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[Dead of Night] Hair

Started by Eero Tuovinen, December 04, 2007, 05:58:51 AM

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Eero Tuovinen

A week and a half ago I was in Oulu as part of a cross-cultural gaming convention thing set up by the local talent round there. A thing about Oulu is that they have a very, very high quality gaming scene. Reflective otakus, philosophic Glorantha-philes, bitter grognards and all manner of fresh faces abound. I've never been disappointed by the locals when it came to flexible, fun and social gaming. This time we played Dead of Night as the last game of the evening, and it went so well that I just have to write up a session description focused on the fiction. What follows here is as the game went, with no omissions, additions or arrangements.

Dramatis Personae

I GMed, this was the first time playing DoN for all of us. I'd read the book a couple of times, but the last time was a couple of weeks ago, so I referenced the book heavily during play. The first point of order was to choose the style of the game, as we were starting from a completely empty table: I told the other players about how I've only ever encountered three styles of cinematic horror, those being Hammer-horror, slasher-horror and Asian horror with f'ing huge base elements on the audio track. The group opted for a slasher game, so we proceeded to create vaguely American, generic protagonists.

Sami, who came from Helsinki, played Hannah Thornton, a student of urban mythology at the local university. (Candyman was explicitly referenced.) She also had a dog (golden retriever) called Patra. Specialties in urban mythology and driving. Sami's reasoning here was that he wanted a sympathetic character with an obvious hook.

Pekko, an academic from Oulu, played Matt Groening, a 65 year old senator with cold exterior and passionate convictions. Specialties in finding tools and finding knowledge. The old senator thing was, as I understand it, a counter-reaction to the typical cliches of a teenage slasher movie; we were clearly going to break the genre somewhat this time. I hadn't played much at all with Pekko at this point so I was initially a bit worried that he was just going for originality for originality's sake, which is something of a hang-up among the artsy-fartsy section of Finnish roleplayers.

Juho, a native of Oulu, played Rob Johnsson, a daredevil student of medicine who's friends with the senator's (above) son. Specialty in medicine. The friend thing proved rather central to the plot, but at the time it was added just to create some kind of character hook.

This was pretty much all we knew at this point about the characters and their relationships. Not much, but as we found out, we could get by with little. I explained the main conceits of the rules quickly and had the players write down the lists of ways to gain or use Survival points; this was important, I doubt they'd have remembered what the points were for otherwise. We also went through the Tension points (which were visible through the game instead of hidden as the book suggests) and devised a list of Tension rules; luckily Sami had some small exposure to the game from Ropecon, so he actually had some opinions about the list. This is what we got:

  • Tension is only spent in combat.
  • At least three points are spent at once.
  • Tension is only used to improve the check result.
At the time I had no clue what would be good rules; the book clearly needs something more in this regard, a first-time group will be pretty clueless about getting together a good set of rules. Our rules luckily turned out quite excellent.

Backstory and GMing technique

As the session happened rather spontaneously, I had no scenario prepared. This is in clear violation of the principles of the game, but we managed to work around it anyway, mainly due to quick thinking on my part. Here's what I figured out when the players were agonizing over their Ability distributions:

  • The antagonist would be a single slasher figure; I'd been very amused by the lonely killer from the monster section, so I swiped him whole-sale.
  • The "thing" of the killer would be hair, simply because I was frustrated in my hopes of getting to play a Dark Water -based supernatural horror scenario and I needed a "thing".
  • The killer would have an urban mythology and a solid community surrounding him.
  • The killer would hold special influence over Jack, son of senator Groening and friend of Rob the player character.
Actually, most of those points on that list were figured out strictly speaking during the first scene, when we defined the relationships between the characters, not the prep. Later on I added very little; the means of killing and the actual personality of the killer, as well as his exact backstory I'll discuss below were pretty much the only things I added later on. So it wasn't as No Myth as it could have been, but it wasn't by the book either. During play I especially missed having solid Tension rating -based ideas for escalating; after reading the book closely for some time I've come to understand that you're supposed to use Tension to pace the story by having prepared scene frames for different stages of escalation and slamming them on the table when ever the Tension score rises high enough. I had to do without these this time, but I did keep a close eye on Tension to determine when the killer would make an appearance in general terms.

Other than that, I mostly just made a point of inserting mood material in the events and played the killer and other NPCs the way that seemed most conductive to a typical slasher horror story. The players made all decisions concerning their character backgrounds and scene framing.

1st scene: in the car

Senator Groening and Miss Thornton are in a car in the middle of a non-descript American city, going somewhere. Their discussion reveals that Miss Thornton has requested the senator's assistance in securing a successful appeal against a slum reclaiming project that threatens an unique strata of urban culture in the middle of the city. Miss Thornton, who drives the car, stops at the lights and fishes an album of notes from under her dog on the backseat; she wants to show the senator what she has found when researching the local street culture.

The senator is strangely alone and apprehensive, considering his exalted and influential status. He is aware that his son is involved with the youth culture of the area against his wishes, which is the foremost reason for him to get involved in the relatively minor matter Miss Thornton is so enthusiastic about.

