Supernatural Horror in Gaming: The Familiar Unknown

Most likely, you thought this series was dead and gone; truth be told, there’s a metric ton of horror-related parts left to (over-)analyze. I figured it would be weekly(ish) only in October through Halloween, and pop up whenever I got around to it during the rest of the year. So far, that would be the weeks surrounding the fifth of never. However. I’ve spent most of this week beplagued, so posting something left on the backburner is easier than writing new material. By posting this, it leaves me free to wander back off to watch more police procedurals and Doctor Who off the DVR.

One of the most important yet underused rules of effective horror: making the unreal seem normal. Horror works great when it appear as an everyday setting, perhaps nothing amiss but with a distinct feeling of difference or strange, until the horror is uncovered.

Think about this setup. On a dark and stormy night, the characters walk into a shack in the middle of the woods, finding it full of bodies and gruesome description. What are they going to do? Most likely, they’re hitting it with whatever explosives or area-of-effect spells the system can muster while high-tailing it in the other direction. This place is not uninviting; it’s blatantly advertising the horror nature of the building, the inhabitant, and your game. You may as well put a neon sign outside the building that says “The Disembowler is Now [OUT].”

Compare that to finding an old hunter’s cabin on the stormy night, with a roaring fire, a few inviting beds, and even some stew on the stove. The characters are more likely to stick around, until the person standing watch starts to drift off, hears a scratching on the roof, sees a light approaching the door… The shack’s horrific inhabitant is coming home, and the tired guard is sluggish and dopey from too much turkey stew, sitting in the chair under a blanket as the doorknob slowly rotates. Or perhaps some creature jumps out of the smoldering hearth, right as the watchman is closest to sleep, coming from a place nobody expected it. A fireplace with a (formerly) roaring fire is almost always considered a “secure” entry point compared to doors and windows, after all.

In the meantime, the players have been wondering about what’s going on, and any small bits that don’t make sense can amp up that paranoia and suspicion: not enough for the characters to bolt, but enough for the players to be a little concerned about their safety.

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…

Most of TORG one-offs I ran were neck-deep in this trope, using it as a vehicle to bring characters into something horrible. One of the many games I “liberated” from other people involved federal agents from a largely unnamed Hoffman Institute going into New Orleans to pick up a suspect…only, right as Katrina hit. I was running it as a two-nighter with a half crew, and it ended up losing a lot of its horror footing, becoming oddly cinematic at points. The biggest example was when they were crossing into New Orleans on an empty bridge when they realized that a hurricane was hitting; it began collapsing like a line of stacked dominoes, and I even had a .jpeg as a prop. While racing over a collapsing bridge lost horror movie in favor of action movie, it ended up hitting home for one of my players. When I pulled Matt out into the hallway to tell him that their big black SUV was flooding, he told me about driving over the same damn bridge when he was there visiting relatives, how he could picture driving over that bridge while its cement slats split and fell. As they trekked through the ruins of the flooded city, dodging both PMC patrols and shadowy “looters,” I tried to play up that familiarity by showing pictures and maps of the flooded landmarks they passed by.

I honed the technique a bit more in my Weird Wars game. The characters spent their early sessions evading Nazi patrols, trucking through the woods to capture the tank, all while the weirdness grew. The trick was making it weird without revealing any of the real horror; this is a warzone, so differentiating between horrors of war and supernatural horror became a strong aspect of the early game. (In hindsight, I was oddly hiding the horror less under familiarity, and more hiding one horror with another.)

The first bombed village they entered, to the soft sounds of chirping birds, featured bodies stacked like cordwood in the yard of a ruined church. As a GM, it was hilarious to see players argue on whether this was standard procedure in Nazi-occupied Europe or if this was the indicator that something was wrong here. It was an indicator, but it still wasn’t one of the horror issues, just a side-effect. Truth be told, the real horror was that for this alternate Europe, in this alternate Weird War, mass graves and stacked bodies really was SOP.

Things were kept grim, but not the supernatural took a while to parse out into the open; even after they’d encountered the real horrors several times, all they had was a sideways glance of something small scuttling into a sewer, and infected German soldiers under flickering hospital lighting. I lucked out by having some skilled players, and in the end I consider it one of the best games I’ve run to date: the group slowly enmeshed into the horror reality, watching the weirdness slow-build until the real horrors of the setting exploded everywhere.

