Grand Experiments: Bloody Morder

I’ve seen strangely proud GM’s say “oooh that game was so intense a character jumped off a cliff to escape THE HORROR!” But here’s my question: the player is deciding what the character does, so is that player responding to the fiction or the GM? Is this the dramatic moment of despair the GM proudly claims or the player rebelling against the GM’s scenario and saying “I’m out, bee-yatch!”?

Everything we do in games is a mix of those two forces, our reactions to the other players and our reactions to the fiction. Sometimes more of one, sometimes more of the other.*

Which brings us to story time. Get your hot cocoa and snuggle up by the fire, because we’re going to set the way back machine for 30 years and talk about an old D&D game, as we do.

This was a one-shot game, though it wound up taking two sessions for reasons you’ll see. It was set in a big campaign world I had been running for a decade, so it was a well-established setting the players were very familiar with, but these were separate characters and story not connected to other games in the world.

The set up was the classic “haunted castle on the hill”. Castle Morder has sat empty and abandoned for lo these many years, after tragedy befell the last lord a generation ago. Rumors of dark curses and strange doings plagued the family name. The villagers call the place “Bloody Morder” in hushed tones, because apparently fearful villagers enjoy a good pun.

I didn’t say it outright, but I telegraphed pretty hard that I was taking the original Castle Ravenloft module and just filing the serial numbers off. “Here thar be vampires”. The villagers certainly expected something traditional like that. Which is scary, because in old D&D vampires (and all level draining undead) are no joke. The players are understandably cautious, loading up on all their best undead slaying equipment: holy water, wooden spikes, the works. They’re only around 5th level, so it’s dicey, but they’re smart and resourceful and the riches of the Morder nobles await them!

Except… it’s a total red herring, because I’m a monster. All the rumors about dark family secrets are true, except the curse is a lot less Count Dracula and a lot more Shadow Over Innsmouth. Castle Morder sits on a cliff looking over the sea and oh yeah, ancestral lords heard the siren call of strange things from beneath the waves and you bet their bloodline is tainted with fishy monster mating. Morder nobles dabbled in the occult, exploiting the gifts of their bloodline to summon strange things not meant to exist in this realm, making Castle Morder a dangerous nexus for all sorts of unspeakable non-Euclidean argle bargle. When the last lord of Morder came of age and learned the truth, he tried to turn his back on his birthright and flee far away, but in end could not resist the call and returned to his doom. Poor guy!

So that’s the scenario the characters are walking into, and they have no idea I’ve switched genres on them. It’s proper Lovecraft in D&D, back when Cthulhu was exotic and scary, not an adorable plushy or a bedtime story. Which I figure will lead to some genuinely creepy horror reveals. And it does! Yay! The players are genuinely freaked out and feeling very doomed and out of their depths.

But first something else happens.

Pretty early on they get in the castle and find a crazed hermit / sage who’s come here to delve into the secrets of the place. He has already figured out way too much for his own good, hence the crazed part, so he raves at our heroes about the terrible, unspeakable things lurking in the bowels of the castle and the terrible, unspeakable things the Morder line did to get them there. He’s mister exposition.

And then… one of the heroes kills him. Just jumps up, out of the blue, cuts the old man down mid-conversation (the hermit did not have a lot of hit points), and then declares “okay well that solves that, he was the problem so we’re all done”. And the party rides away. Game (apparently) over.

Which is interesting, because even in the moment, it clearly makes no sense. The player whose character did the slaying is, I know, a smart person. There is no way *he* thinks it makes sense that killing the hermit will fix anything. The second it happens, I have no doubt that the player is saying “nope, don’t want any of what you’re selling” and is trying to short-circuit the scenario. It’s a reaction to me, the GM inflicting the plot, not the fiction itself.

It would have been great if the player had had the *character* decide to kill the guy, with the character knowing it wasn’t solving anything, but doing it to just get out of the situation. The panicked, irrational action of a scared human. But it wasn’t. This was a player rebelling against the GM (me) and my clever plot.

When something like that happens, it’s a pretty good sign that your group is not on stable ground. Buy a magazine rack, because you’ve got issues. Personal conflicts or tension are jumping up and down on the shared fiction. Your players are in revolt, and maybe they have good reason to be. In this case though… no one else felt that way. It was really just one player. Everyone else went along with riding away, because plot-hook/information guy was already dead and they didn’t know what else to do. But they were a bit deflated. The game had been very effectively sabotaged.

Why didn’t I prevent the murder? Wave my GM hand to make the guy survive or escape somehow? Because that actually would be terrible. The players get to decide what they do. That’s the whole point of it being a game, for better or worse. In this case you could argue I would have been protecting the fun of everyone else from one rogue player, but well, I didn’t, so that’s another discussion.

Which would be a fine place to end this anecdote, because it demonstrates this lesson about interpersonal dynamics. But the game did not end there. They’re just riding away, bored and little bummed, heading back to a city and camping each night, and we’re still playing. At first they’re just going along with it but at some point maybe they’re wondering why we’re still playing, since the adventure is clearly over.

And then the visions start.

Because what they didn’t know is that as soon as they started poking around the castle their precious precious brains came in contact with the same unspeakable horrors the hermit saw/felt/was consumed by. And now it’s happening to them too. Burning congeries and astral vistas sing to their dreams.

And then it sidles into their waking world. They no longer feel quite right in their bodies. At one point a character reaches for a stick and is startled to see he has five fingers. It feels… wrong.

They go to priests and sages, seek assistance, but the answers are the same: they’re linked to whatever lurks beneath Castle Morder, more and more day by day, and distance makes no difference because this is astral entities and dreams and whatnot. But now instead of “oh we’re in the castle let’s solve this problem”, our heroes have spent days and days riding away, feeling their sanity erode, only to realize they have to ride all the way back to save themselves, before they become something that doesn’t want to be saved. Whoopsy!

Did I not care that they rebelled against the plot and tried to ride off into the sunset because I knew it wouldn’t work? Maybe. Would I have reacted differently if it had been a normal game and they could have just walked away? I hope not. But this is ten years before I made West Marches, so who knows.

Either way, by the time our heroes made it back to Castle Morder to confront their fates, the players had 100% bought into the fiction. And this time it was awesome.


*You could include a third element, our reaction to the rules, because a lot of systems reward some choices more than others.

    Ben Robbins | April 2nd, 2020 | , , | leave a comment