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Horror Gaming Month—Week Two (October 2015)
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Horror Gaming Month—Week Two (October 2015)

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Horror-Themed Adventures

Over the past century, horror as a distinct genre has grown quite a bit and contains numerous subcategories, with various levels of the macabre, gore, and realism tossed in. All things aside, when it comes to using horror in gaming, whatever the subgenre, it all boils down to being able to instill real terror into the PCs. You want to make neck hairs bristle, you want them so paranoid they begin to distrust each other, you want them in a state of hyper-alertness and anticipation because in those states, the characters (and sometimes even their players) begin to place so little efforts on the now, and so much of their energy futures that they lose site of the presence. The future, since it cannot actually be fully actualized become the plaything of the imagination— and if the dial for imagination is set to fear, the players will imagine far more horrible things to happening them than you ever could. Why? Because each of them possesses their own set of fears, each have their own nightmares, and your players will voice them in anticipation. That's when you as GM should take notes, and write them down… you’ll need them later.

The trick to running a horror-themed adventure is to build suspense in order to heighten the emotional reactions of your players. Fear is the opposite of laughter. Whereas laughter is the release of tension, fear is torque. Monsters don’t scare players, because they can easily be codified, assessed and defeated. They are immediate and can be reacted with. They are present. Fear isn’t present, so with horror, the lead in to the encounter is far more important than the encounter itself. Cthulhu isn’t horrific, what will happen to humanity when he arrives is.

Horror is about setting the tone for the encounter. It’s not about what the players fight, its about those things that they trip over, cryptic notes, strange clues, unsettling dreams or visions— anything that gets them to start anticipating and furthermore anything which they cannot unravel with a skill check. If your tone can be quantified as what is, it becomes present, actualized, tangible, and as a result players can deal with it. Conversely, if the tone you set remains open-ended, unsolved, and cannot be quantified, than its presence always lies in anticipation. It builds tension. Do this right and you can scare a powerful PC with a bunny rabbit.

So where do you get these weird little tidbits to set the tone? You take them from the players. Remember earlier we mentioned collecting fears. You need to draw them from the players. If you have players that have elaborate character backgrounds, start looking for them there. Past trauma is a fear that you can play upon. For instance, a character whose village was burnt by a red dragon probably hates dragons. You’re not going to scare that character with a dragon because they can actualize a dragon, they might even pursue some sort of dragonslayer archetype. They want the dragon. One element of horror is still there—fire. If that same individual begins to get reoccurring nightmares about people in the village being burned to death, they will become unsettled. If after a month of such dreams, the character’s contemporaries begin appearing in the dreams, it becomes unnerving.

Why are these new people burning in her dreams? What you’ve done here is created a link between fire, something horrific within the individual’s past, and the unknown. In essence, you’ve established fire a symbolic of something that the character will likely believe to hold significance, yet since she doesn’t know the significance her imagination will take over and run wild. After awhile, every time that character sees fire (maybe even burnt coals or ash paintings) in a context that’s the least bit out of the ordinary, it will cause her to become agitated, building suspense and horror.

Another target lies in the character’s hopes and desires. Again, both of these things are actualizations made tangible in the mind of the individual. The trick is to turn them intangible. Consider the following sentences:

   “I love you.”

   “I love you, but…”

   “I love you, but…never mind.”

   “I love you, but…never mind. No really, it’s not important.”

   “I love you, but…never mind. No really, it’s not important. I just can’t tell you, that's all.”

   “I love you, but…never mind. No really, it’s not important. I just can’t tell you, that's all.        Please, don’t ask me about it again.”

The above example shows how to shift from fuzzy warm feelings to nerve-wracking in six easy steps. Of course the individual told not to ask again, wants to ask again, and will likely ask again, even if it risks the relationship, because the paradigm has shifted from something that is known and something that is established, to something that is unknown. What gives the tone importance is the weight of the initial phrase. The same tactic won’t work with “I like you” because “like” doesn't hold the same value as “love”. Remember this when you target a player. A cleric doesn’t care if a god is angry with him, unless it’s his god. Take this another step further, a cleric likely isn’t afraid of being harmed because they have the protection of their faith, however if that cleric’s faith is harmed, who’s going to protect the cleric? That’s why people get scared of the occult. It doesn’t threaten the individual; it threatens his faith, which is by definition something one must feel, and not something one can quantify. What I’m saying here is simple; a desecrated temple is a good lead in for an adventure, however it isn’t horror. Horror is when a cleric valiantly pulls his out his own personal holy symbol, thrusts it into the face of his enemies, and for some inexplicable reason, it starts bleeding. Having witnessed this event myself, I’ve learned that it is possible for a 1st level wizard to shake a high level cleric’s faith with a simple silent image spell. Once again, the objective is to throw the quantifiable present into unquantifiable future.

A third way to create horror is to turn the familiar or mundane into things that become unknown, foreign, or even repulsive. This classic technique is both simple and effective in its effect on players. Most GMs know how to use this technique with efficacy, as a result, there now exist a few cliché’s GMs might want to avoid. They include the small child and seemingly innocent looking child who is actually a demon or a ghost, a woman giving birth to a monster or a devil, people that secretly sacrifice members of their community to monstrous beings or dark gods, and the seductive man/woman that really seeks to steal their victim’s souls. All of these situations still make for good adventures, however they are familiar enough for most players to infer their true nature. A more effective way to use this technique to build horror lies in finding those elements within your game that you can alter, slowly over several game sessions so the change isn’t immediately apparent, but at some point draws the character’s attention. If subtle enough, and the underlying causes of the change are well hidden, the character’s won’t be able to quantify the situation and will sink into speculation and there after fear. For example, say the characters pass through some friendly villages at one point early on in the campaign. At a later point, they pass through the same village and the attitude of the people has shifted slightly. Perhaps they are less gregarious and end their conversations quicker. Upon a third visit, a familiar contact isn’t available to speak with them, for she happens to be out of town. Thereafter, each time they visit, the contact never reappears however each time an excuse for her absence is made on her behalf. Animals may appear skinnier or the townsfolk may appear tired or sullen.  Eventually, over the course of several visits the familiar town becomes wholly unfamiliar. Since there are many plausible explanations for how the town may have wound up in its current state, the players are now forced to speculate. They are now no longer thinking about what is, but starting to contemplate what might be. The answer for the change can be as simple as low crop yields have forced the people to mug and eat lone travelers, and they want the powerful adventurers to leave as soon as possible. A simple clue might be the recovery of human bones lying at the bottom of an abandoned well in a nearby pasture.

Lastly, I’d like to bring up the subject of gore. People ask me about gore a lot, mostly in reference to the Pathfinder module Carnival of Tears, which is essentially known for its high-gore factor. I like gore and have used it quite successfully in my games and writing, however gore isn’t horror. Like a bad fart joke, gore can often be simplistic, juvenile, and gross. Gore is only horror when it is unquantifiable. As such, gore I prefer to use gore to support or “dress” a horrific concept. Think of the first alien movie, when the alien pops out of the man’s stomach. Its gory, but what makes it horrifying is that nobody understands what’s happening. Once the alien pops out, understanding settles in and the remaining crewmembers begin preparing themselves to confront the alien. Fear and panic are greatest before the alien emerges. The gore dresses the tone, heightens it, but it isn’t what makes the scene horrific. Most of the classic horror stories aren’t gory; the secret to their terror lies in suspense, tone, and the unquantifiable.

With that last thought, I’m wrapping up this month’s blog, though hopefully it provokes some comments and discussions. Happy gaming!

Hitchcock

a.k.a The Red Horseman

 
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