High Fantasy Horror

As mentioned in my previous post, I sat in a panel discussing the above topic at Tracon V. For various reasons, I did not feel the panel went well.

Most of those reasons I can’t help – there was a strong element of human error throughout the whole process, which led to the building of a six-man panel with the original misconception of a 120-minute program slot that then turned out to be 60 minutes long, and finally by one program item running late and another requiring substantial prep time only had about 40 minutes. Just when we were starting to get warmed up and really discuss things, time was up.

For me, warming up really was an issue, because I am not a natural performer, and for some reason I was really off my game that day. This may have to do with the panel consisting including some real heavyweights, such as Frans Mäyrä, a Professor of Information Studies and Markku Soikkeli, a Senior Assistant of the Literature Department from the university across the street, which was slightly intimidating, especially since I’d never even met them before. Hell, Frans Mäyrä’s old Forgotten Realms adventure logs are some of the earliest RPG material I’ve ever read online. I’ve formerly done fine with presentations and lectures, but I didn’t really ever get comfortable during the panel, and the level of my output, despite my notes and preparation, was less than coherent.

This, however, I can help. So, I present to you, reconstructed from my notes and memory, a rather more articulate version of my opening summary.

High Fantasy Horror

Hello, I am Jukka Särkijärvi, a gaming blogger and a former columnist for the Roolipelaaja magazine. I’ve been gaming for 14 years, which I suppose makes me the newbie of this panel.

On the topic of horror in roleplaying games, I am especially interested in the concept of making horror work in a game like Dungeons & Dragons or Exalted – high-powered fantasy with a detailed ruleset. They’re games that operate off the basic principle that your characters are stupendous badasses. There’s an enemy, you go and kick its ass, be it a local crime leader, a vampire count or the God of Darkness himself. This can, naturally, make horror a bit hard to do in these games. When Count Dracula is only worth so much experience points and the Great Cthulhu has a set Armor Class, there’s no fear. Well, sure, there is the threat – that’s not exactly a low Armor Class, and don’t even let me get started on the kind of damage old squidhead can dish out, but you still know what you’re dealing with, you can prepare, make assumptions and educated guesses and more or less intellectualise the challenge. When a player has been with a game for a few years, they’ll be pretty good at that. When I get a hint that there’s a vampire in a D&D game, I know to stock up on holy water, ways to bypass silver and magic damage reduction and preferably deal with level drain.

H.P. Lovecraft once said “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.”

Following Lovecraft’s advice, one technique is to take away the knowledge and certainty of the players about what they’re facing. Mislead their divinations, give them contradictory clues. Flat out make shit up. Change the stats. Make vampires that can survive in the daylight, or who don’t drink the blood but the cerebro-spinal fluid, or who otherwise lack the standard weaknesses. Keep them guessing.

This, incidentally, also applies to certain degree to anything and everything that utilizes the Cthulhu Mythos. The names Cthulhu, Azathoth, Nyarlathotep and Necronomicon have been bandied about in popular culture and geek media for so long that they’ve lost their impact. Many players haven’t even read “The Call of Cthulhu” and know old squidhead from stuff like Munchkin Cthulhu and Goomi’s comics, and pretty much every gamer with any experience knows that Cthulhu sleeps eternally in R’lyeh and so forth. Therefore, namedropping Mythos creatures can evoke giggles just as easily as shivers.

Tragic – Lovecraft’s unknowable is now known by everybody and their dog.

Another thing that the characters’ inherent badassness brings with it is that they’re usually in control of the situation. Even mid-battle, sometimes before the fight has even begun, a player can look at the situation and know that they’re gonna win it, and then they can heal up and press on. The default situation is that they’re safe, even when someone is poking them with a sharp metal implement. Outside of combat, in an investigation or a dungeon crawl, they can rest up and replenish their spells or leave and buy a bigger hammer or something. They can, and will go to great lengths to, face the enemy in their own terms.

Wanna create true fear? Take that control away from them.

There’s a variety of methods for this. The classic is cutting off their retreat, making the only option to press on, despite being low on supplies and bleeding from every orifice, including some new ones. The dungeon’s entrance is sealed by a rockslide. There’s an effect blocking teleportation. They’re dependent on an outside agent for their transportation and he ain’t coming back for another two days, or someone killed him. AD&D’s Ravenloft setting had a version of this, where the darklords of the domains were the ones in utter control of the situation, to the point of being able to seal the borders of their domains with a thought, preventing the characters from escaping and forcing them to face whatever devilry they had prepared and conquer it or die trying. Welcome to the Hotel Barovia – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

This technique inspires desperation. It directly threatens the characters, hopefully something the player is invested in. It’s also a good technique to force players to play smart, when just kicking in the door and going in swinging becomes a suboptimal strategy, far too dangerous. When you can make them guard every hit point like it was the One Ring, you’ve succeeded.

Another way to remove control is to use threats that cannot be acted or reacted against. A recent horror scenario I ran, called The Skinsaw Murders, had a haunted house with haunt effects that the PCs triggered as they moved through the manor. With a few exceptions, they only affected a single character and nobody else could see them. There was traditional gothic mood-building stuff like a face in the mirror that only one character could see, and some outright threats, such as a sudden suicidal impulse to throw oneself through a window into the roiling sea. Though they managed to save against most of these, the knowledge that they could trigger a haunt at any time and sooner or later they would fail a save generated a certain air of helplessness that spurred on their search through the house.

Of course, for all this to work, you’ll also need to go with the practical horror techniques of every game – good description, maybe a darkened or dimly lit room, mood music, cut the table talk. Craploads of advice in any horror game worth buying. Those, however, are a topic for someone else to discuss.

6 thoughts on “High Fantasy Horror

  1. “I am especially interested in the concept of making horror work in a game like Dungeons & Dragons or Exalted – high-powered fantasy with a detailed ruleset.”

    Does actual play show that this works? It seems to me that you are trying to take away the very things that make D&D for what it is. People play the game because of its tactical elements, much in the same way as people go to see superhero movies in order to see comicbook characters, fast-paced action and the triumph of good over evil. “Play the game as what it has been designed for” is what I’m singing here – not because of the game or the designer, but because of the players.

  2. Yes, actually, it does work. The traditional fantasy RPGs like D&D, RuneQuest, Exalted, Rolemaster and their ilk are actually pretty versatile in what sort of adventures they run, since the rulesets were designed to handle everything. You just need to know what you’re doing or you’ll end up making a terrible hash of things. Note that the specific examples I cited, Ravenloft an The Skinsaw Murders are both highly regarded products designed for use with D&D (AD&D 2nd Edition and D&D 3.5, respectively).

    I would also dispute the claim that people play D&D because of the tactical elements. While certainly true for many people, I believe many people play it simply because it’s the only game in town. Out there in the big world, no other RPG comes close to matching it in sales, and according to the latest report I saw, the next one down the list from D&D is Pathfinder RPG, which is also D&D. Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play is also in the top five.

    Mind you, none of the above actually applies to the current edition of D&D, since I don’t play it and try to actively forget that it exists. I guess it could also handle horror, but I’m not sure how I’d approach the execution. I’m only half kidding when I point the interested parties to a lecture on horror in board games at Ropecon.

  3. He thinks I’m not a heavyweight

    Right about the timing though. I wonder what were they thinking… I mean, to give a less-than-hour slot for a panel in the first place.

    Again in 2011!

  4. Pingback: Convention Report: Finncon 2010 « Worlds in a Handful of Dice

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