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Last week, in our Trail of Cthulhu campaign, the Investigators found a Mi-Go city. They needed to go in, to rescue someone trapped inside.

However, my description of the city fell rather flat. Specifically, it never seemed dangerous. The Investigators went through the city. At one point, they saw a Mi-Go, and successfully rolled Stealth to hide. Then they continued and found the prisoner.

Essentially, then, the Investigators strolled through the city and found what they were looking for. It never felt dangerous.

How can I make this city feel dangerous? Here are the methods I know:

  1. Have a fight with the monsters. But I don't want this: I want the monsters to seem invincible, so that the players must not be spotted.

  2. Roll Stealth to avoid being seen by the monsters. But this doesn't seem scary: the Investigators usually succeed, which means there are no consequences; and if they failed, that would simply lead to a fight.

What can I do, specifically, to make this city full of monsters seem dangerous? (Although this is a Trail of Cthulhu game, the problem doesn't seem specific to Trail of Cthulhu. Feel free to answer this question as if it were about Call of Cthulhu.)

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10 Answers

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Make the consequences of failure different and interesting.

There currently seems to be this problem where either failed sneak = combat, and you go from suspense to violent action (and then it's not easy to get suspense back). Even if you make the penalty almost being caught by a big scary thing, it frames the consequences of failure in statted, fightable terms. Show players a large monster behind the wall, and they expect you to let them fight it, to paraphrase a famous piece of advice for authors.

I think it would be a mistake to make the penalty effectively just a threat. Nothing kills tension for me like feeling the GM will make failed checks inconsequential.

Instead, have them make a sneak check, same old same old. Until they fail. Then there's a scene - They have a close scrape with something whose very presence offends reality; A twisted and semi ethereal creature merges with them; They fall asleep in the embrace of glowing spores, and wake up some 12 hours later, seemingly untouched...

No combat. No release from tension with gritty combat and hit points and killing stuff. They just lose stuff. Stuff they care about. Now this depends on the players, but maybe they lose hard numbers from their character sheet, or maybe they lose memories. Whatever your players will find horrific.

And then?

Then they are still in the depths of an alien city. Three sneak checks from the exit. And suddenly being caught isn't about another fight. Suddenly the clumsy tough guy seems like a terrible person to hang around with. You've got tension.

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Brilliant stuff, thank you. I like the fictional consequences to failed sneak rolls. –  Graham Nov 2 '10 at 16:25
    
Excellent answer; thinking beyond the 'beat up the X' concept. –  Rob Oct 8 '12 at 14:32
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Offer difficult, maybe impossible choices.

You can reach the hostage quickly, quietly, safely, or unshaken. Choose two.

When found, the hostage is mobile, aware, sane or healthy. Choose two.

The Mi-Go are observant, powerful, deadly or devious. Choose two.

If being seen is tantamount to being ripped apart and spread all over the cyclopean street, establish a situation where somebody has to be seen for the rescue to work.

Maybe the sacrifice isn't so enormous - maybe some appurtenance in the terrible city clasps onto a character's hand, and he must not cry out. Maybe he needs to either lose the hand or give someone else away to the Mi-Go.

Also, your description and scene-setting can go a long way toward implying murderous, inescapable danger, right? Make is alien, terrifying, strange and unwholesome. Make it impossible and strenuous just to move from place to place. Make them feel like insects and then shine a big light and watch them scurry.

If at all possible, have some NPCs along that can be turned into examples (and steaming piles of meat). Demonstrate the danger by direct action.

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I like the choices. How could I implement those in Trail/Call? I can't just say "Choose two of quickly, quietly, safely or unshaken". And how do I make it impossible/strenuous to move from place to place? –  Graham Oct 18 '10 at 19:52
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Here's how I'd approach the concept of sneaking through a hostile city.

