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Keeping 'Em Guessing

by Kevin Turner

The evening is coming on. As you stroll down the grimy, cobbled street there is a faint scent of mist in the air. Your woman (for this week, anyway) shivers in her silk gown. You put your arm around her and speak of the entertainments to which you'll be treating her this evening. Shopkeepers begin to close their doors and tavern masters send their boys to light the lamps

Passing faces pay you little mind as they make for the comforts and safety of home, or at least the taverns. Less than peasants shuffle out of the way, searching for alleys or doorframes for the night.

Suddenly, a ragtag old fool stands upright on the opposite side of the street. He looks around as if his head and eyes were on some other master's strings. The motion draws your attention and your gazes meet, his wild-eyed expression becoming one of rage. The woman on your arm is still chattering animatedly.

With a shriek, the old one draws a rusty knife from somewhere within the rags. You stop, vainly clawing at the sword hilt that isn't on your belt. The woman stares at you in puzzlement. There is a sickening, wet crunch and she collapses at your feet in a pool of her own spreading blood. The old one, bloody knife held high above his head, sprints down a nearby alley, cackling, "You'll never live to betray the Eye!"

Mindlessly, you charge after him. The alley ends abruptly in a stone wall, but the old man pays no heed. Lowering and reversing the knife, he slams full-speed into the wall, still cackling. As you catch up to him, he rebounds off the wall, the rusted instrument of death buried deep in his chest. The cackling becomes a fading gurgle.

Before your astonished eyes, the still-warm corpse begins to melt, hissing and steaming, flowing red and decrepit between the cobbles. The knife lays stained on the stone, too hot to pick up.

"Strange," you think. "I have no idea what 'the Eye' is...And why do they want me dead?..."

Keeping your adventures spicy and your adventurers guessing is a primary challenge in any RPG. However, if political intrigue is old, hack and slash is boring, and running errands for King Stefan makes your players feeling like pages, how about a good scare?

In a fantasy world, where magic works and the children of a thousand nightmares run loose in the forest, it's rather difficult to really make your players scared. After all, they're seasoned adventurers destined to slay even the most heinous of demons. Even the most vicious monster has to roll at a penalty for its morale when facing your characters. There is, of course, a reason for this: Monsters are easy. They're just a collection of numbers. Even an interesting monster with a background and personality still suffers from one fact: it's still a monster. It has fathomable motives and thoughts.

So what can you do? What will they fear? What will keep them on their toes?

Ever try the unknown?...

By "unknown" I don't just mean a previously unrecorded monster. I mean things your players just don't understand. Like taxes, only worse. The above example is a good one. What in the world is going on? Especially if the character just came back from a rousing adventure with his cohorts, why is someone referring to an organization or person whom the character has never heard of, and why would they want him dead for it? Not to mention the bizarre nature of the assassin.

By nature, adventurers should be a jumpy lot. In order to survive goblin ambushes and death-trapped mazes, their adrenals must be working overtime. Using the weird, sinister unknown on a semi-regular basis should push them slightly over the edge, into the realms of fear.

Try these, for example: threatening notes appear in a character's gear, even though the gear never left that character's possession. Total strangers pass by, giving money and indecipherable messages to the characters for assignments they didn't realize they'd been sent on. Inhuman assassins used by far-off mages disappear without a trace.

When something is not understood it is easier to fear. When your players know that a goblin is a 1 HD monster, it holds no fear. When their inn-room door is wedged shut from the outside and several flaming arrows crash in through the window, they'll panic. When the evil werewolf they were sent to hunt down hails them as old comrades and offers them proof of his words, they may finally begin to get jumpy.

The dismal atmosphere that darkens a sunny day and says that anything can happen and everyone could be your enemy will put your players through the wringer. Note: Unless you're prepared to destroy your party's spirit, do not introduce intra-party treachery. Keeping a group attitude is occasionally the only way the party can survive, so don't kill it unless you're prepared to face the consequences! Also, watch out for using this sort of thing too much. Make your players too jumpy, and even the weird becomes second nature. Then their survival instinct won't kick in when they're really in trouble.

Fear motivates. Fear keeps things fresh. Fear will keep your players on their toes. Of course, they'll never be the same again, but that's the idea of character development, now isn't it?

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This article copyright 1999, Kevin Turner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.