The album is full of pictures taken with a cheap digital camera and printed out, slotted among newspaper clippings and various other papers. The pictures show slum buildings with most exquisite and varied murals, tags and other graffiti. The overall impression is very similar to Belfast: these works are created by people in the grip of great passion and communal trauma. Many of the images are of beautiful men with long, flowing hair.

2nd scene: on the street

Rob is waiting to meet with his friend Jack somewhere near the slum zone; they're planning to go spend the night among the plebeians, despite both of them coming from rather good families. Rob stands around, leaning on the wall of a apartment building while people go to and fro.

A group of children are playing in the street, singing a song. The song tells of how boys only like girls with long and shiny hair, so every good girl seeking to marry should never cut their hair.

Suddenly Rob notices Jack's backside, apparently he passed by without noticing Rob. Except that when Rob calls to him and starts to follow, Jack does not turn and might even hurry his steps. He's quick to enter the slum zone and turn into a smaller alley, still showing no signs of noticing Rob. As Rob runs to follow his friend, he hears a creak and turns to look, confused. Nothing is amiss in the dirty alley, except that when he finally looks up Rob sees an old television set falling upon himself from up above.

We marked initiative by having the player who claimed it grab the dice. At first I had plenty of opportunity to do it before the players learned to act first and think second. In this case the player opted to spend a Survival point, however, to gain initiative and Defend himself from the falling appliance.

The heavy television crashes open with a loud bang as it hits the street. Rob sees nobody in the open window on the second floor of the apartment building. Jack has disappeared as well, probably turning on the street on the other end of the alley.

3rd scene: on the street

Miss Thornton turns her car on a wide and sunny street in the slightly shabby part of town. A loud crash is heard somewhere close by, emphasizing the wild undercurrent. General backgrounds on the cultural history of the area are dropped by Thornton in an effort to engage the senator, who is mostly appalled at the idea that his son would choose to spend his spare time in these parts.

An old matron appears in a window, hailing Miss Thornton pleasantly. Her cold glare makes it obvious that she has recognized the senator, a figure not well liked in these parts.

Miss Thornton defuses the unpleasant situation by grabbing the senator and leading him down the street, towards the sights she wants to show him. Just then Rob runs on the street, colliding with the senator. Both recognize each other but speak no word of it, partly because both fear the other is there on the account of the senator's son, Jack. Miss Thornton is left oblivious again while she leads the good senator away to experience the local youth culture.

4th scene: in the apartment

Rob sniffs around the apartment building, certain that Jack must be inside, as he disappeared without encountering his father, either. And indeed, Rob hears his friend arguing loudly inside; the sound carries from an open window on the second floor. Rob decides to call to Jack from the street, slightly worried. Another man appears in the window and asks Rob inside.

The man is Mike Montgren, a bohemian street tough and artist who Rob'd met a couple of times before at clubs and such. A handsome man in his thirties, somewhat dreamy and idealistic, a typical slumming middle-class wannabe artist by Rob's estimation. He had no idea that Jack knew the man as more than a name, though.

Mike's apartment is similar to the man himself, a mix of a bohemian artist and an overage street tough. Rob exchanges a couple of pleasantries with Mike before grabbing Jack and heading for the street. From the dialogue it becomes evident that Jack and Rob are going to a tattoo parlor. The initiative is mostly on Jack, who wants to spite his father with a tattoo, the implication being that this would be the time for the boys to get the buddy-buddy tattoos they've discussed before. Luckily Mike recommended a good local tattoo artist for the job. Rob is slightly apprehensive, it's already obvious that he's more of a good boy than his college buddy ever would be.

As Rob as Jack go deeper into the district, Rob turns to see Mike Montgren in his window. He plays with a gleaming steel butterfly knife, flipping it in the air and making marks on the windowsill.

Rob tells Jack of how he met with Jack's father, the senator, and how they should delay with the tattoo business and go away now that the senator is in the district. Jack is confident and in a good mood, and when Rob points out Hannah's car, in which the senator came, Jack takes out a butterfly knife with the intent of slashing the tires. Rob has to work to convince his friend to leave off for now (it must have been four years since we stopped doing stupid stuff like that, man).

5th scene: in the courtyard

Hannah has brought senator Groening to meet some local youths in a secluded yard between the large, block-like buildings. They discuss life in the district with the teenagers.

The teenagers are courteous and happy, not like you'd expect of a movie set in the bad part of town. One has a sketch pad which he shows to Miss Thornton, who knows the youngsters from before. The latest pencil work depicts Mike Montgren, his serene smile and the pooling, flowing hair that nearly obscures his face.

Two adult residents come by. While they are courteous to Hannah, they also make it clear that they wish to have nothing to do with the big business, white-bread senator. Hannah tries to save the situation by taking the senator away, to see their final destination.

6th scene: at the tattoo parlor

The tattooist is the big, dirty guy you see doing tattoos in the movies. Jack is enthusiastic, he has a sketch of the tattoo he wants.

The tattoo Jack and Rob had discussed before was a small triskelion design. The sheet Jack unfolds is something else: a detailed study of human hair, black on white, depicted from front-left. There is no face, only the implication framed by the falling tresses.

