Tag Archives: Adventures

Dev Blog: Pulp Play-Test, Feedback, Zombies & Editing

It’s been a tough couple of weeks here at CC.

We have NaNoWriMo underway (John tells me he’s smashing his word count) which is taking up some of our time, but despite this we’ve managed to get some play-testing underway for Pulp RPG’s first adventure module!

In the meantime I’ve been undertaking the proofing, editing and adding to the core rule-set or Pulp. I’m happy to say that we’re going to release a file with everything you need to run your own Pulp games with less than 20 pages!

Sounds small – but I think that if you condense much of the 5th Edition Players Handbook you’d probably get about the same – except that our character creation is so easy and swift you’ll be done in a matter of minutes.

For the next play test there’s a list of things we’re hoping to iron out…

  • Currently there’s information on vehicles, weapons and objects that we’re working on and we’re certain that they will fit seamlessly into the narrative style game play of Pulp.
  • We’re working on some simple player crib sheets for character creation and guides on how to play the game.
  • Maps, handouts (including a mission slide presentation) are all on the list for things we’ll be working on soon. There’s even a chance of in-character dossiers and mission briefings, all for free of course (don’t worry, they won’t self destruct!)

In the meantime, once we have the PDF sorted out, we’ll be posting information for anyone wishing to help us out by play testing with us – if you want to be one of the first to have access to the raw core file, let us know and we’ll start a list. Alternatively join our mailing list and we’ll keep you updated.

Finally, we’ll be looking for artwork over the next few weeks which we think can really bring Pulp RPG to life – if you’re not bad at this sort of thing and reckon you could supply a handful of page fillers, get in touch so we can discuss the idea further.

Don’t forget we have our discord server up and running, which we hope will give you all a chance to discuss ideas, feedback on play tests and generally have a great time getting eager!

We also have a portion of our website set aside which will soon hold our game files for unlimited access – we’ll let you know when we start to populate it!

Anyone else notice the zombies teeth don’t line up with the rest of its mouth?

J.D Ferris, CC

How to Write Single Session Adventures for RPGs (with examples)

Whether you’re new to RPGs like D&D or you just want a fresh perspective as a veteran, we’ve got some suggestions to creating a single session adventure in a couple of hours (which, over a week isn’t that long at all when you think about it).

Writing a whole campaign for table top role-play games like Dungeons & Dragons can be daunting, especially if you’re new to the role of games master (GM) or dungeon master (DM). It doesn’t need to be difficult, which is why I’m setting out how to write a single session adventure and how make it a worthy story!

Definition

A single session adventure takes place for a single gaming session – usually around 3 hours or an evening of game play. It is designed to resolve itself by player interaction at the end of the session, allowing the players to move their characters on. It is a great way to introduce yourself as a new GM to the game because the effort involved is minimal compared to writing a full campaign. That said, extra credit for proper design such as maps and non-playing characters really helps!

Single session adventures need to be concise, so some of the work the GM has to undertake can be a bit more intense: the game needs to start succinctly, the players need to be hooked in right from the start and the game needs to build up to the end smoothly.

I’m going to be running with an adventure example so you can see how it builds up. If you’re lucky I’ll throw in some diagrams to explain what I’m talking about.

Note: I’m not writing this with any game system in mind, although I’ll use generic fantasy elements like those found in D&D. The advice and technique should apply to just about any setting or game.

First Step: The Facts

Identify what the facts are in your adventure – this is the most creative part of the design stage because what you’re doing is setting the plot. The players don’t need to know these facts – it is their job to find the clues and put the pieces of the puzzle together much like a murder mystery show. The clues culminate into the facts and then there is a resolution, in games like Dungeons & Dragons this is normally the second to last encounter: facing the enemy.

Look on the facts of your adventure like the synopsis of a story or a film. It needs to be only be a line or two at most.

Example fact: A Hag is living near a village and has sleep-charmed one or more of the villagers to kidnap young children and take them to her grotto where she devours them or uses them in dark rituals to proliferate her coven. Travellers have also gone missing in the night, leaving all of their belongings behind in the small village inn.

From this simple factual synopsis, we have the antagonist of our story, the method and locations of their actions and finally a reason as to why – creating her own coven of hangs or witches.

Second Step: The Clues & Encounters

A single session adventure should have no more than 3-4 key encounters where the players are able to discover clues. Clues are simple bits of information that, when combined with other clues point the finger or give a direction for the players to investigate further, leading to the showdown encounter which is the resolution. Clues do not have to be combat engagements – your players will be playing different characters with different skills and abilities and you are going to want to provide something for everyone in some of your encounters. Each clue should involve a different style of play for accommodate skills and abilities. This is a story, not a series of fights.

Here’s a diagram showing ways you can organise your clues to make the adventure coherent to you and your players. It is not a comprehensive diagram, but covers the basics which should be more than enough for your single session adventure:

clues for resolutions

Route 1 is linear and fair for first time players. Route 2 starts with the first clue, requiring at least clue two or three to be discovered before heading to the final resolution. Route 3 implies that any clue may lead to the end resolution. Personally, Route 2 is my chosen style as it gives the players a natural feel for the progression of the plot and doesn’t lead right to the resolution after a single clue.

