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The best and worst part of Mansions of Madness

So, it's the first Wednesday of 2017, and that means it's time for my weekly writing journal update.  Given that I was ending 2016 with a lot of personal drama surrounding my post apocalyptic book, surely that means today I have an update, right?

Hell, no!  Because I'm writing this in mid-December 2016, you see, in order to bank enough posts that I can take a break from this dumb website for the last week or two of 2016.  I don't actually know how I'm feeling on January 4, 2017.  Panic attack, maybe?

So, today's all about filler.  And what better way to kill some time with one-off writing-related discussion than to talk about the board game that fills me with the most love/hate turmoil, Mansions of Madness.

I'm a semi-hobbyist tabletop gamer - enough to have played a wide variety of games and liked almost all of them, but I'm not hardcore enough to have all the terminology down pat.  I'm not sure what you call Mansions of Madness in terms of play mechanics.  Exploration / role playing, I guess?  Anyway, the point of the game is that a Dungeon Master sets up a bunch of map tiles and icons representing spooky, creepy things - dead bodies, weird altars, etc. - and then 5-6 players explore the map.  They'll work as a team to uncover some horrifying mystery, then fight their way past madness and monsters to solve a puzzle / escape / otherwise win. Technically, the DM is "playing" against the rest of the players, but any DM worth his salt knows that the most important part of his job isn't to win, but to make things interesting.

So, what the hell does any of that have to do with writing?  Simple: the game is fundamentally broken out of the box and actually kind of sucks if you play it according to the prepackaged rules.  The only way it works is if the DM takes an active part as the writer of the story.  It is both my favorite and most hated aspect of the game.

Y'see, the heart of MoM revolves around two components: a series of Event Cards that serve as the game's timer, and a series of Clue Cards that help the players make progress toward the final goal.  When you flip an Event Card, a smattering of plot is read out loud that presents important new information or actions that, in theory, drive the story and immerse the players further into mystery and terror. The game is also bookended by a prologue and epilogue that you read from the instruction manual. But other than these pre-written elements, there is nothing else that tells the players what to do or why they should care.

This game lives and dies by the story you tell. We tried it exactly one time with just the pieces themselves, as packaged by Fantasy Flight.  It was absolutely awful.

The prologue had barely any flavor or introduction to the premise, which involved a dude living in an isolated mansion in the New England countryside.  The plot was supposed to be that the man succumbed to the allure of a weird cult and murdered his family, and now you and your friends have to escape him before he summons a monster or something.

Unfortunately, almost none of that came across.  Event Cards would say some ambiguous statement like, "Walter jumps out of the shadows and screams!"  And you and the other players would read that and go, "Who the fuck is Walter?"  And then the DM would go scrambling through the prologue and realize that Walter was the guy whose mansion you're exploring, except that his name was mentioned only once and it's been two hours since you read that prologue, so nobody remembers anymore.  And the Clue Cards are written exclusively to direct you to another room, so any semblance of story is purely coincidental - they'll say things like, "You see a journal.  It says, 'I sure hope nobody goes in the Office!' Maybe you should go there?"

Enter the story-telling.  What I like about the game is that the story elements that exist serve as a pretty good outline for how the game should go, and the artwork and actual game pieces are well-crafted and atmospheric.  Everything is tailor made for you to tell a spooky story - you just have to engage with it.

The next time I hosted a game of it, I inserted my own flavor text whenever possible.  I'd make ominous and ambiguous allusions to the threats that awaited in order to build suspense.  And since the game can go on for a long time - six hours is typical - I would constantly drop in little tidbits to remind the players of what they were after in the first place so it didn't feel like they were aimlessly wandering.

This game can be a lot of fun if you fancy yourself a storyteller or if you enjoy a bit of horror flair.  It's also kind of aggravating if you don't like to micro-manage - which is pretty much all you do as the DM.  If you're planning to host a game yourself, you'll need to do your homework.  My recommendations:

1) Pick your scenario / story choices well in advance.  Like 2-3 days ahead of time.  Then read through the prologue, epilogue(s), and all event / clue cards thoroughly to make sure you understand the exact story that you're supposed to tell.

2) If the game has an NPC built into it, make copious use of them to drop extra hints and flavor text.  If there isn't an NPC, put one into it.  You can always kill them off at no consequence to the players if they're getting in the way.

3) Ignore the plus/minus signs on the monster tokens and assume they are all negative modifiers.  I don't know why the game even bothered to have some with positive.

4) Be really careful about how you use monsters.  I recommend just putting them on the map and letting them loom creepily rather than anything else.  And if you are going to attack, don't attack with just one - make it really hard.  Combat in this game is really obnoxious and actually ends up being one of the most frustrating parts unless it either A) is a distraction from something else, or B) feels like a must-win situation.  Don't spam somebody with a series of monsters - hit them with a mob so they feel like they barely escaped, and then let them sweat it out.  Otherwise, what ends up happening is that people realize how weak most of the monsters are and will just kill them, the move on.  It becomes nothing more than laundry.

5) Punish players who are subverting the flow of the story.  Case in point: I hosted a game once where the only thing that the players had to avoid doing - literally the only way to lose - was to open a refrigerator, which was actually a portal to another world that would let loose a horrible Shoggoth.  One player insisted on opening that fridge.  Like, no matter what I did to him, he kept going for it.  The players got about 80% of the way through the story - they were just about to flip a card that said, "The monster is in the fridge! Stay out of it no matter what!" - and then this guy used all of his resources to get past my final safeguards and open the fridge.  Game over.  We had a good laugh, I guess, but that's not really what you want - even if it technically was a win for me.  Which is how I learned my most important lesson of all:

6) Cheat.  Cheat like hell.  Take an extra threat token if you need it to make the story work.  Spend one less if it'll set up an interesting twist for the players.  Go ahead and play trauma cards even if you're not supposed to.  But don't cheat to win - just cheat to tell your story.

In that respect, MoM is exactly like writing a book.  You don't want to rely on contrivances, but your job as the narrator is to cheat however you can to make your story make sense.  Sometimes that means omitting details.  Sometimes that means forcing details.  Sometimes that means random bullshit.  The better you get at it, the more subtly you can do that.  The truth is, people read stories because we want to be manipulated - we just don't want to feel your fingers while you do it.