The Strange Made Real

Ravenloft used this concept extensively, one of the many reasons it’s the first reference uttered any time someone asks about a horror game. At first trip to the realm, players might assume it’s just another Fantasy plane done in a Gothic vein, only to find out the inhabitants aren’t as they assume, their abilities and spells don’t work as they should, and their path to godhood is merely a trip down corruption lane.  Cthulhu is another good example: detectives and reporters going about mundane investigations, stumbling upon a “big scoop,” expecting a murderer of some sort, finding strange and unnatural clues, and eventually finding some mind-breaking death.

Look at some classic horrors for good examples. Dracula is great in its slow build-up; weird things happen, but nothing blatant enough to drive the protagonist Harker from the castle in raving terror. It took months for Harker to figure out what Dracula really was and what he was doing, having a hard time differentiating between dream and reality; in fact, he didn’t even realize he was a prisoner for several days. The horror for the reader is the same principle that works in slasher movies: everyone is yelling “Get out!” at the top of their lungs, but Harker has a job to do, dammit, and even his doubts and “weird, horrific visions” don’t cause him to risk his job (and his host’s hospitality) by asking to leave. And then, it’s too late.

Lovecraft is another prime example of this rule: everything in Lovecraft’s world looked ordinary at first, but had a dark and twisted reality. The Nameless City is just another desert ruin, and Innsmouth is just another quaint New England fishing village, until their terrible secrets are uncovered. “The Call of Cthulhu” is filled with this twisted reality hiding beneath the surface, from a mysterious island to secret voodoo cults in the Louisiana backwoods. In Lovecraftian horror, much like World of Darkness, the true grimy reality is only inches beneath the surface; only a few manage to break this veil, and they usually fall prey to the dangers which lurk below.

It’s also worth noting that a lot of TV shows, including The X-Files and Torchwood, us a variant the same principle: horrible secrets hidden underneath the flimsy veneer of “reality.” Partly, it’s for humanity’s own safety. Partly it’s because governments are sketchy, at best, on how they’d be able to contend with these alien threats. Imagine the approach to these secrets the average person would have: some would obviously have a bit of “Oh, cool!” exaltation, but then the dark realizations would set in. We’re not alone. We’re not protected. We’re not safe. We’re not as secure in our knowledge of the universe as we’d thought. The assumptions of how the world works have just collapsed like a house of cards, and if the government isn’t equipped to handle these threats properly, what hope does the average Joe have?

It’s All In Your Head

The idea here works for a number of reasons. If done right, the characters won’t assume anything is amiss, while the players will be frantically metagaming to figure out what’s going to happen next. It’s a false sense of security.

Horror works great in settings built for it: wastelands, tainted lands, shadowlands, battlefields, alien landscapes. But in a lot of cases, this is overplaying horror’s hand: in a land of darkness, a land of the dead, or a planet of unknowns, people will be on-edge, ready for any surprises. In comparison, walking down a dusty road, passing the vine-ridden foundation of a long-lost building is far more ordinary, and a fear of highwaymen is going to be muted compared to, say… the fear of everything on the completely alien landscape. For a lot of horror games—specifically for those games where the players should be blissfully ignorant of the game’s horror nature, for as long as possible—familiarity becomes a false friend, a veil aiding and abetting horror.

The gothics were great about this: frequently, things will look and feel similar, but with a small sense that everything is off. The silence of a forest at dusk, the shape of a lurching willow tree, an oddly pungent smell from flowers… there are thousands of prospective signifiers that something is wrong. And yet, it all appears familiar enough: strange enough to cause niggling doubts and concerns, familiar enough to reason these fears away as somehow illogical.

In truth, it’s all about psychology, and getting into people’s heads. Nobody suspects the Spanish Inquisition just as nobody suspects the mundane world to be the horror one in disguise; your players might, but their characters shouldn’t. It’s a hard trick, balancing those little “something is wrong here” moments of gut reaction and apprehension with those “nah, it’s just the wind” moments of supposed logic and clarity. For this technique to work, things must be creepy enough to affect the players, making them wonder, but not blatant enough to make the characters know, truly know, how bad things are…until it’s too late.

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