Traditional Role Playing
Until you've played in the traditional way, your're playing RPG's as glorified war games. By this I mean that many people play RPG's like a board game or even a paper video game.
We've all seen the massive game set ups with miniatures depicting what is going on in the game. People enjoy knowing what is where and why, yet this tendency to depict the fantastical with the mundane detracts from the experience of an RPG.
As David Wesely creator of Braunstein stated in a recent online discussion about newer editions of D&D:
David understands these games very well, since he can claim to have invented them. And he is saying something important as it is the Free Kriegspiel aspects of RPG's that make them what they are. That in fact, it is the unknown that sparks the imagination thus creating a fantastical and enchanting game experience no matter what setting you choose to depict.
RPG's are a performed story that are designed to facilitate possibility. The less that players know about what the rules are the greater their investment in the experience. Thus detailed and complex rules which codify every action a player can choose and which players can purchase and learn reduce the scope of immersion.
My gamer group is a mix of experienced hands and novices. Some of them have never read the rules, they just play their characters as themselves and make reasonable decisions based on what they've learned by playing. That is the beauty of Original Dungeons & Dragons, a person could sit down and be guided through character creation in about 15 minutes and quickly enter an imaginary world.
I won't be the first to espouse this back to the origins attitude. Yet, I feel I can describe a game session I ran that will reveal the utility of no miniatures and hardly any rules.
Image from Cave Evil board game
I really like to use horror themes in my medieval fantasy game to scare the pants off my players. Horror movies have a basic structure that involves building tension. At first the evil thing is not understood and has no form which allows the viewer to imagine all kinds of things about it and scare themselves in the process. As the story progresses it manifests a clearer more substantial form and also becomes larger. A good example of this is the movie Jaws. In beginning scenes we don't see the shark and it seems to have supernatural and unknown power. By the end of the film it's just a dumb giant chomping water monster. Once it has a form it can be killed.
I decided to create a supernatural creature for my game. Imagine a creature that is made up of many tiny parts like a bee colony. What it needs to survive, or feeds on, is the mental energy produced by people who are experiencing feelings of terror. What is more, it has the ability to gather its tiny components together to manifest as any kind of nightmare creature it desires.
I will likely create some outrage by telling you that I have not even created stats for this collective being. I will just give it a name and decide how it affects the players. I call it a Tingle.
Bob Meyer's notebook during the annual Blackmoor game
A Special Monster Encounter the Tingle
Tingles live in remote barren places both underground and in the wilds. They hide underground during the day taking the forms of beetles and centipedes. They prey upon the humanoid races. They are known to kidnap victims and keep them in underground lairs for extended periods while also exposing the victim to unimaginable nightmare experiences that eventually cause their victims to lose their minds and even become weak and perish.
Sometimes they will release a victim and track him/her in the hopes that it will lead them to new prey. Other times they will even pose as a victim to lure players.
The Primary Motive for a Tingle is to frighten the puny humans. They aren't actually out to kill anyone even if it can happen during an encounter. Of course, players will know nothing of this.
As I said before a Tingle has no stats. The only thing they do is elicit fear through creating terrifying events for their victims. And the only way to explain how to run an encounter with a Tingle is by a demonstration of their powers of manipulation.
And these powers are extremely flexible, being entirely at the whim of the referee.
Some of you may be thinking, Griff's a cheating DM -- I am!
Consider that I know my system and can fake any encounter and my players will never know, that is also the mystique of being a referee.
The To Hit charts from OD&D Volume 1, Men and Magic
A Cheated Game Session
This is what I recall of the first game session where I used a Tingle against my players. Most of this was impromptu and very much ad hoc during the session.
My players were wandering through the wilderness. As night fall came they set up a camp, built a fire, and decided who would take what watch in pairs to avoid being surprised by wandering monsters.
The referee grabs a piece of scratch paper and makes the players mark where they sleep in relation to the fire.
Rule 1: Tingles always have surprise - they have rudimentary psychic powers.
Then the referee begins with:
All of you have settled in for the night. You've just eaten your dinner. Clouds have moved in to obscure the moon. A misty rain has begun to fall. I need everyone to give me roll on a d20.
Who rolled equal, or under their intelligence score? ok, make a little check mark next to your intelligence score.
Those of you who have succeeded in making the roll are now aware of a strange sensation. It's as if something is tickling the back of your mind. It's a tingling sensation in your brain.
It comes and goes and then fades out.
At this point those who understand the mechanics in the game will be aware that those with higher intelligence are being singled out for something and it's probably not a good thing either.
