I got involved with James Raggi’s Grand Adventure Campaign for Lamentations of the Flame Princess at pretty much the last minute. As such, I found myself initially behind the 8-ball, in that I had to get enough of a toe-hold on an idea to be able to write a successful teaser for the campaign that I want to write and illustrate. The end result was We Who Are Lost – an adventure that I really, desperately hope to be able to write. (Go check out my campaign on Indiegogo!)
Finding my inspiration and settling on a core concept for the adventure was more of a struggle than I thought it would be, so I thought that I’d write a bit about what inspires me and why I’m so excited about this project.
First, an acknowledgment
When I started, all I knew was that I wanted to write an adventure that would be genuinely scary for the players, not just their characters. But while scaring characters is one thing, successfully scaring the players is a much taller order. So to help me get the ball rolling, I turned to Graham Walmsley – who has written some seriously scary adventures of his own. He said some really smart things, but most important was this: “you have to find your own horror” and “write about things that actually bother you”.
Finding my own horror? Things that actually bother me? Now that was something I could do.
I’ve never cared for horror movies that relied on gore and torture porn for frightening viewers. I don’t enjoy pointless gore; it doesn’t scare me and I have a lot of trouble watching gore of any type. For instance, I only made it 45 minutes into Cabin Fever before I had to turn it off. I wasn’t scared, all the gore just made me sick.
It wasn’t until I saw The Blair Witch Project that I realized that I could actually like horror movies. (Yes, yes. I was one of the three people who actually enjoyed BWP. Shut up.) But that movie made me realize that the horror that I enjoy, the horror that I find compelling and frightening, is psychological horror. Horror that makes you think, that makes you draw on your own fears and experiences to make you complicit in scaring yourself.1 So in thinking about these types of movies, I realized that the movies that I found most frightening generally had two major elements in common:
1) You never saw the thing you were supposed to be scared of, or you didn’t see it very clearly.
Case in point, the movie that ruined my sleep for more than a year (true story) – Paranormal Activity. You see evidence of the horror that is stalking them, you can observe its actions and the reactions of the characters to its presence, but you never actually see a monster. It’s the same with Blair Witch Project – you never actually see the witch, even though the horrifying evidence of her actions against the main characters drive much of the story. In both cases, the monster that your mind creates is infinitely scarier than anything they could have shown on screen.
2) The scenario defies expectations in some way
To return to Paranormal Activity again, one of the big reasons that it messed with me so much is that it broke so many of the unwritten rules of horror and how we think about monsters. As children scared of monsters in the dark, we often form the idea that our bed is safe and that monsters can’t get us if we stay under the covers. But Paranormal Activity is a movie largely about horrible and terrifying things that happen to people while they’re asleep. Even worse, the monster gets into bed with the protagonists, and at another point drags one character out of bed while she is under the covers.
People. PEOPLE. That just isn’t ever, ever, ever supposed to happen. For me, that was easily the scariest moment of the whole movie, because not only was there this terrifying monster that no one could see, but it was breaking all the rules.
Applying this to an adventure
In some ways, tabletop gaming lends itself very well to horror gaming in that the players tell a story entirely constructed in their own minds. Assuming that you have players that accept the buy-in of a horror game (nothing kills a horror game than a player who can’t take the scenario seriously), what you have is a group of people who are working together to create a scary story. It’s much easier to create horror that doesn’t rely on visuals, because the shared story that you are creating is a story that comes from the brains of the people at the table. The horror created in tabletop roleplaying is inherently psychological, because of the nature of the medium. And if you have an adroit GM, or at least a strongly-written adventure with lots of pointers to a developing GM with advice on techniques for how to do this – you can get the players to become complicit in helping to scare themselves.
The only thing to watch out for is expectations. The problem with roleplaying adventures, especially fantasy adventures, is that players tend to develop certain expectations based on commonly used fantasy tropes that are nigh-on universal. So it’s essential that any truly scary roleplaying scenario make a point of repeatedly turning the expectations of the characters and the players inside out. It’s hard for the players to feel scared if they feel like they’re in traditional fantasy adventure territory, so it’s important to reinforce from the beginning that whatever expectations they had coming in are wrong and that the adventure will not be adhering to “the normal rules”.
That doesn’t mean requiring the GM to be a dick in order to force the players into that kind of space. It simply requires establishing the scenario in such a way that expectations are set and immediately broken, breaking “the rules” without breaking the characters as it were. Keeping the players off-balance makes it that much easier for them to step into their characters shoes and really let themselves feel the horror of the situation as it’s laid out in front of them.
We Who Are Lost is going to be an adventure that draws very heavily on things that I have found scary, both from movies and in games. I’ve been describing it as “Seven Samurai meets Paranormal Activity”, but that doesn’t really do it justice since it leaves out all of the micro-influences – things I’ve found particularly effective in horror games that I’ve played in, from Graham Walmsley’s A Dance In the Blood scenario for Trail of Cthulu, to a few surprisingly scary towns of Dogs in the Vineyard, to a wonderfully horrifying Unspeakable game about 1920’s flappers in way, way, way over their head. But that, sadly, is a topic for another post.
- This type of movie, unfortunately, seems to be in the minority of horror films that get made in North America, so I don’t get to see as many new horror movies as I’d like – what with the predominance of movies like Saw 17 or whatever version they’re up to now. ↩