Monday, February 3, 2014

Setting the Mood

Yesterday, I ran my first Call of Cthulhu session. Five gamers were in attendence: J2, S, B, L, and M. They played a Professor, a Lawyer, a Student, a Soldier, and a Medic, respectively. We played "God of Mitnal", an adventure from the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion, an incredible, 500-page ebook available for FREE at This adventure is a prelude adventure to the larger Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign I'm going to run, starting Sunday, Feb. 16th.

The adventure went very well. It was short and purely supplemental to the actual campaign, so I'm not going to bother with an adventure summary. The venerable Call of Cthulhu system (known generically as Basic Role-playing, or BRP), proved once again to be intuitive, straight-forward, and elegant in its simplicity.

I only had one problem: we were being too silly. That's not a bad thing, and I didn't bother to bring it up this session, but I am concerned about how I'm going to keep the game serious once the campaign progresses. It wasn't the players' fault entirely; the adventure has a very pulpy, even Scobby-Doo-esque vibe to it which was kind of conducive to silliness. And I was cracking wise, too. But the real Masks of Nyarlathotep is going to be a long, intense, and epic adventure. I expect moments of levity, but I do NOT want to approach this game with the same wise-ass, joke-cracking demeanor I and my group have taken to these games in the past. The game is bi-weekly, so I'm not worried about burn-out. I want to ratchet up the intensity and fear to levels I've never done in an RPG before.

How do I do that? I seriously have never done anything like this before, in trying to establish and maintain an atmosphere beyond the casual BSing characteristic of most RPG sessions. I've done a lot of different things in 20+ years of roleplaying, but having an authentic horror experience is something I've never done. It's actually quite scary, the thought of it. (the irony of that is not lost on me, by the way).

So since I've never done it before, I'm going to spend a lot of time thinking about how to do it right. Over the next two weeks, I'll be researching and developing techniques for running a serious RPG session. The following are some ideas of techniques I'm thinking of trying out. I would really like to hear from anyone with experience running horror games to let me know their thoughts.

1. The "Cards on the Table" Approach. When everyone arrives at the table, I plan on simply telling them, honestly, "Hey, everyone. We're about to embark on an intense, epic mystery of Lovecraftian horror. To establish the genre and to have as authentic a Lovecraftian experience as possible, I'm going to ask all of you to keep side conversations, jokes, and other such asides to an absolute minimum. If the game is getting too intense for you, please feel free to step outside and take a short break. We will have scheduled breaks on the hour to relieve the tension a little and give you a chance to relax a bit." What do you all think of that? Will that work?

2. The "Undivided Attention" Technique. In addition to "The Cards on the Table" approach, I intend on asking all players at the table to leave all technology behind. No cell phones, laptops, or tablets at the table. Technology is distracting, even when you don't want it to be.

3. The "Multimedia" Approach. Though a bit hypocritical to the Undivided Attention technique, I was thinking of including as much mood music, pictures of real locations, and authentic 1920's details as I can think of and presenting them throughout the adventure. This allows the players to have multiple avenues to engage the story beyond my narrative. The trade-off, I'm afraid, is that if this isn't done right, it'll actually be more distracting than helpful. Plus it creates another task for my prep, much like this next idea...

4. The Reading Technique. With this idea, I'm going to pre-write as many descriptions as possible for various scenes, characters, and dialogue. That way, I'm not stuttering and stammering, giving confusing or colorless descriptions, or otherwise comprimising the story with my own shortcomings as a storyteller. I'm confident enough that my reading voice (coupled with some carefully written passages) can overcome the "boredom factor" of having stuff read to you, but I am concerned about the trade-off in spontaneity. If/when investigators do stuff I'm not fully prepared for, I'm afraid the dip in quality will not only be distracting but also a bit of a metagame tell ("he's not reading a prepared description, so this must not be where we're supposed to go!")

So there's my first batch of ideas. I'll write more entries as I think of more ideas. And once again, please let me know your thoughts, either as comments here or in a private message/email to me, or however you want to do it. Thanks again!


  1. I think the "Cards on the Table" and "Undivided Attention" methods are the right way to go. Props and box text are helpful too, but if you get the buy-in from the players to play a serious game without distractions, that will go a long way.

  2. I like the "Cards on the Table" coupled with "The Reading Technique" because it lets player know you are serious and to reinforce that you provide them with a lot of descriptive information that they would be force to pay attention to considering that there are obvious clues and cues in the text. I usually write out a good portion of encounter information to have something to go on but I leave out certain things like actually dialog and instead replace it with side notes describing what the NPC's or villains would say base on the course of conversation. Doing this gives each scene the structure I want but opens up several options for players to use skills as well as come up with their own dialog to engage the NPC's or villains.

  3. I like where you are going and as an owner of the original release of "Masks" there was also a lot of hand outs and props. As for mood I've read such great ideas as low light and standing away from the group of players like a voice from beyond.

  4. Sometimes I have found that having a Theme for a scene set in your mind at the least will help consistency. And good horror needs concistency. I agree on the "Minimize distractions", "Cards on the table" techniques. But most of all make sure to have some player buy-in. I have in the past gone to the extreme of setting the players a questionaire about their own deep horrors (and which of them I am allowed to use...)

    One player told me about how freaked out he was about his recent eye surgery (and gave me permission to use that for screwing up the tension) a room full of eyes hanging from strings and hooks certainly had him being rather on the tense side.

  5. Horror is real tricky, especially in a tabletop game. It really depends on your players and how invested they're willing to get. The more people there are, the more likely the group is to break character or ruin the tension of a scene, especially if they aren't the focus of the scene. And all it takes is one random comment to completely break the tension. That said, I've found dim lighting and ambient music helps get people in the right frame of mind. Hopefully it won't be as much of an uphill battle as you think. That was a silly adventure but it's not indicative of the game as a whole.

  6. I support #1, #2 and #3, but strongly discourage reading description. Better to describe things in ways that relate to the individual characters, rather than to present something that seems set in stone before the game started. Oberoten's suggestion for personal touches has worked very well for me. For #3 -- make sure you practice using your sound equipment ahead of time. It can be a mod and pace killer to stop the game while looking for a playlist or installing a plugin. Most of all: relax. You're going to be awesome.


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