The Void RPG: Running the Game

The Void RPG from Wildfire is one of those games that appears to have snuck past the radar of most RPG groups. It’s a pity, because the mechanics are very easy (and basic) to pick up and the game is one of those that lends itself well to someone looking to spook the hell out of their players. If you’ve not run a horror game before, it can be tricky to get right – practice is the key. Technically, these could be used for just about any horror RPG, but I’m going to focus on The Void RPG.

Tone

OK, the Void is a game of survival horror. It’s not the kind of game that fosters heroism. Yes, your PCs may all work together towards an end but it’s their JOB. They signed up to do this. They’re not bemoaning the tragedy of their existence. They go in, get the job done and get out. Not everyone will make it. The best way to treat the Wardens is as a Men-in-Black group meets SWAT team. If you’ve watched the TV show Primeval, then that’s what you’re aiming for a mix of soldiers and experts – obviously with it being a darker and grittier version that’s not suitable for prime-time viewing:) . Alternatively, if the group has no investigator or researcher, make them more like the Colonial Marines in Aliens. Loads of heavy-duty equipment and fire-power that ultimately proves of little value!

It worth remembering that there’s a pervading sense of isolation that a GM needs to create. Help is days – if not weeks – away. That’s provided the signal gets out. On the smaller colonies and space stations, everything is held together by spit and baling wire. The air smells of oil, grease and sweat. There’s a tin-like smell to the air that the oxygen re-scrubbers don’t remove. Everyone wears the same suits for days at a time, often stained by coffee or grease. There’s little water on most worlds so showers and baths are rare – everyone looks grubby, and their hair is lank and greasy. Parts of the colony are constantly being repaired, and jury-rigged or cannibalised parts are common.The lighting is harsh and bright inside most structures, and most are prefabricated. The furnishings are often white or bare metal, although the white may have been scored, marked, or pitted over time. Lighting works on most of the colony, but some flicker constantly, or are shut down as part of  a night/day cycle. Heating/aircon is kept to a minimum on the poorer colonies – Warden’s will either find it uncomfortably chilly or very warm.

On worlds far from the Sun, the people look pale, their skin pasty. Closer to the Sun, people are tanned and weathered-looking – their skin aged prematurely from exposure to the sun. Unless they have hydroponics or a regular supply run, fresh food and produce is hugely expensive. Most food is some for freeze-dried paste/powder. Alcohol is brewed in illicit stills that the local Law Enforcement cannot find or close down, they’re understaffed and under-equipped in every way. Many may also be on the take from local criminals as they smuggle in illegal drugs, booze, pornography, and worse. There’s unlikely to be any animals, although there may be holographic/virtual pets – food and air are at a premium, so any pets are likely to the property of the super-rich.

The bigger colonies/cities are all about a certain amount of decadence – food, drugs, music, sex – and are crowded. The heat generated by the masses of humanity creates a humid atmosphere. There’s constant noise from the crowds, the bars and clubs, and of course atmosphere processors constant whine as they labour under the strain. Sleep is difficult in these places with little or no silence. The bedroom colonies are largely empty. Every corridor looks the same. Every apartment looks the same aside from some individual touches. Everyone keeps to themselves, the corridors silent for much of the time. Children are home-schooled or attend some daily school, where it’s often the only chance for parents to meet other people other than at mealtimes. There’s likely a “behind closed doors” mentality: marital affairs, vices, violence, cults, swinger parties all take place or are whispered about by neighbours. Many residents are away for weeks at a time – it’s only when someone notices the smell that the local authorities become aware of a death in apartment 25c, for example. Law enforcement does what it can, but on the busier worlds there’s just so much going on.

And finally, it always should be clear to the Players that they’re pretty much on their own. Nuke the site from orbit isn’t an option – the installation has a substantial dollar value attached to it! Remember the Wardens are trying to patch over the cracks and cover up the awakening Mythos races as the Cththonian Star approaches. If you’re expecting your players to use heavy firepower to surmount every obstacle then its ceased to be a game of survival horror. The Wardens may have the guns, but they’re often way out of their depth – what appears to be a simple investigation can quickly escalate (see The Void RPG’s Stygian Cycle series for how this works)!

Staging Games

Alright, if you (or your players) have played Call of Cthulhu you’ll probably well aware of how these thing turns out. PCs lead into the adventure with a mysterious occurrence/disappearance. Players head to a new (often unfamiliar) location. They interview local NPCs. Those with research skills head to the local library and newspaper to look up local legends. There’s a big showdown, either with a cult or some Big Bad that manages to incapacitate some of the group. If it’s the end of the campaign, nearly all the PCs die and those left are insane.

