Archive for October, 2010
Last night, I ran an action horror game. It’s a thing I do: if I talk about how I hate something, I start wondering why, and try to come into contact with it. I proposed running a game for some friends, and giving the timing, it was just billed as a “spooky” game.
I decided on action horror because I forgot what action horror does well: it’s good for a lighthearted game. And it turns out that I actually like running those. It’s more than I’m desiring psychological thrillers in my gaming these days, because I don’t get that enough, and so I don’t really want to play action horror.
Once everyone was there, I pitched the following (edited, of course):
There are three lines of defense the United States has against paranormal threats. You’re who they send in when the first line fails. Welcome to the secret paramilitary wing of the Centers for Disease Control — the Emerging Threats Unit.
This will be a standard ETU-CDC operation. The Secret Service has failed to contain the problem. You’ll be going in under the guise of quarantining an outbreak, of course. If you do not report back within 48 hours, we will have no choice but to consider you as sacrificed. FEMA is waiting with a Ripley team to neutralize the local population, and I for one don’t want to see them cause another Katrina because we failed.
With that, I explained how this Fate game different from the Diaspora game they had played. In addition to playing this as a one-shot with abbreviated character setup, I tried some new tricks.
First of all, I only used eight skills:
Chase is used for most physical activity. It’s a measure of your athletic ability and twitch nervous responses. Use it for athletics, chasing to/from monsters that want to eat you, initiative, etc.
Drive is used for doing anything high-stress in a moving vehicle. Along with the obvious, driving in a stressful situation, it can also limit other activities in a vehicle (like, say, shooting at a monster that wants to eat you).
Subterfuge is used for dealing with people. Intimidation, charm, empathy, deceit, all that emotional and social manipulation jazz. It’s also useful for resisting such manipulation.
Special note: You can use this skill against another PC. In that case, if you succeed, they have a temporary aspect on them like “[Your name] is manipulating me” that’s being instantly compelled. If they go along with what you want, they get a Fate point. If not, they have to pay one. Thank you, Apocalypse World.
Survival is used for not fucking dying. In addition to being great for dealing with urban and wild environments for knowing what’s safe and what isn’t (which translates into scene aspect declaration), it’s what you use to notice things that are about to eat your face. Yes, it’s your Alertness skill.
The ETU has some advanced technology, but not much. They get by more with tech on the ground. When you’re up against a Class II Vvak Tunnel Vampire, being able to modify local firearms to fire plasmashot is handy as hell. It’s also needed for following the ETU mandate: utter signal discipline. No information about the supernatural is to leak out.
This skill is dangerous. People who have studied Unnatural Sciences (which is everyone in ETU, to some degree) are able to tell the difference between a quantum projection and an actual rift in spacetime. Importantly, that translates into knowing which isn’t a waste of ammunition (in 75% of cases, actual rifts). Unnatural Sciences is used mostly to declare either monster or research aspects. (Also, research aspects are AWESOME. That’s for next week, though.)
ETU does not fuck around. Your mission is the sterilize the local paranormal threat. Violence is how that’s achieved. Fists. Knives. Guns. Rocket-propelled grenades. That’s what Violence is about. It can also be used to defend against Violence (which Chase also covers, if physically dodging and the like).
This skill is a passive one. ETU agents must confront the horrors they face. The GM will call for Withstand Horror rolls in two cases: either when being assaulted by a sight or when an entity is actually using psychic violence against them. If the roll is made, nothing happens! (And if you get spin on the roll, instead of getting a +1 to the next roll, you get a free declaration or assessment based on what you’ve just learned dealing with this threat.)
If you fail, you have a temporary aspect of Fleeing, Frozen or Fighting, your choice. And the GM is going to compel that for bad fun times! If failed against a psychic attack, it may instead be stress against Sanity.
…And those are my eight skills. Anything not covered in them is rolled at +0 or can be added to an existing skill as a new trapping via a stunt.
There are no generic aspects in ETU. For character aspects, there are:
- Drive Aspects — these are what motivate your character on the mission
- Hope Aspects — these are something your character hopes for, above and beyond just surviving
- Personal Demon Aspects — these are the tragic flaw your character has
- Relationship Aspects — these are one-sided feelings or opinions you have about another character
Drive aspects are simple, similar to High Concept aspects in Dresden Files RPG.
Personal Demon aspects are likely similar to Trouble aspects in DFRPG, but typically focused on being an internal problem.
Hope aspects are fun. I gave people the option of not filling it in before play, and finding something they wanted to hope for by the first hour of play. And I told them their Hope aspects were free to invoke.
The first time someone did, I dropped a fate point into a bowl for me. And again, and again. The more they used their hope for free, the more points I had for the Threat later to invoke its own aspects. But it was sort of safe to use those aspects, because I might use that Fate point to hurt someone else.
