Sunday, October 21, 2012

Horror RPGs, Conservative Liberals, Moody Blues

Hi, folks! Thanks for dropping in. I’ve been working like crazy on some new writing, and hopefully I’ll be able to report some news on that front soon. In the meantime, you may be interested to learn that a number of my older book titles—The Last Mythal, Blades of the Moonsea, and City of Ravens—have now been released in Kindle editions. I’ve heard there might be some audiobooks in the works, too, but I don’t have much that I can report with confidence.

Anyway, this week: Horror games, The Who, and the Moody Blues.
Gaming: It’s the season for haunted houses and horror movies, so naturally I’ve been thinking a little about horror in RPGs, especially D&D. Horror is really tough to do in D&D, since so many things in D&D run counter to being creeped out by what’s going on around you. Players are trained to attack monsters, stick together, avoid fleeing, and generally behave heroically. D&D, in other words, is about empowerment. Horror is really about disempowerment—it’s about people coming up against things they don’t understand and learning that things or people they count on aren’t going to help.

So, how do you disempower the players in a mutually agreeable way? The Ravenloft setting used fear and horror checks to compel the player characters to behave unheroically in situations where a jaded D&D player might otherwise shrug and say, “Skeletons, shmeletons, I smash ‘em.” Call of Cthulhu gave characters an essentially nonrenewable store of hit points that were damaged by seeing and encountering things that humans weren’t supposed to see—the Sanity score. Those systems work, but they’re not terribly organic to the storytelling experience of a horror game. They’re mechanics, and pretty intrusive.
Ideally, you’d like to create horror scenarios within the bounds of the game by building a situation in which the *players* are scared. It’s pretty easy to make players scared for their characters—throw overpowering or unfair encounters at them. But it would be preferable to present a story that is so inherently unsettling and suspenseful that the players experience dread, foreboding, alarm, all the great emotions that a good horror story provokes.

What are some good ways to do this at the table? First, suspense: A horror scenario doesn’t give the players a lot of opportunities for successful combat. You shouldn’t see the monster right away, and the first meeting or two should be arranged in the monster’s favor—it strikes when the party is separated, it can hit and retreat, it murders surrogate victims and avoids showing itself. Second, don’t let the players know exactly what they’re up against—keep them guessing. Experienced players know exactly what a wraith is, but “the dreadful apparition that haunts Darmask Manor” is more mysterious. Third, the adventure shouldn’t reward the normal approaches and methods. For example, the monster might be uniquely difficult to defeat without something the PCs don’t have (the monster has DR or resistances the heroes can’t beat, or it’s a unique monster such as a vampire that can only be killed with one special stake). The race to find the items or materials needed to defeat the monster before it picks off the heroes one by one… now that’s a horror adventure.
Finally, the best horror scenarios sneak up on the players. About ten years back, I ran a short-lived Alternity game that I called “Cthulhu 1885” – Wild West Cthulhu, in other words. I put together a little adventure about mi-go mining in the Black Hills, and a train wreck in which one of the boxcars was found dropped from the sky on the open plain several miles from the track. Anyway, the heroes wind up in a lonely cabin in a desolate part of the hills with some horrible Cthulhish monster—a byakhee, or a flying polyp, or a shantak, something like that—ripping up pieces of the cabin roof to get at the characters holed in inside. My friend Josh was playing a pretty straight-up gunfighter… and Josh, the player, was FREAKED. “WHAT is on the roof?” he demanded. “What in the HELL is going on?” It turns out that Josh had never even *heard* of Cthulhu, or HP Lovecraft, or any of the Mythos creatures. He thought we were playing a Wild West game and trying to solve a strange crime, and the idea that his character was up against the supernatural—to be specific, a spectrum of supernatural that he had no experience with and could make no rational analysis of—caught him completely off-guard. I, of course, had NO idea that someone working at Wizards of the Coast could possibly have missed Cthulhu during his gaming and reading, but somehow Josh had, and it turned out to be one of the best horror-game RPG sessions I ever ran. D&D players can be cocky and overconfident; well, there’s nothing quite so brittle as the self-assurance that comes from misplaced confidence, and that’s doubly true when the players don’t see it coming.

Politics/Current Events: What’s conservative, and what’s liberal? For example, is the Tea Party conservative? Political conservatism is generally defined as protective of the status quo, but you can make an argument that in today’s America the status quo consists of Social Security, Medicare, and liberal control of institutions like higher education and the media. In this view of the nation, the Tea Party is a force for reform, and liberals are the defenders of the status quo. I think a better pair of terms to describe our political forces is “progressive” and “libertarian.” Either you want to organize government to actively improve the lives of people, or you think people are the best judges of their own good and government should stay the hell out of the way.
Naturally, my neat little scheme gets complicated when you try to account for the cultural and moral components to our political forces. I think you’d want a pair of terms such as postmodern and traditional for that element of our political conversation, a “two-component” alignment system to borrow a notion from D&D. A Blue Dog Democrat or so-called RINO is progressive with traditional values. A Tea Partier is a libertarian with traditional values. Academia is progressive with postmodern values. Libertarian-postmoderns, I guess those are the anarchists.   

As The Who put it so succinctly in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”…. The party on the left is now the party on the right. That doesn’t mean they’re the same. It means that when your revolution succeeds, your interests change from overthrowing the order to preserving what you’ve done. Liberalism achieved the vast majority of its objectives over the last hundred years, and these days it’s playing defense.

The Finer Things: The Moody Blues, the old stuff. My daughter was asking me about theme albums the other day, so I was telling her about Alan Parsons’ Tales of Mystery and Imagination and Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. That reminded me of the old Moody Blues concept albums, so I pulled out my CDs of Days of Future Passed, On the Threshold of a Dream, and In Search of the Lost Chord. I listened to ‘em a bunch in the last few days while working on my writing. Yeah, they’re OLD now, but I love a lot of different music, and I don’t listen to CDs much anymore. On due consideration, I think On the Threshold of a Dream is the best of ‘em. I especially love “Have You Heard,” the final track. There’s an epic fantasy quest trying to escape from the interlude in the middle of the song, I just know it.


  1. It would be great to have a player like Josh in any horror game. Horror like that is tuff to generate in a game. I try to create the atmosphere for it, but my players are jaded and the game mechanics tend to keep horror at bay better than any garlic, wolfsbane or green soapstone starfish.

  2. Alan Parsons Project, Tales of History and Imagination is one of my mostest favorite albums, EVAR!

    Gosh, who knew I could act like a star struck school girl?