Gothic Earth Episode 2: Asyum!



The monthly game was great! Prep was pretty intense, it was time to put all of my ideas into order and actually commit to a plan which I’ve been thinking about for years. We ended up playing a very different style of game than I have ever played before, I am running the Asylum section of the Ravenloft Boxset Super Module “Bleak House”, I have no plans to run the rest of it, but this section has always intrigued me. It is probably more challenging to run than it is to play. It isn’t a railroad at all, but the players are confined in a large house, with the villain who they can’t physically attack, well they can but there is severe consequences, and they first must discover exactly what is going on and formulate a plan of attack which will be hard, and the villain has no interest in killing them, just experimenting on their minds. The damage that he does is permanent, and will follow the players for the rest of their days, thus it is more dangerous than just losing a couple of hit points.

As far as DMing goes, the cast of characters is too large to prep, from inmates to orderlies, the house is large enough to support a lot of people! The challenge comes in the dance, I want the players to feel confined, but not railroaded. Their identities have been stripped from them, paranoia is rampant as you never know if you are talking to a fellow patient or if it is an orderly. In regards to role-playing, this thing is fun as hell! I get to play many extreme characters, but there is a problem. Part of the game also involves isolation, which as a DM made me nervous. I knew that I had to have a plan to deal with that. I’ve always had to remind them that we need to stick together and never separate as when that happens a portion of the table is just sitting there listening, but in this game they are forced to do the opposite. This is definitely outside of my comfort zone. The question I had was how to do this without the game getting boring for those that aren’t technically in the scene at all. I had some ideas, but as luck would have it I had recently purchased Creative Campaigning, and it featured a small section on what they called “Freeform Gaming”, it is a very literary style which is more akin to a novel-like approach rather than the typical RPG format which we all have adapted to. I don’t know if I would want to play that style long term, but for this game, it had to be adapted.

How do you keep a table full of players engaged? Once you find out how to do it, then you are a decent Dungeon Master, but changing your normal approach is scary. I knew that I’d have to break them up from time to time, but I did give myself a safety net, I put them all into a “Guest room” until we got to playtest some and get comfortable with the format, and then we’d complete the process by placing them all into cells, which worked great! We got to ease into it.

I knew that when I was running scenes for individual players, I had to make sure that they were interesting to listen to, and I had to really watch the speed and tempo of how the scene flowed. We also had to limit PC to PC Role-playing, which I really hate doing, but I’ve got to control the pace like a RPG Nazi! I did allow them to do it, I had too, we got a new character, but I had to make sure that PC dialog was always productive.
As far as the module goes, while it is confined to the mental hospital, the setting is surprisingly open. There are only a few key events that must take place, but they all are up to the discretion of the DM to trigger once I am ready, so I am allowed to set a good pace, add my own material and what not.Though it is a 2nd Edition module, it is written along the lines of the early modules where they just detail the setting and the rest is up to you, like Vault of the Drow but not that big. It wasn’t that difficult to add my own material into it, and cut out what I didn’t like or things that just don’t work.

As far as the narrative goes, it wasn’t as difficult as I feared. Prior to play I warned them what was about to happen, and to just be patient (ha ha ha), we were just going to take our time and work through this thing, but at the end of the night I wanted to get their feelings about it, which were positive! I found that we could do things that we had never been able to do before, I could have little cliff-hangers, give players time to think about their actions, or even enhance feelings of helplessness. We adapted just fine and the players even took to the style, and initiated it themselves a time or two.

I do have experience with DMing One on One games, meaning one PC and one DM, and really enjoy how deep we can go, so adapting to this style suddenly wasn’t as difficult for me as I feared that it would be. I was able to switch between characters or groups of characters fairly briskly, and keep everything interesting to everyone.

Another difficult aspect of Asylum is railroading, while it isn’t done by the module itself, the players are prisoners, and the villain has more control over their movements and decisions than they do, but it is very passive. I want the players to feel this, but without getting so railroaded that we are just scene jumping, I am reacting to them and they are reacting to me, it isn’t just me playing by myself telling the PCs what they are doing unless they are restrained and receiving treatment. They must comply with the Doctor’s rules, but they still have lots of choices to make, and everything gained from him must be earned.

In a nutshell, THIS THING IS FUN! I had to adapt it from Ravenloft over to Masque of the Red Death, which was easy, with the exception of placing it in my world. In the module the asylum is on an island, but in my world it is near Berlin. Looking at Google Maps, I was able to place the Asylum in an old forest, by looking at the terrain I could guess at what this area looked like in 1890 and  draw a decent map, it doesn’t match the real world scale, as I am not a cartographer, but it is functional for our purposes.

I have no idea how or if the party will escape, so I had to prep the wilderness and surrounding areas generally, just enough so that I am ready for anything that could happen out there. Inside of the Asylum I was rather stuck. Typically I create a time-line of triggers, but that just didn’t seem appropriate to me. What I ended up doing was writing each of the characters names down and writing short and very brief stories for each of them, THAT got me excited and ready to play!

Story-wise, this is a game of secrets, exploration, and torture.  Everything that the players have discovered thus far only leads to deeper questions. They’ve assembled a decent amount of clues, but they have no idea how they fit together. Once they know more I can post more.

We did finally get to an NPC that has been referred to and evidence pointing to, but never actually encountered, for years (real-time), Boyd Weathermay. As a boy, he murdered his little sister and the crime was covered up, Boyd has spent every day since locked up in this mental institution, and driven mad. He didn’t murder Isabell willingly; it was the demon which possesses him. I’ve been building this idea and building it, and in this game finally came the payoff. Fiends are special monsters, you don’t want to use them much, and when you do you really want to play them up. If you get into a quarrel with a fiend, you want to have the party walk away with lots of scars to remember the encounter by. We never want this one to become old hat, they are some of the greatest monsters in a DM’s arsenal! It was great fun finally getting to role-play this character, in his mind he is still 10 years old, if he is allowed to speak, as he is mastered by this creature.  

