Draws, Dangers, and One-Shots, quick thoughts

When I’m building my own one-shot scenarios, I focus particularly on draws and dangers.

Draws are anything that compel people to be somewhere, preferably of their own volition. I want my players, and their characters (the PCs), to *want* to be where they are. I write about this in Be Hungry, a post about making characters, but here I’m thinking of it from the storyteller’s perspective. I want players to feel engaged, for their characters to actively pursue things in the course of play. If they don’t want to be there (player or PC), they have few reasons to stay involved with anything in a scenario. It’s possible to trap characters in a situation they don’t want to be in, but that’s usually more stressful for players. In fact, it’s so uncomfortable that it’s a frequent trope of horror stories. More on that later.

Dangers are just that; a danger is anything that might threaten the well-being of a character, or which presents a potentially harmful obstacle between a character and what they desire. A danger’s potential harm could operate on any of several levels: physical peril, social or emotional threat, or jeopardizing other things a character values. The severity of the danger is critical, and needs to be calibrated against both the draws of the scenario and the other dangers present.

Dangers must be calibrated against each other because they shape how PCs react to the world around them. If a danger is sufficiently scary, PCs will do whatever they can to avoid it. This could include facing other dangers which seem less scary, or simply turning tail and fleeing.

Dangers must also be calibrated against the scenario’s draws, because those dangers may scare off PCs or cause them to despair. As a concrete example, if PCs seek a unique treasure but discover that it lies on the far side of a vast pit full of demons, they may decide that the treasure isn’t worth the trouble. If there’s a secret route to the treasure and the PCs don’t find it, the PCs will probably just shrug and move on, marking that treasure as something to come back for later. This is perfectly normal and fine in most games, and such juxtapositions of draws and dangers have their place in stories, but it’s not going to deliver a triumphant story experience in that game session.

“We came, we saw, we turned around and went home because demons are scary.” As a story, it’s a little anticlimactic. Keep in mind, because this post is focused on one-shots, I’m not as interested in foreshadowing large challenges for later sessions… which is where that anticlimactic story may have a larger role.

To tell a dramatic and triumphant story—a frequent goal of one-shot scenarios—PCs should engage with dangers, resolve them, and reach the draw they sought. Ideally those dangers are scary enough to unsettle the players and make players feel good about resolving or bypassing them, but not bad enough to convince the PCs to give up and go home. It’s a careful balancing act. And it’s a balancing act that you can build into the scenario from the very beginning, both by making sure that the draws pulling PCs in are sufficiently exciting, and by making sure that the dangers don’t seem that bad at the start.

Notice the “seem” in there. It’s entirely possible to reveal that dangers are worse than the PCs expected part way through a scenario. Revealing that the danger’s threat is worse than previously realized is a very traditional way of increasing the tension of any story. It’s possible to do poorly, or to wear out the trope by doing it too reliably, but when done well it’s delightful.

Finally, one quick note on how horror scenarios work with draws and dangers.

Horror stories, which I mentioned near the beginning when talking about trapping PCs, can be different. Some horror stories thrive on the PCs’ sense of helplessness, their feeling stuck with a danger that is too great for them to defeat unscathed, or to overcome without losing in the process. In these horror scenarios, overwhelming dangers lie between the PCs and whatever the scenario’s draw may be (usually escape, or resolving the danger without overwhelming sacrifice). Classic movie examples could include anything involving being trapped in a space with something hunting you: Alien, any number of serial killer movies, various murder-puzzle movies like the Saw series, etc.

This doesn’t describe all horror stories though, and the topic is big enough that I’m going to leave the rest of it for another time.

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

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Victor LaValle doesn’t rehabilitate HP Lovecraft; he takes all the good, sheds the malevolent dreck, and adds to the horror a heart and depth that HPL never managed to find. The Ballad of Black Tom (on B&N and Amazon) is a far better imagining of HPL’s The Horror at Red Hook; it has a humanity to it that Lovecraft couldn’t write, and is in every way a superior story.

LaValle uses the story of a young black man to artfully tie the everyday horror of injustice, and humanity’s easy inhumanity, to the overarching themes of cosmic horror and the pursuit of power. He does so while retaining the wonder and strangeness of HPL’s more evocative works, even as he roundly and repeatedly critiques HPL’s own prejudices both implicitly and explicitly. This story is a treat.

If you ever found any redeeming quality in a story by Lovecraft, any frisson of horror that moved you, I suggest that you read this book. If you steered clear of HPL’s work because of its noxious toxicity, but are willing to give horror with heart a try, I recommend this book a hundred times over.

