by Matthew Ipock
Two of the best horror-sci-fi movies ever made, in my opinion, have to be Alien and Aliens. You know, the space creature that starts out as something that latches onto your head, shoves an egg down your throat that eventually claws out through your chest and becomes a big, blackish-green hunter with acid for blood and a tongue that is, in fact, yet another mouth with teeth. Yeah, those two. These two movies offer a nice model for gamers and writers looking to better their adventure-design skills (for gamers), and for gamers and writers who are trying to improve their setting and atmosphere design, their monster choice and design, and their NPC creation (or secondary and supporting characters, for writers).
1 – Isolation
A lot of adventures take place in or near some civilized area. That’s all fine and dandy. Sometimes, that’s what characters need. Sometimes you need just some simple role-playing, social interaction at the local tavern or inn common-room. Sometimes you need a conflict with the local thieves’ guild or a run-in with the town guard.
That shouldn’t be the only rabbit in your hat, however. Never discount the joys and thrills that come from sending your players’ characters into the wilderness, a few days travel from any help, and dump them into the deepest, darkest hole you can imagine. For that, we’ll look at the movies for just a moment. In the first of the series, Alien, the characters find themselves, first, on some barren rock out in space, with no other living soul around. Then, they find themselves floating through space on their ship. However, the ship now carries not only the characters, but also the horrible monster that wants to eat them for lunch. In the second of the series, Aliens, the characters find themselves back on that same barren rock out in space. Only this time, there is a colony where people settled, lived, and were summarily eaten by the horrible monster’s brothers, sisters, and cousins.
Oh, yeah. They also find the horrible monster’s even more horrible mother, who becomes quite agitated when the heroine of the movie decides to use a flame thrower on the eggs she worked so hard to lay.
Isolation was a key in both of these movies. Why was this so important? If there original crew of the space ship wasn’t all alone, so far out in space, there’s a pretty good chance that the alien eggs would’ve been found and destroyed a lot sooner, and then there wouldn’t have been a plot for the second movie. If they hadn’t been so far out in space, perhaps near to a military installation, they would’ve been able to destroy the horrible monster, and there wouldn’t have been much of a first movie. Aside from that, the isolation of the barren planet, the bad weather, and the fact that their communications on the planet kept going in and out, as well as the isolation on the space ship, the closed in space with the maze of corridors and ventilation shafts – all of this builds up the suspense of the movie. Those watching Alien begin to feel the heart-wrenching fear of the characters, knowing that the alien creature could be waiting around any corner, or above any room in the ship. The audience begins to feel the claustrophobic stale air within the ship, begins to feel their heart race and their mind boil with the urge to scream and tear at the walls in a desperate attempt to get out before the thing finds them and devours them. The same can be said for the second movie, Aliens. Sure, there is an entire planet upon which the characters find themselves; but there is no one else around, and they have no idea just how many of those monsters there might be out there. Sure, they have a supply of guns and ammunition to protect them from the monsters; but the supply is finite, and there is no superstore on LV-426.
2 – The Monster grows and evolves
There’s nothing more terrifying than finding something that attaches itself to your head and wraps a tail around your neck. It shoves a tube down your throat, keeps you in a coma, breathing and alive. No one can figure out what it is doing to you, and no one can think of a way to help you. When they try to remove the thing, it wraps its tail tighter around your neck to choke you. If they try to cut it, they find it has acid for blood. All they can do is sit and wait. Well, there might be something more terrifying. You find out that the face-hugger (as it has become known – I do not take credit for that nickname) actually lays an egg inside you. The egg grows and turns into a creature that bursts out through your chest, then runs off, screeching. That new monster grows very quickly, soon becoming the size of a adult male, with long, sharp claws on each hand, a mouth filled with razor-sharp teeth, and a tongue that is also filled with razor-sharp teeth. This new monster goes on a rampage through your space ship, killing everyone it meets – it is a hunter, a predator, a monster.
Of course, this doesn’t matter. You died when it burst through your chest.
Sometimes you ought to pick a monster that your characters aren’t entirely familiar with. Make sure it is something that can cause quite a bit of havoc with them. For a low-level group, a simple troll can sometimes do just fine, as the regeneration ability makes them very hard to kill. After the characters have fought one or two of these monsters, and have become used to it, find a way to change it. Make it bigger, make it meaner, make it better. In the case of a troll, perhaps you want to make it smarter; maybe it is some freak of nature that can read and write, and it now knows a few magic spells – maybe an anti-fire spell (NO! Not That!)
Here is another way to look at the situation. Instead of having one monster turn into another monster, or having one monster become bigger and meaner and harder to kill, just take that same, simple monster and add more of them. Suppose your players are playing first-level characters. A few goblins are going to be an issue at such a low level. Let the characters get used to fighting a few at a time. Then, enter the whole tribe. Goblin after goblin comes rolling toward the village in which the characters live.