Examples clue encounters

I’ve picked four clues which the players may encounter.

The first clue is that a child vanished in the night from the family’s log cabin. The players can investigate the cabin and realise that there are no signs of forced entry, and under questioning the parents, the bar to the front door was still in place in the morning. Rogue like characters, or trap masters will enjoy setting up their own traps to see where the thief comes from, or analysing the events, possibly suspecting the parents (which is true, but the parents are not aware of their actions).

The second clue is that the elders of the village have been having dreams where they have taken up their young ones and carried them through the forest in the dead of night, to a stone altar where a beautiful woman waits in a strange scant clothing, a tall horned figure lingers in her shadow, never quite realised clearly. Stone altars, strange large creatures and witch-like individuals should inspire the lore masters and religious or cult focused characters.

The third clue involves tracking bare footprints that lead from the village into the forest. Outdoor characters and hunters / trackers will enjoy finding clues such as broken branches or torn clothing (matching the villagers nightwear). Nature characters such as druids will likely notice that the fauna of the forest is very quiet, and that there is evidence of corruption in the flora: leaves are slightly yellowed, new growth is not as vibrant or strong.

The fourth clue is optional, as the players may not try to set up a watch and see if another child or traveller goes missing. This clue / encounter should lead the party into the thick of the forest where the hag will be awaiting her sacrifice. The players will likely forcibly engage the hag, who will make her escape and let the horned figure do her fighting. Tracking the hag from here will lead to the final resolution.

If you feel the party is going too fast, you can include some other encounters as red herrings – bandits camped nearby the main road, wandering monsters which, once dealt with, turn out not to be the culprit!

You should write short introduction paragraphs for each area which gives the details the players need to start investigating. Use the clues you have already written to help you with this. My example is attached to the first clue – clues two and three can probably fit into the map of the village we’ve already given to the players.

“The abandoned cabin sits in shadow, empty of life. The door has been flung open, the bar that held it shut discarded on the floor. From the outside, the various windows have remained closed, firmly held shut by their wooden bars. Inside is cold, hidden away from sunlight and without a fire to keep the house dry. The three rooms are separated by door frames covered in heavy fabrics. The beds are disturbed.”

From this description, your players will want to begin their investigation of the various rooms, asking you questions and poking around for more clues. In this instance, it is clear that the kidnapper did not force their way in, suggesting there is another way into the cabin (which there is not). After a thorough search the players will probably conclude that the kidnapper came from inside the house and may suspect the family – which is another intense encounter which can develop from the clue.

Third Step: Draw the Players In

This is often referred to in RPGs as the plot hook – the device you use to draw the players in and make them want to participate in the adventure. For longer games that last several sessions you can play on plot hooks by enticing players one at a time, but in single sessions you can’t afford to spend the time tailoring the hook for each character.

This is usually the last step for me, as don’t often use personal character hooks (my players are pretty good at that themselves). Arguably this step could be the first or last for many GMs – it’s all down to how you feel about it.

Start the game by asking their characters why they are on the road or why they may be in the village. Take no more than 5 minutes to round this information up. If you have completely new players, you’ll want to do this before the gaming session.

You’ll find that some players are quite good at giving you a little bit of character plot themselves – likely they will provide you some of their own motivation.

Fourth Step: Extra Credits

Maps will be essential to the players immersion for a single session game. Keep them simple: a map of the village will suffice as a centerpiece for the gaming table or space. Make it larger than it needs to be so the players can add to it as they explore or learn about points of interest from the locals – particularly the outdoor type characters, your Rangers, Druids, Hunter etc.

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Have a dungeon, by all means, but keep it small, maybe 4-6 areas in said dungeon at most. Again, add elements that will give each class or character type something to play with to utilise their abilities such as traps, moral obligations, conundrums, and obviously monsters and bad-guys.

Have a two tailed ending. This is where the clues may allow for different approaches to affect the resolution of the adventure. This could be helping one faction over the other, using a faction to thwart the other or toppling both factions at once. In order for this to happen, consider two or more factions where one is a definite enemy, and the others as possible enemies.

In our current example, one of the townsfolk may have control of the hag, perhaps they hold a fetish which stop the hag from killing them, and so they use the hag for their own agenda, perhaps they suffered at the hands of the villagers years ago and now have an avenue for their revenge. You’ll need to edit your primary fact from your first step.

Fifth Step: Running the Game, Pacing and Rhythm

You should start the gaming session from this point and describe the setting to them from the outset. Leave no room for them to be in different places or occupied with other events unless you can trust the players to come together quickly. I’ve including an example opening description, feel free to use it as a template.

‘Winter in the northern reaches comes sharply this time of year and is unforgiving to the lost and weary. You have been travelling through dark forests for several days. Seeing the first village in what seems like months, you happily head to the warm glow of fires. The village is quiet as occasional snowflakes fall silently. Well wrapped stragglers hurry indoors, some clutching babies close to their chests or dragging resisting children indoors. A single guard approaches holding a torch high to see you all clearly in the growing darkness. She carries a well service sword on her hip. “We don’t see travellers much here – we’re shunned,” she points to a large, scruffy two-story building in the centre of the village, ‘You’ll find rest there, but beware, people have gone missing in the night, locals and travellers alike. If it wasn’t for the coming blizzard, I’d tell you to keep walking.” She nods curtly and continues her patrol.’