It’s a shame that so much of cosmic horror is tied to HPL these days. HPL’s large collection of ‘-isms’ are so inextricably tied into his stories that they are themselves a source of horror. But Robert W. Chambers wrote cosmic horror before him (with The King in Yellow), and The Ballad of Black Tom is proof that there’s good cosmic horror after him. I’m glad to have a story I can wholeheartedly recommend which doesn’t cover or ignore HPL’s awfulness, but instead acknowledges and rejects it completely.

If you want more other stories like this, there’s a collection of four novellas (including The Ballad of Black Tom) called Reimagining Lovecraft. I haven’t read the other stories yet, but I will soon.

Consent and Horror Gaming, Quick Thoughts

We, as people playing story-games and RPGs, often assume that our fellow players are on the same page as us. We assume that other players want the same things, have the same tolerances, fears, and interests, or at least don’t differ in ways which would surprise us. These assumptions are frequently wrong, to varying degrees. Worse, unless they’re examined these assumptions interfere with players building trust and giving informed consent.

Players’ trust, consent, and buy-in is important regardless of the game, but it’s critical in games dealing with uncomfortable material… like horror games. There’s a much larger conversation to be had around gaming and consent, but this piece will focus on consent in horror RPGs.

Quick note: when I say “players,” I include the storyteller. As the storyteller, you’re not only doing a bunch of work, you’re also participating in this story world that you’re creating with and for your fellow players—if people are pulling the game into territory you’re uncomfortable with or which you really don’t want to cover, that’s important too! Don’t sacrifice yourself for the sake of other players, or at least not any more than you want to.

Trust is a simple word and a complex subject. Too complex for me to cover in depth in one post. You can’t build consent without a modicum of trust between people involved; for consent to be meaningful, there must be trust that other people will respect the boundaries set and will act promptly and responsibly on feedback they receive. The depth of that trust governs how readily groups can achieve consent, and influences how willing people may be to experiment with their boundaries. One person may have varying levels of trust for different people or topics, and the only way to learn those levels is to ask and observe. So pay attention to those around you, ask for and give feedback freely and without judgement, validate reported discomfort, and resolve that discomfort to the preferences of the uncomfortable person.

Informed consent is another large subject, but at its simplest I’d call it agreement without coercion or surprises. I mention buy-in earlier because I think enthusiastic participation and shared investment is the obvious next step following informed consent; it’s important to have players’ consent, but you really want their buy-in as well. But without laying the groundwork with your players, you’ll only achieve consent and buy-in by luck; ideally, we want to get there by design.

What might that groundwork look like?

The first step is for someone (usually the storyteller) to offer or request a specific kind of game—for our purposes, we’ll assume that people want a horror game. There may be some back and forth here, until there’s a sufficient body of excited players to support a game.

The second step is when a storyteller should warn their players about what underlying kinds of discomfort are likely in the course of the story: a narrative version of “side effects may include,” where you might mention character death, fallible perceptions of reality, gaslighting, decaying sanity, things that go bump in the night, etc. Whatever is particular to your game. You (the storyteller) can also take suggestions from your players here! There’s an art to crafting that warning, given that many horror games revolve around the unknown: I strongly suggest that you touch on broad themes more than specific perils. The specific perils can come up in the next step.

Once you’ve warned folk about what underlying themes you may play with (and asked what themes they might like to add), ask what specific things they’d like to see in the game and what specific things they don’t want. Here the terminology of lines and veils is useful: lines are hard vetos against specific content showing up in a game, while veils are a request to fade-to-black around that content without excluding it entirely. There’s an excellent explanation of lines, veils, and some other safety mechanics here.

Double check to make sure that you’ve heard people’s requests, and that they’ve heard your underlying content warnings.

In the course of play, take breaks! Check in with people, preferably one on one, about how things are going for them and whether there’s anything that they’d like to update in terms of lines, veils, or other requests for the game. I suggest checking in one on one because it’s easy for people to unconsciously pressure others (or themselves) into not speaking up about discomfort. To quote from the link above, a good interaction might look like:

“Ouch!”

“Oops, sorry. Let’s fix that.”

You can also use those check-ins as a means of getting useful feedback on your storytelling, or on the character you’re playing. These are good opportunities to discuss bleed, or any other things that have come up for people through the course of the game. It’s also worthwhile asking the group as a whole to check-in, so long as you’re addressing people’s needs and concerns individually as well.

