Although the basics of this plot seed are set in a western style play environment, GMs should feel free to adapt it to fit in any campaign they choose, as long as it would make sense for the player characters to spend an evening around an open fire telling stories, and trying to scare the snot out of each other.
For best results, give the players a week or so warning about what you’re planning on doing, to give them a chance to prepare some suitably spline chilling stories.
Cold nights always follow hot days in the back end of nowhere that is the frontier. It’s more than possible to cross three county lines without seeing another soul, or even knowing that you’ve done so. The loneliness can be deadly. Sure, it ain’t as immediate as a rattler bite or even the thirst, but it can turn a man’s head… funny. Company is a fine commodity this far out West. Not just for watching out for rustlers and bandits, scaring away varmints and keeping the cattle docile. Just having someone to talk to that isn’t the echoes of your own thoughts is essential. And come those damned cold evenings, around a campfire that’s starting to die down, with a hot coffee to keep the chill the fingers, it seems like such a good idea to tell each other stories, just something to wile the time away.
Scene setting can do you a lot of favours here, but sadly might not be possible depending where your group gets together to play. For full effect though, try as many of the following as possible:
- Take the character sheets away from the players. This will be a purely story telling/narrative session. If they really do feel the need to skill check, keep their character sheets in front of you, and roll for them so as not to break to the flow.
- As mentioned above, give the players warning that they should have a scary story ready for the telling.
- Sit apart from the players, so the GM isn’t a presence around the table. I know this one seems strange, but it does work.
- Kill as many other lights as possible. This is supposed to be a night in the middle of nowhere, far from artificial light. A lamp in the middle of the table to represent the fire should be enough. If you can get away with it though, a large plate covered with small candles is ideal, especially if they start to go out as you get closer to the end of the session…
With all that set up, allow the players to tell each other their stories. Feel free to interject at appropriate moments with sounds of the prairie to give them goose bumps. Let them take as long as they have to, and don’t worry if you end up running this over two sessions. It will seem like you have very little to do, but I’ve found I have a lot of fun with games that are driven by in character speech. Between stories allow a little bit of banter. If the players/characters are trying to lighten the mood, it just means that it’s working, and they’re trying their best to stop letting themselves get scared.
As the final player begins their story, it’s time for you to get involved again. With any luck the players will – by this point – by fully engrossed in another story, so give the final speaker a chance to hook everyone in. Then you should try and get a seat around the ‘fire’ with the other players. Don’t make a big deal out of it, in fact, try and do it without even speaking. From this point on, you’re playing a character yourself, and you want to take the party by surprise. Give the last person a moment or two after they’ve finished, then start talking…
I’ve never liked dogs. I wasn’t bit as a young ‘un you understand, there’s no reason for the unease, or least there weren’t until a couple of years ago. It was what I’ve heard called a irrational fear. All I had to hear was a growl or bark, and shivers would run right down my spine. I think I always knew that one day, from somewhere out o’ the blue, a dog was comin’ for me.
It weren’t just one though. That night, walking outta town, back to my tent, I heard the growl, real low like… You know the sound, when the mutt ain’t just making the noise for somethin’ to do, but because he’s got himself riled up and is ready to go for the throat. Then ‘nother joined in, even deeper soundin’ if you believe such a thing were possible. Within seconds, I was sure I was surrounded, but I still tried to run. I ran until my lungs were a fire, and my legs heavier ‘n lead before I was brung down hard.
I gotta tell you though, weren’t no pooch that I looked up that was sat bold as brass on my chest, no sirree, that big son of a bitch was wolf, and no mistaking it. How in the name of God it had gotten a pack of stray and mangy curs following it, I have no idea. But there they were, walking around me as I lay there, out of breath and out of luck. Now, you’re probably wondering how I survived such a thing, am I right? Well, what makes you think I did…[Or something very much like this; don’t feel like you have to read from it as a script, and put as much of your self into this story as you like]
At this point, you’ll want to turn off the light/blow out the last candles, and step back away from the group. Knowing where the light switch is or having some other form of illumination would be great right about now. The players will likely be confused, but should take it all as being in character and respond in the same way.
With no night vision left, they’ll have no chance to spot anything until they get the fire going again, so let them get that done first. They’ll be no sign of the mysterious story teller – in my head, he’s called Ash, but I’m not sure why – but surrounding the camp will be various canine tracks, as if the group has been surrounded by them, just outside of the light. At this point, you can take it a couple of ways depending on just how much supernatural you have in your game. Ash is either a conman and thief, who uses some trickery and misdirection to get the part spooked, then scares them more with his pack of trained dogs (and maybe other ways too, if you read to the bottom). Or just maybe, there’s something to his story after all, and the characters really should be careful around dogs…
Possible future plot threads.
- Quite simply, just take any of the stories your players have told, and integrate elements of them into your story. This can either be supernaturally inspired – the stories brought to life by some malevolent entity – or just a conman with a neat bag of tricks, making sure as all hell that his marks are so terrified they’ll start to make mistakes.