Cloverfield in D&D

Thursday night’s game session was canceled due to Pete having the flu so I found myself with an unexpectedly spare evening. One quick trip down to the video store later and I was settling down to watch Cloverfield. After a fairly boring 20 minutes spent establishing the characters the movie suddenly kicks off and at the back of my mind I was thinking, how to do this in D&D?

If you haven’t seen the film yet, I’m not spoiling anything when I tell you that it is about a giant monster that suddenly turns up out of nowhere and lays waste to New York. Except the film is not about that, it is about a group of ordinary people (i.e. young, beautiful, wealthy and mostly white) who are at a party in central New York when the monster turns up. One has a video camera and what the audience sees is the video footage, complete with shaky camera and jump shots.

As a film it has similarities to the Blair Witch Project for its filming style (though much better done) and George A. Romero’s zombie films where normal people are behaving like normal people in abnormal situations. The films doesn’t explore what the monster is or how to defeat it. It is simply a group of friends trying to get out of NY as the world falls down around the ears.

Putting this into a D&D context, the opening scene would find the party in a city tavern celebrating some event or there on some other business, it really doesn’t matter why they are there. Then, without any warning, a gargantuan devil or monster (think Godzilla on steroids) turns up and starts laying to waste the city. What do the characters do?

A high level party would probably dive in and attack the monster turning the adventure into just another hackfest and missing the point of the film. A medium to low level party (5th and down), having seen lightning bolts and fireballs bounce off the monster, would decide it is someone else’s problem and bug out. The problem for the GM is how to ensure the party ends up falling into the planned encounters and not just fleeing into the countryside.

One of the reasons why New York features so often in disaster movies is that it is an iconic city, known around the world so everyone can understand the importance of its destruction. However another reason, and relevant to Cloverfield, is that Manhattan is an island and it allows the scriptwriter to prevent the escape of the characters / monster / infection or whatever. (Incidentally I completely missed the nod to Escape from New York in the film). So the first rule for the GM is to ensure that geography is on their side.

Once you have the party trapped in the ruins of the city, the plot now needs a focus. Players do not want to be blindly running away all the time. In the film, it is a love interest that gives the plot focus but this tends to be a weak device in gaming. What else would force the players back into the heart of maelstrom? Greed – maybe their gold stash (or someone else’s) is under threat. Loyalty – a duty to protect a temple, rescue a respected elder or a holy relic. Bad Luck – the party think they are taking a safe route but in reality they are heading straight into trouble. Innocents – the party ends up helping a distraught Mother find her child, or a nun to rescue a bunch of orphens. In short, there are lots of ways to give the party a focus that is not simply killing the monster.

The route to the plot’s focus can be left to the players to decide. A carefully crafted scenario will guide the players with roads blocked by rubble, planted information – e.g. a dying man warning them not to go the most direct route, and direct instructions – e.g. a guard captain directing all civilians away from the party’s goal, forcing them into a more risky route to circumvent the captain. Whatever route the party takes it will lead them into violent encounters with looters and mysterious but deadly mini-monsters. These off-spring or spore or minions of the main monster are there to give the players a taste of fighting the main monster without the impossible odds. The final part of the journey to the plot’s focus is natural hazard. Ruins pose all sorts of dangers from falling masonry to collapsing sewers so go to town and be prepared to stretch your party’s creditability (e.g. the leaning tower block in Cloverfield).

Having achieved the focus of the plot the party now has to worry about escape. Let the party receive word of a last ferry leaving the island at dawn or that wizards are teleporting people out from the Temple of Whatever. However it is structured, the important element is a time limit. This forces players to take risks and adds to the level of excitement. More encounters and natural hazards can be thrown into the party’s way but they should not be too large. The clock is ticking and the players should be sprinting to safety with the hordes of hell on their tail.

As a GM, you will probably want to end the scenario differently from how the film ends. Classic horror films always have the unexpected twist at the end. Normally the monster is still alive when everyone thinks it is dead or a chance remark will suddenly throw everything into a different, more terrible light. This can be a hook to a different adventure or the start of a campaign, or simply a twist at the end of a one-off adventure.

The key to Cloverfield’s success is that the film’s heroes are not heroes. They are just normal people caught up in the events and circumstances force them into a dangerous journey. With a little thought on the geography, the plot focus, the journey, the escape and the final twist, you can give your players a very different kind of adventure.

Note: This is a re-post due to some RSS problems.