Twenty-five years ago, the X Files premiered their pilot episode in the United States, and there’s not better way to celebrate such an iconic date in this blog than to write how it still inspires me in my campaigns. Let me start with a confession: Before I knew about Dungeons & Dragons, I knew of The X Files. As a matter of fact, my first steps into RPGs were precisely while having a forum conversation about some dark new setting for an «Alternity» game which would allow you to investigate the paranormal. I’m talking about Dark Matter, and it was the little vent that cracked the wall of curiosity for me: one year later I was awed in amazement about fantasy RPGs.
Long before the MCU, the X Files already had a series-spanning story arc, intertwined with «Monster of the Week» episodes. Once in a while, there was also a comedy episode.This formula will be inherited by many shows, but hardly taken to better results than in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural. And now, with the technical awards:
Lesson 1: The Music marks the spot
The X Files theme is arch-known by now. It is very likely that most of your friends will recognize it, even if they haven’t ever watched the show. As many DMs have adopted the method of playing background music during their sessions, there aren’t many things better in quality and excitement than Rhapsody on Fire for fighting big, fierce creatures, including dragons. But when mystery is around, Midnight Syndicate can fill up the spot with tracks where distant voices seem to be performing a ritual. This is all well and good, but if we really want to make it hard for our players, there are few things comparable to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. It is a pity that it is so linked to The Exorcist, so my second best recommendations are the instrumentals included in the Stigmata soundtrack. If the threats are related to some kind of religious element (which is extremely common, after all), the soundtracks of “Angels & Demons”, “Supernatural” and the most recent “Season of the Witch” will prove themselves very effective. I will probably dedicate a full article to this item in the future.
Lesson 2: Hide things in the darkness
The coloring and tone of The X Files was made on purpose to have high contrast when Mulder and Scully turned on their flashlights. It’s not necessary to literally turn off the lights to get the mood (in fact, some players still use sheets of paper for their characters, and making it harder to read them is not a good idea). However, describing a scene in terms of lighting can make all the difference. For example, research scenes, strategy discussions and even equipment purchases can be placed in sunny days and well-lit rooms and libraries. On the contrary, danger and paranoia soar whenever the description includes a moonless night (none of the twelve, in the case of Eberron), windows covered with heavy curtains or even a dimly lit corridor. Sometimes even unconsciously, players will notice and their characters will react differently.
Lesson 3: Technology sucks
Both The X Files and Supernatural recurrently use a simple resource: the malfunction of technology. The radio of the car that starts transmitting only static is probably the most abused of all. Eberron offers us prodigies that lend themselves to be used in this way: the conductive stones of the Lightning Rail are my favorite (“Hey, why is the train just slowing down by the edge of the Mournland?”). In general, though, any magic object can be of help. This tool, of course, must be properly planned: no one likes that their equipment simply stops working for no reason. On the other hand, it can become chilling that eternal torch titile without totally extinguishing when entering a temple dedicated to the Dark Six. In the British miniseries Bedlam, the protagonist usually receives ominous calls and text messages of an unknown number. Perhaps the heroes receive something similar through the communications service of House Sivis, or a mysterious package through House Orien. In any case, investigating their origin should lead the adventurers to a house abandoned for years, or to a sender buried in the last years of the war… or better yet, one that never got buried because his body was never found.
Lesson 4: «I» is for Investigation
No horror story would be complete without mysterious symbols drawn on walls, floors and victims, made with dark ink, salt or blood. The detail is so cliché that any researcher would look for them, so … why bothering into hiding them? Here we can become highly unpleasant, tending to use gory elements. Red herrings and double-layering made me create one of my more elaborate details (and celebrated by my players) by hiding the marks on the victim’s flesh, but covered in their own skin (meaning that the cultists had partially removed the victim’s skin, etched their symbols in their muscles, bones and organs, and they had put the skin back again). If we do not want to cross certain lines, the mystery can fall into substance: a Medicine check can tell us that this is not human blood (“By the Sovereign Host, what could it be?”), or a Nature check could indicate that this ink-tone can only be achieved by using pigments from a tropical flower that only grows in Xen’drik (“It is amazing how quickly these damned cults of the Dragon Below have scattered”). The symbol itself can also be used to create latent discomfort in players when they can not recognize it, but it is composed of clearly malignant elements, such as bones and viscerae.
Lesson 5: Paranoia
When the 3E “Tome of Magic” got released years ago, I fell in love with the Shadowcaster. A side text in that chapter of the book described that, optionally, someone paying attention to a shadowcaster could realize with a Spot check (now, Perception) that his shadow did not seem to correspond to him precisely, sometimes appearing to make distinct movements. This type of clues is even more effective now that we have passive Perception and Insight checks. Metaplay a little in your favor: It raises the paranoia informing the player whose character does not have the highest Wisdom score that he saw a shadow (in the case of Perception) or an almost imperceptible wink (in the case of Insight). Nobody on the table will know what to believe.
Lesson 6: Give them the chills
And for last, just a brief advice. If the characters are affected by some “fear” effect and this causes them to suffer a penalty, do some math. Whenever they fail because of that penalty, describe such failure as a tremor in their hands, a chill that makes them lower their guard or cold sweat that makes them unable to hold their weapons.
What are the TV shows you have drawn inspiration from? How? Let me know in the comments below!