Oh, wait – someone just peed all over themselves.
(An aside here: Another way to go with this is to have a necromancer in the back of a small group of bandits. When the characters kill one of the bandits, the necromancer casts a spell and that dead bandit stands back up as a skeleton or zombie. Just a thought – that would probably scare the pee out of a first-level character, too.)
3 – The Monster is not invincible – just dangerous to kill
The main problem that the characters had in both Alien and Aliens is that they couldn’t just outright kill the monsters. Even though they had guns and bullets and such in Aliens, the environment itself made it difficult to use such equipment; at one point, flammable gasses could have exploded with the use of projectile weapons. In both movies, the characters had to bust out the trusty flame-thrower in order to fight off the monsters. Of course, we all know just how well that worked out for the heroes and heroines, right? This is an excellent lesson to pull from a classic movie. Perhaps you want to give your monsters acid for blood. Perhaps your main villain possesses a magical ring that reflects the spells of your magic user back at the characters. Perhaps every time one of the characters hits the monster, it absorbs that energy and stores it for a super-powered, knock-out swing for later. In fact, two great examples can be seen in fantasy work, as well. Dragons are well-known to harbor poisonous blood, and draconians (from the DragonLance series) are known to turn into solid stone upon death, trapping its killers weapon within its body, and then some even explode afterward (if I remember correctly).
I should make a special note here that this idea is completely different from giving the monster a special defense or immunity, such as the regeneration of a troll. A special defense or immunity simply makes the monster harder to kill, but it can still be done eventually, and the characters have no reason but to keep hacking at the creature until it falls. It is an entirely different matter when killing some monster creates a dangerous situation, maybe not just for the characters but for a village of innocent bystanders, as well. Not only do the players have to think and possibly come up with new ways to deal with a monster, but there could be moral implications, as well, which could prove disastrous if the characters lose their abilities if they do something against their moral code. Perhaps killing the monster ends in some large cloud of poisonous gas being released over a 100 yard x 100 yard area. Of course, the characters might not know exactly how big of a cloud would be release, at first. That could mean a lot of innocent villager lives on their conscience.
4 – Antagonists and/or supporting characters grow and change
There is nothing worse than reading a book in which the main character stays the same, static individual throughout the entire book, especially if several great events take place that would cause the character to learn, to grow, and to evolve in his or her thinking and beliefs. Let’s take a look at Aliens for a moment. Ripley, at the beginning of the movie, finds out that one of the crew members of the ship is an android. Well, it was an android that caused one of the major problems in the first movie. It almost caused her to die. In fact, because of the situation that android created on the ship, she was forced to jettison herself out into space in a tiny escape craft. She had no idea if she would even be found and rescued; she just knew she did not want to be in the ship any longer. Needless to say, she wasn’t real happy when she found out that Bishop was an android. By the end of the movie, she came to trust him, even to like him. And let’s not forget about Newt. She tries to run away from Ripley when she is first found, and doesn’t seem to trust her (or the other Marines) for a good while. She doesn’t talk much at first, either. One of the best scenes of Aliens, though, is after Ripley has killed the Queen Alien and Newt grabs a hold of her, throws her arms around Ripley’s neck, and calls her mommy.
There can be no excuses offered if your characters do not learn and grow. Especially if that character is a main villain in your story. I know, I know – villains do not normally change all that much. Actually, villains might grow and change quite often, we just would not normally see it. Perhaps the players’ characters attempt to keep the villain alive, instead of just killing him/her/it outright. It might be for questioning, it might be for torture. The villain might not ever find out why. If not, then he or she might think the characters have some sense of morality, and might begin to see them in a different light. They’ll still want to go through with their plans, but they might put out orders to not kill the characters, if possible.
The same goes for the players’ characters. Give them plenty of opportunities to learn and grow. That is one of the main purposes of writing stories or playing role-playing games: To get into the life of a character and live out that life, a life we normally would not be able to live. In the case of role-playing games, give your players incentive to really role-play their character to a great extent. Perhaps you might give them extra experience points (if that is the game system you use). Perhaps you hand out more gold or treasure. Maybe you allow them to develop new skills and abilities that they normally would not. However you decide to do it, it is very important to help the players’ characters grow and change. Live and learn, one might say.
The same idea can be used when writing, as well. Get deep into the mind of your character: How would they act, talk? What do they like and dislike? Get to know that character inside and out. As that character grows, what will you give him or her for growing and learning? How do they grow and learn? Do they have to find a teacher, or is it some sort of god-given growth? Do they gain extra abilities only through magical jewelry or enchantments, and the more the find the more they grow?