TMC: Daedalian Musing – Boo?

by Delphine Lynx November 1, 2002

Slightly belated, this was to be a special edition published on Halloween. That said, the focus of this piece is on random events rather than on the ambience of the areas themselves, which will eventually be addressed in a different piece.

“Never frighten a little man. He’ll kill you.”

Creating an atmosphere of fear or horror in a MUD presents difficulties very different from those of either pencil and paper or graphical RPGs. Fortunately, the differences are not solely detrimental, and therefore it is not a fruitless endeavor to discuss the promotion of such an atmosphere.

Inherently, though, text is a difficult medium when it comes to creating fear in games. Though easily accomplished in well-written novels, the style of reading and interaction is very different when it comes to a MUD. Whereas in the novel you have an audience diligently reading every word at the pace you dictate, in a MUD the [majority of] players are willing at best to read quickly – at worst not to read at all. The first thing to do in creating a situation in which fear is a factor, then, is to slow down the pace. There are two principal designs for rooms in which you can slow down the players.

The first category, which includes boats, elevators, trains and the like, is designed around simply trapping the players in a room, the exits of which are not unnaturally blocked but simply unusable. There is a perfectly logical reason why they might need to wait in an elevator, and yet it doesn’t represent a static moment – the players are still moving, not “wasting time”, and there is nothing artificial holding them in the room.

Second is the more classic horror movie approach, wherein an exit simply closes off. If the players have no N/S/E/W/U/D exit available, they will need to stop and read the description in order to leave – at least on their first time in the area.

Based on the above, you now have the players reading specific room descriptions as they wait for an event, but in and of itself this will get you nowhere. Having accomplished the first step, we then move on to a discussion of actually creating a frightening event.

Before discussing anything else, I cannot stress strongly enough how important it is – with all of the suggestions both above and below – that you avoid repetition. It’s only frightening so many times when room 5224 locks you in; after that, you’re merely ready for it and the situation becomes just another challenge to face, or another situation to be avoided. In order for any of these techniques to work, they must be applied throughout your MUD in a random fashion, thereby leaving your players susceptible to one or more of them at most any time (excepting new players and the like, if you so choose). Repetition leads to familiarity; fear dies with familiarity.

When creating creatures for the purpose of horror scenes it is best not to have their statistics a static affair. Whenever statistics are static, you ultimately have the player who’s either too weak or too strong for a particular random encounter, and therefore the situation ends immediately – in death for either the player or their foe – and without any great amount of tension. Based on this, then, I would advocate a system where the MUD generates the mob in question specifically based on the player’s skills, equipment and condition when they are taken into the random encounter. By doing this, you are lead to a viable way of implementing the suggestion outlined below.

An old cliché of both graphical RPGs and horror movies is to implement a villain of supernatural proportions, one not linked to any specific area, but which comes about at seemingly random moments, always forcing the players into a slowly losing battle until they are forced to flee. Potentially such a villain might even be used as a driving force in your MUD’s storyline, if existant. Why, then, not implement this type of plot device in a MUD? Naturally, given the auto-difficulty discussed above, such an event could not be applied easily to groups. For a single player, however, the method would be relatively simple. After the player wandered into room X, her exit would become cut off in some very routine manner; the same routine manner that has applied the last 35 times she walked through the area. But this time, rather than being able to exit as planned, the player is then given the stereotypical messages about creaking and growling, and then bam! , a villain specially designed to be on the upper limit of her ability appears. At this point, she’s left fighting for a predetermined amount of time before being allowed to flee.

To increase the feeling of tension even further, I would advocate applying a random time limit on the players being able to exit such rooms in general. For instance, if in every case the train ride was between one and three minutes in length, the player may not notice at 2 minutes that anything has gone wrong, when in fact they are, after all, on a course for confrontation. What’s more, by providing some of the same textual messages in a normal situation as those preceding the entrance of the villain, you eliminate the immediate tip-off that they would otherwise provide. Instead, the player is then left to carefully read them and try to determine what is about to occur, because, while a lack of messages might be safe, their inclusion does not necessarily mean it isn’t. The other important factor to determine in scenes where the player is left in a situation like this is to cut off both communication and recall. While there will always be AIM/ICQ, at least if the player is cut off within the game you prevent a certain amount of cross-checking in the midst of an encounter. The dark is always scarier alone, and so too should be your encounters.