Rob gets slightly angry at Jack and berates him for changing the plan at the last minute. The tattooist is bored, he rumbles that the image is too dark and will choke in small size. Jack bares his back, he wants the strange image on his back, then. Rob's very uncomfortable with the situation, he says that he doesn't want anything like that. Jack's angry too, but strangely focused, he says that Rob can do whatever he wants to. Then Rob tells Jack that he should think about it more and that this is just freaky and strange.

Jack asks for a razor, which the tattooist promptly provides. He's changed his mind, he wants to have the hair tattooed on his head and shoulders.

Rob is confused at the intensity of his friend. The tattooist warns that he can certainly do it, but it'll hurt a lot, and Jack's hair might not grow right after sticking that much black in his skull. Rob shouts at Jack, Jack shouts back. A conflict is rolled. Jack regains himself and storms off, mad at Rob for standing in his way. Rob follows.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Eero Tuovinen

7th scene: under the bridge

Hannah leads senator Groening to see the main attraction that supposedly will convince him to preserve the community. Whatever it is, it's under the huge freeway bridge that crosses the river and splits the district like a wound. The only way under the bridge is on foot, it's secluded and completely in the dark except for some brief moments in the morning and evening.

As Hannah gives the senator he flashlight and gestures him to lead the way, the hidden paintings are revealed: sublime and beatiful art in many colors, obviously crafted over years, if not decades. Works flow seamlessly into one another in curling lines, depicting life, death and rapture. The unbound mural leads left and right and up above, to the ceiling and darkness.

At first the senator is amazed, he wants to know who has done this. Miss Thornton does not know, she's been trying to find it out as well. It has to be somebody from the district, or at least somebody who routinely travels there.

Then, senator Groening spots it: one small image on eye-level, a sublime and contented impression of a child's face. Except that this is his child, his son Jack, as he was fifteen years ago. Fascinated by the impossible painting, the senator is oblivious to the scary sound of skittering rats in the darkness.

Now the senator is driven, he has to find the culprit who has so inexplicably made his son a part of their art. He requests the advice of Miss Thornton, even while keeping the entire truth of his personal situation from her. Hannah has just one idea for finding the artist on such short notice, and that is to consult the elusive local bohemian, Mike Montgren, who seems to know all the most talented youths of the district.

8th scene: on the street

Jack is returning to Mike Montgren, almost tear-eyed from the humiliation at the tattoo parlor. Rob catches him and asks him what is wrong with him. Jack screams at him with incoherent generalities, of how he is not understood or appreciated, and how Rob does not understand genuine feeling or commitment. Rob tries to detain him by grabbing his jacket.

Jack swings open the butterfly knife he's concealing in his right hand, twists and slashes at Rob. The two men look at each other in silence, and finally Rob lets Jack go without a word when he turns away.

9th scene: in the apartment

When Hannah knocks on the door, Mike Montgren is slightly reluctant to open at first. But when the door unlocks and the sound calls for Hannah to send in the visitor she wants him to meet, Hannah does not hesitate to send the senator in, staying at the stairs herself.

The apartment seems empty at first when the senator enters. It is, however, obvious to him that he is at the roots of his mystery: the small apartment's walls are lined with pictures of his son, all drafted or painted by the same hand. Jack is depicted here in a long series of positions and attitudes, but even more disturbingly, at different ages; the collection of impressions chronicles the youth's growth and development into the young man he is today.

The door shuts behind senator Groening, at which point he notices Montgren in his black leathers behind the door. The artist steps closer, seemingly welcoming and perhaps even too intimate, when he comes right up to the senator, brushing the older man with his musky presence. As the senator explains his desire for answers concerning the bridge mural, Mike steps even closer, forcing Groening back against the windowsill. Then, accompanied by a cryptic remark, Montgren pushes the senator out of the window.

We'd only used the dice around three times before this particular scene brought in the direct violence. (There'd certainly been plenty of Survival point activity, though.) The players were very keen to avoid losing Survival points, especially after the rude surprise when I revealed Mike's "mangling" special quality that allows the loss of up to three Survival points per attack.

Mike smiles serenely as the senator plummets to the street. Soon he comes out to the hallway, where Hannah is waiting for the meeting to conclude. Mike is a smooth liar, with perhaps a touch of schizophrenia (it's remarked at one point how his hair is tied into a tight ponytail, except when he gets the killing on), so he has no difficulty convincing Hannah that she should go home and leave him and the senator to conclude their "personal business" alone.

When Hannah turns to go she idly remarks the pile of old tires piled next to the stairway down. She suspects little. There is the sound of scraping rubber and then a heavy blow to the back of her head when Mike, hair flowing, swings one of the tires smoothly from the top of the stairs down on her head.

Hannah falls brutally on the stairs, bruising her chin and almost biting her tongue off. Stumbling up she gets to discover the joys of trying to escape from a killer with "Steady Pace"; although Hannah is no heel-soled bimbo or a bleeding-heart softie who'd stop at the sight of the senator's body lying on the street, Mike Montgren regardless manages to reach her before she manages to escape the scene in her car.

There is a person in every window opening onto the street. They all look unconcerned at the fallen senator, the terrified young woman and the charismatic, dark and beautiful Mike Montgren, who takes long strides to reach the woman.