In this opening, we set the scene: winter and cold, the characters should be seeking shelter. We give them a location, the village. Being dark, children and being called in, which seems normal at first. The guard, although taciturn doesn’t provide the mission as such, but she does lay the ground work, suggesting the village is not a highly regarded by outsiders and that people go missing. Finally, the players are told a blizzard is coming, so they will likely want to seek shelter and stay a while. Once the players are at the Inn, they can begin questioning the suspicious and untrusting locals, which is an encounter in itself and helps you set up the clues.

So, it is a bit cliché, but this is a working example which I hope gives you an idea of how to draw the players in without making it seem forced. Nothing kills the immersion that keeping your players rigidly in the story, you need them to feel like they want to stay and investigate.

So far, we have the clues, encounters and the plot hook to get the players drawn in. You’ve already got the meat of the adventure set out, now you need to add the garnishes and side orders.

And the last bit…

Keeping the flow of the game is vital for single session adventures. More than ever the party must not dawdle about, wondering where to go next – if they do, they’re eating into the valuable session time and need to get moving. My simple advice here is to keep the players active. If they don’t seem to be doing anything, for example in the evening of the first night at the Inn, then get them to commit to sleep or carry out an action.

If the players are stumped and are not sure what to do next, bring an encounter to them, but make them work for it – don’t spoon feed them! If the following morning they are sat outside wondering where to start, add a small encounter where another child has gone missing: a mother’s shriek. If they still don’t investigate, the villagers gather around the house and begin weeping – another child is missing and then they active ask the characters to help them investigate, which should lead them to the first clue.

There you have it –  a single session game planned out and underway in a couple of hours of work. If, like me, you get the odd 10 minutes here or there, jot down your ideas, add to them, let them grow.

If you give yourself a finite number of key encounters, the rest pretty much writes itself and you’ll be steaming ahead with tonnes of possible ideas, just waiting to be played!

That’s all for today!

We’ve been working hard on NaNoWriMo, Pulp RPG, adventures modules, proofing, editing and brainstorm, all whilst holding down full-time jobs. We’re getting there 😉

J.D Ferris, CC

The Awkward, the Bad and the Great – Dealing with the Players

It is often all down to the DM to run the game and make it a good one. There’s always the expectation that this game is going to be as good as the last one or better. It’s capitalism of the RPG world – they want more and more each session. But the game isn’t purely the responsibility of the DM; players are there too and the expectations of all involved should be considered.

The expectations of the players are more varied than we might think; some are there for the story, others for the thrill of the dice and fewer, thankfully, are there to roll dice and crunch the numbers like Scrooge on Tax Day. Unfortunately for you, as the DM, you have to balance all of these aspects, but you shouldn’t pander to them all – it’s your game too.

I’m going to assume that you play with people you know, that they are reasonable people. I expect there are unreasonable players out there – the internet is full of those stories, so I’ll touch on those style of players too.

This article is about the bad players, the awkward players, but also the good players – and we’ll cover how to deal with the bad ones, and encourage the good ones. But first, let’s talk about the ones that aren’t bad players, they’re just… awkward.

This is all my opinion, and you’re welcome to discuss them, share some stories of your own – we can only learn more.

human fist

The Awkward Ones

The awkward ones, like the Deep Ones, are often hidden at first. We may think that their first character is just a bit of a buffoon and that soon they’ll get into the story. Sadly however this will not always be the case; sometimes we see an Awkward One develop and we need to make sure they don’t derail the story accidentally, or otherwise.

slippery foot dangerous fall

Comedic or one-dimensional characters may seem like a little light relief the first time have a tendency to become habit for some players. The first time it’s all fun and there’s no problems, but often these players will see it as scoring social points for themselves; it will feel good for them and so the habitual pathology sets in, the player now thinking that funny = best game ever! Eventually this will ruin the flavour and immersion of the game.

How do you deal with this sort of situation? In my experience the best solution is tact. Quite often a player like this needs attention, which in itself is not a bad things; we all need attention sometimes, but for the comedic player, it feels new and good and they probably don’t realise.

Give them a bit of space to enjoy being comedic, but encourage wit and humour rather than outlandish and excessive. A quiet chat after the first session to explain to them that actually, yes it can be amusing, but the harmony of the game is broken by the ever increasing hair brained ideas. People will laugh, then chuckle, then get tired real quick of it. There’s no need to kick them out of the group, if they’re willing to keep their exaggerated theatrics in check. Promise to reassess the situation if they seem amenable to the idea.

police money finance funny

The DM who Hijacked your game thinks they know better or perhaps don’t realise they are not the focus of attention anymore. This is normally purely accidental; as DMs we can grow accustomed to the idea of being the focus of attention, since we run the game and very little interaction or action occurs without our help. This one is fairly simple, you call the shots for this game, don’t be bullied into changing your mind, unless of course the idea they put forward is sound.

