Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Horror in the Dark

Once again, I must thank Shannon for prompting this set of ideas with her discussion of Outlast.

The chunk responsible is this:

I list it all out because it points out one of the main difficulties between translating any movement-oriented stealth game and that's the little detail of timing. It's tense running through a corridor only a few steps ahead from the bad guy and anxiously leaping up toward a vent. It's nerve-wracking when you crouch beside an open door, wondering whether you should walk out into the darkness or not.

Making a series of dice rolls that all use the same Athletics or Stealth skill is not tense. So we can't rely on that.

This got me thinking, how could you try to represent this? Well, it strikes me that a lot of tension boils down to uncertainty. You don’t know what will happen next, there’s a good chance it will be bad, but you don’t even know exactly how bad. The longer it lasts, the worse it tends to be. This is how people develop chronic stress. What happened to all these dead people? When will the thing you heard, but didn’t see, come back, if at all? Will that strange security guard over there see you creeping about? Did anyone hear you close that door? You’re nine-tenths of the way across the courtyard, can you make the last bit without being seen? And is that doorway you’re heading for even safe, or is the monster just waiting for you there..?

As such, I’m going to propose using a number of special GM dicepools here. First, though, I’m going to say that (unusually for me) I think in this case it probably is beneficial for most of what is going on to be hidden from the players, particularly all these dicepools. It creates uncertainty.

Also, I haven't run the numbers on these pools or anything, that's more Dan's gig. So these are more starting point concepts.

Uncertainty dice

Starting with Shannon’s original point, the first will be an Uncertainty pool used when the protagonist is trying to judge uncertain things. For example, they want to slip through a door when someone’s back is turned, or tell how close the monster chasing them is, or decide if the footsteps are so close that they need to break cover and run. Roll this pool to tell how accurately they judged this uncertain thing – if you’re using skills, roll this separately as a modifier to the roll, and don’t tell the player the result.

We ideally want a pool that gets more unpredictable as the event gets harder to judge. There are some obvious ways to do this, which will all depend on the kind of resolution system you want to use.

  • One is pool size; in this case, using Fudge dice and decreasing the pool size will make it more uncertain, but will also decrease the maximum error. That’s fine if we only really want a simple Good Neutral Bad result – zero is Neutral, anything else is Good or Bad.
  • Another would use a pool of D6s. Roll some number, and pick the two values closest to 7 in total. For a swingy pool, use only 2 dice. For a low-swing pool, use 10 dice.
  • You could also use variable die size. If you assume 1-3 is a pass and 4+ is a failure, then adding in bigger dice will reduce accuracy.

In all these models, the character’s actions should affect the degree of uncertainty. If they take helpful actions to reduce uncertainty (such as careful listening and observation) or if some features of the environment are beneficial, the pool should be in their favour.

An option is to use a Blip system with a similar uncertainty pool for unseen creatures (including fellow PCs). You can’t readily judge the distance of something you can’t see, but only hear. Here, we take advantage of having a split map (more later). The GM’s map shows the correct location of the creature. For the player’s map, roll some form of Uncertainty dice (perhaps alongside an artillery-style scatter die) each round to find out how well they pinpointed its location.


Another feature of tension is time, or the lack of it. You know Things are looking for you. They will find you. You need to keep moving, keep striving to escape, or solve the mystery, or break the curse. What we need here is a Countdown. Again, a dicepool sounds good to me. Let’s say that each round you stay in the same room, the GM rolls a pool of dice, initially 10. All matching dice are removed (common sensewise, keep one back to avoid leaving only one die!). When the dice run out, so did their time, and something happens.

Moving elsewhere won’t reset the pool, only delay rolling. Finding a safe place to rest will reset the pool, but it may not be safe forever and won’t help them escape.

The player doesn’t see the Countdown pool, so they have little idea how much time they have. Some idea, surely. They can hear a decreasing number of dice being rolled. As the pool shrinks, the GM should probably drop in additional eerie hints to remind them that the character knows they’re in trouble again.

Not using Stealth

Finally you should avoid making many rolls in general even though you might have a stealth or movement stat. While combat rolls imply some form of decision making (all-out attack, dodge, move, types of blows which all have their own modifiers), movement and stealth stats are normally a single entity which is re-rolled over and over. There's no decision to make in those instances.

This is a key problem with Stealth skills which Dan has written an entire game based around.

Well, if you want to use a stealth stat, how about an eroding-recharging pool that's actually based on nerve? The key to stealthy movement is often remaining calm and focused; in the case of a weak protagonist not an assassin, you're doing something probably quite risky at slow pace when you really want to break and run. Sneaking under the monster's nose takes real nerve, and you need to not break. So you roll the Nerve dicepool to determine your progress, and remove (say) any 1s from your hand. You could use this for all kinds of stealthy or meticulous actions. Trying to pick a lock or untie a knot while a monster hammers on the door behind you? Roll Nerve. Getting a real rest allows a recharge.

