Interactive GM'ing (Or how to make a dark theme actually dark)


  • Coder

    I've been tossing around some thoughts since reading the obfuscate code question and it made me realize that part of the problem with any 'dark' theme/setting is that it doesn't really translate well to MUSH. Maybe we've lost that 'edge' that made games more immersive in that fashion, maybe we're trivializing things that should be focused on, I don't know, but I thought about ways to ramp things up and was curious as to how many other ideas might be out there.

    One of the things I was thinking about was adjusting the jobs system so that it would announce to participants that there was activity in their jobs via @pemit, maybe even in a different color so it stands out.

    Then you could make up a job that was directed towards someone and just ask them to roll something, like, perception for example, to the job. Then you just leave it alone, never touch it, they will wonder why you asked them to roll perception and you can answer: No reason ;)

    Their own imagination will do the work for you, and then they might actually start investigating something just out of paranoia, which would generate RP.

    You could randomly drop stuff down on people. Just bam, something happens to random people who are anywhere IC out of the blue.

    You could still have meta things going on of course, but even these few little things (I feel) would help make the game world feel /alive/ rather than a world based on the +events calendar.


  • Pitcrew

    Depend on what you mean by "dark" maybe. I don't think Dropping Anvils By Night is more dark; the darkness I prefer comes from putting people in situations where they have to make terrible choices and the impacts that result from it, rather things that happen TO the PC.

    I've played on places that had random job events come up, as well as random 'roll this' from dark staff, ect. I don't think it made things gritty at all, though it's fun in its own way.

    I think it is the STs and the stories that you participate in that make a place dark. I don't think that can be done with processes. I do agree that what you propose would make the game more "alive" or immersive, but I don't think it has anything to do with darkness



  • Honestly, from everything I've heard about 'immersion' and how it relates to IC and OOC paranoia, OOC Masquerade and the contingent drama of 'OH GOD THEY FOUND OUT' OOC, I think the further we get from that the better. A game can be dark and have IC paranoia and have hard choices, without having to have that OOC level of disconnect. In my experience, those kinds of OOC issues just drive players apart and foster a community where people aren't willing to cooperate. And to have a level of civility in a game, there MUST be some level of cooperation and, in my opinion, fostering that so that you have a community who can do the darkest, vilest backstabbing shit to each other in game and go 'Wow, that was fucked up. That was awesome, thanks for playing that out' when OOC, is the ideal we should shoot for.


  • Pitcrew

    I think, first, you have to define what you mean by "dark", because there's a lot of things that can entail. Supernatural horror is one kind of dark. Bleak, existential nihilism is another. Let's-be-bad-guys id-exploration can be another form of dark. However, how you'd run those three games would look very different from one another.

    The "blind rolling" thing can sometimes be an effective tool for ramping up player tension - although tension is, again, something different from a dark theme. However, it relies on a certain amount of trust between player and GM, and if that trust isn't there, then it tends to just cause irritation.

    For me, being able to play or run a dark theme relies on explicit player buy in (wanting to have a dark experience and everyone being on the same page about what that means - so, communication), stakes that make the PCs invest themselves in fighting against the darkness (in my experience, PCs in a dark game need to care /even more/ about something in the world than players in a bright game, because something has to keep them going when everything goes to hell), and just enough ongoing success to keep the players invested even when everything falls to pieces (relentless failure and loss breeds apathy and emotional distance - if you want to keep players engaged, they have to have enough successes that the failures REALLY matter). And enough trust in the GM that while horrible things will happen to the PCs, the GM's first priority is making sure that those horrible things are fun for the /players/.


  • Coder

    I mean dark as in grim, as in pc's are not in control of their own destinies, as in the big bads should BE big bads and not monster of the week fodder.

    I'm not talking about randomly pk'illing people either (If that's what was meant by the 'anvils' comment) I am talking about just dropping random events, happenings, that aren't planned, aren't scheduled, that help bring the world to life, so that there is more going on than regularly scheduled rp.

    I think it's great that people run prp's and staff schedule things, but what about just dropping events and letting it proceed organically? What if someone in the course of travelling the grid suddenly came across someone trying to kidnap someone else, or ran across the victim of a serial killer, or saw someone getting fed on by unaligned vampires, or one of almost innumerable events that /could/ happen in the game world.

    I wasn't talking about OOC masquerades either, I was talking about just a lack of... blandness.

    People today aren't at risk unless they sign up for a plot with a staffer. People don't like to kill others in PrP's even when they should. Everything has kiddy gloves, it turns from World of Darkness to Supernatural Home Economics and Furry Superheroes 101.

    So I am wondering how to inject the grim, the grit, the dark, back into the current WoD landscape of MU*'s.



