Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Top 6 Ways to Make Your Campaign Have a Survival-Horror Video Game Feel

Top 6 Ways to Make Your Campaign Have a Survival-Horror Video Game Feel

By: Jesse C Cohoon

Horror-survival video games are all the rage, and it’s no surprise. It’s fun to control characters who run around in an open environment, overwhelmed by massive numbers of enemies and with stealth or open force deal with them. There are a variety of ways that the feel of these games can be brought into your roleplaying games.

(1)   Setup: In setting up a horror-survival game DMs needs to ask themselves several questions:

  • Stamina/ Fatigue: Do you want to use rules on stamina: how quickly a character gets tired from running? How quickly do they recover? How do they recover? If using such rules, make sure that they’re consistent across the board for enemies as well as players.

  • Sanity: In video games sanity is often represented by the characters seeing things or hearing things that aren’t really there. In a roleplaying game there is a lot more leeway in how that could be implemented. Do you want to use sanity rules; if so how does loss of sanity affect the character? Can sanity be regained? If so, how? has these suggestions: give the protagonists ‘comforts’ to counteract their mental fatigue. If food is the vice they go to, make the monsters fat. If they drown out their sorrows in alcohol or drugs, give them meth-head complexions. If they find comfort in sex, make them sexually attractive. If they exercises to take their minds off things, make them athletic. If they use ‘Finishing Moves’ a lot, have them drip gore from a footprint in their chest, and make them a mass of heavy bruises and Cranial Eruptions. If they go to church a lot, have them run into sinister ministers and naughty nuns. Each of these things should reduce the same amount of stress. Even though these ideas are specific to video games, they could be easily adapted to a roleplaying game as well with a bit of imagination.

  • Morality: In some video games participating in some event or, by inaction, allowing it to happen can cause a bad game ending. In a roleplaying game, this concept would be covered by alignment. In a survival horror game do you want to put any actions “off limits” or not? If not, is there a threat that the players becoming the evil they’re trying to stop?   

  • Carrying Capacity/ Encumbrance: Do you want to carefully keep track of how much a character can carry and how it affects their movement or not? If so how will you implement such a thing in the game? In video games this is represented by an “item limit” which I don’t think is a particularly good mechanic, but due to the limitations of software, that’s how the game developers have to implement it. On the other hand weight alone doesn’t seem to be a good way of handling carrying capacity, particularly if you have a bulky item that really can’t fit properly in the bag you’re carrying. The shifting weight should cause some sort of problems.

  • Health Recovery: How is health recovered? How effective is health recovery? How long does it take to recover health? These questions will affect the “survivability” of the characters in the game.

If using some sort of items, too few or more but ineffective in doing their job will cause the characters to have to avoid fights so they don’t get injured to begin with or need to quickly win the ones that they do engage in so they don’t get too badly injured or die.
If time allows wounds to heal, make sure that the players get plenty of rest areas in-between fights or allow them to backtrack to safer areas. 

  • Enemies: what type of enemies are there? What are their strengths? Why do they represent a threat to the character(s)? What are their weaknesses? How can they be defeated? What are the tactics that they use? Do you want them to be fast, but weak, slow but strong, fast and strong, but have some sort of weakness that can be exploited? Do they swarm the characters in groups for unfair advantage, not allowing them a moment’s breathing room or is it every enemy for itself trying to defeat them? 
  • What type of horror? There are several distinct types:

o   Eastern Horror deals with feelings of isolation, paranoia
o   Western Horror deals with threat of being eaten or otherwise painfully murdered
o   East + West attempts to “split the difference” between these concepts
o   Body Horror involves body parts, parasitism, disfigurement, mutation, or unsettling bodily configuration, not induced by immediate violence.
o   Adult Fears such as the safety of their children, the safety of their neighborhood, the fidelity of their spouse, the loyalty of their friends and coworkers, being able to pay their bills, etc.

  • Plot: why are they in this situation? What events lead the characters up to this point? Why are there zombies everywhere?

  • Why can’t the players leave? This can be as simple as there is no exit due to the fact that there are monster everywhere to they’re in a prison or asylum that has locks that prevents you from escaping to the character’s loved ones are trapped and they must rescue them or never see them again.
  • Called Shots: is targeting a specific body part (such as the head) going to be important, or will enough damage anywhere kill them? 
  • If makeshift equipment is used, how sturdy should they be? There need to be a balance, too strong and the players won’t bother to look for something stronger, too weak and the players are constantly having to look for more things to cobble together, causing needless frustration.

(2)   Characters: The “average joe” really isn’t set up to deal with hordes of undead or other monsters, well-trained military forces, or extraordinary circumstances. The point of these games is survival. To represent this lack of power, the characters should be considerably less powerful than “standard” heroes. But that doesn’t mean that they should be ill-equipped. They should have skills appropriate to allow them to survive. Those that either don’t have some sort of skills that will allow them to survive or thrive in this new environment or with the ability to quickly learn those skills that they need will quickly find themselves dead. It also means that the characters will have to work smarter to accomplish their goals, because of the overwhelmingness of the situation. Depending on the type of circumstances or enemies faced the only skill they may have to deal with the situation may be to run, at least initially. 
If there are multiple characters in a roleplaying game, each person in the group really must play a different role, have different skills to add to the group. Multiple people with the same skillset are not only unnecessary, but they can detract from the feeling of fear. In the ObsCure survival-horror games, different combinations of protagonists were required to conquer different tasks. In a good survival horror roleplaying game, such things should be a part of the fun.    

