Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Game Styles: The Supernatural

Every GM has a type of game that they favor and are really good at running. For some of us, we excel at running narrative epics where the PCs become, or are supposed to become, larger than life heroes whose songs will be sung through the ages. For others, we're good t running realistic and gritty action adventure stories where every bullet counts and you're not going to get away with some of the stunts you see in the movies. Point is, we all have a different style of gaming. Today, and perhaps a couple more times this week, I want to talk about some of those styles.

The Supernatural
The Supernatural is a type of game that I don't often run, and am only recently finding myself involved in. Considering how much time I spend playing and running Legend of the Five Rings it is actually surprising to me how little I use ghosts and spirits in my games. Because of that, some of this is me sorting my thoughts on what I think these kind of games need. Other parts of it will be advice I've read elsewhere, or collected from stories in other mediums. Hopefully, we'll all find something useful here.

Something Different Yet Familiar
One of the key point with Supernatural style games is to get across the point that something is different. This doesn't matter if you are doing a game where the PCs are human hunters of the paranormal or one where the PCs are the paranormal entities themselves: either way, there is going to be that feeling of different yet similar. Even when it comes to the myths and legends of old - the basis for the supernatural in games like L5R - there is still that sense of familiar but different. Ghosts, by their very nature, are familiar to us. They are the essence of people, people with stories that are easy to relate to. However, they're also dead and still aorund...and that's kind of different. This is different from "the Strange" which is also part of the Supernatural. This is the part that humanizes the stories. Use that.

The Strange
On the other hand we have the strange. This is the stuff that most gamers are familiar with butting their heads against. The strange are not familiar, but are quite often powerful and supernatural. These are the monster of the week, month, or session. The strange covers anything from dragons and were serpents to even things often considered part of the above like vampires and lycanthropes. The key thing with these is that time is not spent humanizing the creatures. If anything, the animal side is played up, but there are very few hints towards the creature having a soul or a soft or good side.

The last key point to a game with the Supernatural is that the Supernatural is full of rules. This is often the catch point to balance out all the power that the ghosts and ghouls have in their favor. Yes they have all of this power, but they also have boundaries they can't cross. Maybe they're stopped by lines of salt, maybe they can't walk on holy ground, or maybe you just need a specific item to sap their powers and kill them. The point is, no matter how strong the supernatural may be they are bound by rules. These rules are the most important thing to have in place for your game too. Everything else you can handle with narrative, but the rules...the rules are what the players need to know.

Running The Game
Depending on the kind of supernatural game you want to run, you are probably going to come across it differently. A monster of the week hunting show (a la Supernatural) might need the GM to just come up with some rules and then to present scenarios to the players and see how they react as the world becomes weirder and weirder. On the other hand, something like how most White Wolf games are supposed to be done, is the game where the PCs are the supernatural element. for these you still need the rules, but you also need to put more work into what impact the supernatural has had on the human side of the NPCs. Basically, when the PCs can be supernatural, you need to focus on the "strange but familiar" aspect. Otherwise, you are free to focus as you please.

Plot It Out Ahead
The last note I have here is to address a mistake I made the last time I tried using supernatural elements. You want to have them planned out in advance. This mostly comes down to the need for rules, but the supernatural is one of the elements of a game that your players will know if you are just winging it. Sadly, it is also one of the elements of the game that will also lose a lot of impact once that is known. So take your time, add it in carefully, and plan it out.

Your Advice?
How about you? Any advice for a GM looking to add supernatural elements to their game?


  1. Great breakdown of the game style from a "What you need" analysis.

    I would echo the advice to plan out the Rules. While it may seem odd, that point is very important in a setting where the meat and drink are mystery. In order to feel they have a chance in the environment, players need to have a sense of "what's real" through the Rules they either know or learn along the way.

    Also, I would caution against falling into the trap of: "The Strange" feature of creature X is that it defies Rule Y (though all other X creatures don't) in direct opposition to what the players have always known.

    Those types of twists are fine once in a while, but lead to players not trusting anything they "knew to be true."

  2. That point is so very needed I'm almost ashamed I didn't include it in the original post, Kevin.

    Anything that breaks the rules needs to be a VERY RARE occurence, or you have basically just kind of ruined all the work you put into things. Also, you should never break the rules until all of them are firmly established.

    Ever watch a show where all they do is break the rules? Or pull off the "impossible stunt" every episode? Yeah, it gets very old very quickly. One of the reasons I think that Supernatural the TV show is still going strong is because the show doesn't break its own rules. Ghosts in season 1 are still ghosts in season 6. Pagan gods are still pagan gods. Demons are still demons. Everytime they file an exception to a rule it because the "rule" for a new group (i.e. really powerful demons and holy water.)

    So yeah, set a rule and only break it for a grand finale or a once in a VERY long time "special occasion." Otherwise, it just becomes weird.