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…

What I’m doing now, and in the future

This is just a little mid week update to let people know what I’m up to at the moment, and what fun stuff they can expect from me in the future. Also an announcement that you can now find me not only at the RPGBA, but also the UKGMN. Any british readers/bloggers out there, get on over and see what they do.

Since I started this blog, I’ve been reading a lot of other people’s. A lot. Mainly to see what kind of stuff people like talking about, but also to differentiate myself a little as a unique blogger. Most of the stuff I read I get from a feed over at the RPGBA , which I signed up to myself. Below are a few choice selections that I keep going back to, just because they always have something on there that makes me want to stop and read the whole entry. In no way is it an exhaustive list, that would take far too long, but consider this a highlight reel. A great read for anyone running or playing in a game, or maybe even designing one from the floor up. Writes in an easy to read style, but knows how to get under the skin of a topic very well indeed. A bunch of bloggers coming together for some kick ass GMing advice. Worth registering on the site to leave comments as the other writers are great for feedback and they have a bunch of other subscribers who come back with even more cool stuff. These guys get a special mention for being not only a damned fine blog, but for offering some very helpful tips to this new blogger. I tip my hat to them, and I assure everyone reading at home, it is a fancy hat indeed, as they deserve no less. The eponymous Jack is a great blogger, and has weighed in repeatedly on the comments section of my own humble offerings. Even better, if what he wants to say is too big an idea to be fully appreciated at the foot of a blog, he will take the time to write it out in full for all of his readers. Something that I think I need to think about going forward if I want to have even a modicum of the success he’s had. More than one blogger over here, unless it’s one person writing under several names, but either way it’s worth a look. A great series recently about how to totally rethink combat in an RPG world that every budding games designer should check out. This guy does a bit of everything, but never half-hearted. From world building, to player advice, form hot topics to games reviews, everything about the hobby seems to end on this blogger’s radar.

Now onto stuff that I’m actually creating.

Just put an entry into a best villains competition over at Stuffer Shack . Please take a look, and wax lyrical in the comments section if you like it. If I win – and it will be judged by the staff over at the website, so don’t feel the need to suck up if you don’t want to – I will reward the lovely people of the bloggosphere with some further writings on the campaign that spawned those bad boys.

I have been contacted to write a book review by a fellow blogger who can be found over here . This is an unpaid review, so when it pops up, don’t expect any bias. If I love it, you’ll know that it’s based on its own merit.

I’m also in the middle of an online interview with a couple of games designers who are getting ready to put the final draft of their game together. Hopefully in time to get it up on the UK Kickstarter that should be happening soon.

A friend of mine who runs an air-softing facility has been following this blog from the get go, and liked my writing enough to approach me to do some plot writing for air-softing adventures. I had always thought air-softing was more akin to paint-balling; shoot other people – try not to get shot, but he wants a bit more of a role playing experience for the people who rock up to his place, I’m actually looking forward to doing this one quite a lot.

Also actually playing some games, well running some. Just finished the free RPG day adventure of Only War, Fantasy Flight’s W40K Imperial Guard system, and I’ll write up some stuff from that for the blog. I would love to join the beta for it, but I simply can’t afford the twenty bucks – or Sterling equivalent – to get the pack. Hoping to get a small group together to run the first D&D next pack to write up at some point too. Come the end of September I will be starting a long ass Cyberpunk 2020 campaign, but set in the world of Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan. I won’t be doing regular write ups of that, it’s just not the kind of blogging I want to write, but expect a few bits from the highlight reel, and I will link to the ongoing player write ups that any my players do.

As for future blogging, I’m building up a nice buffer at the moment in case there’s no hot button subjects I want to jump on, so the first in series on how to be a bit of a lazy GM without cutting the quality of the games you’re running went live on Monday and hopefully more will follow; some discussion on why players may feel the need on occasion to run an evil character; the fun you can have if you approach board games as a roleplaying experience, and finally; why I’m actually called Shorty, and why it is that gamers seem to attract nick-names, and why that’s no bad thing. I hope you all find some reason in all that to keep reading this pokey little blog, and help it become a pokey massive blog.

Cutting corners, not quality

One thing that has become clear in my vast month long experience of RPG blogging, is that every other GM who blogs does about twenty times the work I do in planning and running a game. That’s not to say that my games suck, I have an awful lot of people who would say otherwise. But I manage to do it without the buckets of effort that others put in. This will probably be the first of many blogs where I talk about short cuts and GMing tips that could, if you’re confident enough, take a lot of the hassle out of running your own game. To start with I’m going to talk about populating a small settlement in a way that takes less time but still looks well rounded.

I start with NPCs that players will meet. People in shops, mostly, or someone plot related who introduces themselves. These NPCs are statted in the simplest way possible, and this is a method I use with every system for any NPC that doesn’t deserve its own character sheet. The system I was using last time, so the one I will be drawing examples from, was Unhallowed Metropolis. I love this system and setting and have run games using it that have lasted years.

Before we get into their stats though, lets think about names. I like having fun with this, and do take a bit of  time to prep before each game coming up with a list of name. Last time I compiled a decent list of Lovecraftian names, and whittled out the most recognisable ones to leave me with a few sides of A4 of random men’s and women’s names. Leave a line between each name, and pick out a few at first for the NPCs that you know you’re going to need and quickly jot down a few things that will flesh them out enough to be recognizable to your players, and you, when you need to play them again. Any stat that’s different from the average, just make a quick note of it and the difference, throw in a specialty skill and you’re almost done. Next pick a quirk, either physical or social that means they’ll stand out and make a note of that too. After that, anything else you need to remember just make quick notes of, you don’t want too much to read if you’re playing the character as it slows down the flow of a game.

That leaves a bunch of other names on your list, but don’t worry they’ll get used soon enough. The village will have a bunch of other people in it, farmers, workers, kids and the elderly. 90% of them will never be needed as the players will have no reason to talk to them, so don’t worry about them until the players feel the need to find anything out about them. This works very well with imaginative players who will think of solutions you may not. Do they need someone in town who used to be in the army? You never thought of that, but twenty of the farmers are just one dimensional shadows at the moment. So go to your list, find an appropriate name, give them a stat boost and extra skill that makes sense, a quirk that would be fun to roleplay, and respond to your creative player, “yup, the barman tells you about a good old boy who comes in of an evening telling stories about his time in the Deathwatch”, and away you go.

When it come to stats, UnMet has a pretty basic set and the usual skills. Choose your human average, in this case 2 across the board, and a set of skills most people would have a level in, then one per NPC that they’re trained in and can have at level 2. Then pick a stat or two that differ from the mean, usually one up, one down, but play around with as much as you want; they’re your characters and don’t have to fit the mean if you don’t think they would. This applies to everyone in your little settlement, and takes a matter of second to make the notes next to name you’ve not used yet.

A lot of people use random tables and feel free to go for it if the idea of picking quirks out the hat during a game is a bit daunting. But my best advice would be to prep a list – or steal it from a much better prepared blogger out there – and familiarise yourself with it a little before you run the game. That way you should have in your short term memory a few ideas that you can quickly take down without it looking to our players like you’re doing it all off the roll of a dice and are instead putting a lot of thought into each decision.

I hope some of that was useful, and as soon as I think of some other ways to speed up your GMing prep, I’ll share them with everyone.