[Dead of Night] Grendel, Alaska

Started by andrew_kenrick, November 18, 2009, 12:49:22 PM

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At Indiecon at the weekend I ran my first game of Dead of Night II, as I'm affectionately calling the second edition of my horror game. I watched the Host the other week, and whilst writing up my thoughts on how you'd run it as a game (which you can see here) it struck me how similar the basic premise and Tension circumstances were to Beowulf. I decided to see if I could run a monster movie in Dead of Night, based on a modern retelling of the saga of Beowulf.

I'd written up both Grendel and Grendel's Mother, complete with a motivation for both. As Ron says here, making sure your monsters have a solid motivation of their own is the key to making your game rattle along.

I also sketched out a rough idea for the sorts of things that might trigger at each Tension threshold (5, 10, 15) ? the savagery of the attacks would ramp up at each threshold, from resembling animal attacks at Tension 5 all the way up to bloody mutilation at Tension 15. I also decided that a new killing would occur each time the Tension crossed a threshold. Finally, I said that Grendel's Mother would not appear until the Tension went above 10.

I also jotted down a couple of Tension circumstances, dictating that the only things I could spend Tension on were Assault and Escape checks, fostering the savagery of the scenario, and to encourage flight from the beast (or the human hunters). This might seem like quite a bit of prep, but it took no more than 10 minutes the afternoon before. Apart from the monsters' motivations and the Tension settings, I had nothing more planned for the story.

I pitched the game as a monster movie to get the players in the right mindset and handed out some pre-generated characters with a few lines of background. I toyed with just handing out Beowulf and Mayor Herot and getting the other two players to create characters to fit in with the setup, but decided against it in the end.

I did, however, get the players to come up with relationships with the townsfolk and each other, and as they did so I jotted each of the NPCs they came up with down on an index card. We got a really tight relationship map at the start of the game, and I think this helped kick the game up from ?just another monster hunt? to something a bit special.

I was worried that I'd signposted the fact that it was Beowulf a bit too much, as the players all knew the story so instantly recognised the names of the characters (Ben Wulf, Mayor Herot, Sheriff Firth, Ursula), but this just added to the game as the players were more than willing to play up to the saga. In hindsight, I think I should have just pitched it as ?a modern retelling of Beowulf? up front.

The game started slowly. I told them there had been a series of animal attacks, and kicked things off with the Sherriff being called to a disturbance. Then I got the players to draw one of the index cards to see who the first victim was ? it was Jessica, the Mayor's secretary, so we started with the Sheriff investigating the crime scene and calling the Mayor. I think the use of player-generated victims really worked ? the players really felt anguish and loss at the deaths of characters who meant something to their own characters, and although no one really wept at the death of Jessica, by the time we drew the second victim later it really was a kick in the guts.

The players didn't waste any time in involving themselves in the story, spending survival points to find clues and useful items, and generally making trouble for themselves by splitting up to hunt the monster (Ben Wulf), or making off with a map into the woods to look for Grendel's mum (the Mayor). This quickly ramped the Tension up so that it was nearly 10, so I readied Grendel's mother for her first appearance.

But it was not to be. Wulf headed off in pursuit of Grendel, tracking him to the dockside and hiding in a doorway to catch him when he next emerged. I called for an Escape check vs Grendel's Keen Sense of Smell specialisation, and declared that it was Risky (meaning that the loser would lose a survival point). Wulf succeeded, so I spent a couple of points of Tension to make Grendel succeed, then another point to trigger Grendel's Deadly specialisation (using Tension to activate monster specialisations instead of survival points is something new I'm trying - it seems to work quite nicely and encourages their use more), causing Wulf to lose an extra survival point. So suddenly we'd dropped from 9 Tension to about 4 or 5, and I had to postpone Grendel's mother for a bit - this worked quite well in play, as it gave us pause as everything went eerily silent once more.

Holding off introducing Grendel's mother until later worked great as the Mayor and Wulf headed to her lair - the Mayor knew where they both laired because he'd made the deal with her in the first place, the price of which (sex) spawned the current predicament (Grendel). Normally I'd have had Grendel or his mother lurking in the caves, but because when they first arrived the Tension was low, I had them find the lair overgrown and deserted, but full of old bones and skulls. This turned the horror into something a bit more personal and human - in particular the moment where Wulf picked up the skull of a child and, turning to the Mayor, shouted "what did you do?!"

Meanwhile Firth drove the Mayor's wife home, calling at his ex-wife's house to check on his son, also called Ben (a coincidence when we created relationships, but we used this to create some ambiguity with his parentage later). At this moment Grendel attacked again, causing the Tension levels to spike as both Firth and Ursula were injured. Shaken, they followed the creature towards the lair where the others were and Ursula got attacked again as she waited in the car.

The Tension spike led to the description of the cave leaping up a notch, as Wulf lit a flare to light the way I described the cave coming alive with the red, leering faces of Grendel's many victims, skulls and bones peering down from heaps all around them. This sudden jump in tension and atmosphere, created purely by the Tension rating, was great - doubly so because it didn't require me to do anything to engineer it! Iain, playing the Mayor, spent a survival point and cast a strange runic talisman to the floor, declaring his part of the bargain done. The Sheriff took the talisman, and came to regret it later.

Grendel was eventually cornered outside the lair and slain by Wulf, the beast's dying words to the Mayor, "father?", in earshot of all the PCs. The death of Grendel had kicked the Tension well above 15, however, so I geared up for Grendel's mother to make an appearance. Because a Tension threshold had been crossed, we drew another relationship card too - Eric's wife. The PCs found her horrible dismembered on the coffee table of her house, her son, Ben, nowhere to be seen. Because we'd already created relationships between all the NPCs and PCs (Sandra, the ex-wife, was also a high school sweetheart of Wulf, and mother to his possible child), this death really hit the players. Both Eric and Wulf's players shouted in horror and raced to the scene, before "arming up" to finish off Grendel's mother and rescue Ben Jr.

The PCs found Ben Jr in the cave of skulls, a strange knife held to his own throat and a glazed look in his eyes. The players hit a conflict, but I forget what type - I think it was Dissuade, but I made it Risky. They failed, and Ben slit his own throat. The Sheriff screamed and tried to stem the bleeding, and Grendel's mother appeared, offering to make it all stop if only he made the same deal as the Mayor did. The Sheriff agreed and Grendel's mother fled with him deeper into the tunnels. Ursula was immune to Grendel's mother's Beguile Men specialisation, so shot her as she was engaged in passionate - albeit painted - sex with Firth. I spent tension (quite a lot, I seem to remember) to tip this to a failure...

...and that's when Wulf arrived with the dynamite. Wulf lit the dynamite, attempting to blow them all up but Scott failed his roll by 1. This time I spent tension to tip it to a success, and took a survival point off everybody present. This killed the players, but left Grendel's mother on 1 survival point. We described the cave collapsing on top of them all, but Ben Jr escaping with the talisman, the legacy of Grendel continuing...

With hindsight, of course, I botched the rules for that last roll. The rules specifically say that only one character (the loser) loses a survival point, and even uses the example of grenades to reinforce this! So Grendel's mother should have taken the survival point loss (as she did) but not everybody else.

The game went swimmingly though, the addition of a  relationship map knocking it from a run of the mill monster hunt to a tense, fraught family drama, complete with sexual tension (oh, and two nasty monsters). I've no intention of using it for every game, or even making it part of the rules, but it's certainly going into my grab bag of tools to use when appropriate.

Andrew Kenrick
Dead of Night - a game of campfire and b-movie horror