  • Don't use single stealth rolls on their own. Instead, use series of rolls for each instance. Require two successes out of three checks to get across a section of the city, or perhaps use a system of rolling until three successes (good) or three failures (bad) are reached. This lets you up the difficulty numbers to the point where the players will fail a few, while making it easier overall.

  • Use a visible display of an "alert level" for the city. Use beads, a die that counts upwards, poker chips, whatever. When the players fail a roll, or do something that seems like it should be noisy, make a show of increasing the alert level. As it increases, role-play the antagonists as being more on edge, and increase the difficulty for stealth checks. Perhaps a specific alert level indicates that the players have finally failed and been caught.

  • Treat stealth encounters as actual encounters. Describe the scenario, and give the players an opportunity to roleplay it. Describe the result of checks (perhaps one of the Mi-go starts sniffing in the players' direction after the first failed check). Use a variety of situations.

  • Make the players choose between actions that increase the alert level, actions that are difficult to accomplish, and actions that require more stealth checks. For example, they may encounter a wall blocking their path. They can climb the wall free-hand (hard), drag a ladder over to the wall (increases alert), or go around (takes longer, requires more rolls).

Horror is a tough concept to get right in games. You have two competing problems: You want the game to feel dangerous, and yet you don't want anyone to actually die (because shuffling characters breaks immersion; usually badly). There are a couple of articles by Shamus Young that discuss this concept in video games (Games and the Fear of Death, You Don't Scare Me); you might be able to apply some of that to your particular needs.

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Those are wonderful, wonderful links. Thank you very much. I also like the alert level. (I can see advantages in either: having the "alert level" as a countdown; or letting it count up, with the players unsure what the critical level is.) –  Graham Oct 18 '10 at 20:35
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I like the idea of adding beads to a pile on failure… and not explaining them. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 18 '10 at 21:54
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Trail of Cthulhu, and all Gumshoe games, involves resource management. The players need to preserve their action (and investigative points) long enough to reach the climax and hopefully (but not necessarily) survive -- All the while maintaining sanity and stability.

The key then is to make enough encounters where a choice between spending points from an investigative skill, a combat/stealth skill, or loosing sanity is an option. Add, as suggested, a time metric (I’d recommend some sort of scale which moves up and down perhaps) and then provide atmosphere to match. The players, watching their resources diminish, and time run out, should provide the urgency and the fear.

I often choose a few skills that are stressed. I then provide 2x opportunities to spend points than there are points. This allows me to get the players whittled down and thus make hard choices between effectiveness/coolness and the end game.

I would setup a series of tasks, similar to this:

Situation: The Flapping sounds from above, theyr'e horrible. They grow nearer.

Cthulhu Mythos: The Mi-Go lurk here (blah blah)…Spend 1: The geometries of the city are such that the entire construct is aware at some base level, the street itself calls out for the Mi-Go to seek you out. Flee! Flee you fools. Spend 2: “But you can use those geometries to your advantage remembering the charm of Abso-Nortath….” (bonus to stealth and flee roles.”

Flee skill check. Don’t be afraid to point out the better you do the better the results. Low DC: “well that was close, but no, they still come, they still come. You are only safe for a little while.” Increase threat metric two points. Middle DC: “For a moment you are safe, but beneath this strange sky not for long. As you move forward”(another scene). Increase threat metric 1 point. High DC: You’ve escaped through the interstitial linkings of the city. Perhaps now you can proceed better. Lets do a stealth check.

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That's a very good situation. Thank you. I like the Migo closing in, rather than attacking outright. (I'm not totally convinced resource management is the key: it's hard to tune it so that they run out at the end of the adventure. But that situation's great.) –  Graham Oct 21 '10 at 17:01
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My answer got longer than I intended:

Bears Are Not (That) Scary

Basically, sneaking and the threat of getting detected are not what's going to elicit interesting fear.

