CHECK FOR SUSPENSE

Horror stories such as Alien can teach us how to add suspense to tabletop games. (20th Century Fox)

In horror stories, whether they take the form of movies, television shows or books, the thing that goes bump in the night doesn’t often appear out of nowhere. Instead, it appears after the audience hears that bump, increasing suspense, as well as the eventual scare. And that’s something you can do during your tabletop adventures by having your characters make perception checks.

For example, consider the science fiction/suspense classic Alien. The movie’s iconic facehugger didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It appeared after the crew of the Nostromo picked up what they thought was an emergency beacon. It happened after three members of that crew travelled deeper and deeper into the derelict spacecraft which seemed to be the source of the beacon. It happened after one of the characters discovered that signal might have actually been a warning. And it happened after another character found a clutch of eggs within the spacecraft, one of which began to slowly open. At each point, director Ridley Scott and writer Dan O’Bannon ratcheted up the tension. So, by the time the facehugger erupted from that egg, the audience was ready to be frightened.

So here’s an example of how you might use that same technique in an adventure. In my upcoming module Blind Man’s Buff, the characters visit an abandoned manor house haunted by a spectre. If certain conditions are met, the spectre could attack the characters. But, before that happens, each party member makes two perception checks over the course of several minutes. Those that make the first one feel the air grow colder around them. And those that make the second one hear a wailing sound amidst the howling wind. By the time the spectre arrives – his elongated mouth and razor sharp teeth having locked his face into a perpetual scream – what could have been an ordinary combat encounter has become a little more suspenseful and memorable. Moreover, it has the added bonus of making the encounter a little more tactical, giving particularly perceptive characters a chance to prepare for what could be a difficult fight.

This technique, where perception checks gradually reveal more and more of the doom that awaits the adventurers, is great for quests set in Ravenloft or any module that has gothic or horror themes. Even an unsuccessful check can increase the tension at your tabletop as players wonder what bump they might have missed and whether there is a thing lurking just out of sight.

SHOW AND TELL

I think text on video advertisements can be a compelling way for Dungeon Masters Guild authors to market their creations (something Matt Rauscher, for example, did for his two Days of Blight adventures). That’s why I’m going to be putting one together for my first adventure, Blind Man’s Buff, which will be released later this summer.

However, in the meantime, I did the same thing for my illustrator and cartographer Randy Musseau, a Corner Brook, NL-based graphic designer who is also the creator of the Bay of Spirits fantasy setting. So I thought it would be helpful to share with you some of the techniques I used for that project, which promotes a free adventure Randy wrote called Blood in the Snow.

The cover of Blood on the Snow, an adventure in the Bay of the Spirits fantasy setting. (Randy Musseau)

The first step was to see what images he had available. I’m lucky because Randy is a talented artist, having thoroughly and beautifully illustrated the adventure. His maps, in particular, are an inspiration. However, I decided not to use his black and white drawings because they would look inconsistent with the ones that were full-colour. I also ruled out some of the other illustrations because they were too small or oriented vertically rather than horizontally (since they were designed for a page rather than a screen). That left me with two strong possibilities: the adventure’s cover shot and a map of Winterton, the hamlet where it takes place.

A map of Winterton, the village where Blood on the Snow takes place. (Randy Musseau)

From those images, I thought about what kind of narrative I could create. This is important because the text you use must relate to the images that are available. Otherwise, there will be a disjuncture between what the viewer sees and what the viewer reads. After that, I put together a really rough editing script for myself and opened up Final Cut to begin my work:

The editing script for Blood in the Snow’s text on video advertisement. (S.M. Holman)

The first segment of the advertisement uses the map of Winterton. This is what is known as an establishing shot. It gives the viewer a sense of where the action is going to take place. The segment begins with a close-up of the hamlet beneath the words “Near a lonely village.” Notice how the the image is consistent with the text. I also used the adjective “lonely” to emphasize the cold isolation that Randy’s map evokes. The camera then pans up to a wider shot of the peaks above the village as the words “Amidst the high mountains” appear. Again, the image is consistent with the text. And, again, I used a simple adjective (“high”) to emphasize a quality that’s already present in the image.

The second segment uses the adventure’s cover shot: a snowy road with a bloody hat in the middle of it. You can almost feel the camera getting closer to where the action is going to take place. The segment begins with a close-up of the flurries above the road beneath the words “A travelling merchants stumbles into a blizzard and vanishes.” I didn’t have an image of the merchant. But I did have an image of falling snow. So I was able to keep the text consistent with the image. Then, the camera pans down to a close-up of the bloody cap beneath the words, “Leaving behind nothing but…Blood in the Snow.”

A simple and intriguing story has been told in just 24 words and two images. I then described what Blood in the Snow is – “a free old school adventure” – with the word “free” hopefully driving traffic to Randy’s Website. And, finally, I added some finishing touches to the video: the sound of a howling snow storm (which was purchased from Soundogs.com for $5.60) and a falling snow effect (which was purchased from Pixel Film Studios for $29.95).

