Monday, October 3, 2011

Shocktober Day 1 - Horror Gaming Fodder - Props

Welcome to the first day of Shocktober 2011! This is my favorite month of the year and my favorite gimmick of my blog. If you want to see what I did for previous Shocktobers, got check out Shocktober 2009 or Shocktober 2010. This year every day of the week has a column devoted to it. Check this post for more details.

It being Monday in Shocktober 2011, it's a day to look at the core of what Shocktober is all about - horror gaming fodder. I define my gaming fodder posts as posts that are useful to general role-playing whether it's D&D or Fiasco. Monday's this year are all about gaming fodder to enhance your horror games. In a loose sense, I'm going to take the opportunity each Monday in my horror gaming fodder to introduce the theme of the week. This won't be anything like last year's theme weeks, but I hope to have at the end of each week five posts of very different styles that all address the same general idea.

This week's horror gaming fodder is about the use of props in our games. I love props. I've used them several times, and they almost always have added something special to the game. Props in general are a great tool to enhance immersion and pack a real "wow" factor when done right.

At the same time, I feel props are even more powerful in a horror game. This might have something to do with the fact that I feel like almost everything is more powerful in a horror game, but I digress. A good horror prop can be many things. It can be disgusting, it can be simple, it can be hand-made or bought in a store. It can be iconic and well-known or something completely unique to the story of the night. Props can make a game more theatrical and dramatic. That picture up to the right there? That's what theater groups use to make sure each actor has the right item for the right scene at the right moment in the performance. While I do think props need to be used only once in a while to keep the effect, it's good to remember that props draw the audience in naturally with very little extra effort on the parts of the players/GM/actors. It pulls everyone's attention on a singular item and gives them all a moment to reflect on the story (and hopefully the stakes).

As I mentioned above, I've had some great experiences with props. One of my favorite props I made was a set of bloody letters I hand-wrote and partially destroyed to be used in my Lurching North homebrew Dread scenario. The players were investigating an extremely remote CDC center on a tiny island off the mainland of Alaska. The small fisher town was seemingly deserted when they arrived in a snow storm. Eventually they found the lab and other... things, but the best part was in how they slowly found the letters the main scientist had written to his wife and had never left the island due to the outbreak that caused the story in the first place. It was a lot of fun in the game itself but was even more fun in making the prop for the game. I used small yellow notebook paper and wrote in cursive (which I never otherwise do). I then used a lighter to burn some of the edges and a small hole in some of the corners (don't play with fire kids!). And here's the great part - I discovered what a single drop of red food coloring can do to yellow paper. It makes it awesome, that's what it does. The best part was experimenting just to see what I could pull off. This prop served two purposes. First, it was kind of creepy to be handed a page of a burnt, bloody note from someone you can only assumed was violently, horribly killed by Lovecraftian monsters. Secondly though, it gave some context to the events of the island while still keeping the players isolated - a key trait of a lot of great horror games. A side benefit was that it hopefully added some pathos to the lead scientist's character.

So that's physical props, but there's something I've wanted to try, even experimented a little bit with, but haven't really executed in an actual game. Sound props. I got myself a sweet little voice recorder to record interviews at Gencon and elsewhere, and I'm itching to use this in an actual game. It's a great tool to capture voice acting recordings, and keep in mind that researchers, doctors, coroners, and many other official keepers of records first record their findings via a voice recorder or Dictaphone.

Now I have used voice recordings in a game before, one specifically - my first Dragon Age game as a part of my multimedia experiment running the whole thing off my Droid X. I had the Gamer Wife record one of the canned boxes of dialogue from the adventure to play for my players. It was a good experience, but it was not something I would classify as a prop.

For a sound prop, it's more along the lines of a specific, repetitive sound, bit of music, or bit of dialogue that doesn't come directly from the mouth of an NPC. There's a distinction between a sound prop and bit of NPC dialogue in that a prop needs to be an item and, in my opinion, should be something just a little bit beyond the GM reading off some prepared bit of speech. Ambient noise is a great idea of a sound prop as well. A jungle soundtrack can really set the mood and put people on edge as even the quiet moments where no one is speaking are heightened with atmosphere with the things that could be lurking just beyond the light of a torch.

My personal goal someday is to run another homebrew Dread scenario that uses many bits of sound props. The Iron Mountain Report is a game I came up with after exploring the endlessly-addictive SPC Foundation wiki. If you have some hours to kill, go check it out. Take a look at this little critter for example. For my sound props, I would have a recording of the "Special Containment Procedures" with an (in game) button just outside the cell for the players to press to learn what is inside. This would of course be during a blackout in the vast Warehouse 13 - meets Guantanamo Bay secret facility, so the players would have to follow the rules of each creature and object they find very closely. The rules would only be explained through the sound prop. Through this, my goal is to creep out the players and maybe give them a chuckle every once in a while.

Obviously there are tons of ways to utilize props in games. Sometimes they can just look cool and don't have to serve a distinct purpose outside of making the game experience better overall. On the flipside, they can serve very specific purposes. For your next horror game, try making it a period piece where it's colonial America and candles are the only form of artificial light. Then run the game using actual candles as the only light source for players to read their character sheets by and try to interact with each.

Props create an atmosphere that help build a collaborative story through a shared vision of imaginary world through the use of a physical representation of an object or sound in the real world. In other words, they can bring people together and cast away all doubts over just how dangerous the knife in the middle of a dinner table in the crazy recluse's mansion really is. I whole-heartedly endorse the use of the random plastic knife to get this point across. It makes concepts concrete and helps key in everyone's attention in a way that a bit of descriptive text from the GM might not be able to pull off.

Use props! Experiment with ideas! Creep your players out! You've only got 28 days to plan how you're going to creep your players out on Halloween, so get crackin'!

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