At this point the players were positively terrified by the mellow killer, it seemed to me. At least the tense excitement at who's going to steal the dice (and the initiative) and the desperate grabbing for Survival points indicated such. I had a huge pool of Tension that ensured success in any combat checks, too.

Hannah grasps for her gun from the car's glove compartment, but the old-style revolver drum has opened and the bullets bounce all over the floor. Then Mike's there and Hannah can just kick him savagely. She drags the door closed and stumbles for the cell phone, to call the police. The sniffling and hyperventilating kinda implies that she's had enough and then some.

10th scene: in the apartment

Surprisingly, Mike loses his interest in Hannah when she closes the car door. Turning around he takes a bit of string and gathers his hair back into a ponytail, all the while walking towards the old senator (at zero Survival points, that one). Talking comfortingly he gathers the old man up and goes back inside with him, most gently.

Inside Mike arranges the senator onto the sofa and gives superficial care to his rather serious injuries. He gives a strong impression of being very sorry for the accident that happened, he even goes as far as to brew some tea for the senator. Meanwhile, senator Groening actually recovers enough to realize where he is. He's in total survival mode at this point, trying to figure out what the madman wants next; he also sees that Mike's disarmed him, leaving his small pistol on top of a drawer near the door.

Mike comes back with the tea, but as the senator still feigns unconsiciousness, Mike just leaves the cup on the side table. He's clearly nervous, walking around the room and talking to the senator about his art. Mike also loosens his hair again. Then, just as suddenly as the last time, he grabs a pillow and smothers the senator with it.

A part of the tension during the session was certainly in the question of when to act. I as the GM went by the same rules as the players, taking initiative by claiming the dice from the table. There were several fun situations where somebody said something, there was a beat of silence and then the players were screaming at the currently active player to grab the dice before I got to them.

Senator Groening is one touch son of a bitch, so what he does is, he pretends to smother, and he does it so nicely that even when Mike Montgren keeps the pillow-work up extra long, he never suspects that the frail old-timer is still alive when he lets go. A part of this is the distraction of Jack: he's back from the tattoo parlor, and now we finally get to see what his relationship is to Mike, exactly.

So the senator lies on the sofa and tries really hard to play dead under a musky pillow, while his son discourses with his extra special friend, Mike Montgren. Very creepy. Extra creepy when it becomes evident that the two have a syrupy sweet love affair going, and they start making nice in front of the dead dad. Jack even notices the old senator, but doesn't seem at all shaken by him when Mike explains the situation.

Senator Groening waits for the opportune moment, he knows where the gun is on the drawer, just a couple of feet from the sofa. So when he hears creaking leather, zippers and murmurs, he does nothing. Only when he hears the bed springs does he rouse from the bed and leap for the gun. Then he turns to see his son, naked, and Mike Montgren, wearing only his ever-present leather jacket, both in a state of arousal.

The senator is still at one Survival point or so, while Mike has around four. Very tense.

The senator looks at the scene for a beat, then turns his gun at his son and pulls the trigger. I don't think we even rolled for this one.

11th scene: in the car

Meanwhile, Hannah and Rob meet; Hannah has tried and probably failed to summon the city cops to the district, so now she's mainly just trying to find the revolver drum somewhere on the car floor. Rob, on the other hand, followed Jack from the distance, now really concerned and a bit scared for him. At first Hannah is really scared, she doesn't want to have anything to do with the strange guy with a bloody arm.

Lots of dialogue and patience however lets Rob in the car, which gives the two an opportunity to compare experiences. Although they are at first more concerned at each other's injuries, the discussion slowly comes to the point: they have to find out what happened to the senator and his son, both of which were now in Mike's power. A gunshot finally breaks their personal reverie that would no doubt have developed into a romance in some sappy non-horror movie.

It was funny how the players wandered around in the scene because they wanted to fish for more Survival points. I ultimately ended it by declaring that they both got one more point for having a rest scene, as allowed by the rules.

12th scene: in the apartment

Rob and Hannah try the door to Mike's apartment and get it to open, as it is quite unlocked. What they see is rather awful: Jack has been shot cleanly through the heart and the bed is soaked red with blood. The senator is held upright by Mike Montgren as his blood streams ever more slowly from a gaping wound to the neck, obviously caused with the butterfly knife brandished by the mad killer. The state of Mike's mind is evident from his turgid penis, swinging vigorously, red with blood, as he drops the body and turns towards the new visitors, uncloaked except by his leather jacket.

The players were rather quick to flee the scene. They even grabbed the dice long before I got to the end of the sentence. Not that they needed to roll anymore at this point.

Hannah never looks back. Rob does, but does not see any immediate pursuit. Still, the two waste no time getting into the car and getting out of the whole accursed district.


