Sunday 27 April 2014

GM Tips - Raising Suspense (Coffin Rock)

Raising Suspense (Coffin Rock)

I am not a good GM – I haven’t the discipline to put in the effort outside the game or to keep players from taking over inside it. I have played with some very good GM’s so I think I need to work out what about their style was successful for me.

Husbit ran the Deadlands’ scenario ‘Coffin Rock’ for us. He says he would be interested to have someone else run it for him to see how different it is (mostly, he doesn’t think the original text is especially creepy but that is how I describe it to everyone, based on how he ran it).

The scenario is fun and interesting and I don’t intend to spoil it for you here.

What I want to talk about are two of the tweaks Husbit made to ramp up the terror level. Husbit is good at creepy – Ravenloft is one of his favourite games to run and has given him lots of practice!

The first was subtle and he’d forgotten he’d even done it until we were watching the ‘Bloody Mary’ episode of Supernatural. He was admiring the use of mirror-play to build tension and commented that you couldn’t do that in a roleplay game. I reminded him that he had done exactly that.

It was clever. Every time a player walked past a reflective surface – a mirror or a window – he asked for a perception roll. A good result, one that looked like it might be a pass, would result in a comment along the lines of “you thought you saw… but no, you probably didn’t” or something that would encourage the player to look more carefully at the surface. We’d roll perception again and if we rolled well we’d be told there was nothing and if we rolled badly we’d think we see something. Our imaginations filled in the blanks, very effectively.

The second was a much larger part of the game that successful got right into our heads and was rather fantastic – we were very surprised when he admitted he’d made it up and it wasn’t part of the scenario.

He played with time.

Two of four players missed the week we arrived in town, so when they joined us the next session Husbit told them they were about a week behind us… and us that they arrived later the same day. That was a little confusing but we didn’t worry too much about it – GM’s make mistakes from time to time. Husbit isn’t the only GM I’ve known use this OOC knowledge against players.

Certainly in our games, players often respond to the question “what do you do?” with “what time is it?” and then there may be some bickering as we try and work out how long previous tasks had taken. Whatever time we settled on, Husbit would correct us and if we argued he would remind us of Rule One.

It actually took a couple of sessions before we twigged that time was messed up, OOC. At that point he ramped it up and started telling us that we didn’t remember when we came to the desolate mining town, that we’d always been there, hadn’t we? Or had we?

He had the benefit of a group that works well together, and soon we were arguing amongst ourselves about how long ago things had happened – “that guy we spoke to this morning” “that was last week” “no, this morning” sort of thing. It actually became very confusing to keep track of where we were and that was the icing on the creepy cake.


  1. It's been a few years since I ran that game, but it appears I remember things differently.
    Coincidently I wrote about it on the Deadlands' publisher's forum, in a topic in how to scare and unsettle players scroll down to 8/2/14.

  2. Just to keep things up-to-date, the above link is dead as the peginc forum had a massive update. My post can now be found here