  • @Lithium
    You do all of that by having a staff corps that has that as a goal, and a design for your game. You have to be engaging as staff and put your time into running stuff like that. And it's hard because, lots of times nowadays, the 'wander the grid' angle won't work. I think a lot of it needs a hook type of thing, enough stuff out there that can be just picked up and run with.

    How to seed these hooks is a bit more difficult, as we often hear things from other games where staff say 'Hey, I'll run something' and get crickets. But being assertive, 'I'm going to run a scene where gang members are robbing an art exhibit' is better (but still not perfect, as lots of times that CAN'T pull up and continue organically). Finding some way to tie it into xisting characters, though... 'I'm going to run a scene where gang members are robbing the Dianna Art Gallery' and poke people who have interests there, a Toreador whose stuff is there or something.

    Lots of games that don't have some type of built-in external conflict can have this problem, especially when a lot of the conflict for some games like WoD is expected to be personal-driven.


  • Coder

    See there's the thing, robbing an art gallery, not very horrific. WoD is supposed to be personal horror, not personal inconveniences.



  • I believe @Bobotron was just giving an example of what gets attention. And why couldn't it be as horrific, as say, coming upon a werewolf casing down a victim? Horrific, at least in my opinion, is subjective and based on how a char is. Like, say I have a happy-go-lucky guy who's been sheltered his whole life and has never really seen anything worse than a few heated words between his parents. He is doing his banking, happily, and in storms bank robbers brandishing their guns and threatening bodily harm to people who don't give up their valuables. That would be pretty traumatic and horrifying for him because it is not something common or even normal in his world. So, I repeat, horrific is pretty dependant on the char and what the players consider horrific.



  • @Lithium
    It's a really basic example, but you get my gist. It has to be pushed out and it can be very hard to be organic with something like this (though it can be a fun way to have people push for Masquerade breach coverups. A lot of times though, that 'horror' thing is hard to insert into something like that.

    Something like, say, a random guy who flips out and kills his girlfriend and tries to (or successfully does) eat her brain, and you're present for the flip-out is more where you're going with for that 'horror' angle, I feel. Which is fine. It's a cool plot seed for something crazy.


  • Coder

    @Bobotron

    That's just one aspect, I'm just trying to figure out how to be true to the source material. When I run a game at home, TT, it's not hard to get that horror out there, psychological, visceral, emotional, whatever. It seems like the larger the cast of PC's the harder it is to make the 'horror' aspect stick. Which is what we see happen with MUSH's.

    I am aware it would take staff being active, and that stuff, I am more curious as to the /methods/ to the madness that people would try to do to make the game darker, grittier, and more horrifying.


  • Admin

    "Horror" of any kind is very tricky to get right on MU. This has very little to do with staff though, other than through their effect on how the game's culture is formed.

    Basically 'dark' plots work when timing meets opportunity, same as most good things. You need a good, creative Storyteller who'll do more than throw gross poses at players, and you need players who're adept at and willing to take those poses and let their characters feel the full impact of the nasty world they're inhabiting - then be able to convey it back.

    It's a tall order. It's also made even harder by the fact some players don't like portraying vulnerability of any kind (so they'll pose looking analytically at these horrors, whatevs) but also because some characters are - for some reason that's beyond me - designed to not give two shits about anything. So if you're playing the ultra-cynical seen-it-all 150 year old vampiric Lord with Composure 5 (7 with full buffs) good luck setting the right mood.

    Does it all mean it's hard to pull off dark story rather than torture pr0n? Why yes, yes it does.


  • Pitcrew

    I am not sure horror is possible on a MUSH, it is damn hard in table top and I have only had one GM ever who was able to invoke a horror feeling me my and I have played with a lot GMs in horror games.
    In games it is generally hard to have horror without removing player agency, and knowledge. On a mush it is even harder. Table top have the advantage of focus, if I am in a TT session that has my full concentration. A mush almost never has that, even if I am in only one scene. I most likely have a web browser occupied to keep me busy between poses, then there is TV and I do not live alone so talking etc. I mean I have had good dark RP on mushes and scenes where my character was horrified but never that gut level reaction from me the player like horror movies or novels can give.



  • I suspect that many players who enjoy horror on the screen don't realize the amount of slow burn and setup of attitudes etc it needs. Body horror is (excuse the pun) visceral exactly because it pulls on things that many directly understand. Anything more complicated requires that you be in the mindset of your character and soak in why something is so horrible.

    Vampire originally included the horror of preying on your own kind, being isolated from your previous life, and living with the Beast which could take over. It's still in the book, but I don't think its in the image of vampires very much anymore.

    Most of the supernatural is treated as superpowers now.


  • Admin

    @Misadventure said:

    Most of the supernatural is treated as superpowers now.

    Yeah, +1 on that. Superheroes with fangs is the norm.