The players were completely blindsided when I declared that OK, the story is done. The police are finally roused from their lethargy by an in-person complaint from two injured and terrified civilians; a patrol is sent to the scene; the next day both Hannah and Rob are taken to survey the place. Of course, there's no bodies and no sign of Mike Montgren. The art from the apartment walls is missing. Deeper investigation reveals that the apartment has actually been officially uninhabited since the late '80s, when the last tenant left after the owner died and the estate failed to notice the nigh-valueless property. And so on, it seems impossible to find Mike Montgren, even if everybody in the district knew him.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Eero Tuovinen

Some additional notes:

  • That was some simulationistic story gaming! I haven't done much of anything like this for the last ten years, it seems. The player roles were foremost about experiencing, pacing and focusing the storytelling, while the GM was left with backstory responsibility. On my part it all felt like a very powerful story (might not come through from my chosen reportage style, though) and my own concern was very much about crafting the story bits into a sensible and pleasing whole. So overall, the role distribution in the group was very unsymmetric between me and the others.
  • If I get to play more of Dead of Night, I will definitely go in with a defined Tension-based escalation scheme, like the premade adventures in the book have. This session, while very fun and impressive, had a lot of plot exploration similar to what you'd get in Dust Devils or my own zombie game. I'm not so sure that Dead of Night should be about figuring out how the disparate bits can be welded into a coherent story entity.
  • My own relationship to the session was partly shaped by my other recent explorations into simulationistic immersive horror gaming. As I said in that other thread, Dead of Night is not exactly the thing to do Call of Cthulhu, but there are similar pacing elements here. While in Cthulhu, as I understand it, the pacing should be provided by the investigation process instead of the story, here the story pacing was completely paramount; the whole scenario was directed by my need to introduce the players to the backstory with ascending tension levels.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Ron Edwards

Great game, isn't it?

I never got around to reporting on a game I played with Chris and Tim K a few months ago. We used the "reverse" option, in which the GM plays normal people and the players get the monsters, and that worked particularly well. However, we also experimented a bit with the Tension rules, and discovered that if you avoid the classic Tension-escalation, consequences-escalation profile, the game becomes entirely different.

I can't recall the details without checking my notes, but our Tension rules basically meant that the total score would, very often, decrease. I paid strict attention, as GM, to the rating in order to set scenes and atmosphere, and so the result was a very calm, even arty style. Unfortunately, that did not mesh well with the "players play monsters" option, as the effect was like this: calm, calm, weird, calm, MONSTER!, calm, weird, weird, MONSTER!, calm, MONSTER MONSTER!, calm, calm. After a while, there wasn't any reasonable excuse for the scenes to begin calmly and normally, and yet the Tension rating was down around 1 or 2 after a given confrontation or series of events.

We did get through a fun game, and I'll look forward to posting about it again some time, but I think I had more fun than they did, partly because of my not-very-normal non-monster characters. In fact, now that I think about it, it doesn't matter that the players played the monsters; if we'd used the default GM = monsters option, the Tension issue would have been the same. In which case, that fun-inequality would probably have been reversed. Basically, the Tension rules we'd chosen really kept snapping the scenario back to "normal stuff" far too strongly.

It seems that you might have ended up with a certain degree of the same phenomenon. I don't think it makes for bad or un-fun play, because the game is so robust and the mechanics are so much fun, but it does make for a certain shift to slow, down-time oriented play. Maybe it would work if people were interested in playing a slow, European-style horror film with no supernatural, like the movie "Missing." In which case the monster (basically a psychopath) would indeed increase ambient Tension and all the rules would apply, but there would be very few attacks in the traditional sense, and most of the events would involve what information the current victim was working with.

I'm glad you posted this, Eero. I really want to showcase Dead of Night as widely as I can - it's a fantastic illustration that the Techniques that many people (wrongly) associate with Narrativism are powerful and effective in the service of other Creative Agendas. Gamism "woke up" first, around 2003 or so, with The Great Ork Gods, and now it's Simulationism's turn. It's also a great demonstration, to the communities you're talking about, that System can matter without that meaning "System is a pain in my ass," and without that meaning Narrativist play.

Best, Ron

Eero Tuovinen

Yeah, very great game. I've been telling people for months (ever since Ropecon, where I got my paws on it) that this just might be the best new indie game of the year; now I can confidently say that it works even a bit better in actual play than I predicted from reading it. I'm hoping to get to play it with my local teenagers at some point, too. It's really fun to finally have a simulationistic game that has a light and focused rules system that I can actually use in practice.

The tension rule bit is a large part of the system, but I only figured out how it's supposed to be used by actually playing the game and seeing where it goes in the overall picture - the rules themselves don't do a very good job of explaining it to me, I found; I'm a cynical bastard, it seems, and just telling me that the GM is supposed to "control the amount of tension" based on the score is like telling me that the is supposed to "create a story so players have fun": sure, great in theory, but making that a rule doesn't actually do anything to help me do it. Actually turning the Tension score into story tension is left up to the GM's storytelling skills, which in a way seems like it doesn't help the GM, but instead complicates his life. This is further compounded by not having any real rules for spending Tension, either; the GM can use it for the characters' benefit or monsters', however he wants.

While actually playing, though, this is how I understood the real system effect of Tension: the point of having a single score that the GM references when he describes situations is that he can use the score as a conscious oracle for determining inherently arbitrary things about the narrative. It's a simple psychological "trick", really, intented to remind and focus the GM. In that regard the several separate levels of Tension differentiated in the rules are a bit superfluous, I suspect that "high" and "low" are really the only ones you need in practice, unless you're really nuanced.

