Ask Uncle Von: Habitat and Habits of the Pripyat Beast
Dr. Shiny gave me a buzz the other day and said:
Can I have some GM advice? I recently ran a Call of Cthulhu game set in Pripyat (with two Pripyat Beasts wandering around). The problem is, with such a large play area, there are too many places to run away and hide, and only so many times the creatures can randomly stumble over the player without it becoming ridiculous after a while. It was a really good game (and I really want to use Pripyat again), but how would you go about plausibly upping the risk of an encounter?
First things first: here’s what he’s on about.
When the secondary nuclear reactor exploded, it spewed forth a torrent of radioactivity. The inhabitants of the surrounding towns survived just long enough to dig mass graves for their dead. The unprotected and ultimately doomed clean-up volunteer force sent a flurry of distress signals, reporting the emergence of jumbled beasts from underneath piles of bodies. These creatures, sickening amalgamations of people and livestock, varied in appearance.
– art and text by Keith Robertson, Drawing and Painting the Undead.
So, basically, it’s an eldritch horror spawned of radiation and Forces Unknown acting in terrible, unconscious concert to bring forth a shambling wossname that rends and devours the living. So far, so good, and something I’d expect intelligent players to use the environment provided to avoid or defeat. It’s a good monster.
The problem, as I see it, Herr Doktor, is… well, in classical roleplaying terms, it’s that you’ve built a city-sized dungeon and you’ve only put two encounters in it. I might, if I were a bit of a git, call it quite a severe case of Maliszewski’s Syndrome.
You have a few choices.
First, and this is my least favourite one, you engineer the environment so that there are fewer ways to avoid your two Beasts. I always thought that part of the dungeon’s popularity, as a setting for RPG events, was that it offered a way to keep things segregated and tidy and players moving along a general route between planned events – they could certainly move around them in a different order, revisit them, bypass them and generally subvert them, but they’d be interacting with the stuff you put in there because the space they’re moving through doesn’t really let them do much else.
I don’t like this sort of thing. Not letting people do things is not how I think RPG is formed. I also think it sits ill with the open-ness of the devastated cityscape; have you ever played through a computer game that won’t let you go down side streets even though you can see them, right there?
Second, I suppose you could always just put more Beasts in. There were 50,000 people in Pripyat. How many of them died there? How many of them came back? In this case the horror of the game becomes much more conventional – “what happens if these things get out? look at the size of them! look at their claws!”
Whether this one works or not is largely down to what you want your game to be About. If it’s About managing, controlling, and otherwise limiting the actions of the Beasts, which pose a terrible threat to something-or-other, then having more than two Beasts seems sensible. But you only had two, which makes me wonder whether your game is About the Beasts at all…
Thirdly, and this is the one that I prefer, you refocus your expectations as a GM away from “the players encounter the Beast” and towards… something else. I usually go for “make players feel something” – not setting out with a specific something in mind, but always looking for ways that things can be turned up, so that whatever the players happen to be feeling can be intensified.
I wouldn’t set out with a theme and mood in mind for Pripyat – I’d set out thinking “what else can I put in this nuclear-blasted city besides the Beasts, and how can I make that into an encounter?” It does have to -be- an encounter – let’s not have too many rooms containing a mysterious gewgaw that you either find or don’t find and that’s the end of it. I think there have to be people – survivors.
Survivalists, even. There are supposed to be 3,500 or so people still inside the irradiated area – those who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave. There’s potential horror there. There could be living miners. Beast-hunters. Black marketeers, on the lookout for some tasty irradiated material. Tourists, if we’re going to go a bit crazy – touring the scene, gravely assessing the devastation, and scooping up some decayed crystals to show Grandma when they get home. People who derive a certain illict thrill from being there.
Perhaps someone like Elena, too, whether her story’s true or not: a kind of adventurer, there for the same reason your PCs are there – whatever that is. Someone a bit more ambiguous – are they there because it’s there, are they there because they want to feel all dangerous and free-spirited, are they there because someone has to see it and tell the world? They’re not on the tour, that’s for certain
I’d treat it like a dungeon, or like a WoD city, rather than a narrative, in the way Call of Cthulhu scenarios tend to be devised. There always seems to be a sense of linear flow to the pre-written Cthulhu stuff – this happens, then this happens, the PCs need to go here and do this and then that and then the other before that happens or they all get eaten/driven mad by grobble monsters. I think it’s something to do with the literary source of the game; there’s a tendency to think about it as a related narrative, a kind of ghost walk, something which has its shape before the players come to it and which they explore rather than devise.
What I’d be tempted to do would be to draw up a bunch of factions and NPCs – people who are all there, for whatever reason they’re there – and let them react to the Beast and let the players react to them. In other words, don’t make the game about the Beast, and don’t get hung up if the players only encounter the thing once.
It’s a big place. Put more stuff in it. If necessary, include a Quantum Beast – no matter where the players go or what the players do, they will encounter a Beast at a dramatically appropriate point. The important thing here is making sure that the players’ choices continue to have an impact after the Beast has turned up; that the places they’ve gone and the people they’ve interacted with are affected by and affecting because of the Beast’s appearance.
It’s not really about the monsters, after all. It’s about the people who run from them.