Supernatural Horror in RPGs – Isolation

One of the biggest staples of horror is isolation. There’s a reason many horror movies are set areas meant to isolate their protagonists from outside help: a cabin in the woods, a ship at sea or in the void of space, research stations in Antarctica or the briny deep, the heart of a wild jungle or desert far from civilization, the inner-city ghetto, a nation at war. The backwoods fringe of civilization is usually depicated as Eastern Europe, circa 1800’s, rife with werewolves, vampires, and peasentry eager to storm castles with their torches and frankenstein rakes. Isolation, the good-luck-you’re-on-your-own kind, puts people on-edge. Here, players can’t expect backup, or a good storefront, or a police force to call on. The players have only themselves to work with, and are truly on their own, without any support from the world outside the gaming table.

This series is meant to give a deeper look at using horror and terror in roleplaying games. Ghost stories and horror tales have been enthusing people for time immemorial; people like to feel a constructed sense of emotional fear. Things work different in a roleplaying game, but horror is still enjoyable, it’s still an ancient and established trope. Obviously, as a GM, you must want to incorporate horror, and your players won’t necessarily want the horror included. But for those who do…

Isolation is easy to build because PCs are mostly self-sufficient. Particularly so in a fantasy game; the cleric and wizard can fulfill numerous duties through balanced spellcasting. Generally, PCs will either solve a problem on their own, or will run screaming from it to gain the necessary requirements (XP, knowledge, items) to solve the problem later: PCs rarely run to alert the proper authorities to let them deal with a given situation. (Heck, in some cases, the PCs are the proper authorities.) In short: the PCs are self-reliant, and used to going into dangerous situations as part of a game, so isolation isn’t scary.

At first.

But what happens when they do go running for help, and nobody answers? What happens when they can’t find a shop, or a temple, or whatever they need right now? What happens when their supplies start running out, when food and ammunition goes away, when they can’t find a place to sleep at night? At first, it’s only annoying. Then, “normal” problems become critical: sickness, starvation, supplies. Suddenly, there are no reinforcements, no second changes, and certainty of what failure brings. That horror would be isolation.

Another facet of isolation is the trust issue: can the characters trust the inn they’re staying at, the shopkeeper they’re dealing with, or the item they’re haggling for? When they can’t trust anybody… isolation. Ravenloft used this technique, for its inhabitants and monsters alike. Eventually, PCs would realize that nobody in Ravenloft held their best interest at heart, and the players realize they are truly alone in the world. What you’re aiming for here is the paranoid, claustrophobic dread that nobody can be trusted.

Another way to isolate players is a cultural or lingual barrier. Many groups only have one or two players buy the needed language, and by dividing the group, the characters can become isolated from communication. And in some cases, there’s little or no chance to know the language, putting the characters firmly on the outside. Lost in Translation is viewed by many as a comedy, but many ex-patriots tell me it’s a documentary, the mind-numbing depression that comes with a lingual and cultural barrier.

Social isolation runs deeper than that, though. What about cultural differences—refusing to eat a cannibal’s “meat,” or making some kind of etiquette misstep? Making the PCs the proverbial fish out of water, socially speaking, can be more unnerving and challenging than a haunted castle. You know what to expect with the castle, after all. And what if the PCs do go after the authorities? Remember the adage of the boy who called wolf; when the NPCs don’t find anything, repeatedly, the players will only face disbelief and social ostracism—and more isolation.

What makes it horrifying is that eventual realization that the PCs are alone in their tasks. It works well as a driving force, to keep them on task—they are alone in preventing the ends of the world, after all. At the same time, isolation puts things on edge. No pressure! The mood of isolation is a serious downer for some, and annoying to others, but when done right it amps up the tension. When the smallest step can push a PC off the edge, tension combines with other techniques of horror for a deadly cocktail.

Isolation is the main driving factor for a horror game in a post-apocalyptic or apocalyptic setting, zombie or otherwise. Things like the flu and the common cold become deadly killers, and the quest for food, ammo, medicine, and eventually winter clothing becomes second only to the main quest. Strangers are likely to try and rob the PCs, if not worse, and the PCs may even resort to doing the same thing. Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road was a fine novel for bringing the feeling of isolation through to the reader; the fate of his child rests in the protagonist’s hands, a lone voice in the wilderness.

In Cthulhu, most PCs are isolated to begin with. NPCs generally won’t or don’t believe the players’ ramblings about monsters and cults, thinking them mad (probably) or delusionally creative (sadly not). The idea can carry on into other games, that NPCs either won’t believe them, or simply don’t give the attention they deserve. I’ve spent many a night in “jail” due to our characters trying to convince the beat cop that the house we’re currently vandalizing has been posessed by the elder gods.

In general, isolation is a perfect technique of horror to use because the players are already isolated to begin with. There are few things that can compare to the sheer terror of being utterly alone in the world.

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