“In the end I returned and lived, but my nights are filled with strange memories, nor have I ever permitted a doctor to give me opium again.” – H.P. Lovecraft
…Continued from Last… Year?
This is it. The End of my series.
There will be no new games presented here. But rather a summary of what I have learned over the years. Some hints and pointers to what I think makes a good Horror Story and how you can achieve that in a Role Playing Game.
The Mystery is infinitely more exciting than the truth behind it!
Fear of the unknown, playing of the fantasy of the audience/players, keeping some of the secrets hidden even after the grand finale. Remember the old X-Files series? Remember how everyone agreed that the conspiracy episodes were SO much better than the “another mutant who needs some sort of bodily fluid from other humans to survive” kind of episodes? Why? Because one of them added more fuel to the mystery-fire, the other one didn’t. Also note how many episodes about this conspiracy could go by without actually revealing much of anything, and yet all these bits and pieces made you want to try to put the puzzle together… to explore how they fit and let your imagination do some heavy lifting. THAT’s what kept the X-Files alive. The Mystery. The urge to solve the puzzle. Every episode you thought you got one more piece to the puzzle, but in reality you were probably just right back where you started.
Reality always trumps fiction!
It might not look like it at first but some of the most horrific stories of our time have actually happened for real. If you want to tell a good horror story you should always try to tie in Real World events and or elements, to ground it in reality and let it grow into fiction along the way is the best way to both build Player “suspension of disbelief”, get inspiration to your story and also come to some logical conclusions about a lot of the potential holes in your story.
Some of the absolute best horror session I’ve played have been based on real (or slightly-tweaked-real) events. Some of the “hand-outs” even being based on real police reports and evidence…
Example: A Call of Cthulhu Adventure with a King in Yellow Backdrop, about Trepanation. Citing real journal entries on the subject,
“After some time there was an ominous sounding schlurp and the sound of bubbling. I drew the trepan out and the gurgling continued. It sounded like air bubbles running under the skull as they were pressed out. I looked at the trepan and there was a bit of bone in it. At last!”
Corner Stones of Horror
It doesn’t matter what you do. You cannot shield yourself from the dread that grows within your own mind. You are chained, and forced to watch your loved one cut in half with a chainsaw, and there is not a damn thing you can do about it.
The bridge has fallen, the phones are dead. No one will help you, no one will hear you scream. You are all alone, except of course… the terror out there. This is also something that can damage the human mind (in and of itself) from lack of contact with others. See Cabin Fever, Stir Crazy and other similar conditions. It makes you unbalanced, irritable, short tempered, violent and prone to look at other human beings as strange or intolerable.
- Alienation of Self
Are you changing? Is something growing inside you? Did you really kill that man? Why can’t you remember where all the blood comes from? Why is your left hand holding a knife you don’t remember picking up? And who the FUCK is that person in the mirror looking back at you with an evil, knowing grin on his faces!?
Who can you trust? Who is this person sitting next to you, really? Why does the friendly neighbour always ask you how your day was? How long has that car been parked outside? Why does it feel like you’ve seen the person behind you in the supermarket line before?
- Fear of the Unknown
What is making those noises in the basement? What is casting that moving shadow on the wall? Again this reminds us of the usefulness of the Mystery. If the GM keeps things vague and unspecific, the players will fear the opposition even more, their imagination will run away with them and come up with all kinds of sick demented horrors that will probably beat anything you could have told them or described to them. The longer you can wait before revealing the big bad, the better. Sometimes you can get away without ever showing clearly it at all.
- Reality dissolution
How can you say you’ve been at home all day when I had lunch with you down town, are you saying I had lunch with someone else? I know I who I am, why is everyone treating me like I’m someone else? How can this woman be charging me with a kitchen knife when I know I killed her last night? And just what the FUCK is that THING in the sky laughing at me?!
In my book, violence is a tricky one. I mean it is scary as all hell in movies and books, but usually the threat of violence or violence happening to someone else or the fact that violence is happening to you and there is nothing you can do to stop it, is usually what elicits a sense of terror and dread… and those categories sort of fall into items above rather than violence itself. There is a lot of violence in “Rambo” but not many truly horrific moments where you are scared shitless. And yet… Rambo is fiction, told as an Action Story. Soldiers in the real world face short intense bursts of actual horror in every fire-fight. The problem here is that violence in games always have a tendency to be presented as Action Scenes rather than horror scenes. You roll initiative and take it from there, right? Not very horrific. But the ever present threat of violence is what ultimately sets the horror in motion. You are afraid to get hurt, to die or be maimed. You are afraid of pain. You fear what it will feel like when that lunatic lets his axe drop into the flesh of your arm… As a GM you just have to make sure you understand the difference between when violence is used as an element of horror or as an Action Scene to keep the audience awake.
A GM that can balance these elements and exploit the heck out of each piece, keep the mystery alive and a minimum of TWO of these corner stone front and centre at all times, will NEVER fail to compel his/her audience.
They will come back for more, week after week.