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It's interesting, Ben, but it does rather avoid the question. Your post introduces a new plot element. But I want sneaking to elicit the fear. It should do: sneaking through a dangerous city should be scary. So the question is: how do I do that? –  Graham Oct 22 '10 at 1:00
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@Graham I didn't read that as, "change the threat/conflict" so much as, "Unnerve the players. Violate their expectations. Keep them off balance and don't let them know how much trouble they're in." –  SevenSidedDie Oct 22 '10 at 4:15
    
I like it when it's stated in those terms. I'm less keen on the specific suggestions in the post. I'd like to make sneaking scary, in itself. –  Graham Oct 22 '10 at 13:48
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If you want to make sneaking seem scary to the players, have them be discovered. There are more ways to be noticed than simply failing a Stealth check, after all. Make it something big and menacing that they can't just gun down, but slow enough/dumb enough/constrained enough that they can get away. Sneaking will be scarier if there's a sense of painful consequence hanging over their heads, and the best way to create that is to go ahead and hit them with a consequence that 1) terrifies them but 2) doesn't rouse the city against them.

What's scary about sneaking? Getting caught. So let them get caught, but in a way that doesn't make it impossible to keep sneaking. Then their fear is grounded in their experiences, not just your ability to sustain a particular mood for several other people.

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That makes some sense. But, once they're discovered, how do I deal with that? I'd like to avoid combat. –  Graham Oct 26 '10 at 15:52
    
It depends partly on your players. If they're going to charge into combat no matter what, well, you do have a problem. They're probably the wrong players for a sneak-through-the-creepy scenario. However, if they have some sense of self-preservation, confront them with something that can destroy them - but only IF it catches them, and it can aaaalllmost-but-not-quite-catch them. –  sprenge777 Oct 28 '10 at 14:54
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Make the threat clear.

Show the risk. Find other victims, ideally who died in inexplicable ways. A perfectly smooth hole through the chest. A perfectly smooth face devoid of eyes, nose, mouth, hair. Sliced into razor thin pieces.

Minor failures. Make the checks hard with the expectation of failure, but have the immediate response be more threatening than directly confrontational. Step on a pressure plate or break a beam of light and something happens. Maybe all of the lights in the area extinguish (even the PC's), except for a spotlight on one of them, and it tracks them for some distance. Exploratory tentacles or crystline shards quickly grow out of the walls and floor, blocking exits and approaching the PCs. The ceiling sprouts hundreds of eyes, all looking at one of the PCs. Odd sounds (an alarm) are heard in the distance. Searchlights track small points on the floor, moving around as though tracking a group of things chasing, then encircling the PCs, but nothing is there.

Don't roll yet. Go to straight back and forth narration. Ask questions, add complications, and keep the player thinking and evaluating the situation. When a player says, "I hide," ask how and where. "Behind that low wall." Now complicate things, mention that a light automatically turns on to illuminate the area he hid in, making it clear someone is there. Now what? "I wait." Hmmm, a Mi-Go approaching, making unintelligible noises, as it rounds a nearby corner it stop speaking for a moment, then you hear it heading directly toward you. Now what? "I lie flat, holding my breath." That's an engaged and worried player. Now you might call for a roll.

Hard choices. Offer the players choices they don't want to have to make. They can wait out a guard shift, but they'll be hungry. They have a chance to grab the crystal right now, but the shoggoth will be right behind them.

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That's really good stuff, Alan. Thank you very much. I like the minor failures. –  Graham Nov 1 '10 at 20:07
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Most of the answer focus on rules and dice rolls. You can built tension with descriptions, environment, and sounds.

Descriptions: Look at how Lovecraft (and Howard and Ashton Smith and Dunsany) describe mythical places. Start using the same vocabulary. Speak slowly, describes details that seem so relevant but are just plain weird. Paraphrased from Houser of Leaves: "It sounded like teeth crushing bones... How the hell did I know how that sounded?". Describe the characters' heart rate rising, cold seat pouring in their eyes, the deep sense of doom and gloom. Describe a disassociation between the character and what they do ("you are hearing someone hum softly. As you focus on the sound, you realise it is coming from close by. You notice all your companions looking at you and realise that you are humming what sounds like FTAGN! Why are you doing that?").