Chatter boxes, or social annoyances, who talk about non game stuff and don’t know when to stop, potentially ruining the immersion and tension in the game. I tend to get this out of the system of players before the game starts by having a catch up chat, getting all the news out in the open and discussed before sitting everyone down. I also ask that all media that isn’t relevant to the game is taken away or turned off, or at least not in sight.

If it’s persistent, you can ask that player, politely and aside from the others at a later time, if they want to be there to play the game or just because their friends are there. It’s cool to hang out, but don’t detract from the fun of the game that we enjoy.

Showboaters just love the attention and want to get in on the action whenever they can. This isn’t bad for a game that needs a bit of life injected into it (especially if it has been a hard day at the office). What isn’t cool is overriding other players or butting in on their turns to act.

This is a hard juggle, but as DM you are justified to point out whose turn it is, and that if a player needs the showboaters help or advice, they can ask for it. Remember, we don’t want to cut off their enthusiasm, we just want to let them know that other players are entitled to the limelight too.

purple liquid poison on brown wooden surface

The Bad Ones

Before I get into the stereotypes of bad players, I’m going to talk about the nature of the conversation around your gaming table (or wherever). It is best to openly discuss with your players before you start playing what sort of behaviour you all find acceptable during the game and on the sidelines; I’m talking about racism and sexism, amongst others.

It is perfectly acceptable to have these as elements in the game, it is after all usually set in a backward or less liberal society than our own. For this reason, you should let people have a say in what they find comfortable. If it’s a no from them, it should be a no from you, and vice-versa. D&D is an inclusive and cooperative game, and relaxed participants make far better adventuring buddies!

If it does crop up during play, as the DM you should be able to tone it down and talk to the offenders after the game session to suggest they tighten up – it’s ok to hate another race of people in character, but it shouldn’t spill into the real world, the same applies for sexism. If it happens that either of these topics comes out into play and is directed player to player, rather than character to character, you must stop it right away. Call it out, quash it dead. You are the DM, and you run this game.

So, the Stereotypes…

Player stereotypes have come to be identified from the internet – the internet has given us names for the power gamers, the min/max’er, rules lawyer, and the metagamers. Before the internet (I know, was there ever such a time?) we just thought they were annoying players who happened to enjoy the same hobby, so we were delighted at having the new player along for the ride. How wrong we were!

I’ve run a good number of gaming groups beyond my primary group over the years, this is how I dealt with the unhelpful ones.

golden statue under blue skies during day time

Not to be confused with the player who creates an efficient or optimised character, the power-gamer and the Min/Max player are those who either have to have it all at the cost of nothing, or throw everything out of the window to maximise a single attribute, ability or power – and use it at every possible moment. Normally a maturity issue, or the feeling of helplessness in their real lives leads them to want to show the world that they can do the thing, and force it on every situation.

Dealing with these players can be tackled in two ways in my experience: critically evaluate any character sheet prior to your game, with time to allow for changes, or subject your players to constrained resources, for example, only character material from the core Player’s Handbook may be used. As much as I love unearthed arcana and supplemental material, they tend to promote niche ideas into the game which can feel over balanced. These players will then latch onto these cool ideas, and completely overplay them.

Rules Lawyers: Players who spend most of their game in the source material, or spend all their free time reading the books and remembering every single bit of detail are fine, even helpful, like little biological libraries you can call on just by asking. However, it is the ones who keeping calling you out as the DM for your mistakes or lax enforcement of the rules who are the problem. Nothing ruins a cool cinematic moment when the party are about to hit the jackpoint with an amazing idea when the Rules Lawyer calls a stop to the game with the immortal opening line “I think you’ll find…”

blur close up focus gavel

There are very simple ways to explain this or overcome the problem.

First, all the source books ever made for games like Dungeons & Dragons, every single one, are purely guidelines given the misnomer of rules. You, as the DM, are capable of overriding some of those rules now and again if you think it works or if you think for this occasion they can be fudged – heck, most of being a DM is fudging the rules to get the most out of player interactions.

Secondly, if you’re more diplomatic and want to avoid arguments in game, call upon your powers as a DM to completely override their opinion, but only with the promise to review the rules stated after the session and come to a compromise. Or, for this session only you can maintain your DM ruling, and endeavour to assess the rule for next time. Rules lawyers can be compromised with – if they don’t want that, then they are free to evaluate their expectations of your game. You’ll welcome them back with open arms if they wish to return.

Metagamers are those players who use information or knowledge beyond the scope of their character. Weirdly, if you’ve been playing D&D for decades, it is almost impossible to not metagame on some level. There are always repeat or extreme offenders though. It may seem like they’re just being lucky in their assumptions about that monster at first, but eventually you’ll realise that the metagamer is using his or her outside knowledge to influence their actions and maybe even the actions of others.

I deal with this foible in a few different ways: I can ‘reskin’ my monsters in their appearance or stats to keep the metagamer on their toes by describing monsters differently or altering their behaviour style and resistance qualities and combat abilities (which can get exhausting without proper planning). But what if the player is metagaming the plot or story?