And remember that trust, consent, and buy-in are all things which can change! None of those established preferences are set in stone, and people’s needs may change. Use safety mechanics (some linked here) to make sure that people don’t feel that their consent has been abused, or their trust diminished. Stoplight check-in vocabulary (green = more of this please, yellow = this is on the edge don’t push further, red = NOPE) is valuable for making this process easier, and having something on the table that people can use during scenes without interrupting game is very helpful. That on-table tool could be an X-card, or several differently colored circles.

Just because you’re playing a horror game doesn’t mean that you should run roughshod over your fellow players. The experience of horror should be in the game and in response to the game, not because your friends were assholes to you in real life.

p.s. the earliest mention of Lines and Veils I could find while writing this today was here, in this thread from 2004.

Prince of Outcasts, by S.M. Stirling

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I want to finish this book. I do. But I’m struggling with it, in a rather painful fashion, for the best possible reasons.

I’ve struggled with Stirling before, and found my way through. Yet even taking into consideration the thoughts I had about milieu and Stirling’s fiction, and how that helped me with previous entries in this ever-expanding series, I’m still having trouble. And it’s all because my friend Caroline ran one of the best Call of Cthulhu campaigns I’ve ever had the pleasure to to play, and Stirling is trying to make use of the same material.

I played Caroline’s game, her modified version of Tatters of the King, more than seven years ago. I still think fondly of the characters in that game (yes, mine, but also those of my friends), but more to the point I think of Caroline’s campaign as a benchmark for slow-growth horror games. Her storytelling, the way in which she introduced us so gradually to the madness that is The King in Yellow, and the way in which she carefully cultivated our own personal experiences of horror until we felt enmeshed in our characters’ insanity, has stood for me as a constant reminder of what good horror storytelling feels like.

Some of this must be the glow of nostalgia. But I know I loved it at the time, too. Otherwise I wouldn’t have kept so many pages of notes in my tiny, cramped handwriting. I wouldn’t have so obsessively catalogued events such that Caroline agreed that my investigator had created his own occult tome.

And for me that intensity, that devouring mystery and too-late dismay, is what it means to traffic with The King in Yellow.

Stirling can’t touch that. For someone else, someone who has not experienced this particular branch of horror mythos in the same way, Prince of Outcasts may be just fine. But for me, Caroline got there first.

Sorry Stirling. I read your book and instead think of that campaign.

I don’t think I’m going to finish this book. Not any time soon at least.

Flash Fiction: Unwelcome

Yet another post inspired by Chuck Wendig’s weekly challenges. I took the “three-sentence challenge” and decided to push it a little bit; I have used five sentences from those provided, and included a modified version of a sixth. I’ll include a list of the sentences I used at the end of the post. Until then, enjoy!

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Flash Fiction: “Ricky’s” Shell Game

Noir Body Horror. That’s the subgenre combo I got for this week’s flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig. With that in mind, I’ve left you a bit of something to puzzle out through implications and scant description. It’s in the same setting as When Dawn Broke, so brain transplants and advanced surgery and donation practices are the norm… as are criminal tissue transplant enterprises and such business establishments as “chop shops.” I’m afraid I went a tiny bit over the word limit, but it’s very nearly 2k.

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Flash Fiction: What Have I Done?

This week’s (second) flash fiction is brought to you courtesy of Chuck Wendig’s challenge on terribleminds. I rolled randomly and got “An accident occurs which may be no accident.” My first attempt started going somewhere but ultimately bored me. My second attempt was, I think, much better. Also potentially disturbing.

Enjoy.

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Flash Fiction: Hot Mess

I started writing a piece last week, and now I’ve finished it.  Or, well, I have a new first draft that tells the story I wanted to tell.  That’s usually what I mean by finished, here.  This piece is in the same setting as Trouble Close Behind and Bloody Expanse, though it’s a bit different.  This one was inspired by Chuck Wendig’s X Meets Y Horror prompt.  Read on past the break!

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“Flash Fiction” In Progress

This is a little piece that I’m writing for Chuck Wendig’s most recent challenge, an X meets Y horror story.  I, of course, got Psycho meets The Muppets.  We’ll see.  I wanted to get some of it done for you today, which is why there’s any post at all, but now I need to go back to doing my actual homework.  You might recognize the setting from Trouble Close Behind and Bloody Expanse.  Enjoy!

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Last Days of Loneliness: Revisions

Hey folks.  No flash fiction for you at the moment, just another piece of story from Last Days of Loneliness, the YA horror novel that I’ve been working on for a while.  Here’s the most recent piece I posted.  I think I’ve rewritten this scene about five times now, but this opening for it just came to me while I was lying in bed last night, so I had to give it a try.  Enjoy!

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