Environment: Light and sounds. Close curtains, use one lamp with a red bulb (or a black light). If it is winter, open a window to get cold air in. Use smells from Incense then burn a hair -- don't be a douche and set your own hair on fire! Vary the tone and level of your voice. If the player do not whisper, make sure that the character is saying it very loudly thus attracting shadows and strange eyes looking at them. The characters fall into darkness, make the players wear blind folds.

Sounds: Where to start? Sounds effects are king. Spooky ones can be found but the best ones are natural ones (industrial, storms, rain, crying babies, sobbing, and countless horror sounds. Music by Delirium (Reflection/Sphere/Stone Tower/Syrophenikan), Jeff Greinke's cities in Fog and the Silent Hill soundtracks are all well worth investigating. Some of the stranger track on repeat are going to enhance that strangeness.

But none of those will work unless the players buy into this and play the game. This is role playing after all so they have to play along.

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I would handle this issue within the narrative of the game.

First describe the alien construction aesthetics. Make the buildings based on a perfect solids other than cubes. I added an element of horror by saying that the buildings seem to be based on a combination of dodecahedrons (12 sided dice-like) and tetrahedrons (4 sided dice), but somehow 5 tetrahedrons are able to integrate into the pentagram shape of the dodecahedrons without leaving any space. Play with the confusion of the dimensions like the players are dealing with some mad bastardly Escher drawing where going back the way you came might not lead you to the same place you started. Describe strange chemical smells, surfaces that become warm or cold to their touch, rooms that suddenly become flooded with ultraviolet light making all their white clothing glow.

That feeling of being lost and you don't even know why you could have got lost is problematic, bit you can play it up further.

Describe situations where their sneaking can become a matter of life and death: they are in a hallway and peering around a corner they notice 18 Mi-go heading purposefully in their direction, and at the same time at the other end of the hallway some huge three legged slimy shambling thing is heading their way. There is a single doorway that one and at most 2 people could hide in but they have a party of 4 and they don't know what's inside. Does everyone do their best to crouch in shadows and hope that the shadows will provide protection from the alien senses ? Do they try the door? Do they hope that the huge shambling thing will lack the sensory acuity to detect them and try to slink past it? "Those 18 Mi-go are getting closer, what will you do? 30 seconds, I want statements of intent."

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Welcome to the site, Fred. Good Advice. Make sure to read our FAQ. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Oct 8 '12 at 1:36
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Let your players do the hard work for you. Once they fail a stealth roll, just say nothing and stop asking for stealth rolls. This will cause them to get primed for something they don't know yet. They will either try to find whatever it was or avoid it completely, but their imagination will go into overdrive and they will respond in a paranoid way to every little stimulus you provide from then on.

Once they build some suspense, give a clue that one of them is exclusively being watched or followed by something. This will get them thinking again, about what's causing that character to be singled out. This will cause even more confusion as they try to figure out why.

Next, have your alien domain do something incredible to the singled-out character. Have him severely maimed for some reason (e.g. a Mi-Go appears, eats off a leg and disappears before the others can do anything) or give him an miraculous ability (e.g. having a weird dream and waking up with the ability to read the alien runes without effort). In any case, the team will be wearing themselves out, discussing and planning and maybe even turning on each other.

If they lose it and start acting stupid in a city full of alien terrors despite clear indications of danger, then they asked for it. Have them bear the full consequences of facing the locals head on, including TPK. If they still manage to stay on target and complete their mission, let them.

All the while, listen to what your players are discussing. In the end, they will want to know what this was all about. Towards the end, give them a vague clue, derived from one of the things they discussed and preferably dismissed earlier. They will probably have an "I told you so" moment but keep discussing even after the game if your clue is vague enough.

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