Plot metagamers use their vast knowledge of fantasy and sci-fi to guess where your adventure story is going by relying on troupes, or popular fiction to base their predictions on. When this happens, it can be frustrating; the story is often the most creative part of the DM process. How did I deal with this? Well if you can’t avoid current popular stories from movies and fiction, I suggest you plan your adventures with an open ending – whatever the plan was, whoever is the bad guy, make them the second to last badguy, and put someone else who they’ve met previously as the badder bad guy.

Or tell them to get out. 😉

silhouette photography of group of people jumping during golden time

Good Players and Encouraging New Players

This is the nice, positive part to being the DM.

I’ll make this brief, but you get the idea:

Good players…

  • Role-play and encourage role-play from new and old players.
  • They go with the flow regarding your narrative choices and instead of sulking justify the response of their character to keep things going without selling out on their character.
  • They don’t argue with your choices but if they get really narked, they’ll talk to you about it after the session, like a grown-up.
  • They ask pertinent questions, sometimes thinking aloud and usually on their own turn.
  • They play balanced characters, even after 20 years of gaming and realise there’s more to the game than crunching the numbers.
  • Characters they create have flaws, and if they didnt at creation time, they relish the flaws that develop organically from the game – they don’t whine and resist when things go bad – its part of the game.
  • They don’t expect special treatment, but they enjoy their share of the stage lights.

Thoughts and opinions? I’m all ears!

J.D Ferris, CC

 

Opening Lines from stories of the last century – why you should master them!

“Frank; what can be more self-inspiring than the opening lines of your own novel?” – I’m not sure I cracked this first time, but here’s how your opening lines can be great if you’re willing to learn from the some of the classical heroes of literature.

All the best first lines in literature are vivid, granting us a clear image which kicks starts the story in a tone that carries us forward.

But how do they do it? What sort of ideas can you use to inject a fist full of Bruce Lee punchiness to your opening lines? Well I’ve got some ideas for you, with examples from my favourite fiction authors in horror, fantasy and adventure fiction, proving that one hundred year old ideas can still be used across genres and in modern writing.

What is a perfect opening line?

The perfect opening lines need to grab us, they need to open their broad arms and tell us that we’re to expect something more, warm arms that wrap around us and make us cosy up to the fact that we’re going on a journey. They may not need to set the tone of the whole story, but they need to grab us and either draw us in with succulent words or punch us in the face and toss us into the inferno.

Your ABCs

Some simple tips for your opening lines:

The most basic step is to name a character. Naming someone makes aspects of the content real for us from the moment we start reading. Got that Frank?

Now that we have named that fellow, it helps to see what they’re doing. Creating an action provides us with the sense of motion of going forward, even if it’s the most mundane action in the world like breathing. Frank, put that coffee down and come over here.

Next, we’re going to dabble in a bit of emotion, ideally something we can all relate to. Since we’re all humans (I guess you may not be?) we all feel, and we want to be sympathetic with the character. Sit down Frank and wipe that stupid grin from your face.

Combining these elements may not give the best or most exciting opening, but many great authors use the same ideas and ramp them up to a magnitude of thousand. We’re going to take a look at how writers tackle their opening lines, some modern and some from nearly a hundred years ago!

Howard's Conan

Here’s a classic example from The Pool of the Black One by Robert Howard, original author of the Conan tales circa 1920s:

“Sancha, once of Kordova, yawned daintily, stretched her supple limbs luxuriously, and composed herself more comfortably on the ermine fringed silk spread on the carrack’s poop-deck.”

In this grandiose opening line, we get a name, a title of sorts then an action followed by a second action and so on. I love this opening line because we get so much in one sentence that there’s no question who we are looking at; a woman with a mysterious background who is at ease and likely familiar with the finer things in life, probably a pirate!

But what if you want to set the tone in more depth?

To really highlight a sense of foreboding some authors use a hindsight perspective. This hindsight gives the reader a sense of time passed and already conjures notions in our mind that we’re to expect more. This perspective makes us ask questions without really giving us enough details. We simply want more. I draw your attention to Herbert West – Reanimator by Lovecraft, from the same era as Robert Howard:

“Of Herbert West, who was my friend in collage and in other life, I can speak only with extreme terror.”

This is a classic opening from Lovecraft which crunches familiar ideas together in a great juxtaposition; ‘friend in collage and other life’ and ‘extreme terror’ are not usual bedfellows. When I first read this line I was a little stunned – what happened to these two friends to invoke such terror?

Lovecraft’s voice here is very formal, we’re probably reading a journal or a confession, but also remarkably relaxed, as if the author has come to terms with whatever happened and reflects on past deeds.

Lovecraft also states these things as facts.

Simple facts, or even complex ones can hammer home the nature of your story. One of the strangest factual opening lines I’ve read, for its mundanity, comes from Dennis Wheatley’s The Forbidden Territory:

“The Duke de Reichleau and Mr Simon Aron had gone in to dinner at eight o’clock, but coffee was not served till after ten.”

Wheatley’s opening line gives us the very simplest of tips mentioned earlier; names and actions. What strikes interest here, other than the mundanity is the fact that there’s a gap in the timescale. Most of us wouldn’t question a two-hour gap for eating, but in this post-war era the inference is that something went on; a long discussion perhaps, or an unexpected guest. It makes us question what happened and is the simplest pull into a story.

