Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Tales from the Table - Building Tension part I

  This time I want to talk about building tension when you meet a monster.
  The first example, from Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl:
  I was the DM, my family was the party, no one had been through the adventure before.
  The henchmen are with the party's hippogriffs in a hidden cave an hour away. The party has had great success so far, ambushing and killing a number of giants without the alarm getting out,. but night is coming. They are considering either heading back to camp to replenish or finding a hiding spot to hunker down and do the same right in the glacier. Toward the latter end the party descends into the rift itself.
  The wind is strong and fierce, making it hard to see and even move. They struggle through the knee-deep snow, hoping to remember the way back to the ramp that leads out. Suddenly a huge dome of ice appears on the rift floor. Too huge to be an igloo, too solid and smooth to be snow, the party hesitates, wondering what could make a 4' thick dome of ice almost 20' across. Finally, Mournglow casts Wizard Eye and sends the eye around to the front and peers into the dome. 
  [I show him alone a picture of what he sees]
  Obviously a bit shaken, the rest of the party sees him cast another spell - in just a moment a Wall of Iron fills the entrance to the dome. Mournglow visibly relaxes and tells the party they should return to the hippogriff camp.
  As the party begins to turn away they freeze. The dome slowly pulses with a deep red light. Then there is another pulse. this time faster, brighter, and a lighter shade of red. Then more pulse, each faster, each brighter. The party starts edging back, away from the dome, fear on their faces. The dome is now visibly melting; whatever is inside it is so hot that the water won't freeze even in the blizzard of the glacial rift. The top of the dome finally vanishes in a burst of steam as a shrieking roar echoes across the rift - a massive insect, a mighty centipede over 20' long with a massive head stands revealed. Its head raised like a cobra and shimmering with massive heat even in the blizzard, it starts towards the party.
  The thief and the cleric break and sprint back along the tracks they left behind. Then the elementalist joins them. Mournglow and the barbarian hesitate for a moment, but then join the other party members in a sprint for the ramp in a mad scramble to flee.

  Yeah, yeah, I know. The second most common piece of advice for game masters is 'show, don't tell'. [The most common piece of advice is 'flesh out your NPC's']. But it is repeated because A) it is true and B) everyone forgets. EVERYONE. FORGETS.

  So one of my little tricks is to make notes. In this one when I read through it I made notes about a few areas. The one for the remorhaz was 'War of the Worlds'. So when this happened I tried to echo the sense of dread brought out in the 1950's War of the Worlds movie when the strange pulsing light was coming from the crater. With enough buildup it didn't really matter what came out of the melting dome, the tension was high enough to make it scary.
  So this is one strategy - describe everything but the monster. Talk about its eerie cry; the sound of its footfalls; the way other monsters flee as it approaches; the smells; the lights. You get the idea. Then, when the big Reveal happens hit them with what the startled characters are going to have stand out - BIG TEETH! SMELL OF SULPHUR! RADIATES COLD! etc. The players want to be emotionally involved, so let them.

  The second example, two sessions later after they killed the remorhaz:
  After resting they had tracked down and killed the polar worm then fought more giants, but the word was out, now. After being ambushed the party had gone and rested again, waiting 3 entire days before returning. Mournglow had seen a way to the eastern ledges from the floor of the rift previously so the party hoped to surprised the giants by coming that way. Soon enough they saw the way up through the wind-whipped snow -  a pillar of rock with a circular stair carved around it, twisting up over 100' feet to the ledge of the giant caves. Stardust, the scout, and Ember, the fire elementalist, were in the lead, both hidden by Rings of Invisibility. As Stardust stepped onto the firt riser the snowbank just to their right - reared back. It took the form of a huge, headless snake and struck just missing Stardust. Stardust turned and leapt back toward the floor of the rift and the living snow flowed after her like a weird combination of snake and amoeba. Behind it Ember stepped to his left to get a clearer shot for his spells but as he moved the 'back' of the, well, of the snow suddenly split into a dozen finger-like pseudopods, all of which lashed back and forth, seeking the spell caster. 
  Isolated and scared, Ember began to sprint around the pillar, hoping to join the rest of the party. Glancing over his shoulder he saw that the snow was flowing along the sides of the pillar with long, thin tentacles reaching from him as it moved.

  The other strategy is - describe in great detail exactly how horrible, alien, and not-normal the monster truly is. Stress the alien, the 'it has no front or back', the 'it doesn't have eyes but is looking right at you' effect and, of course, you just can't get away from it. Go into the little details, like how it leaves smoldering tracks in its wake, or plants blight as it passes by; unearthly colors, too many joints in the wrong spots, etc. You get the idea. Everything about this monster is terrible, other, and wrong.

  [The snow monster? It was a white pudding, of course].

  Next time it will be about building tension before you have any clue what the monster is!