Image from Cave Evil board game
The First Watch
Everyone is tucked in to sleep except for those on watch, who are they?
About a half an hour into your watch you hear a voice out in the woods. Someone is screaming in the darkness. It's coming closer.
My players woke up the sleeping party members as they prepared for 'whatever it is' that was coming near.
The sound has stopped and everything is very still. In fact, it's too still, even the wildlife isn't making a sound.
Suddenly a figure appears out of the darkness and runs right into middle of the party next to the fire. He's human. His clothes are torn up and shredded to rags. He has scratches all over him. Most of all, he has a wild crazy look to his eyes.
He turns toward all of you: They're following me!
The referee pauses so players can ask a question, but the crazy man will ignore them and continue speaking.
They eat your mind. Can't you feel it? They get in your head and they eat you from the inside.
The man points to his head.
Ok, I need everyone to make another d20 roll on intelligence. If you've already failed your roll add a +1 to your die roll. Anyone failing a roll mark your character sheet.
Those of you who failed can sense a pronounced tingling in your head. It's a lot like when you have ringing in your ears, but it's in your brain.
The man is peering out into the darkness that surrounds your camp. He points - Over there!
He grabs the wizard by the shoulders: You've got to get them way from the fire.
Run while you can!
The crazy man begins to dissolve right before your eyes. Beginning at the top of his head, he falls apart as his body becomes a mass of beetles, centipedes, and other insects. All that is left is a pile of clothing on the ground that the insects quickly scurry out of as they disperse, many of them burrow right into the moist soil.
Those of you who were experiencing tingling will notice that it has abruptly stopped.
The forest is completely silent and still.
The misty rain keeps falling.
Everything is lit briefly by a lightning strike and a thunder clap.
Note: An NPC can say things to the players that they could not yet know. In this case the NPC is telling them there is something coming that can eat your brain. He's also advising the players to do something very bad, which is to run off into the darkness.
This information along with the actual Tingling in some of the players heads should also inform the players that the stakes have been raised and they are in for a lot of trouble.
Image from Cave Evil board game
The Second Watch
Regardless of what the party has chosen to do things pick up again during the second night watch.
I need everyone to make a roll vs. Intelligence. For every check mark against Intelligence you have to add +1 to your die roll. Try to roll under.
By now any magic users will be fighting against terrible odds and failing rolls because every failed roll means another +1 to the saving throw. If someone rolls a natural 20, they begin to hyperventilate, then panic and start to run into the woods. Other players should be allowed to stop them IF they try. Otherwise, those who run into the woods will be on their own. You can do their encounter solo later on over the phone. Regardless, anyone who failed a roll will feel very uneasy as priests and wizards will have a hard time concentrating while casting spells. Give them a 50% fail chance on spells just for fun.
The one person who rolled a natural 20. You are hyperventilating. As you look at everyone else in the party you can see by the fire light that all of them have bloody skulls for faces. The incessant tingling in your head has risen to a roar and you know the only safe place is somewhere away from here.
Let the players deal with this situation, yet perhaps interrupt them if they go too long. This whole encounter is a psyche job and you want to keep the players uneasy and do not want them to understand what is happening. Interrupting them in the middle of solving a problem helps break their attention and muddle things.
The referee rolls randomly, then points at player and says: You hear something rustling through the undergrowth. One of you notices a pair of eyes reflecting the fire light and then they close. Something just made a little barking sound off to the left, over there.
It seems like there may be some kind of creature, or several creatures, right outside of the ring of fire light. The cloud cover and mist have made the night too dark to see very far beyond this ring of safety.
Demanding details is how a referee makes players unsure. Most players know that details mean the referee may be about to do something to them, so I follow up with my next statement.
I need everyone to mark where they are standing in relation to the fire on this sheet of paper.
It was at this point my players threw everything flammable they could find in camp into the fire to make more light. They were already freaked out. If magic is used to create light, describe some kind of fur covered lanky animal slinking into the darkness, maybe it's big like a wolf but has a rat's tail.
Depending on the size of your party the next stage is designed to create a chaotic situation. And I unnerve the players even more through the use of deflection and flanking.
The Referee rolls a die and points at a player and says: Something that looks like a half rat half wolf comes leaping out of the darkness.
The referee rolls for an attack with the player not being able to counter attack. Giving the Tingle surpise automatically also serves to make the players feel helpless. As the other players naturally gravitate toward the combat their attention has been deflected and the next rat-wolf can appear.
The referee randomly chooses a character on the opposite side of the camp and says: A wolf like creature jumps out of the darkness from behind you knocking you to the ground.