Lovecraft Stories

Being Vague

Running the same theme of factual storytelling, Anne Rice, a vivid writer with a clean voice started Tales of the Body Thief with these very simple lines:

“The Vampire Lestat here. I have a story to tell you. It’s about something that happened to me.”

If the reader is familiar with Rice, Lestat is an old Vampire with several hundred years under his belt. Lestat’s informal voice comes from his adaptation to the modern world, like we’re supposed to know him. Indeed, this isn’t the first Lestat novel but it captures Lestat’s lazy and disregarding nature of mortals (which he desperately wants to recapture). So, Rice gives us a name but there’s no action! This is fine, because in a very blatant but well executed introduction, we know there’s a story to tell here. Again, the hindsight perspective works nicely to draw us in.

One last example of using unknown past circumstances comes from Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World one of many Wheel of Time books:

“The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what happened.”

Simple questions arise. More vague, check out the opening line to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte:

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

You can’t really get more vague – if this was Face Book I’d expect a lot of typical ‘U ok Hon’ type responses, but this is literature and we like vague; it makes us want to know; why?

What about real Action?

Hitting the reader with real, hardcore action works well in adventure style literature and can be as simple as the following, from Shadows in the Moonlight, another one of Howard’s classic sword & sorcery:

“A swift crashing of horses through tall reed; a heavy fall, a despairing cry.”

Here we are told very little, but the imagination is fired up; why are the horses crashing through a reed bed? I suspect there’s water so it’s hard work for horse and rider so must be important. Who or what fell heavily? Who cried out in desperation? Chances are this is the result of conflict, perhaps someone has escaped or is being chased? Less than fifteen words and we’re right into the action and already asking questions.

What about using the unusual?

Unusual openings are a great way to confuse and entice readers, but they must be concise so as to avoid convoluted circles which can lose your audience. I’ll draw from Lovecraft (Call of Cthulhu) and Howard (Shadows of Zamboula) for two examples.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

Here Lovecraft poses a statement with a hint of reflection. What contents of the human mind are we trying to correlate? The vague hints at something deep can start the mind turning! From Howard:

“Peril hides in the house of Aram Baksh!”

Here Howard makes it very clear that there’s an element of danger, whether we believe the statement or not. The fact that it is spoken word and not narrative drops us into a place of uncertainties; who do we trust, the opinion of the speaker or the fact of a statement? We also have a name and a location – the ABC’s at work. The undertone of emotion (peril, danger or horror) tempts us with the thrill of a something we should probably avoid but can’t help but read – we’re all insects buzzing closer to that blue light in a day dream. speaking of dreams, Lovecraft’s The Silver Key:

“When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams.”

Here Lovecraft is suggesting there is a place that is a literal door to dreams. It implies more than the normal world without having to explain with exposition what on earth is going to happen. It is unusual but also includes elements of naming and action (in the loss of something) as well as giving us a snippet of description for Mr Carter. Added to this, we ask the question: how did the character get into this?

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Finally, formality

As mentioned before, Rice uses Lestat’s voice to bring us in close enough to get bitten by giving the vampire an informal tone. We’re expecting perhaps blood and violence right away, instead we’re given a friendly talking to, perhaps imagined on the TV screen or the phone.

The narrators voice can also be twisted to formality or otherwise to give us some perspective, allowing to see more story without literally writing it in. Another great example from Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model:

“You needn’t think I’m crazy, Eliot – plenty of others have queerer prejudices than this.”

Here we’re being pulled into why the narrator struggles with underground transport, but we don’t really know why, and in true Lovecraftian style we’re pulled slowly and inexorably to the climax of the horror – things lurk – which the narrator never wishes to comprehend again, but we’re going to read about it and understand why.

Not Quite the beginning

A second point of interest is that Lovecraft didn’t start right at the beginning of Pickman’s Model. Rather, he started just after the beginning of the conversation between the narrator and Eliot. Yet another great way to make your start interesting. Some of the previous examples do this too – we’re trying to draw our reader in. Ever heard the phrase ‘What’s in the box!?’ well that’s what we’re tapping into when we start not quite at the beginning.

Where does the learning come in?

We’ve pointed out some great opening lines and investigated what makes them good. To get into practice of creating great opening lines you should probably consider these last few bits of advice:

  • Write your opening lines last – no one wrote a great opening line first time. Much like any other aspect of writing, you’ll probably need to plan your writing rather than trying to create the best opening line right away.
  • Read lots of great opening lines, even if you don’t read all of the book. If you have access to books, jot down a few opening lines each day and dissect them like you’re a pathologist of words. You’ll soon start to see what makes great opening lines and not. Goosebumps are a good sign!
  • If in doubt, try, try again. You’ll not this get this right first time, maybe not even second or third time. Get advice from friends and fellow authors (this bit can be hard for closet writers!) Feedback is key, as you’ll not be buying your own book!

Now that you’ve got a better idea about what makes a great introduction or opening line, have another go yourself, even if you’re nowhere near finishing your novel or story. It can be self-inspiring and refreshing to have a go.

Go forth and kindle those flaming juices of imagination!

