Surviving Creepy Campaigns for GMs – Part 4October 26, 2018 Off By TK
Greetings, adventurers, and welcome back to the final installment of our series on spooky storytelling tips for newer Game Masters. Last week the topic was maintaining tension in non-combat narrative, as well as learning to separate tragic consequences from punishing players for their investment. As we bring this series to a close, I will be giving you a couple of suggestions for ending your own horror campaigns and how to care for your party afterward.
Closing the Coffin Lid
In a typical high fantasy setting there exists a “Big Bad”, a definitive evil antagonist that your party is concentrating all of their energy and resources in defeating, and their demise is the necessary ingredient for returning to a life of mundane peace and prosperity (until the next dragon attack). Depending on the horror story that you are telling, you could close the final chapter in the same way: a no-holds-barred, all-out, high-stakes battle with the Ultimate Evil that is threatening your PCs’ way of life. Ravenloft is famous for happy-ever-after endings like this, where the party defeats the diabolical plans of the Dark Lords and is whisked back to their homes in a swirl of cold mist. Call of Cthulu, on the other hand, is renowned for the opposite and has a well-earned reputation for murdering or maddening party members by the handful, frequently leaving players without any answers for the great mystery that they have stumbled into.
Either of these extremes is an acceptable way to end your horror story, and you even have the option of a cliffhanger, perhaps a deep, dark look at the terrifying world in which their fates are sealed.
Whatever way the campaign closes, be sure that it is the direct result of your party’s actions. There are few things less satisfying than feeling your character had no hand in their own destiny. Even tales of cosmic horror where your party is up against insurmountable odds threatening to rend their bones and swallow their souls should not feel as though it could not have been avoided. We’ve discussed previously how disappointing twists out of nowhere and railroaded tales can be: if your characters leave no other mark on your world, let them have agency at the very end. If you want a pre-determined ending without the influence of your friends, write a novel.
Aftercare for a Healthy Party Dynamic
The monsters are vanquished, the terror is well-dispersed, and the ancient, arcane knowledge is unleashed to smother the world in a blanket of torment. As the book shuts and your players begin to stretch out their stiff limbs and weary spirits, now is the perfect time to engage in aftercare.
Yes, dear adventurers. You see, for horror to be effective, players need to be just as tense as their PCs, which means that upsetting situations and scenarios may affect them emotionally. Injuries to their characters’ physical or psychological health can be stressful to them and, as the Game Master, you have some responsibility to ask after their well-being when the dice is put away.
Sit down with your players and ask them what they enjoyed about the game and what they disliked. Encourage open and honest communication. Ask them to be sincere about their experience and to let you know what you can do to ease discomfort in the future. Keep a watchful eye for emotional bleed, for guilt, fear, depressive episodes, or mistrust. In return, be sure let them know what you expect from them if your style needs to be more accommodating. Your health and comfort are important.
Remember, once the game is over you are just one person asking another how you can be a better friend.
That’s all for this week, adventurers! Join me next week as we talk about some of my favorite topics: bringing your world to life with food and festivities!
About The Author
TK is a speculative fiction writer and part-time eldritch horror. They can be found as a cast member of The Demonplague, Unearthly Twilights, The Land Between Two Rivers, and Hell’s Belles on the Don’t Split the Podcast, WebDM, and Dungeons & Dragons networks, respectively. Their gothic and cosmic horror stories can be found at tkjwrites.com and very soon in print in a collaborative set of short stories and comics with artist Kayla Cline. TK themself can be found on Twitter @tkjoinsthefray.