We’ve talked about keeping things local, but there’s another, seasonably-appropriate variety of game that can be extremely compelling if done right: the snowglobe game.
A snowglobe game takes place entirely (or almost entirely) in a single room, building, vehicle or neighborhood. Instead of giving players a wide open world to traverse and explore, they get layers of revelations about the same place and people, essentially going deep rather than wide with exploration.
Classically, a lot of snowglobe games are either one-shots or single missions within a larger campaign, and that’s often the best way to play them. A full-on campaign is typically going to require at least an influx of outsiders, even if the PCs stay in the same town, and part of the trick of a snowglobe is that even intrusions from the outside are heavily limited.
Snowglobe games are most often paired with horror and suspense scenarios – trapped in a submarine with a saboteur, stuck in an arctic listening post with a shapeshifting monster, or pocket dimensions where a malevolent entity plays a childish god. Escape and survival become the all-consuming aim, with key adversaries often unable to be attacked or harmed directly and instead becoming environmental effects to be avoided and endured.
But aside from horror, snowglobe games also offer a fantastic playground for emotional exploration of both the world and the PCs themselves. A lock-in scenario removes so many options available to the PCs and can quickly change strategies for dealing with the problems they encounter, especially if “I hit it with a stick” is no longer a viable solution.
Being stuck in a small space also magnifies consequences and the value of interactions. If NPCs trapped with you don’t know the you when you arrive, they certainly will by the end of the adventure, and your actions and interactions can all come to bear in how they treat you in the future, good or bad. Players rarely have to worry about being glib, aggressive, or dismissive with NPCs, but when they find themselves stuck in the same space, all those past interactions can have long-tailed repercussions.
It also means that the other PCs or small handful of NPCs become more valuable as they come to stand for “the whole world” inside the snowglow. Travel outside the globe, into the globe after the PCs arrive, and communication across the barrier all have to be cut off to establish that sense of value through isolation.
It does mean that, as a GM, you have to been very, very good about record-keeping for a snowglobe game. Small choices the PCs make that impact their environment should regularly come into place in future moments to show just how fragile the tiny world they’re stuck in is. If the sailors trapped in a sub rig up a specialized trap for the monster, the parts they used to build it may later become essential to repair the failing reactor, and require them to dismantle the only thing holding the monster at bay in order to keep the the engines from exploding.
The best way to handle it is to write down quick notes on most of the more clever or notable PC choices and NPC interactions, even if you don’t know how you’ll make use of them yet. If you’re running a one-shot, they can make a good reference sheet for later in the game when you need a deus ex to add a new layer of challenge. In a campaign mission that may span several sessions, you’ll have time to more methodically plan around the choices to make them have punch later.
Layers of discovery is often the more important element of a snowglobe game, and luckily you can plan it all in advance, which is much easier to manage in a one-shot. Since the PCs will be in the same small, contained location, there’s the obvious concern that they’ll get bored with the environment. Adding layers of discovery makes it feel larger than it is but adding secrets the PCs don’t know about and can’t learn about all at once.
To establish compelling layers, often the easiest fix is fog of war. The PCs aren’t the only things acting on the environment, and even in this small space, they can’t keep track of all of it at once. When they return to somewhere they’ve been, something has changed that they didn’t change themselves, which may be the first hint that they aren’t alone, or that not everyone on board is playing for the same team.
Regularly varying the environment whenever the players aren’t actively looking at it can make a single space morph into a much more varied entity over the course of the game. That can apply to both the location and the NPCs in it. Layering secrets around the PCs or the NPCs in the same setting can create the same expansive feel and often make it more personal than simply having something tinker with systems in another part of the space station.
If the NPCs begin as fairly straightforward people whose secrets and complex relationships with the PCs and one another slowly come out over the course of the game, it lends the same sense of movement to an otherwise static setting. This naturally lends toward horror games – it’s the classic haunted house scenario, where the haunting reveals that the real monsters are the people living there.
In a one-shot, you can do this same thing with the PCs as the secret-havers, having elements of their backstories that the players themselves don’t know come out as secrets during play that suddenly redefine how everyone sees the character and their motivations.
By peeling away the layers of mystery, players in a snowglobe game can wrestle with the overarching challenge of being trapped without an easy means of escape or help from the outside without the environment feeling static or stagnant. At so small a scale, everything gets magnified, and like with actual snowglobes, it’s the most fun to shake things up and see what happens.