(3)   Environment (Part I): One of the things that good survival horror games do well is make the environment itself a foe. These come in several varieties:

  • Physical Hazards: One of the bad things about being a character in a horror-survival game is that things are typically worn out/ dilapidated or in generally not good working order. One misstep causes severe injury or death due to the fact that the ground just gave out underneath you because it can’t support your weight. Even with a team it might not be much better. One of your teammates you is dangling from a precarious location and you need to hoist them up all the while having to avoid attacks. In game terms what this means is that when the characters are in dangerous situation that they will need to check skills related to keeping balance, jumping, etc. and be slowed down by debris that laying around the scene.

  • Limited Line-of-Sight: In many survival horror games, especially during battles, characters can’t see everything; either their vision is blocked by darkness, fog/mist or the environment itself is shaped in such a way to limit what the characters can see such as winding corridors/mazes or blind alleys. In game terms, what this mean is that multiple enemies may surround them and the character(s) would be unable to defend themselves from all of the attacks, are slowed down due to the fact that they can’t travel at full speed or risk injuring themselves.

  • Physical Limitations: while I don’t think that a DM should ever tell their players that they *can’t* do something, they need to make it clear that if they attempt to do a dangerous activity, what the consequences will be if they fail. Having said that, there should be things that (at least in the player’s mind) should be so incredibly difficult that they shouldn’t want to try, given the limitations of their bodies or equipment. For instance, the character may want to try to jump to a movable platform that’s just a *bit* too far away for them to reach jumping normally. They may decide to use a pole or take a running jump to help them get there to give them a bit of a bonus to try to do so, but if they fail, they’ll take significant, potentially deadly damage.  

(4)   Environment (Part II): Another thing that good horror-survival games do is they help ‘even the odds’ just laying around the environment. They implement this in several ways:

  • Puzzles: The characters need to get from point A to point B. There’s stuff laying around the environment to help them get there. Sometimes things may need to be moved from one point to another. In the survival-horror game “The Last of Us” the characters have to move ladders and boards to get from place to place. In a roleplaying game, instead of just moving things and concentrating on moving forward, characters may have to consider ways of moving back to where they were to retreat and prevent the enemy from following until they can regroup/ heal themselves.  

Note that puzzles shouldn’t be there for the sake of having puzzles there. They should be connected to the plot somehow.  

  • Stashes can be implemented in a variety of ways. They may have unattended items on shelves, boxes, storage lockers, or places such as underneath cabinets. In such a game a “loot everything” mentality exists; anything unattended is fair game. Unfortunately, most DMs are ill-equipped to provide that level of detail to their world. To help with this daunting task of having things available to give to the players who take the time to search everything, DMs can develop a table of items to roll on to give to the players.

Note: while these stashes shouldn’t be everywhere, nor should they be particularly well-stocked, they should be prevalent enough to keep the players searching for them, and, not having to constantly fumble around for a makeshift weapon.

  • Makeshift Items: In the recent horror-survival video game “The Last of Us” they had a particularly good system. Due to it being 20 years after the Infected Apocalypse, building were in a state of disrepair. Many times in buildings the characters would find loose bricks, bottles, and 2X4s and metal poles. The problem with their system is that the makeshift items broke far too easily. In high tension moments in the game, I can imagine rolling to see if a board breaks, but under “normal use,” in fighting standard enemies I don’t think it should, especially when having something sturdy like a metal pipe.

Note: many of these types of games allow the characters to combine ingredients or inventory in order to make something new. I would have several “standard” things to be able to combine, but allow for player creativity as well. If they have an appropriate skill in crafting give a bonus to making it. If they’re trying to concoct something in a hurry, give a penalty to crafting.      

  • Limited Line-of-Sight: Just as the enemies can use limited line of sight, so should characters be able to use this to their advantage. By using stealth and makeshift weapons, it should be possible to defeat a good many enemies.    

(5)   Scarcity: In a horror-survival game *everything* of importance is scarce, and most of the time logically so.

  • Weapons & Ammo: in places that are facing a disaster, or currently in a disaster, the first thing that people would snatch up would be these items because it’s a way to protect themselves against whatever dangers are out there. If you want a truly desperate situation, the only things available to make weapons would be makeshift, as all the guns/ ammo are gone. You can also make it where the enemies have guns and ammo and until you take one of them out you don’t. To make things even trickier, the enemies could be using weapons that the characters aren’t proficient in their use and if they try to use them are severely penalized.   

  • Health Items: If you’re running from an apocalypse, one of the things you’re going to want to stock up on is bandages, rubbing alcohol, pain medicine, etc.

  • Food: while *technically* a health item, I’m listing this separate due to the fact that while medicine heals you, without food, you soon won’t have the energy or stamina to move.

  • Safe Areas: In a survival-horror game “safe” is the last adjective you should use. Enemies should be constantly moving, and any safe area should not remain safe for long, unless it’s “home base” and even that should not be free from fear of attack.

(6)   Suspense Build up: if the players know that they are in a horror game, they should be looking for something to jump out and attack unexpectedly. Alternating this type of tension buildup and resolution is a classic way of developing horror. For more on this see So You Want To Write A Survival Horror Game on

You don’t have to implement all or even most of these suggestions in order to have an effective survival horror roleplaying game, but by incorporating those you find the most useful and easiest to implement, you can make your game feel more like a survival horror video game.

Do you agree? What parts of a survival horror game would you like to see implemented into your roleplaying games? Your input would be appreciated.