back is small and light , with only a few essentials in it. The bike is a very important part of my survival plan and as such I have a pannier rack fitted over my back tire and two bags that strap onto that. All my stuff fits nicely into those.

  1. Water purification tablets
  2. Flint and steel firelighter kit
  3. metal water bottle
  4. Camel pack
  5. Wind up flashlight
  6. Wind up radio
  7. hatchet
  8. Survival knife
  9. Basic fishing kit (pocket size)
  10. 18″ crowbar (wrecking bar)
  11. Rabbit snares
  12. box of matches
  13. 3 days change of basic clothes (all tight fitting)
  14. Waterproof light jacket and trousers
  15. two man tent
  16. sleeping bag
  17. mallet
  18. Puncture repair kit
  19. cycle maintenance multi-tool
  20. OS waterproof map of the area.
  21. Tin/bottle opener

There may be other stuff people think I should add. Please feel free to make suggestions; I still have a bit of space.

Now onto the cyberpunk!

  1. Back pack? I’m sorry, but do you realise how expensive this suit is? And you want me to ruin its lines with two straps over my shoulders? No no no, I may carry a briefcase on occasion, but it must be bullet proof and colour matched to the suit. Inside that? A laptop and basic data suite would be enough I think. I carry my life in my pockets. A wallet with a trauma team card and the ID I need to get places. Maybe a few hundred EB to see me through in the kind of dives that don’t have a cred-chip reader. Oh, and my phone. I understand the trend for on board cyber-telecommunications, but really, these days phones can do so much more than let you talk to people. A weapon? You’ll only find out what I’m carrying and where, the hard way. Anything else I need, I buy…

To be an archer

After watching the British Archery team go out in the first round of the Olympics, it made me realise just how much we have fallen in the world rankings in the last seven hundred years. So, presented here are my thoughts on the bowman in a role playing game. Enjoy.

The following tips and advice are all based on widely perceived historical fact, so feel free to use them, whilst I take some pleasure in using my History& Heritage degree for the first time since graduating over a year ago. The aim of this blog is to make being a ranged combatant in any medieval like setting a bit more interesting than standing at the back loosing arrows while staying out of trouble.

First let us consider one of the finest examples of a bowman from the medieval period, the English warbow user. This isn’t idle speculation, or a sense of national pride (why should I be proud of something I had nothing o do with, just because it was done by people born within a certain geographical proximity?), but is actually true. It wasn’t naturally the case though, it was actually a law that made the common Englishman so proficient. All males of a certain age were required to practice for several hours a week, giving them the barrel chested build one needs when trying to pull a big ass longbow. And I mean big. Taller than a man kind of big. One point of note is that they weren’t trained to hit targets as much as you would think. Ignore Robin Hood and the archery butts with round targets; that was very much what the better bred shot at whenever they lowered themselves to take part in this activity. No, what they were trained to do was pick a range and land an arrow in it. At the time this was key because they would be firing in volley and wanting to concentrate the arrows as much as was possible. Since most archers in roleplaying games aren’t loosing arrows with 200 hundred of their mates, we shan’t spend any longer talking about that.

Lets get to the good stuff. Why use a warbow instead of a crossbow? Sure, a crossbow is a devastating weapon, designed to work well over long distances, without losing much of its stopping power. It was also designed to be used from withing a castle shooting out, with a small team of men to cock and load it. For a quick reason as to why you shouldn’t rely on them out in the open, just look at what happened at the battle of Crecy. The rain plays merry hell with a bow string, and a warbow can be unstrung when required, with the string coiled up and put under a hat. It’s not exactly easy to re-string in a hurry – even the men who used them all the time and were built like oxen couldn’t do it that quickly – but a combat round or two is well worth it if you don’t want your arrows to fall very short indeed. If anything did go wrong with the bow, or for that matter the string or arrows, don’t fret. Due to the nature of using a bow, it should be safe to assume you know how to repair, replace or just make new bits, provided you have access to basic resources. If your GM disagrees, I’ll have a word.

On top of the basics, most bowmen would also carry around molds for arrow heads, and know how to melt down and reform metal to make new ones. This fact isn’t probably that important, unless you’re playing with a GM who likes to punish careless archers for missing their targets and instead sending arrows over the horizon. No, the thing to take advantage of here, is the type of molds you should expect to have:

Regular. Nothing too special about these, but just remember that they’re all barbed. Only way to get them out is to push them through. Nasty right? It gets better. If you’re going to be loosing more than a couple of arrows, take them out of your quiver or satchel and put a decent handful point down into the ground. Not only will this be quicker to grab them, but also give the arrowhead a nice coating of dirt. Just in case they survive the shot, the infected wound will kill them. This works for all arrow types by the way.

Bodkin. Armour piercing. Don’t get too cocky though, you’ll need to have your target within fifty feet and hit straight on. If you do though, they punch through a breast plate and right into the person wearing it.

Broadhead. Mainly used as a horse stopper, as most other arrows don’t do that much damage to the half ton of muscle that is a war horse.

To make it easier to swap arrow heads, and more of a pain to get them out of wound, they’re not stuck fast to the shaft. Simply spit down the join, then push it on to the arrow with a twist to keep it as secure as it needs to be. A simple twist and pull will take it off again meaning you can change arrow heads in a hurry if you need to.

And one final point; never rely on just your bow. Have a short sword or long dagger about you too. Sometimes an arrow will drop a chap, but not finish him off, and if they’re still wearing armour, you want something that get into the gaps between the plates (armpits are the best if you can get nice and close). And of course it wouldn’t kill you to get the blade of your weapon nice and dirty too, just to make sure it will kill the bugger you’re sticking it into.

I hope you all have some fun with that, and please feel free to show off about the cool stuff you’ve done with a bow in your own game. Next time, we discuss crossbows, and ask why they’re never as deadly in games as they are in real life.