As aforementioned, the scheme of dropping a super villain into an otherwise placid situation does not work very reliably for groups, as the difficulty of calculating a group’s strength is far in excess of what goes into calculating an individual player’s. Again, then, we can look to the clichés of the genre for solutions to the group problem. When faced with a haunted castle in any sufficiently bad horror movie, what ultimately happens to the group of commandos? They are split up and dealt with by individual super villains. There is no reason not to apply this to a MUD rather than throwing the players at a single villain.

Whenever a sequence to initiate a villain attack is triggered by a group, the game, rather than loading a villain, will instead execute a second set of instructions for separating the party. Depending on your style of game, the separation can be done in a variety of ways, whether falling debris, teleportation or some other method. Regardless of the method chosen, the players will be divided at the event’s culmination. Given this division, then, the same technique as before may be applied: Each is individually faced with a foe very difficult for their character, leaving them to fight it alone for several minutes until they are able to escape in one way or another.*

These two options, then, provide a reasonable foundation for implementing random encounters, which may be both frightening and challenging for groups of any size. But however random the application, even if over the entire game world, such an event can still not be applied all that frequently without feeling stale and repetitious. So clearly we are left needing other options. In discussing these other options, I am going to assume you already have a separated group, unless mentioned otherwise. While there are is one method capable of dealing with a large group, it will be dealt with independently, toward the end of the essay.

Often times there is simply no way to keep a player in a room. While you can reasonably create scripts to justify it in many instances, there will be certain areas that don’t lend themselves to it. Given that, a type of foe will be needed which does not require a stationary player. The fact that this sort of opponent can be implemented even in areas where the player could otherwise be contained is merely a benefit.

The knee-jerk reaction to this problem, of course, is simply to call for magic to hold the player stationary. But magic can be avoided by certain counter-spells. Worse still, even if the magic isn’t avoided, the encounter then becomes just another confrontation with a strong opponent. Instead of this, I would propose the inclusion of a swarm of smaller enemies.

In order to properly present such a swarm, the monsters in question must be extremely easy on their own. Given this, the player will not be immediately slain, but simply overwhelmed as they continually pour into the room and throw themselves into the melee. But that in itself isn’t enough; the monsters must pursue the player as they attempt to flee. Certainly, pursuit indefinitely is a bad idea – it must be capped somewhere. I would advocate no more than five to ten rooms, with the additional hindrance of having no possibility of recalling. In this situation, the player will be perfectly fine if they are able to successfully flee, so long as they do not inadvertently reach a dead end.

The last effect I am going to discuss is the use of dissembling monsters, or monsters that conceal their true nature. There are many ways this can be implemented, ranging from the exceptionally easy (a monster who has the exact same description as another but with superior stats) to the very complex (upon death it explodes and transforms into a platinum toothpick, which the player will want to pick up, at which point it grows spikes and bores into his head, takes over his body, and murders every other player in the MUD). Somewhere between those two extremes will be a more acceptable norm, which is where the most utility can be gained.

The applications of a monster wont to dissemble are obvious when it comes to individual players, but the possibilities are even more interesting when considered as a foe for a group of players.

The strength of a group comes primarily not in their numbers but in their ability to present a unified front and play off one another’s strengths. Given this, a lot of what a group can do against a strong monster is contingent upon preparedness – rarely does a group wander around “safe” areas in a state where they could take on your Red Dragon of Doom With Three Heads of Death. More importantly, rarely upon seeing Tiny Monster #7 will a group leap into such a state of preparedness. Now, here you have an interesting problem. If Tiny Monster #7 is in fact a dissembler, the newbie who happens to wander in on it will naturally be massacred. But this problem is nicely eliminated if we rephrase our assumption: Tiny Monster #7 is a dissembler if and only if it is faced with a group too strong for it. Now, this happens to be a side topic; in general, your use of dissemblers is as a shock factor to higher-level players in their own areas. But by implementing monsters like this, you can also keep them from randomly murdering low-level opposition, as it will merely result in an impossible battle,

The possibilities, both for dissemblers and alarming confrontation in general, are nearly endless. But to tie this discussion back to its roots, then, we must remember that none of it will be frightening unless the players have a sense that it can happen at any time, and when it does, that they will lose. Obviously there will be cases where they don’t; cases, even, where the monsters which leap out upon them are soundly beaten and forced to flee themselves. But by destroying their sense of safety, you can keep the players on edge. You don’t hunts these creatures; these creatures hunt you.

*The concept of group separation in this manner was suggested to me by Icculus, however he bears no responsibility for the butchering of his concept.

Boo? – copyright © 2002 by Delphine Lynx – All rights reserved.

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