The above holds true for the bit about Survival points having a vague narrative effect as well; the book tells about how the GM is supposed to cause nasty things to happen to those characters who have the least number of Survival points, but what it really means, I think, is that the players should strive for a certain plausibility, a kind of "simulative" relationship between the scores and the fiction. This is not a rule intented to support and cause story structures like we usually get, but simply an opportunity for the players to enjoy the cause-and-effect between the mechanics and the fiction. My character has only one Survival point left, so that's why he should break his knee in the fall, that kind of thing.

All that being said, the book could still stand to have some example Tension rules sets or more clear explanation about what we're trying to do with Tension. I think that I can hack it after playing once, but on the first time around I'd have been totally at loss if Sami didn't have constructive opinions to offer. Our rules ended up causing a very high Tension for the most of the game, further compounded by the serial killer's beautiful Mangling ability that dropped three Tension points a pop back into the pit. In practice the way I depicted the high tension was not very blatant by horror movie standards, perhaps, but during play it was very, very creepy. The high tension moments depicted the killer as a vaguely Christ-like, almost supernaturally influential way-of-life figure for the entire cultural environment of the district, while at the same time being a confused and slightly regressed homosexual. Actually, thinking about it, Tension in our game seemed to follow the NPC Jack's attitudes from stubborn to rebellious to outright psycho; pretty interesting, that.


Other than that, one point I want to emphasize is that play felt very confusingly familiar in a good way when it came to story construction. At first I was a bit uncertain about whether there was something like a Bloody Mary phenomenon going on there, as I the GM was making thematic statements left and right with the non-player characters while wrangling the story into shape in a rather determined fashion. I only realized after the game that what I experienced was No Myth story creation in a simulationistic context. This felt very familiar because I'm a great fan of the technique set in question and find great joy in taking a disparate set of fictional elements and weaving a well-formed story out of them - Dead of Night felt like a well-constructed story game in this regard, which makes it feel very familiar when compared to something like Dust Devils, say. I'd never been able to do the story creation thing in a non-narrativistic context before, so it was very illuminating in that regard. It worked so well, actually, that now I'm not completely sure whether the game works better with a solid backstory and predetermined Tension escalation like the adventures in the book suggest, or whether it should be played as a relatively freeform storymaking exercise on the part of the GM; the latter allows him to react rather freely on current Survival and Tension point scores, so it might be beneficial to keep onto that freedom.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Christoph Boeckle

Hi Eero

Great report!
If this isn't too far off for your aims regarding this topic, could you please describe some of the things the players did? I'm not sure what their creative efforts were about and how they contributed to the (great) fiction you reported. Also, what reward system was at work in play? I have a hard time identifying these for Sim supporting games.

Eero Tuovinen

Sure, that's probably useful.

The most important concrete things that the players did, really, were four:

  • They reacted to situations, so that when something weird or threatening happened, they acknowledged, exclaimed and did the obvious or not so obvious thing. Essentially, the question most of the time was fleeing vs. finding out what was going on; the most extreme form of this was seen when the two still living characters opted to escape the district altogether (as opposed to, say, trying to rouse the neighbours), ending the story.
  • They cooperated on scene framing and story pacing, setting up character motivations and acting on them. At the beginning of the game this was obvious stuff like "my son is somehow involved with the local street scene, and I'm worried", while towards the end it was more about deciding where the next scene would be set.
  • They participated in dialogues with NPCs and each other. Often enough these were seeded by a scene frame and my backstory decisions, such as when Hannah and the senator were going to check the murals under the bridge; as the players didn't know what I would reveal there, the dialogue was mostly to set up mood and character attitudes to the situation. I guess some trust is involved in this stuff, as the players presume that I don't draw the rug out from under their character. Sometimes the players explicitly affirmed that whatever I would be revealing would match their character's in-story prior knowledge.
  • The players gamed the Survival point system (which means, they gamed the entire system), especially when the Survival points began to be drained. Ultimately they took to declaring explicit intent: "Ok, here comes an artistic contribution, GM look sharp!" and stuff like that, referring to the list of allowable Survival point rewards.

Those are all relatively passive functions. The thing that makes this work is character immersion, I suspect. A big lump of the reward system here is simply that it's scary to be in the boots of somebody threatened by a weird psycho. The initiative, Survival point and Tension rules of Dead of Night all conspire to make for a nerve-wracking environment where the player is encouraged to get jumpy for his character while simultaneously staying aware of the storyness of the experience.

To be concrete, I think that one of the important reward cycles here was scene survival. Characters have an opportunity to get a Survival point for surviving the scene, and there's a good chance of getting a less dangerous scene next time, so there's a certain tension involved in trying to end a scene without getting punctured full of holes by the swingin' balisong.

Another reward that was heavily involved here was backstory exploration, finding out what motivated Jack and Mike Montgren and how the almost supernatural relationship between them developed. I don't know if this feature was because of the specific scenario, though; I might imagine that the game would involve much less mystery and improvised story creation in some other circumstances.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Thanks for posting this Eero - that's some red hot actual play right there, and looks to have hit all the buttons Dead of Night is meant to hit!