That’s how the Void should work, right? Wrong. In-oh-some-many-ways. If your players have played Call of Cthulhu, they’ll pull the same thing. Their researcher will put high stats to their library use and crypto-zoolology skills, soldiers will be able to withstand horrors better, investigators will be streetwise, etc. That’s 1920’s America for you. However, humanity has gone to the stars. English may be the universal language (or Chinese depending on your campaign), but there’s still a lot of local colour. Keyboards and text may be in a foreign language – the locals may speak a bizarre patois of English and a local dialect (Cockney in space!). There’s also the fact that unless the Wardens have a decent cover story then they either need to get local law enforcement on their side, they’ll not be able to discover much beyond a basic clearance. Not to mention jurisdiction, if they do pull the Warden card. The best way to run the Void is with the slow reveal, and “layers of the onion”, building to scenes of intense action. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, in the old article of “Writing a Script” the best way is to think of a plot (and sub-plots) following a M-shape (build-up, climatic scene, quiet, disaster/twist, build-up, etc). If you’re starting in the middle of the action (“in media res“) follow a W-shape. These represent build-ups to major action sequences and give the players a chance to take their breath. Note that this isn’t always the best option! So here’s a few themes, that when combined together, will really give some zing!

Brooding evil

There’s something not quite right where the adventure is set. The colonists all make a strange symbol when the plateau is mentioned. No one uses transport tube 15 after 9pm EST (Earth Standard Time). There’s a rich mineral vein in the mountains but no one’s ever filed a claim. Ten years of the colony’s history is encrypted in the memory banks. All the locals must have been inbreeding because they’re really ugly and they all have those big googly eyes. What happened to the previous sheriff? Why are 524 colonists listed when there’s only 200 resident? It’s little details like these that can unsettle your players. Some may be mere local superstition or unrelated, but it’s always a good idea to give the PCs the impression that there’s something going on underneath the surface (sometimes literally!).

Imminent Peril

I’ve talked about imminent peril before. It’s a great tool for getting those groups who over-think everything. Get them moving from encounter to encounter in such a way that they don’t have a chance to stop, rest, and/or mess about. The best movie example of this is Aliens, where the marines exit Ops through the ducts. There’s encounter after encounter with the Xenomorphs. Even though some of the Marines are injured, some of them make it out because they keep going, or are kept going by their team-mates. It’s this kind of unrelenting pace that will capture your players’ imaginations. It can also lead to moments where those players who haven’t been paying attention suddenly realise that they’re on their own, and the airlock is cycling open… Also some great last stands. Hopefully you players won’t get too attached to their PCs: The Void RPG can be quite lethal. It’s one of survival horror, remember!

“What the hell’s going on?”

One of my favourite moments in any game. One of the players will ask this question (possibly phrased in slightly more colourful language). In character or not, it’s best to pause and let the players brainstorm. For a while, at least. It’s a good chance for them to consider whether or how to use Tension Points (see below). And also for the GM to use them to make things very interesting – remember the PCs use them to get a buff, which the GM can then flip around on them: “Okay. I’ve hacked into the system. Oh hell, they’ve tracked us! They know where we are!”. Just remember to grin when you take the Tension Point from them. Then hit ’em with the next disaster/encounter! There’s nothing like complications to make things interesting. Always try and build in a few red herrings to your sessions: they may possibly be of use in later games; or it’ll give you a chance to blow up something when the players aren’t there.

Clichés

Your players will likely run the gamut of all the survival horror/sci-fi clichés. The “Don’t split the party!” cliché  is lot of fun for The Void GM – just because a PC is on their doesn’t mean they should be picked off. Perhaps the rest of the group notice that there’s two signals coming from the air duct as one of the PCs try to fix a fault. Or if the party is split into two, the ones in the control room get a full view of what the others are running away from! Also, open doors and the dark are bad. Your players know this: so when the PCs decide to start closing all the doors, one will jam obviously. This’ll need a PC to go and cycle the power to the airlock manually. So, of course, half the group will pitch up with their weapons trained on the dark area behind the door. At that point the floor gives way, or there’s a soft thump as something(s) big lands behind the PCs. You don’t have to have a clichéd moment – sometime you can build up the tension just by getting them to do the necessary task over several rounds – especially if they’re on their own.

Lighting & Colour

Lighting – both in-game and where you’re playing can have a significant influence. If you’re playing in a brightly lit room, you may want to consider dimming the lights -within reason. Make sure your players can see what they are doing and that they can read their character sheets, perhaps with spots or local light sources! In-game, lighting can be used to convey mood and also horror in itself. The stark white of the medical bay is strewn with ribbons of red flesh and blood splashed across the walls in an oddly significant pattern. The strobe of emergency lighting flickering between red and black; as something gets closer and closer, barely glimpsed in stop-motion. The torch rolling across the cargo bay, where the shadows could hide anything. It’s also worth listening to your players in such instances, and playing upon their fears to a certain extent.

