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A few weeks ago I ran an impromptu Savage Worlds game at very short notice (we decided to play something about four hours before the game started). I can’t remember why Aliens came to mind but the idea of running an LV426 (the planet from the film Aliens) scenario seemed like a good one and on discovering a fan made Aliens vs Predators setting was already in my archive I felt far more confident than I otherwise would have done.

The game went far better than I was expecting. I often find that it’s really difficult to know how into a game the players are when sitting behind the screen.  After nearly an hour and a half when we took a break little had happened and I was feeling like I was running a really boring session. As it turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong, the players were really on the edge of their seats and had spent the entire game feeling really tense, which was great news to me. We ran out of time in the end and while we finished the scenario I didn’t cover as much ground as I was hoping to and actually ended the game without a single fatality (definitely not the plan).

I ran the game without maps and very much by the seat of my pants which I’m not normally comfortable with but I thought I’d share some of the ideas I used, particularly as I focused on mood far more than anything else and it seemed to work. I also should name check Graham Walmsey and his excellent book Stealing Cthulhu (it’s also available on DriveThru as a pdf) which discusses various techniques for building tension and horror in games. In particular I was very concious of the need to start with a slightly spooky, empty base and gradually increase the proximity and knowledge of the danger. The game plan in my head was more a map of the “volume” of the game over time than it was a map, flow diagram, etc.

Although I only had three players I realised that I really needed to have two squads of marines in order for both the players to survive early encounters of the adventure and also so that I could increase the emotional impact of the horror when their comrades started to be dismembered. In the end I settled for three squads, two that would go on the mission and one that would stay with the commander in the APC as backup (more on that later).  Savage Worlds is designed for players to run NPCs which was yet another reason why I think the system was a good choice for this game.

Like the various alien movies, I knew the game needed to start slowly and build tension before anything actually happened but I equally like to start any game session with a bang if possible as I want to capture player attention and state “okay, the game has now started”. To do this I started with the players already strapped into the APC, itself loaded in to the dropship. The opening introduction for the game was along the lines of…

“Suddenly you feel your stomach rise into your mouth as you plumet downwards, everything is shaking and banging, the noise is a pressure in your ears as you’re pushed into the harness keeping you in your seat. You feel the engines kick in and the direction of the pressure changes as you’re slammed deep into your seat, the noise rising to a level that you almost wouldn’t believe possible. As you glance around the cabin you see the rest of your squad all harnessed into their seats and remember the briefing. Contact with the colony has been lost and you need to investigate to see what’s happened. Suddenly you’re slammed deep into your seat as the dropship touches down, everything tips forwards as the ramp lowers and you feel the APC accelerate away, bouncing over the rough ground. Holding on tight you release your harnesses, stand and gather your kit as the comander yells out that you’ve got two minutes until evac. As the APC comes to a halt, the door slides open and you pile out into the open.

You’re stood in a large open space, dim, yellow, unhealthy light filtering through the clouds above you. As the rain splatters off you there are a mixture of smells in the air, most strongly ionisation but with a harsh chemical overtone. Between you and the double doors thirty feet away oil slicked puddles cover the tarmac, several piles of crates lie closer to the buildings. What do you want to do?”

The players agreed that by starting the game in this way (loud, confident, fast and full of sensory information) when I handed over control to them they felt an urgency to act, highly exposed by the space around them and that the sudden silence was unsettling. Although much of the game was quiet and slow that opening enforced a juxtaposition rather than the game simply being a bit slow and without a lot happening. I also downloaded the soundtrack for the film Aliens which gave a great spooky tension to the evening (provided I remembered to keep it on the spooky tracks rather than the big martial ones). The motion tracker app on my phone added a degree of immersion as well.

Assuming that you’ve watched the film Aliens I don’t really need to describe the engineering rolls to get into the base, them finding the command and control area, getting the power back up and running and finding that the colonists implants showed that they were clustered underneath one of the atmosphere processing plants. I did forget to have a motion tracker lead them to a lab where mice ran around in cages but actually I’m not certain if that would have heightened the tension or not.  What I really didn’t want to do was have a Newt type character in the game, I wanted the characters to feel completely alone.

As mentioned above I had a captain and a third squad on the APC as backup, I also used the captain to direct the squads that were in the base. This meant that I could suggest directions, etc to the players but it also gave them the feeling that someone had their backs. It allowed for some great roleplaying where the squad sergeant had to report what he’d found to the captain and discuss the situation and best course of action. It also gave me a way to prod the players forward, in directions that they knew they didn’t want to go, further and deeper into the darkness and confinement.

The players obviously had to go and investigate the location where the colonists were and I had several things planned that upped the tension which I think are worth a mention. Firstly although I’d told the players that the colonists were in a sub-basement that was three levels below ground but that the only route they could take to get there was back out into the open (obviously leaving them scanning the shadows for danger and feeling exposed) before climbing two floors up to gain entry to the atmosphere processing plant. They didn’t need to explore the APP as they had plans and knew where they were going however each time they descended a level I described the wide corridors and stairs gradually getting narrower and closer thus increasing the claustrophobia of the environment. I’d asked for tips on RPG Brigade Facebook page (I got some great responses and suggestions from the guys on there) and had ended up with a list of words that conjured up the environment I wanted.  Having a list of descriptive mood words in front of me when running the game helped me to keep my descriptions appropriately flavourful. Eventually the wide staircases gave way to narrow staircases and eventually to metal, spiral stairs allowing for metallic echoes as boots fell on them.

One of the ideas I got from Stealing Cthulhu was that of distance from the horror.  Starting with a lot of physical separation between characters and whatever they’re afraid of and moving closer over time. An example of this in a classic Lovecraft setting is hearing vague newspaper reports of the situation, then speaking to direct witnesses, then seeing the aftermath and then seeing the horror itself. What I decided to do with the Aliens game to up the tension but without actually having the PCs encounter everything was to wait until they were well inside the tunnels and corridors and starting to feel claustrophobic before having the APC attacked by something. Not only did the players get to hear screams which foreshadowed and reinforced their fears but it also cut off their backup and help in decision making. The players afterwards said this was really effective in suddenly making it feel like everything was closing in on them.

Savage Worlds makes a lot of use of spirit rolls in combat to check whether characters can take actions based on their mental state. During the game, when emotionally charged incidents occured I got players to make spirit rolls and asked them to react to those rolls. This definitely seemed to have a positive affect on the game without removing player agency, for example in several situations a character pressed on because they made a spirit roll when the player was quite keen to retreat.  It’s something that I’ve introduced to my Pathfinder campaign since, using will saves to make players consider their actions rather than actually forcing something on them as a result.

In my game, which didn’t start until late, there was eventually an Alien attack from which the troops retreated from. As I needed to end the game due to time constraints I allowed them to call in the dropship and it got there in the nick of time as hordes of aliens started to appear. I was planning for the marines to find a couple of dead colonists, post chest burster, then witness a chest burster happening before eventually, hopefully, rescuing a couple of colonists from being impregnated.

Although we ran out of time the game really did go well and hopefully some of the above might be use to people. Definitely interested in what people think and what other tips people have for running this kind of game.