I'm curious as to how you found the handling of Tension - did you spend those points much? Were they used to help or hinder the PCs? And did spending them feel natural, or somehow forced? I sometimes get Tension Point guilt, where I wonder whether I should be screwing with the players. I think this might be symptomatic of a weak setup of tension rules though - you sound like you had a much better balance going on.

I'll admit I've also started keeping tension out in the open, using blood red beads for survival points, so when they're spent they just get chucked into the pool of tension in the middle of the table. Good call on using a dice to track temporary tension from the monster, Ron.

I'm also pleased to the extent you used Dead of Night's pick up and play nature - coming to the table with a completely blank slate is what the game is all about, and I'm glad you got such a good game out of it by playing it that way. I normally turn up a little more prepared, but maybe next time I'll start completely from scratch too.

As an aside, Ron - I'd love to here about your follow up game. I'll admit I've never played the reverse game myself (although have played a game with half of the PCs as monsters in disguise) so would be interested in hearing how it panned out for you.
Andrew Kenrick
Dead of Night - a pocket sized game of b-movie and slasher horror

Eero Tuovinen

I spent as much as I could, but only against the players - I knew that I could spend in their benefit as well, but my idea of how I was supposed to play was that I'd use Tension solely to ensure in-genre events, and the players just never got into position to launch a believable assault against the monster. Actually, I don't think they rolled many fighting rolls at all, which meant I couldn't use Tension for their benefit most of the time. The result of this, the mangle special ability and my rolling well was that Tension stayed above ten points when it got there - whenever I spent any, I'd just get the same back from the prodigious Survival point loss caused by the monster. Actually, do you know what I want: I want some kind of a limit-break rule for when Tension would go above 15 points... Yes, the rule would obviously be that if Tension went above 15 points, the Tension rules would be partially rewritten on the spot. That would be a big help for when the group has picked too restrictive Tension rules.

All in all, spending Tension was much more natural than I'd expected, especially after I figured out that it's a pure simulation mechanism and I'm not even supposed to have any strategy or point to how I spend, apart from deciding authorially what I want to see happen in the scene in relation to the genre. The next time we play I'll know exactly what to do with the Tension point rules and how to play Tension.

I used poker chips for both Tension and Survival points. That worked quite well, and I could stack the monster's Survival points next to the Tension pile whenever he was in the scene, too.

One other thing: a couple of years ago I was on a big horror movie riff, seeing a lot of Asian horror, especially. At the time I did a lot of idle thinking about how it'd be so cool to design a roleplaying game that somehow permitted atmospheric, tension-filled horror story roleplaying, but also had a solid "realistic" backbone instead of pure narration-sharing mechanics. Something that let the players simultaneously create a traditional horror story, but also allowed the characters to chafe and strive against the genre expectations in a dynamically responding environment where the monsters actually play by the rules. Well, obviously enough, Dead of Night is that game, so I don't need to design it after all.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


I was there playing Hannah, so now that the Wise Ones have said their piece, I dare to participate. Some answers and comments to various ideas:

What did the players do?

I myself took an attitude like I was playing Call of Cthulhu: "let's go to investigate and get killed – or, if our characters happen to be extra lucky, they become insane". Although since this wasn't Cthulhu, my aim was to replay Candyman. There I had some sort of a schema which to follow and a motive to make that kind of story happen. During the game I was just steering the fiction in that direction the best I could: I made a young female folklorist (character creation); I made my character to go deeper into the notorious slum (5th scene); I decided not to escape when something moved in the shadows under the bridge and guided the protagonists to meet weird Montgren (7th scene); I made Hannah to try to find out what happened to the senator, but I just lost the conflict (9th scene); I tried to find a proper reason to create a relationship between Hannah and Rob and to find a fictionally acceptable reason to go to save the poor senator (11th scene); I escaped instead of fighting against the killer, even though I had quite nice amount of SPs (4-5?), while the killer was down to three (12th scene).

Also, I was quite often trying to fish the SPs just for the sake of it. At times it worked well and contributed some fine scenes, like in the 11th scene, where I described a shocked young woman.

But, on the other hand, there was a moment when I moved from Sim to Gamism (as far as I can use these terms right). As the killer knocked my character down in the 9th scene, I went into the survival mode. The violence was brutal (although not as brutal as it was suppose to be: for some reason Eero first described how my character broke her jaw and nearly her neck as well, but then decided that Hannah's dog Patra happened to be under her and took some of the blow. I only guess he did this because I still had a few survival points left) and simply scared me. I felt somewhat relieved when the killer went for the badly wounded senator in the yard and even if I speculated on the chance of ramming Montgren with Hannah's car (driving skill 10), I thought it would be too risky. I was seriously thinking of fleeing the whole scene just to keep my character alive, but after a while this passed away and I was back into looking for an entertaining reason to go back into the house. Fleeing in the last scene was Sim: it's not like student girls beat nude serial killers in proper slasher movies.

What about the Tension?