It's up to each referee to decide how tough the rat-wolves are and how many should appear. My personal feeling is that 2-3 is plenty. With OD&D, or AD&D I'd make them maybe 1-2 HD with an AC of 7.
The combat should be played fast, as a referee you should demand quick responses from players about what they do. If someone thinks too hard start counting 5-4-3… If they still can't decide, just skip them and move to the next player.
Narrate the action: The creature lunges out of the darkness and bites your shoulder for 3 points of damage. You are bleeding heavily, what do you do?
Of course there are no bleednig rules in OD&D, but my players never know what I will pull on them; the introduction of the idea that they could bleed out is cause for alarm.
Combat is fast and deadly. The reason for not using miniatures is because moving figures takes time. This is a life or death encounter and not a chess game. I start at my left, and go player by player around the table. I actually put them on the spot by pointing and saying: You, what are you doing?
As each wolf is killed it crumbles and becomes a mass of insects, just as the old man did.
The Third Watch
By now the players know they are in for the long haul. This game is a defense scenario. They are trapped by the darkness and must stay near the fire and the enemy has all the mobility and decision making power.
If this encounter in any way reminds you of the Ring Wraiths stalking the group of hobbits it is because these elements for creating tension come directly from horror literature, which is what Tolkien used in his own books.
Once the players realize that they are not in control of things they begin to worry. This is the entire point of this kind of encounter. You want the players to experience fear of the unknown and you want them to feel out of control and helpless.
It's time to pile on some more Referee Tricks. This is really an ideal time to demand some detailed information and a make the players do a fake die roll.
Details: Where are you standing? What are you holding? Which way are you looking?
Ok, I need everyone to show me where they are sitting and how they are facing on this piece of paper.
Then you go player by player while looking at the diagram: Ok, you are facing this way, roll me a d20 and tell me what you got.
This is a fake roll. Players will anticipate some kind of result. No matter what they roll just look at the map and say: You do not seem to notice anything. Also, is anyone making sure the fire does not burn down?
Now the referee rolls a d6 to choose to what side of the fire the next creature appears from.
Before any of you can realize what is happening the ground next to the fire bursts open and a giant six legged bear comes leaping out attacking the nearest player.
Roll for the bear's attack. Let's make this a little tougher since we only have one, HD: 6 AC: 6.
Before the players can counter attack make them roll vs. Intelligence again. Anyone failing their roll will fail to the ground paralyzed by the Tingling Sensation in their brain. It now feels like something is literally burrowing into their skull and all they can do is roll around on the ground in agony.
The Fourth Watch
Late into the fourth watch the tingling begins anew. Everyone roll vs. Intelligence. If you fail your roll you fall down in agony. The rest of you hear what sounds like thousands of crickets singing in the Darkness. As you peer outward from the fire, you can see great forms rising out of the ground. As they rise up they take on the shape of giant shambling creatures with three arms and four legs and one large eye. They must be about 20 feet tall.
Let your players savor the fact that IT is now really big and dangerous and there are a lot of them. Hopefully they will be tryimg to come up with some kind of plan for dealing with this new level of abuse, and will likely have zero answers for how to get out alive.
This is when you notice a different sound - birds chirping.
You realize daylight is coming as the sky lightens.
The giant figures begin crumble and fall apart.
The Tingles have feasted on our player's fear, and hopefully no one will have died during the night's events. The players who took Mental Damage in the form of tick marks by their intelligence will recover their actual level by the end of the day and all will return to normal. The rules I used for this encounter were completely made up by me, OD&D does not have stat based saving throws, in fact unless there is a combat there are very few die rolls and play proceeds very quickly. As referee, I could make things up on the fly. In fact, I really didn't need rules for this entire event as it was all driven by narrative, but I find that having just a few die rolls with consequences sometimes adds to the tension of a situation.
I think my players really enjoyed this set of encounters with something unexplained. I had fun keeping them on the edge of their seats. Because we played in the traditional style I was free to do what a good referee does, which is: Be An Entertainer.
Nothing I was doing is revolutionary. A lot of people ran encounters like this in the old days. What I do hope is that those of you who are new to RPG's will consider trying one of the older gamers to see exactly how traditional play is a unique immersive experience as the play style is markedly different from newer editions. If it's not your cup of tea that's fine, yet having played in both the modern style and the traditional manner you can now claim to be a well rounded gamer.
Consider getting a PDF of the Holmes Blue Book, Basic Edition, and seeing just how different the rules are too. The book is tiny with only 48 pages, yet it contains an entire RPG!
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