I’m going to start on my opening line for this article…

J.D Ferris, CC

How to be the DM (new and old) Part 2: Setting the Atmosphere

A few weeks ago, I talked about being the DM, with tips, hints and suggestions on how to approach being the DM (or GM). Today I’m going to be covering some more topics related to the atmosphere of your game; how to set it up physically and how to get the mood and tone right to really ensnare your players into your game.

Most of the advice found herein stems from developing attention and emotional investment by suspending a players belief to allow them to magically slip into the game world.

Let’s get started.

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Placement

It really depends on your situation as to where you can play your games. If you don’t have your own place it can be tricky to find somewhere quiet to set up and play. If you’re in school or college, try and get a room organised (heck, you could even start your own club if you need to!) Lunchtime adventures can be a great escape in the workplace too (it’s possible in some places).

Whether you have your own place or not, try to be somewhere quiet without the chance of interruption. Why? Well if it’s quiet and there’s no distractions your party of players will likely be focused and give the game, and you, their full attention, which helps keep the session flowing and doesn’t break the growing tension as the story develops.

Furniture & Props

When I talk about furniture I’m talking about where you sit and play. Ideally, a table and chairs are great to start a gaming session – everyone is facing into the same space, you can see the other players from the table and you can get eye contact, which is important in a game that relies on communication.

I’ve found that having benches instead of chairs really brings people together and can be more comfortable than sitting in a small chair for several hours. Give people a break now and again – stretching your legs and hooking up to reddit or Facebook should help refresh your players and the DM.

And as for Props: I’m not talking suits of armour and wizards’ hats, but they’re cool if you or a player can afford costume. Go for it, whatever helps you get into your character mindset. On a simpler scale though, I am suggesting candles to really set the atmosphere. If you’re in the part of the world where it gets dark early, candle light can really get the mood going. Candle light is not dissimilar to firelight, which our ancestors sat around and told tales as a source of entertainment. You could argue that natural light sources are kindling to our imaginations and shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s in our blood.

A note on candles however – you’re dealing with fire and likely lots of paper and other flammable objects. Keep it simple if your table is small. Tealights are a simple way of creating candle light, but if you can afford pillar candles or votive style candles, then that’s helpful. Be careful!

Too dark? Small desk lamps aimed low and down can help those with poor night vision.

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Verbal Descriptions

As the DM, your descriptions are the vital source of information in the D&D, or any role-play game for that matter. Without your descriptions you are losing the element of the story and likely your game will feel flat. This isn’t a bad thing for some groups where the game is more about tactical dice rolling, but for any other style of play, it’s vital.

So where do you start?

Here’s a few simple things to consider. Mix them up a bit to keep them fresh.

  • Sight – this is the obvious one. You walk into any room with a light source and you take in your surroundings. Commonly overlooked in descriptions is the level of light in an area. For Dungeons & Dragons, some races can see in the dark much better than other races so you’ll need to describe the surroundings in a way that gives low-light and dark-vision some weight to the game. For characters who are effectively blind in the dark, give them snippets of information based on their sense of smell and hearing.
  • Sound – Sound is something you can experience before you enter an area or place. Often it can be as simple as silence, but even silence can be described in different ways: is the silence oppressive, does it instill a sense of danger? Could the silence be pregnant with anxiety or tension, perhaps it is not total silence and echoes or rumbles with sound from other areas, giving clues to future encounters.
  • Smell – Much like sound, our olfactive sense can give clues as to the nature of a contents of a room or place before we get close. Even on a subconscious level, our sense of smell is constantly working to warn us of dangers. Unlike the other senses however, smell can be overridden; a dairy farmer will quickly get used to the smell of cow manure to the point where they can no longer perceive it, allowing them to pick up smells that others would struggle to notice. Don’t overdo the sense of smell, it can give a lot away about the contents of a room or place… or it can mask the rotting undead waiting around the corner – there’s a reason wizards and necromancers use incense in their rituals.
  • Touch – Our sense of touch may never be from direct contact, but it can help build a sense of growing horror in dark places like a dungeon. The primary sense of touch your players will need to know regards the temperature of the room. Is it cold? Did the temperature suddenly change from one room to another? Our sense of ambient temperature can instill a sense of fear, or it can be overridden by wonder and curiosity.

So how do you verbalise this information and how can we describe the contents of the room?

My personal rule about describing a location is to avoid specific dimensions right away; you can say it’s a large room or a small room, but the moment you start describing in feet and inches you can lose some interest – the prize of specifics immediately comes at the cost of interest and immersion.

So, I find the best places to start is to hit the players with whatever is most noticeable first; the things that move. Our eyes are programmed to follow movement, especially in situations that we consider dangerous. Ecologists develop an unfortunate knack of focusing on movement because they can spend days grabbing small mammals and putting them in safe places (can confirm).

The exception to this rule is when you’re trying to create tension. Let’s say the characters fall into a room in their attempt to escape and you want them to see a creature holding a blade to an innocent person’s throat; which sounds better:

“As you fall into the room you see a large red skinned creature with horns holding a young farmer with a knife to his throat.”