  • @Misadventure said:

    I suspect that many players who enjoy horror on the screen don't realize the amount of slow burn and setup of attitudes etc it needs.

    Very much this. Horror movies are generally not action films. There's a hybrid genre for that, of course, but horror itself generally starts off with subtler indications that something is wrong before it gets to the running and the screaming.

    It's something that, for a PrP, I think requires multiple scenes rather than just one for the story of it to properly unfold. They're usually fairly small scenes, too, at the outset, and it can be difficult to snag player interest with that.



  • I think true horror RP would be better on a game that is distinctively designed for a small player base. It might be something that might be fun to use in the time leap mu*s that people keep talking about wanting.


  • Admin

    I don't think population is that important. It's other factors which make horror very hard to pull off.

    One of the major factors, also, is that in many ways being able to pull off true darkness is playing off of helplessness or of the great unknown. That's very difficult to do when your character has a bunch of powers on a +sheet which are specifically geared either at making them able to help or know things.

    This isn't metagaming but actually roleplaying. If my Mage is a triple Arcana Master or an Elder with vast resources at his disposal then getting him cowed is hard - he wouldn't be where he is if he was easily cowed, and now he has answers; maybe they won't fix whatever is eating his soul but being able to throw a fireball at the bogeyman makes it a little easier than say, a Stephen King novel typical ten year old boy who witnesses the supernatural and not only does he have no tools to fight back, no adult will even believe him.

    Add to that some practical considerations. For instance the fact STs sometimes don't know a lot about characters in their plots, or the tendency many people have on MU* to let their characters be extensions of their egos and mistrust STs who take liberties with them and it's not exactly hard to see why this isn't pulled off more frequently.


  • Pitcrew

    Even if you're not using GMC, something like character breaking points might be a good idea for staff to have, if your focus is on horror. Unknown Armies uses "stimuli" (What will make your character rage, what makes them scared, and what makes them be better than they usually are.) that serve much the same purpose.

    Keep plot scenes small and intimate - the more PCs, the harder it is to hold the right atmosphere. I think some of the /best/ horror I ever ran was a solo campaign in CoC, but probably my most successful game (in terms of people being actively creeped out and talking about it years later) had four PCs, and I deliberately split them up at times, and used the MU* tools to ensure people were receiving, in some cases, personalized emits and pages that isolated them emotionally, if not "physically".

    Slow burn is also a part of it, as is the unknown factor. WoD, in some ways, buffers horror by making it known - oh, these are the werewolves, these are the vampires, and the PLAYER knows what they can do, even if the character has never heard of them before. If you want to really run a horror game, throw that crap out the window, or have your monsters deliberately violate expectations. Furry murder-machine is a physical threat, sure, but it's more of an action piece than a horror. Watching your ten-year-old foster kid scream and convulse on the floor, her skin splitting open and /something awful/ clawing its way out to focus on you with three pairs of eyes the color of blood moons?

    Horror tends to also be as /personal/ as possible. Even more than having your foster child turn into a monster, having someone focus on something horrible that is happening to them, bit by bit, can really bring the horror home. Describing to someone how they can /feel/ something underneath their skin, scrabbling and scratching as if looking for a weak spot to tear its way out can evoke more tension and invested feeling than describing someone else's pain or injury.

    Also, I would suggest that really effective horror involves choice. There's an appeal in the "helpless" sort of horror, but if you really want players to get /involved/? I always recommend putting them in situations where they have to make choices. One of the most effective horror scenes I ever ran involved a PC having to decide to cut off his own arm...and because he was the only one of the group who had the tech knowhow, having to /talk another PC through how to cut off off his arm without killing him/. I didn't make him do that. I didn't even tell him, "If you don't get rid of that arm, it's going to kill you." I just made sure that the world around them showed the consequences enough so that when his arm was infected, he had the information he needed to make that choice and follow through on it.


  • Admin

    When it comes to player conflict no system can work as well as true collaboration; that is, actual people talking to each other to figure out what might constitute an acceptable resolution and what would not.

    The point where systems usually fail if that caveat isn't properly observed is that they're abused. Sometimes the way is direct and obvious (my character doesn't like yours so he punches you into oblivion or death) which has certain consequences. Sometimes the way is subtle and devious (my character wants to sleep with yours so he rolls his way into your pants) which is a different beast altogether.

    Neither option is desirable if someone is being a jerk, and neither is better than the other. When mechanics are leveraged in order for one player to force the other into unwanted venues the only variable is how creepy things are allowed to get before something gives.



  • The chief obstacle to horror on MU*s is that there's 20 people logged in at a time, and horror is best when someone's absolutely isolated. The ideal ratio of staff to players for a horror game is, quite simply, 1:1.