Elemental Horror Campaigns: An Interview with JM

JM created Elemental to run RPGs in a variety of genres and horror has plenty of support. The shorter adventures remain free, but additional campaign support is now available as well. Elemental has some new Halloween RPG campaign options and JM was also willing to discuss some ideas on how to keep a horror campaign running long term.


Charles Dunwoody (CD): Thanks for talking to me about Elemental and horror gaming again. Quick recap, what are the game mechanics for Elemental?
Hi Charles, nice to be with you again! Elemental uses opposed Attribute + Skill + 1d6 rolls that explode on a natural 6 (i.e., if you roll a "6", you get a second roll and add it to the total). If you roll higher than the opposing roll, you succeed. If you roll lower, you fail. If the rolls are tied, the outcome is mixed or you succeed at a cost. If both sides rolled a natural 6, it's a critical success for the winning side. The system is simple, versatile, dynamic and very scalable to different power levels. It incorporates degrees of success in an elegant and intuitive way. It helps create cinematic action sequences, and the exploding dice keep players on the edge of their seats.

CD: Gildor Games have experimented with two new scenario formats for Elemental this year. The first supports campaign play, using one-shot adventures as the launch point. What should GMs look forward to in the Lovecraftian campaign, Crawling Chaos, and the just-released zombie book, Outbreak?
Yes, this has been an exciting year for us. Before this year, we were only focusing on short scenarios. This year, we’re focusing on campaign play. Our short adventures were already well received, so we decided to take these as starting points for our campaign releases. We first considered creating “sequel” adventures that could be linked into a campaign. Instead, we opted for a “toolkit” approach that provides the GM and players with inspirational material to help them flesh out their own characters and campaigns. It’s an approach that strikes a good balance between helping the GM and players, while leaving more room for them to bring their own ideas and take the campaign wherever it goes, rather than forcing it along a path (as the “sequel” approach would have done). Outbreak is the hottest selling zombie title on DriveThruRPG at the moment, so the gaming community is telling us it was the right approach. Kevin Crawford deserves a lot of credit for popularizing the toolkit approach in the last few years. Until Kevin tackles the zombie genre, I’ll go out on a limb and say that Outbreak is the definitive set of system-neutral tools about the living dead!

CD: The second new format is an all-in-one adventure module such as Fear Can’t Hurt You. What do GMs get in an enhanced adventure like this one?
I’ve always liked the idea of an “all-in-one” adventure containing everything needed to play, including the rules. When DriveThruRPG announced the PocketQuest game jam around a summer camp theme, it was the perfect opportunity to implement the “all-in-one” idea with Fear Can’t Hurt You, our “Stranger Things at summer camp” game. The new edition of Fear Can’t Hurt You is the perfect way for people to experience Elemental for the first time, as all the rules are baked right into the adventure and the character sheets. And it’s perfect for Halloween, incidentally. I love how it turned out!

CD: Horror works great for one-shots but what about long term play? The campaign play for Elemental means ongoing adventures. How do you recommend building a long-term campaign specifically in the horror genre when PCs are often killed or go completely insane?
In a campaign, you can’t treat the PC as expendable like in a one-shot, so I think you need to find ways to deliver horror that doesn’t rely on killing the PCs or driving them insane. How do you do that? First, remember that the monster you don’t see can be scarier than the monster you see. Do what every good horror writer or director does: Hint at terrible things and build dreadful anticipation before you pull aside the curtain. Have you seen the show True Detective? It was all about slow-burning, dreadful anticipation, particularly in the first season. If there was a monster, you never saw it. It was mostly one big tease, and it was creepy as hell! My other advice is: Make it personal, but instead of threatening the PCs directly, go after the things they care about. In our Crawling Chaos and Outbreak campaigns, we help players develop PC backstories by defining people and places they care about. The backstory elements then become fodder for the GM to play with. Have something terrible threaten the PCs’ friends, neighbors or coworkers, right where they live and work! Unless the friends and neighbors are the monsters, of course… For horror in particular, I think it’s important for the player characters to have personal skin in the game, so to speak. We always include pre-generated characters with our scenarios, not only because it’s convenient for players who don’t want to make their own, but also because it’s an opportunity for the designer to set up interesting dilemmas and conflicts. To really personalize the PCs to the situation, and to each other.

CD: Also keeping with the horror theme, how do you recommend providing scares for the players in a horror adventure or campaign? The threat level to the PCs is higher and the feeling around the table should reflect this, yes? How does a GM make an adventure scary to the players and not just by threatening their characters?
You gave part of the answer in your question: Always remember that you’re trying to scare the players, not just their characters. Therefore, you need to anticipate what the players are thinking, and mess with that. I do think that running good horror is a bit like pulling off a magic trick: There’s a bit of misdirection involved. One technique we use, and it’s not that difficult to implement, is to sprinkle our games with what I call “moments”. Moments are those instants when something viscerally creepy happens. The guy standing in the corner at the end of The Blair Witch Project, that’s a moment. Some of our horror scenarios were conceived as moments first, which the author then built a story around. Fear Can’t Hurt You and Blackout were designed to lead up to specific moments, and players remember those moments long after the game. In our book Crawling Chaos, there’s a page with a list of moments. Each is just one or two sentences without context, but I bet you’ll find at least one or two that tickle your fear sensors. Not because of what they show, but because of what they hint at, because of what they make you imagine. That’s good scenario fuel.

CD: Do you have a favorite horror movie or novel? And do you have one to recommend to GMs prepping for a horror campaign?
I mentioned The Blair Witch Project earlier. I think it does a lot of things well that can be transferred to an RPG: the foreshadowing, the tension build-and-release, the terrors hinted at but not shown, the suspension of disbelief, and the moments. I’m also a fan of Stephen King, because he’s a master of making us relate to his characters and the situations they stumble into. He really gets you into the character’s head, so that when the character is threatened, you really feel it. It’s a neat trick. Also, while the supernatural is often present, the horror is always rooted in real, mundane fears. The characters are relatable, and their fear is relatable.

CD: Where can gamers go to find your work?
Our DriveThuRPG page is the best place to see and learn about all our stuff!

CD: Any final comments you’d like to share with the readers of EN World?
Beyond the system, I really think we’re building something unique and compelling with this game: a growing repository of adventures in multiple genres, freely available but with top-notch content and presentation. Many people discover Elemental through the adventures, so they’re an important part of our success. The core book is part of DriveThru’s Halloween sale this week, so this is a great time to take the plunge. Some people convert the adventures or use them as inspiration for other games, and that’s fine too! We could all use more free and accessible play right now.

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Charles Dunwoody

Charles Dunwoody

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