Tension Points

Oh, I love these. If anything is going to give you a good game it’s these. Players stymied for ideas? Tension point. “We’re all gonna die!” Tension point. And the best thing about them is the group have to agree on it. If you’ve a munchkin player in the group who’s basically built the kind of PC that only exists for their benefit, then you can give them a really, really bad day. Especially if they are Rules Lawyers. You need to be careful not to penalise players for their good ideas though. Just remember when they think everything is going great, that’s the time to spring the Tension Point. Don’t be vindictive about it though, just work it into the storyline – it works especially well with imminent peril (countdowns, reactor leaks, bombs, etc.). Look upon it as the chance to give an enhanced experience to your players, rather than hamstringing their idea.

Play aids

Play aids are a must. By these, I’m not just talking about floor plans or maps. For some reason, you’ll not find many maps in much of The Void’s material. It’s immensely frustrating. It’s the first thing players will ask for during a game so make sure you’ve got something to show your players when they ask. The chances are you’ll have to do it yourself. There’s probably a few on-line resources out there you can use, but I’ve not found any of use so far (let me know in the comments if there is such a thing!). Floorplans or maps of ships are the same. I’m hoping that the Ships of The Void supplement, when it comes out, has something. Even basic line-graphics readouts would work. One thing I did do was create some Tension point counters which can be handed out to players for use during the game. They have movie quotes upon them which should make your players smile at least.

Cinematic Play

The Void RPG lends itself to a restrained or understated method of cinematic play (see here if you’re wondering what I’m talking about). Your PCs are essentially dealing with the unknown, and you shouldn’t use cut-scenes unless they spend a Tension point. It can be exceptionally useful for the Clichés moments I talked about earlier. While the PCs are watching something else, the second motion detector signal arrives or there’s a power loss… Again you need to keep things restrained and remember to keep the pace of the game going. For this reason make sure that your players are comfortable with this style of play. As I’ve stated elsewhere, if your group is comfortable with cinematic style, go for it.

Music/Audio

There’s actually a Spotify playlist that Wildfire set up for the express reason of adding ambient music to The Void RPG. I’ve a small Bluetooth wireless speaker that I placed in the room when I ran the game. It worked really well. Ambient sounds work best, but film soundtracks such as the Aliens one are also good. Games like the Half-Life: Black Mesa soundtrack are also good.  Someone else has already gone to the effort of creating a soundtrack designed to manipulate the listener’s emotional states. If your group are hitting the city or another colony, go for pounding dark Techno or Industrial tunes. It’s best to pick and choose though. The wrong music blaring through a speaker can be a distraction if it is suddenly terribly upbeat. Also, turn the volume down really low – just enough for your players to hear, but so that its on the edge of hearing. Alternatively, don’t even tell them that there’s music playing. 🙂 Just remember that music can be a distraction for the GM too. Don’t focus too much upon getting it right at the costs of the game. If you’re faffing about with music play-lists and your players are getting bored, remember that you are a GM not a DJ!

Inspirational Media/Films

OK, there’s a lot of films you may want to watch to get some ideas about how to keep the pace going and to make sure that none of the players are bored . There’s some computer games you can play to get some staging/pacing ideas (these days they’re often plotted like movies). If you’re feeling really adventurous, have them playing on mute in the background, perhaps cutting some of them together into a montage. Here’s a few suggestions (some are listed in The Void RPG rulebook) you may want to check out (there’s probably more – feel free to suggest them in the comments below).

Films: Alien Quadrilogy, The Thing (John Carpenter’s one, and prequel), Event Horizon, Escape from New York, Deep Rising, Leviathan, Outland, Pandorum, Ghosts of Mars, Total Recall (original), Deepstar 6, The Descent, Split Second, The Abyss.

Computer Games: Doom 3, Dead Space, Resident Evil, Silent Hill.

Summary

Hopefully this has given the reader a few ideas as how to stage their games. Everybody’s style is different, but this may have been of use. Just remember that it is a case of preparation and practice.

Void RPG Downloads

The Void RPG Tension Point Cards
The Void RPG Tension Point Cards
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The Void: Map of the Town of Presidia
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The Void RPG

The Void RPG

More about The Void RPG

2159 AD. It is a good time to be alive. The nations of Earth still exist, but they have become more civilized, and humanity has expanded into the rest of our solar system. But, alas, it is not to be our time. Something approaches, a thing on an orbit from far away. Seemingly a mysterious shard of dark matter, this object is known in obscure prophecy as the Chthonian Star. It is awakening things long thought lost or dead, things that have slumbered awaiting its return. The Unified World Council sends out special teams of sanctioned Wardens, whose job it is to ascertain the new threats to human life, to learn everything they can about them, and fight them wherever they are found.

The Void is an original Lovecraftian hard sci-fi horror setting.