You could do the same for physical stats, this time representing stamina. How much can you push yourself before you need a rest? And that rest will take time... Maybe there's a less exhausting way to do this? You just need to sneak across that big, open courtyard in full view of all those windows...

Using maps

So I mentioned earlier that I was thinking of a split map. What I mean by this is that the GM and players have their own separate maps (if, and only if, you want to give players a map at all).

The GM map is complete, and carries all the relevant markers. The players never get to see it.

For players, use a tile-based map. Importantly, remove each section as soon as they leave the area. Memories are deeply unreliable, especially in the dark when you're scared. Sure, there was a corridor somewhere. You'll find it if you go the right way. This also allows party-splitting without giving away structure to other players. Don’t worry about, say, keeping each player’s map pointing in the same direction – you know where they are, and they’re losing track.

Next, don’t let them see even the tile map either. Give each player a plastic overlay printed like so: a transparent bit in the centre, fading into opacity. This represents their torchlight: the opaque bits are out of range, they need to move it around to see better. This means the player can never really see even the whole room they’re in.

They only get to find out more details if they have a way to do so. A compass will indicate direction (unless they’re in a magnetic field). Maps, or fire escape plans, might show the layout of the building. They can maybe look out of windows or around the landscape, and get clues from what they see.

Group play

So here's how I would do it. I would run this game with a single player. If I had a number of willing players, I would just run the game several times and then have a chill out session where people could discuss their favourite moments.

Solo play is fine, and I have nothing to add about that. So let's try the other angle. Maybe your group want to play together? Ruling that out is absolutely fine, but we don’t have to do that. What if we emphasise the real problems that travelling as a group cause when you are weak and vulnerable? Your defence, your only hope, is to be unnoticed, which means quiet and small and calm. This is absolutely a case for what I tend to call Negative Marking.

The traditional D&D-style Stealth skill is problematic for a heroic party-based game because only one player need fail for the whole party to fail; the weakest link is the defining one. That’s great. We’re not using Stealth skills as such, but the same principle applies to our substitute, Nerve. Only one person need lose their nerve for the whole party to be in jeopardy. Either you control them – with additional rolls and potentially attracting attention – or they’ll be racing away, shrieking or whatever you didn’t want. And seeing someone else break and run is pretty bad for your own calmness, so let’s have it reduce your own Nerve too.

Coordination is another issue. Games almost always assume a roughly turn-based structure even if there’s no traditional round. That’s not how it works. Look at any street, corridor or room where more than a handful of people are trying to move around. Any time multiple people want to move around, unless it’s super-organised or a really big space, they get in each others’ way and slow things down. And this goes double for narrow, dark, crowded spaces when everyone’s nerves are on edge, let alone when they’re actually fleeing in panic. You just try getting six people through an office, round a corner, through a narrow doorway and down a fire escape at a dead run without someone falling over, getting shoved over or just plain stopping. In fact, getting three people through a doorway at any kind of pace is usually trouble enough. So any time a group is fleeing in any kind of confided space, the size of that group should directly reduce their speed and/or increase the risk of accidents and stumbles. This calls for a triangle, like the old Fast Cheap Good. You can be safe, fast or numerous, pick two.

Of course, sometimes numbers will be an advantage – lifting people up, moving heavy objects, coordinating actions to achieve particular tasks.

But this mechanic should, hopefully, encourage people to survive by splitting up. And that’s fun. Now you have several characters in a building with no idea where each other are, all afraid of other things in the same building, mostly in the dark. Only allow each player to see their own section of the map. Use printouts so you can keep these separate: Angie is in the kitchen, Bob in the corridor outside, but they have completely separate bits of cardboard map so they have no idea of that. You probably can’t do this perfectly, but with good players it should be okay. Ideally, have two copies of each room. When they do realise they’re in the same place, just merge them onto one map. They can agree to go to particular places and do particular tasks – maybe even talk on phones when reception allows it, or via intercoms, or even email – but they can’t directly support each other.


  1. Oh, I love the use of the semi-transparency. I don't know about doing a whole game based on it but I certainly will be using it at some point in the future for particular segments.

  2. Being a dice pool fan, I'm particularly keen on the idea of an eroding pool. The problem with repeated rolls is that, as you and Shannon observe, there's nothing particularly tense about a string of dice rolls.

    Having a dice pool that deteriorates as you use it effectively recreates "timing" in a turn-based system. Your aim is to make as few rolls as possible, so every time you try something you have to ask: is it important enough to risk losing points from my pool over. This is, I think, the closest you're going to get to recreating time-pressure outside of a LARP.

    1. Glad you like it, your endorsement is always encouraging.

      You may then be pleased to hear that (rather than finishing the damn game I'm supposed to be writing) I hope to try and thrash out (yet another) a rough system for this kind of stuff, pulling together ideas I've already played with.

      Finally, let me observe that it is incredibly arsey and pointlessly irritating that Blogger arbitrarily disallowes the strikethrough tag in comments. What the hell?