My idea during setting the game and during playing (and now after it) was that the fact that the GM can decrease my rolls is annoying. I'm sure I'd made the GM to feel "Tension Point guilt" if I was the GM, which Kenrick mentioned. Therefore I requested that the points could be used only to raise the results of die rolls. When this was connected to the violence, I had the feeling that all violence is going to be brutal. Like, if for some reason I'd make my character take a punch at another PC, the GM would boost the result and I'd describe the taste of blood and the pain of the broken teeth. But since there was hardly any physical violence in the story, the Tension Points soared all the time. I remember Eero saying that if the TPs would hit 15, the scenes would be just too horrifying to be played, but I cannot say this would have resonated with our gaming. The only thing the TPs contributed in my mind was the constant awareness that the more we, the players, participated into the story, the more gruesome our characters' deaths would once be. That contributed certain hopelessness into playing the game, constantly waiting for the inevitable to happen. It was like... uncontrolled horror Sim. I wasn't exactly fascinated by that.

But, all in all, the game experience was remarkably similar to watching a horror movie in all the best possible ways. I cannot say how much of this can be credited to the game itself and how much to the simple story-telling. After all, during the last few years I've been playing almost only Narrativistic No Myth cooperative story-telling games. Just the lack of those familiar features made playing DoN a new experience. The point is that I cannot say that DoN gives better kicks (or better tools for horror story-telling) than CoC, for an example.
Sami Koponen

Eero Tuovinen

Ah, most excellent to have Sami here. I'd also love to get Pekko and Juho, perhaps we should notify them of the thread. Some further comments on the topics Sami took up:

We've discussed this shortly before with Sami, and I'm pretty sure that what he describes as a crazy moment of gamism was just the wonderful phenomenon we know as "scene buy-in" ;) I can think of nothing more natural than a player going into survival mode when a crazy killer reveals himself with an attack from behind, after all. The toned-down narration of injures at the stairs was due to the current Survival point total not warranting extreme injury, but only because Sami pointed it out - I didn't actually care about the physiological degree of injury that much, it's not like injuries ever affect anything important in horror movies. Probably quite different from the player's perspective. Regardless, the initial description was quite efficient in setting the tone, I felt - it reminded and stressed the fact that in real life, people do not just walk away from falling down a stair after being hit in the back of their head by a car tire.

(For academic curiousity: had there been gamism at the table related to character survival and/or slaying the monster, I'm pretty sure that we would have noticed it at the end of the twelfth scene, when everybody was making quick decisions about fighting or fleeing and such; that would have been a pretty natural point of gamist tension, while for our game it was just a matter-of-fact end-point for the story, mixed in with player uncertainty about whether and when the monster would attack.)

The Survival Point fishing was something I noticed myself as well and had to gently rein in now and then by stating that there wouldn't be any more points available in this scene, and the players should move on. It happened solely after the monster had made its appearance, so it's pretty obvious that the players were reacting with fear and apprehension at the powerful, 3-SPs-a-pop-leaching psychopath, without having much other recourse than to try to build up a SP store. It was perhaps slightly strange from my viewpoint when the players made a point of collecting a humongous reserve (as the only effect of that would be to make it impossible for anybody to kill the character if an appropriate moment came up), but it never got to be a problem - I'm sure that if the group had played another session, we'd have been much more aligned in our expectations in regards to what would be worth Survival Point awards and what wouldn't.

As Sami indicates, I had some slight difficulty following the book's guidelines on appropriate description coupled with Tension rating, at least if one interprets the book literally when it discusses Lovecraftian horror and whatever. My practical interpretation here was that the Tension rating affects GMing only in how and when backstory is revealed; this is the "truth is only shown completely at Tension 15" principle mentioned in the book. The longish discussion of how to narrate is perhaps a red herring in this regard, and should be interpreted to only mean that the "truth" of horror stories cannot be revealed in any way, except via lurid and horrorful description. In other words, when there is no horror present in the scenario, Tension does nothing; you don't think up an insect monster to harass a homeless person just because Tension is high, which is one way to understand that confusing example in the book. So in practice "revealing the truth" and "describing things horrifically" are one and the same:

  • A low rating means that the GM should keep back on the backstory, a high rating that he should reveal all. I applied this in our game by first having the characters find very circumstantial evidence of anything being wrong, but when the score got over ten, Mike Montgren didn't hesitate to blow his cover, and Jack got completely overwhelmed by his influence. Then I proceeded to reveal their backstory-relationship and motives in the following scenes, as the Tension Points never got an opportunity to go low anymore.
  • A low rating means that "horror effects" are kept to minimum in the description, while a high rating means that everything should be revealed in a truthful and, if necessary, symbolically factual manner. In our game I applied this in pretty minor ways as far as horror budgets go, simply because there wasn't much lurid supernaturality in the game. The physiologically violent results of Montgren's actions and his hair that was tied or flowing free at appropriate times were probably the main examples. Other touches were when Jack brough in the crazy at the tattoo parlor and when the residents of the neighboring blocks all appeared silently at their windows to witness the events in scene nine.
So the practical outcome of our low-high-high... TP development was that when the story got gory, it never backed down from there. A very short-story -like development, all in all.

Man, writing the above interpretation of the Tension mechanics made me realize, for some reason, that I want to play a Hellraiser-based DoN game. The puzzle-boxes in Hellraiser are a fine example of an item that simply won't open unless the Tension is high enough.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.