“This is a world you’ll never understand. And you always fear what you don’t understand.”

-Batman Begins

I thought of this quote when I read You Got Your WFRP in My D&D over at Goblin Stomper. Go read it.

I have incredibly fond memories of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG. We played an epic campaign of that game in high school, and our GM Ken did something unusual at the time – he gave us a 3×5 card with a relative scoring for our abilities (Dexterity: above average; Strength: Average) and a list of abilities. Everything else was hidden – he was the only person who knew the system. This freed us a bit from trying to number-crunch the game and we just played the characters. It was a glorious experience.

The thing about the WFRPG universe, though, is how grim and downright scary it is, bordering (or leaping right over the border) to nihilism. That’s OK for what it is, but rapidly things get repetitive for that.

Anticipation is Worse than Reality

Even so, the GobStomper article touched on something that really rang true to me, which is when he described placing some Skaven (WFRP rat-men) underneath some key cities, and having rumors and actual sightings of the chaos-inflicted pop up in what was otherwise, perhaps, a bog-standard DnD world.

And from there, I can really see how this would be awesome. It doesn’t have to involve WFRP, but it can. The key is to have monsters that your players and their characters, to the extent that your group separates player/character skills and abilities, do not anticipate and cannot yet know.

And also, to build the anticipation of the event. The first skaven encounter (as a proxy for ‘what you don’t understand’) needs to happen offscreen. Perhaps you come across the mutilated and chewed bodies of another adventuring party. Perhaps you start picking up rumors of a new threat, with horrible things happening to folks. Mutations and deformations. Possessions. Unexplained deaths and disappearances.

Keep ’em offscreen, though. For a while, at least. Even if the PCs get a hankering to go Batmanning off to investigate, let the first couple of look-sees come up dry. But the carnage and the threat keeps increasing. Maybe merchant caravans stop showing up. How to know this? Things get more expensive, perhaps – which hits the players right in their loot-basket, and is therefore more painful than getting your arm gnawed by skaven.

Until Reality Shows Up

Then listen to what the players speculate is terrifying, take notes, modify the source material, and have that show up.

The key thing I got from the post was not just a reminder that the WFRP setting drips with flavor, tension, and opportunity. It’s that one of the things I remember most from those days is we were always in over our heads. And we just didn’t know what was coming.

That tension can be hard to create in an interactive fiction game, but with the right sprinkling of misunderstanding, rumor, and wild speculation, well . . . you always fear what you don’t understand.

2 thoughts on “Fear and Understanding

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