There’s a great article over at Kobold Quarterly detailing tricks and techniques for adding a sense of menace to the all-too-common trip through the wilderness in RPG games. It got me thinking about something I did in my Magica campaign a while back. In my case, what follows applied to a specific encounter, rather than a trip, but I think if fits right in.

To start with, I’ll backtrack to a more general tip: A long time ago, I took a bunch of D&D miniatures and I spray-painted them matte black. I use them in the game to indicate the position of perceived but unidentified creatures (real or imagined): “You see some movement in the darkness over here.” For best effect, I used rather shapeless creatures such as gibbering mouthers and choas beasts; their shapes suggest only menace.

 

Imagine this guy in solid black. I'd photograph the ones I've painted, but they're on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic right now.

 

So, in this particular encounter the heroes were in a Fey regio, searching for a wicked hag who had a key they needed. The hag was hostile, had thorough mastery of the frozen bog that was its realm, had a number of lesser allies, and could (and did) conjure a dense fog. It enjoyed toying with its prey, and had no desire to be vanquished by a party of heroes in a fair fight.

The encounter area was a mesh of difficult and impassible terrain, dotted with bits of cover-granting vegetation. (Another tip: Use minis that look like wicked trees–such as treants and twigblights–for actual trees. Looks creepy, and leaves the players with a slight unease that even the terrain features might be their enemies.) Down came the dense fog–regular visibility within two squares, concealment for another two, and no visibility beyond.

Initiative was rolled, and on went the blindfolds. A bit of a surprise for the players, and they were immediately pulled from their comfort zone–a key to injecting a sense of menace into play.

I then ran the encounter as normal, with the exception that only the active player could take off his blindfold (or, during the bad guys’ turn, the player being attacked). When he or she did, the only minis on the battlemat were the player’s and those within two squares. Within another two-square radius I replaced all minis–friend or foe–with the black-painted “generic” figures. The players had to remember–or guess–where other characters were, and as the fight progressed and characters moved from their original locations, that got harder and harder.

Obviously, this required some good record-keeping on my part, and it slowed the encounter down a bit (but only a bit). But those costs were more than offset by the tension and menace this very real fog of war conjured. The players were challenged–in fact, I’d say downright frightened, for a while at least. And I could play some unpleasant tricks, using hints of sights and sounds to tempt the players into isolating themselves.

I would use this sort of technique sparingly (in fact, I’ve only used it the once, though I might again if a similar situation called for it). It was very effective, but only for a specific sort of scene and in part because it was so unusual. Overuse or inappropriate use could turn this sort of thing from fun to frustrating.

Anybody done anything like this–or do you have any similar tips to share?

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