Balancing Act VI: Props

Props have numerous purposes. They assist with immersion, provide additional information, make for fascinating clues, and keep players interested. It’s one thing to be told about the journal that you find, it’s another thing to have an excerpt to read and hold.

Taste.  Food can increase immersion if it fits with with the theme or mood of the game. Tea and cucumber sandwiches provide a mood different from Mountain Dew and Salt & Vinegar crisps. One would work well for a 1920s investigation game, the others would be perfect for a cyberpunk meetup at a hacker’s home. You could even hand out the treats in game as your NPC. It’s a great way to get the player’s to drop their guard and potentially partake of poisoned drink so long as you point out that what is drunk out of character is also drunk in character.

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Balancing Act V: Playing Environment

The typical image of a gaming group is of a group of friends dressed in casual wear, sitting around a well-lit dining table or a card table on comfortable chairs, drinking Mountain Dew and eating doritoes. This comforting scene of friendship and domesticity doesn’t really lend itself to immersion in a horror game. So, what can you do about it?

Physical Location.
Change it up. You could game in a cramped and leaky shed during a rain storm (who needs audio files?) or in a musty old garage in the dead of winter with nothing but a space heater and some blankets. You could game outside under the stars by the river on a picnic blanket. You can gather around an old desk, seated on uncomfortable chairs or overturned milk crates. You could even just change around your usual room so people are sitting in different spots or the tables are arranged in a new configuration.

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The Rule of Three

Have you ever been running a game and realised that your beloved clues have been overlooked, mislaid and forgotten? In a tabletop game you can at least draw attention to them through prolonged description or by providing them with a physical handout. But in a LARP, it’s a lot harder to guide attention (though a fancy prop will help) and even if they are seen, remembered and analysed, they may only be seen by maybe half of the players, if you’re lucky. And in an average group of twenty plus player characters, you’ll want more chances to reach people.

So consider the Rule of Three.

For every piece of vital information you put into the game, you give three possible encounters with it.  Ideally each encounter will give a slightly different spin on it, or provide slightly more (and different) information on it, so that those who manage to find all three clues don’t feel gypped.  In a tabletop game, you might choose to drop the third clue if the players well and truly have it (so they don’t feel hit over the head with it) while in a LARP you’ll just have to hope for the best.

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Cognitive Load in Games

People’s brains can only hold so much information at any one time. This informational capacity is impacted by a low of factors including health, emotional state, hunger, stress and dehydration. Overload this, and people’s brains start to fry. Not physically, but in a confused grumpy kind of way.

Now this isn’t to say we should avoid having a high cognitive load in our games.  That would be silly.  Some people are attracted to solving puzzles and coming up with solutions or just love lore!  And some of the most popular tabletop games have entire books full of mechanics to remember (like Dungeons & Dragons).  What it does mean is to be mindful of the cognitive load requirements of your game and how they can impact on people.

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10 Ways Props Add To Your Game

I’ve always been a big fan of props and have strived to make them wherever possible, in both tabletop games and in LARP. It’s part of why I absolutely adore Call of Cthulhu games because some of their props are truly stunning.

There are so many great things that props can do for your game! Here are just a few examples of the ways they can enhance things.

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Encouraging Players to try a New Game

While some players are eager to try new games, others are pretty happy with what they’ve got and don’t really want to try anything new. There are new rules to learn, new techniques required to succeed, and they just not be jazzed about the genre. So what can you do when you’re really excited about trying a new game and one, or more, of your players aren’t?

Firstly, sit down and have a chat with all of your players both individually and as a group about why you want to run the game.  Tell them what excites you about it and how long you’ve been thinking about it.  Most players will be sympathetic if there’s a game you’ve been yearning to run for years even if they have no personal interest in it.

Once they understand your enthusiasm, find out what they think about the game you’re offering and what kind of game they prefer.  See if they’re willing to at least try the game and offer to let them play without having to learn any of the rules.  Let them know some of the most useful techniques in that style of game so that they can feel confidant playing it.  You want to set the entry barrier as low as you can.

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Hook: The Bizarre Mystery

Something happens … but the players can’t be sure just what it means. Perhaps they receive a mysterious letter addressed to a previous owner and have to find out who they are and what it’s about. Perhaps they find themselves with blood on their hands and have to figure out how that body got there (akin to the Sudden Event but far more slow-paced).

The mystery hook requires active participation on behalf of the characters because their enemies aren’t (yet) looking into them and so if they persistently ignore the hook the campaign will fall apart.  Therefore it is important to have the players on board first and foremost.  If they are the type who hate doing something that wouldn’t make sense for their character, make doubly sure they have characters built who would take the bait.

The trick with a Bizarre Mystery is to take the initial situation and make it odd enough to inspire attention.  It can help to have a second hook in case the first doesn’t provide sufficient incentive.  Perhaps after the mysterious letter, they find a mysterious break in as someone steals the letter.  This is still not a Sudden Event hook because it happens while they are away and if they simply file a police report and ignore it than there will be no further pokes from plot.