This isn’t the only character that was important to me either, my original players don’t know it but they had encountered Dr. Dominioni before, it was the first truly complex Villain that I had ever played as a Dungeon Master, in that game the party escaped. His first appearance was in the very first module specifically written for the Ravenloft Setting called “Feast of Goblyns” and while we never finished that module, as it is a really long one, and, at the time, well beyond my ability to DM anyway, we did play through that part, and I probably botched it. This time I can give this NPC the attention to detail that he deserves, so in a way, I have come full circle! I’m allowed to cover up an ugly tattoo with a beautiful one.

So, in a nutshell, prep was very intense, and took the entire month to prepare, but what I have prepared is going to last me a very long time. The most challenging aspect of it is controlling the pace without controlling the PCs, and I must say that I am enjoying it! It is rare to be challenged by a module. Typically I try to avoid using them, but there are really good ones out there that are worthy of playing through, and Bleak House is one of them.

3 comments:

Jens D. said...

Fascinating! I always wanted to DM Bleak House but never had the group to do it. I also knew it's heavy on the preparation part and I'm a lazy bastard ... How much did you have to add to it to make it work for you (other than the setting work, that's just a necessity that wouldn't change much of what is given)?

Ripper X said...


Most of it involved logistics, just figuring out how to get this done. I did alter the map some, I removed a stairwell and built an aviary, and I made Boyd's bedroom larger.

I have no idea how many residence live here, but I generated a ton of names, the original module had a random table to determine NPC race, I converted this into NPC Country of Origin, for staff, I did want to know exactly how many of them are here, and I completely altered the orderlies as well as the Doctors.

I'm not using Van Helsing,who is a major NPC in the module, so I had to replace him with an equally important character and build a back story which also can lead to further adventures. This was tough, it took a couple of months to settle on someone and I ended up going with Otto Von Bismarkk, which can lead to lots of political intrigue. That story-line is very developed, and it required doing lots of history homework.

Outside the gates was a nightmare, I had to scout places were I wanted to place the asylum, and then develop the land in D&D terms, and home-brew random encounters. Geography and math . . . lots of math, calculating distances so that the asylum has a chance to catch them, and the players have a chance to avoid being caught. I want it hard, but not impossible.

I don't believe that I have over-prepped, but it boils down to speed of play. I copied sections that I'll use a lot, but had to keep it limited so I can find everything fast too. Asylum and Escape are two very different sections, so they have their own different sets of prep-notes, which works well for me.

The biggest issue is I removed it from its setting, and replaced all of the NPC's with my own. I think that if I hadn't of done that, then I wouldn't really need to prep it too much. Bleak House would perfectly fit your style of Random Play if you let it. The game itself, as it is, is fairly easy on the player side of the screen, I'm the one who changed that and made it harder to figure out.

Anonymous said...

DM's wife (aka Charlotte the Harlot) here!

I felt that I should post something of a response to give a player's aspect of how this particular game is going. I will say that it is different, but I think for the most part, our group is enjoying it. The individual or small group vignettes tend to play out sort of like watching Penny Dreadful. A scene runs, ends in a cliff hanger of sorts, and then when the commercial is over, we see a different character or set of characters. I’m sure on Rip’s end playing this way is a bit of a challenge, but I feel that it does pay off. While we may not be playing at a particular moment, the story lines are interesting enough that it keeps our attention. Some of the "scenes" have even heightened the sense of horror and hopelessness our characters are feeling. My character, in particular, has a fear of being placed in a mental institution for life to begin with, so this is not boding well for her. The atmosphere is oppressive and confining, but it’s an insane asylum, so isn’t that what it’s supposed to feel like?

The way this game is set up it is a game of puzzles and not so much of action. If one was to think they could get through it by hacking and slashing their way out the front door, they’d have another thing coming. It’s a thinking man’s game for sure! I think one of our players, who’s also a brilliant DM, said it best, “The object of this game is to try and out DM the DM”. What he means is not so much to try and show our beloved DM up, but to try and outsmart him and out think him. We have a very intelligent bunch of folks who sit at our table, many of whom have DM’d many games themselves. I know how our DM thinks (I mean c’mon, we’re married for Pete’s sake!), but he’s also devious and his puzzles are always a challenge to solve. We are in for a treat, and as a group, we’re having enough fun with it that a few of us have even been discussing our options outside of game play. I think that says something for the DM and for what he’s put before us.

If I had to have something to complain about it would be there were a couple of scenes where I felt totally railroaded, which is not something I’m fond of as a player. I’m sure there is a method to the madness, so to speak, but it can be frustrating. I’m used to having a little freer roam when we play, but as I said above, it does add to the confining feel of the place. The inside of the asylum isn’t exactly what I thought it would be either, but I’m getting used to it. All identity has been stolen from patients and staff alike, save for the two doctors. We all wear black robes, black gloves, and these grotesque smiling white ceramic masks that we can’t take off. As a player/character it can make things interesting as far as figuring out who is who and who you’re talking to. When we had first talked about running this module many years ago, I suppose I had envisioned things looking more traditional than weird. It’s my hang up, I know, and it’s something I need to get past and move on with.

Overall, I’m having fun with it. As a group, we’re excited about where the next few games are going to take us and can’t wait for the next game. I’m not one that likes to put a good book down once I’m in it, and this mystery has me chomping at the bit.

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