Session Notes : Edge Of The World, Session 4

“Edge of the World,” Session #4: The Asylum on Shudder Island

Want to see the GMGenie method in action? This post is a “how it went in my head vs. how it went on game night” rundown of a session from my latest campaign – click here for the complete series. Watch for new Monday posts about my prep tools, ad-lib techniques, and mistakes.

Amnesic Beginning
Last week the party had built up this scenario in a wonderful display of everything great about co-operative storytelling. They even had a plan: Habakkuk would make some kind of insanity potion for some of them, and others would try to join as staff, they’d spring Jacob Jones, and make their escape. But a madhouse scenario would be disappointing if it went that easily – as if it were just a location for regular adventuring shenanigans.

So I opened the game by telling Sylvienne (the party wizard) he was seated comfortably, writing tablet in hand, next to a psychiatric couch where one of the other party members was telling him his problems – at the same time handing other party members a card with a delusion written on it. Each of them was thus forced into a quick roleplay without really understanding where they were or how they’d gotten there. A couple were designated doctors, and the rest were designated patients.

This gave everyone a great opportunity to step out of character: Bo the libidinous swashbuckler became a doomsday preacher, the Fair Lady became a timid victorian heiress, one of the patients had a delusion that he was a doctor.

Their plan seemed to have worked too well – or perhaps something else was affecting them? They seemed to suspect they were being brainwashed or experimented on by the “real” doctors.

Never Go Full Retard
And just to throw them off a bit more, I introduced a perceived-time loop: Sylvienne finished up with his appointments, went to the next room, and found himself being interviewed for his job as a doctor. This introduced the NPC warden, Dr. Terrapin.
I hoped this would create the sense of a pace where one’s perecptions are out of touch; in retrospect, this scenario ended up a little less unnerving and a little more nonsensical than I’d hoped, and the extra madness of this twist may have been the culprit.

Setting the Atmosphere
My scenario had some good horror elements:
  • As the group explored the building, they were unable to find any exterior doors or windows.
  • As they came to understand the layout of the building, they discovered “restricted” floors only the high-level doctors can access. And yet the party never actually sees anyone go in.
  • Record files list more admittances than there are cells in the building (which is no real surprise) but lists no discharges.
But one of the easy GMing mistakes is, when you’re doing a more “experimental” adventure (this week we were doing horror in a fantasy world), you tend to fall back into the same approach you use for everything else (the way you describe things, how you pace encounters). In horror, much more than in fantasy, the impact comes from atmosphere – which means careful descriptioneering. Basically, I described this scenario a lot like my fantasy scenarios, which meant my descriptions weren’t suited to making it really creepy.

One thing I wish I’d used: normally party splits are just a GM annoyance – in horror, they should be used to count toward the atmosphere. Maybe an apparition (could be benign or evil, but should link to the place’s backstory) approaches PCs each time they step off on their own.

Talking to Patients
PCs (patients and doctors) pumped the NPCs to find out more about what was going on. Instead they found something curious: no matter what their delusions, almost all the patients seemed to be raving about some devil figure or another calling “all his servants” together for the end of the world.

This was a line I’d planned as a clue or riddle for the campaign as a whole, so it was fun to say when it also happened to be literally true of the scenario they were in (see next week!)

Place physical exploration-lures
When you have a scenario in which the players do not know what the important locations are, you kind of have to help them explore.

This is one of my weak points. But one thing I did was build a physical clue into the layout of the scenario itself. All over the asylum, there are these pipes running from floor to ceiling – obviously newer than the building itself. These were not only a key aspect of the asylum’s secret, but their orientation also suggests that the party should move up and down in the building to find out more.

Rewriting an NPC based on player action
The PCs assumed from the get-go that their confused mental state was the work of the real doctors. And in fact, I had originally planned to go with the “evil doctors play mind games with you” angle. I was undecided, however, about whether the “evil doctors” should themselves be the subject of some diabolical experiment.

What decided it was PC confidence, really. After a little exploration, my two doctor PCs (Savio and Sylvienne) went right to Dr. Terrapin to pump him for information; they kept it polite, played along with his evasiveness and his games, but subtly made it clear they were here for answers. They wanted to know what was really going on, and they wanted to know where the patient Jacob Jones was.

This was a frontal assault (well-roleplayed and disguised with politeness as it was), and I decided playing Terrapin as the Big Bad would cut the suspense short too soon.

I made Terrapin react with hope. He wasn’t sure where Jones was, but he started confiding fears to them – he couldn’t remember how long he’d worked there, just that it was “different” before; he could faintly remember faces of patients who were no longer around, though there was no record of a discharge, etc. Basically, he knew he was a rat in a maze, being watched by something, but coped by not thinking about it too hard. He had concluded that these clearminded PCs must be new arrivals, and might still have the mental fortitude to find an escape.

Swapping my evil doctor for a scared test subject was an on-the-spot rewrite. It required me to base the conversation on the approach the players were taking rather than on my notes. It was scary, but I was proud of it afterward. My advice here is pay attention to what the players are doing, and don’t be afraid to react to that.

The Building is Shifting
As PCs explored the building (or occasionally got locked up for violent behavior) they’d hear an odd sound and notice the building had shifted. A downward-leading hallway where there had once been a cell wall. A crossroad appearing in a straight hallway so the PCs would be forced back together.

I hate when GMs force the party back together, and I hate when GMs arbitrarily direct the PCs’ exploration. But in this adventure, making their explorations a little railroady set up the main (now that I’d made that decision about Terrapin) story: that something was toying with them, teasing the new visitors with the building’s secrets, and directing them where it wanted them to go.

Easiest way to resolve party splits ever, is what I’m saying.

The Id
One of the doctor PCs (Savio) was in his office, looking for clues. How long had the party been there? Was this a deception, and if so, by whom? Did any of the humans know what was going on? But instead of researching he completely surprised me by just sitting down in the room and asking, “who are you?” Brilliant. And no way was “The Id” (the evil spirit I’d planned as the haunter and controller of the asylum) going to leave that challenge unanswered. Trippy roleplay sequence initiated!

I answered (in a voice that shocked the group – it’s good to save your voice acting for really crucial moments), “I am madness.” An enimatic conversation ensued between Savio and the Id who claimed that sanity was an illusion, that madness was the only reality, revealed the plot info (in vision form) that the whole world was soon to collapse into madness (reminiscent of what the patients had said), and the character relationship info that he had a personal interest in Savio because Savio had dared to come back here after once escaping.

And that was where I left it. Frankly, I took what had said to Savio – whatever had seemed right at the time – as my notes for fleshing this NPC out next week. Overall, this was the cap on a very ad-libbed adventure. I brought in a lot of elements, and reconnected those elements to what unfolded. The most I can say for this approach is that it’s risky, but it’s cool when you can pull it off!

Cliffhanger
Especially these low-action, conversation-heavy adventures need a cliffhanger – something to make the Progress So Far stick in the players’ minds and also to give them a Starting Point To Look Forward To for next time. So I killed Terrapin. He’d said too much! And this seemed the best way to show the PCs that his fears had been real.

They happened back by his office and found him hanging. Suicide? Murder by someone’s hand? Or by something without hands? No clues. But the open record books showed what he had been researching. And there was one room number circled. Room number one.