So make it interesting and tie it into the characters as best you can — both through nudges in character generation and through adjusting the hook to suit them.  The Pathfinder campaigns often encourage players to select campaign traits that provide in-built motivation.  You could borrow a page from their book to nudge die hard character immersionists into having the incentive to follow the plot line.  Sample traits could involve an interest in local history or a desire to be an amateur sleuth.  It doesn’t really matter so long as it helps ensure the characters get involved.

Once involved, the characters need to behave proactively for the first section of the game until they draw enough attention to themselves for the villains to put them on the defensive.  If you’re curious about seeing this sort of hook in action, take a look at the grand majority of Call of Cthulhu games where the character hunts down a particular clue thread until they surprise the evil villains in the middle of their ritual.  Naturally if it’s a campaign the situation might not remain so proactive throughout but it is important to bear it in mind that to begin with the PCs will control the pacing unless you put in an obvious ticking clock.

Do you have any advice for baiting a mystery hook?  Seen it done particularly well?  Feel free to put down more ideas in the Comments section.  Alternatively if you’d like to check out the base article you can learn more about other forms of campaign hooks.

Hook: The Slow Reveal

The Slow Reveal is a style of hook where the players are slowly but surely drawn into the tale through a series of off-kilter hints that all is not what it seems. While it’s a bit of an older video game, Alan Wake provides a really good example of the Slow Reveal and you can readily imagine how it would feel to be the players behind the main characters in this game.

The game begins with an introduction to the characters as they’re traveling to a new town. We’re introduced to Alan’s wife, his agent, and his problems with the blank page. He has a massive dose of writer’s block and so they’ve rented out a nice little holiday home on a lake in order to find some way to break through that block. The characters themselves are the primary hook. They’re interesting enough that we’d like to know more.

These interesting characters are followed by some little hints that all is not what it seems. You hear about the woman who desperately tries to keep all the lights working in town. You try to speak to someone who’s locked themselves in a toilet in a dark corridor only to run into a rather creepy woman who stands in the darkest shadows of that corridor.  The small town setting flows into the resort home itself to add a very creepy vibe – a long and rickety-looking bridge promises future problems and the building’s isolation suggests future terrors.

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Hook: With a Bang!

The Sudden Event hook gives players a short amount of time to introduce their characters to the setting (typically between a few minutes to half an hour) before throwing them into the middle of the action.

Boom!  This happens!  What do you do?  The pace is frantic and the characters are forced to react.  There’s no time to think, no time to plan and nothing will ever be the same for them again.

Perhaps they’ve been turned into a supernatural and spirited away for training by their vampiric mentors.  Maybe a bomb goes off in the bowels of the ship and they must now try to find their way out.  Perhaps they all just happened to be in the same newsagency when a heart attack drops one of the first zombies into their lap.  Or maybe the mouth to hell merely opens up and the tavern is awash in demons.

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To Bait a Plot Hook

One oft-neglected part of roleplaying games is to set an exciting hook. Most published scenarios are so focused on the meat of the adventure that they neglect to put much thought into the set up. Usually this is because the scenario needs to be usable by widely divergent gaming groups and so it can be difficult to find something suitable for a wide range of players. In many cases the introduction is overlooked as it makes up a very small percentage of the campaign and is easily forgettable. Plenty of Game Masters consider their introductions in the same light and fall back on newspaper clippings and fantasy taverns to hook in their characters.

And this is a shame because there are so many different hooks out there that can really make a difference to your campaign by evoking the right mood and setting up the right expectations.

The main three hooks include:

The Slow Reveal: The campaign weaves hints of some terrible future throughout relatively mundane quests, goals and complications in a way that builds anticipation.  The character typically doesn’t realise what is happening until they are already committed or caught up in the situation.  This hook requires some degree of active character participation so that they don’t leave the moment things get spooky but the characters themselves don’t have to do anything special to continue the campaign.

Start With a Bang: The campaign begins right where at the point of some great change in their lives that prevents them from ever going back to what came before (at least not until they have finished the story).  Often the campaign will begin a few minutes to half an hour before this great event to give the players some sense of continuity but there are few – if any – hints as to what’s about to happen.  This hook can make do with largely reactive characters as there’s no way for them to ignore this event.

The Bizarre Mystery: The campaign begins with a tantalising question so important that the players can’t just walk away without solving it.  This could involve a murder they need to investigate, a news article about some strange occurrence or a weird situation that happens around them.  This hook requires characters who will take a very active role as the characters can theoretically ignore the mystery with relative ease.

I’ll go into more detail about different types of over the next three Fridays so stay tuned for more in-depth suggestions on how to make these hooks work for you.

Can you think up any other types of hook?