So here’s the takeaway: you don’t need a lot of images to create an advertisement such as this. You just need a few good images that you can write about. Keep it simple. Keep it short. And hopefully that will keep players and dungeon masters buying your creations.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

In The Tasks of Tantalon, the book’s eponymous sorcerer challenges readers to solve a series of puzzlequests. (Stephen Lavis)

Some works of fantasy and science fiction, including Dungeons and Dragons adventures, take great pains to explain their worlds and everything in them. George R.R. Martin, for example, took time to write a history of the Seven Kingdoms rather than finishing the series about those lands. But sometimes not explaining everything can be a powerful storytelling technique, prompting players to wonder about the world you’ve created and explore it with their own imagination.

I first encountered that technique in The Tasks of Tantalon, a puzzle book written by Steve Jackson of Fighting Fantasy fame. Set in the Kingdom of Gallantaria, many of those puzzles mentioned persons, places or things that were only partially explained. One of them began with the following rhyme:

In The Tasks of Tantalon, the Princes of the Ham had been transformed into frogs by the Moon-Worshippers of Phlanx. (Stephen Lavis)

Jackson never explained who those seven young princes were or where the Ham was. I only knew that they ruled over it. Nor did Jackson offer any additional details about their captors, except to describe them as the Moon-Worshippers of Phlanx. I only knew that their sorcery and faith had something to do with moon, perhaps happening under the cover of darkness. But I still remember the wonder those odd names created for my elementary school-self.

Of course, Jackson isn’t the only one to have used that technique. And you want to be careful not to explain too little – something that fantasy and science fiction authors can also be guilty of. The key is for these names and miniature descriptions to provide enough information that your players’ imaginations can fill-in-the-blanks for themselves.

For example, in my own campaign, one of the principle protagonists is a proto-fascist movement called the Directorate, which has been conquering cities and nations with a combination of high magic and technology. I had it in my mind that one of those technologies might be enormous flamethrowers, similar to those deployed by the British in the trenches of World War One. But a flamethrower sounds more modern than medieval, as well as being too descriptive.

The Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector was almost 20 metres long, weighed 2.5 tonnes and required a seven-man crew. (National Archives)

As a result, I’ve instead described them as “gigantic siege torches.” Each of those words is pregnant with enough meaning that my players can birth an image of those devices for themselves. Similarly, I’ve named a saltwater marsh in my world The Drowned Coast. These words suggest to the players what might happen there, as well as the geography and conditions they might encounter. But it’s not literally descriptive either. Nor is it just a jumble of nonsense words, which can sometimes be evocative but can sometimes be confusing – especially for novice players.

HERE BE DRAGONS

Mythology isn’t the only source of inspiration for fantastical creatures. (Abraham Ortelius)

Traditional mythology provides the foundation for many of Dungeons and Dragons’ best known races and monsters: from elves, dwarves and trolls to centaurs, harpies and manticores. But, when creating your own monsters, think about letting other historical sources inspire you.

Medieval and renaissance maps, for example, often featured fantastical creatures. Some were mythical. But others were imagined or came from the belief that every land animal had an equivalent in the sea. Those creatures, which are the subject of the #mapmonstermonday hashtag and two recent books, could easily make an appearance in your campaigns or adventures. Old natural history encyclopedias, such as The History of Four–Footed Beasts and Serpents or Hortus sanitatis, can also be inspiring. You can find some examples of their weirder entries here, with texts like Liber Monstrorum, The Marvels of the East and Monstrorum Historia being filled with even stranger creatures. Even old newspaper stories about cryptids (“an animal whose existence or survival is disputed or unsubstantiated”) are worth perusing.

For example, when I searched NewspaperArchive.com for the term “sea monster,” I learned that, in 1817, the Annapolis Maryland Republican And Political Agricultural Museum reported the master of the ship Leonidas saw “within 20 feet of the ship a strange fish: Its lower part formed like a fish, and white; the top of the back brown, with short hair on the head and back – about 5 feet long. The breast, shoulder, head and face had the appearance of a human being. It was calm, and the fish was seen playing around the ship the whole afternoon.” A Google search for the word “cryptids” can be helpful.

Here’s how I’ve used that technique: in an adventure I’m writing, I needed a low to mid-level sea monster that might be found in a stretch of cold ocean the characters will be crossing. To my thinking, none of the underwater creatures published by Wizards of the Coast seemed particularly at home among the icebergs. My search for inspiration led me to the Margate monster, which was given the nickname Trunko. Sighted in 1922 fighting two orcas, it reportedly looked like a “polar bear of mammoth proportions” with a trunk at one end and a lobster tail at the other.

That description resulted in the creation of the great furred sea serpent. Measuring 20’ long, it has the head of giant wolf, the tail of an equally large lobster tail and is covered with white fur – the result of magical and scientific experimentation gone awry. Its stat block uses a modified version of the one for the plesiosaurus. And I hope it’s going to disturb at least some of my players when they encounter it.