Or

“You spill into the room and find yourself in a richly decorated chamber of silks and cushions, lit with a roaring hearth. In the centre of the room, with the fire dancing in his eyes, a young farmer stands, stiff and pale. One arm is held tightly behind his back, the other is stretched out as if to keep you at bay. From over his shoulder a wicked slashed smile filled with glistening fangs taunts you. A demon has a knife to the young man’s throat…”

One is basic and to the point, and even though the other doesn’t give you all the information we’ve discussed previously, it builds the tension up. Your players know that there is something special in the room even as you start to describe it, and it sets the scene one piece at a time, culminating with the priority of the encounter.

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Opening Speeches

No one is expecting a theatrical overture all the time, but getting your opening descriptions perfect really brings the focus and attention of your players right up and into the game. I touched on this previously, so I’ll repeat it here:

Hit them with your first line like it means something. Start this bad boy up likes it’s a chromed Harley Davidson signed by Meatloaf, discovered by a post-apocalyptic tribe 200 years from now. Go full throttle on those natives and let them have it! But how do you do this?

I’ll tell you how!

Have your first or opening lines practiced. Get everyone settled in; all rules checked up with no more questions left to be asked. Depending on the type of story you’ve gone for, the players will determine your first line, to a degree. For me, I sometimes start my party in peril so they have to pay attention or they die.

But for first-time adventures you may want to set the tone like any good author would. There are tonnes of this information on the net, but I’ll give you my opinion.

Which sounds better?

“OK, so you’re sat in a busy tavern when someone walks up to your table and says they need to talk to you in private…”

Or…

“It is night time in autumnal Ostogar, the town of bones. The Black Boar tavern is in full swing and the patrons, a colourful plethora of cultures and races sing and drink together, enjoying the sanctuary of warmth from the bitter cold outside. In the midst of the crowd, two cloaked figures catch your eye. They seem to be trying to get your attention without raising their voice over the merry din. What do you do?”

OK so maybe I’ve embellished a little bit here and there. But the idea is pretty obvious. Even if you don’t maintain this level of detail all the way through your game session, you still got everyone drawn in from the very start. The players will already be thinking along the same lines and wondering what is going to happen.

My example is pretty vanilla here, but that’s OK for an example.

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Music & Soundscapes

This final portion of advice is more of a luxury but can seriously add some depth and immersion to your gaming session. It can also go horribly wrong, so fair warning.

Music in gaming sessions can be very hit or miss, with the tone of the music required to be just right for the moment of the story. Music can really bring things to life if the right tracks are played at the right time. I use a mixture of Spotify and YouTube to create playlists which cover most moods I am trying to portray in a game.

But it essentially comes down to taste.

Here are a few examples which may give you ideas:

I have created a playlist in YouTube for an adventure into some ancient elven ruins. For me, the ideal type of music is something haunting, which creates vistas of crumbling stone and a forlorn hope of regaining a golden age, whilst also feeling lonely. The music I use for this; Warhammer 2 Total War, the High Elf campaign tracks. It fits perfectly with the images I want to portray.

To build a gritty and expanding / progressive battle I collected music on Spotify from the Viking TV series but Trevor Morris. The combination of natural instruments with male and female vocalists brings a very personal note to a violent situation, and aren’t necessarily full of ‘epic’ music (which I personally find distracting and a little bit too good guys fight bad guys, black and white vanilla, ‘my first adventure’ kind of vibe – yeah it was a ramble).

Where can it go wrong?

Well if you bring music into your game it may give players the wrong impression, or it may be from a film or game which they didn’t like. This probably won’t be an issue to most gaming groups but it’s possible.

And what if you don’t want music?

Well there’s some interesting ‘soundscapes’ available on YouTube. Soundscapes are collections of sounds stitched together seamlessly to create ambient or atmospheric sounds. Need to hear a busy market place for an encounter; sure, there’s loads. Want something gothic and creepy for your Curse of Strahd campaign; there’s even specific tracks for that.

YouTube is a wealth of resources for this sort of thing. I can recommend Sword Coast Soundscapes for this, they have an extensive list of tracks to choose from.

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So how is the atmosphere made?

Drawing all of this together, I will give you an example of a recent gaming session I ran. I realise not everyone is as lucky to have a similar setup, but here goes…

The game was meant to be dark, wintery and take place mostly in a small town, Ostogar. The setup of the adventure was to take place in a tavern call the Black Boar – the only place open at this time of the month due to local superstition. The Black Boar inn is full of traders of all cultures and races, the only place they could all stay warm in the winter. For this tavern I played a rowdy tavern soundtrack, which I increased the volume of as they approached the building and then cranked up more as they entered.

I have a wooden table, with a slatted surface and a slightly rough texture, just like a tavern table. I set out some homemade candles (beeswax) and placed them around the gaming table. I made sure there was enough light and turned off all artificial light.

Before I knew what was happening, my players were whispering conspiratorially under the crowd of the soundscape, huddling in to listen to each other to plan and discuss the other patrons. I could hear them talk from the other side of the table, so I know it wasn’t too loud, it was the atmosphere made them drawn in together.

The game was a huge success as a single session adventure and some of the old-time players have asked to be invited back for more. My adventure was mediocre at best (I lie, I loved it), but the game really took off because of the immersion.

I hope this has given you some ideas, and I’d love to hear and discuss any suggestions you might have!

J.D Ferris, CC