In ‘The God Complex’ the Doctor quickly identifies that the hotel they find themselves in is an alien construct. Soon after they discover that the configuration of the hotel can be shifted, the perfect maze for the minotaur that is hunting them.
One of the scary things for a player is the lose of control. This can be having their character possessed by another entity but it can also be the inability to control where their character goes.
If their surroundings can change on a whim then they can’t navigate, they can’t map out the area. Fear can quickly lead to frustration. Why should they attempt to get anywhere if the games master is the only one who gets to decide where they arrive?
In order for this type of scenario to work the games master must perform a delicate balancing act. He must offer the characters just enough freedom to make the players feel like they have a choice while still making them feel confined.
Personally I don’t map out my adventures in any great detail. It is enough to know where places are in relation to each other or to know the order in which I want the players to encounter them. When done right the players aren’t even aware that I’m moulding their environment around them.
In this story we can see that there are general areas which are stable. The environment is based on a hotel and so certain rooms are in recognisable configurations and act as landmarks.
For example the reception area where the time travellers encounter Rita on the others seem to be a focal point. Howie comments that they’ve been led back there again indicating that they’ve taken several different routes and ended up at the same place.
In addition to the reception area we see or hear about a restaurant, kitchens, a conference hall, bedrooms, beauty parlour and a surveillance room. Characters are able to freely move between these areas, without fear that they’ll be unable to find their way back.
The hotel prevents people escaping but provides them with areas to rest, socialise and eat. Anything that it doesn’t feel they need access to, other things that should really exist in a hotel, don’t exist. Anyone trying to find them will just be directed back to these areas.
For a games master this lets you concentrate on areas that are important to the adventure. Each area has a purpose and so the player characters are able to make meaningful decisions about where they go and what they do.
The area is still a prison because there is a limit to the number of places they can go but they still retain their ability to choose. In an adventure you can setup situations in which characters need to be in different areas at the same time in order to overcome a challenge, thus encouraging them to split up.
The nightmarish quality of the hotel is that if it desires it can keep people apart. If someone becomes separated from the group the hotel can keep them isolated, shifting the corridors so the different sections don’t connect.
An extreme version of this occurs in ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ where Amy and Rory are kept apart for hours and possibly even years by the shifting TARDIS corridors. Other examples occur in the ‘Cube’ series of films, especially ‘Cube 2’.
This allows the games master to control who goes where during any individual scene. If a player character finds himself confronted with a threat you can ensure that their companions are not able to reach them.
If it is a NPC that is in danger the games master decides who reaches them, if any one. This could be used to make sure that each player character gets the spotlight, ensuring that it isn’t the same character saving the day each time, or to allow you to kill a NPC for the purposes of the story.
The sense of isolation is frightening but doesn’t mean that characters are unable to interact with each other. The surveillance room scene and Rita’s death are so affecting precisely because the Doctor can see her on the monitor and speak to her by phone. Yet he is powerless to save her from her fate because the hotel could keep them apart.
A shifting environment can place hazards and traps in the player characters path. Cautious or cowardly character might prefer to run but the surroundings will ensure that they loop right back round and have to confront the challenge.
In this particular case the hotel has two threats. Firstly there are the rooms that contain your worst fears and secondly there is the minotaur. In the first case the hotel can ensure that the room with your fear is the one you’re about to go into. As the games master you can also decide when this happens.
In the second case it makes a confrontation with the monster inevitable. They might be able to run and hide in the short term but the characters know that it will be simple enough for the hotel to take them directly into the path of the thing hunting them.
When the environment can constantly put the player characters in danger the games master must maintain the pacing of the adventure. You can see in ‘The God Complex’ that after each scene with danger there are extended periods of rest and speculation. These are moments for the characters to catch their breath and prepare for the next onslaught.
Scenarios like this are intimidating because the setting itself is the villain. Players are used to reacting to the environment, not the environment reacting to them. This can make the adventure more intense as they struggle to regain control and mastery of their fate.