Relationship Aspects were awesome. I asked everyone to come up with relationship aspects for different people, asking what they think of another character are writing them down as their aspect. “Butler is a danger to herself and others.” or “Forty-Five is my hero.” It’s important that it doesn’t have to be true. But if you’re helping or being helped by this aspect, either of your can invoke it — though if you’re invoking someone’s opinion about you, you have to show why that opinion might be true.
There’s a killer non-character aspect type called Research Aspects. Someone should remind me to blog about them next week. It’s the thing that made me suddenly be able to run an investigation game on the fly that didn’t suck.
The last thing I sketched up were the character skeletons, to be fleshed out at the table. I made six characters, which only consist of a Codename, team role, Drive aspect, High skill, Low skill.
Briefly, about skills: since I had eight, I decided the distribution would be: One at Great [+4], two at Good [+3], two at Fair [+2], two at Average [+2], and one at Poor [-1]. Anything not covered by one of those skills that is important enough to roll (and I haven’t encountered that yet) is rolled at Average [+0]. Thus, I prescribed the Great and Poor skill, and left the others for filling in either right away or in play.
“Butler” – the leader
Drive: No one on my team will be left behind.
Great [+4] Withstand Horror — been on a lot of missions
Poor [-1] Chase — lamed by an earlier mission
“Forty-Five” – the sterilizer
Drive: I am here to sterilize the environment.
Great [+4] Violence — people and things will die
Poor [-1] Tech — that’s for other people, I’m busy shooting things
“Mute” – the information disciplinarian (a.k.a. hacker)
Drive: Containing Information is more important than anything else.
Great [+4] Tech — with enough gear, I’ll own the environment
Poor [-1] Subterfuge — people are choatic and make no sense
“Tome” – the scientist
Drive: The unknown must be explored.
Great [+4] Unnatural Sciences — non-euclidian genius
Poor [-1] Drive — I’m more comfortable in my lab back home
“Network” – the face
Drive: People are my playthings.
Great [+4] Subterfuge — Like I said, people are my playthings
Poor [-1] Survival — I am most likely to be eaten by a grue
(Yes, I intentionally named the not-hacker “Network.”)
“Park” – the sixth character I realized I had to make and kinda phoned in
Drive: People need protecting, sometimes at their own expense.
Great [+4] Chase — I will catch anything, no matter the terrain
Poor [-1] Violence — But I’m shell-shocked, so violence doesn’t come easy.
I think that’s enough for now, since I’m at 1500 words. Probably enough for Fate-heads to play with, but I’ll follow up with more as I keep playing this out. The scenario is either called “Emerging Threats Unit” or “Paranormal Containment,” as the idea of the game is a bit Hellboy-ish: monsters are on the loose in a dense urban environment, the first line responders failed, and if you fail FEMA is going to call in a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or whatever to take out the city.
Because they don’t fuck around, neither can you, agents. Briefing dismissed.
 A bias that’s frankly shown in my post the other day
 Which they were in my game. And named that. That’s canonical now.
I may have been a little unfair to Action Horror in my last couple posts. “May.” To that end, I want to talk a bit about action horror.
Remember Doom? The original action horror video game. I remember the first time I saw a cyberdemon. I was a little cocky taking out whatever was before it, and then there was a short pause in the game, not quite long enough to make me on edge, and then I triggered the baron’s appearance.
“OH MY FUCKING FUCK FUCK WHAT’S THAT GOD LET IT DIE WHY IS IT GOT A ROCKET LAUNCHER IT WON’T GO DOWN WHERE’S MY AMMO MOMMY!!!!!!”
I was scared out of my gourd. And it was awesome. But a good part of that was the medium — both in the visual & audio elements, and the immediacy of real-time play. It hits my lizard brain with fear, makes my breathing tense, makes me twitch and jump. Before I played Doom, I was only mildly interested in horror as a genre. Doom blew me away and showed me how the art of suspense can be wielded.
Contrast that to a horror novel. It relies on creating an imagined space between the author’s words and the reader’s mind. That’s a different part of the brain that’s interpreting language. And it’s not immediate, it’s at the reader’s pace. A tabletop RPG is more akin to a novel than a video game, with the difference being that you have agency in a RPG or video game and don’t in a novel.
RPGs that try to emulate Doom are fun action games, and I like playing them, but they don’t feel like the lizard-brain horror elements. When I’m this badass space marine walking around Hell with my shotgun, and suddenly I hear a cacodemon to my left, HOLY CRAP TURN LEFT FIRE FIRE FIRE. That feeling can’t really be captured in an RPG the same way.
First of all, there’s the Alertness roll to see if I notice the cacodemon — which gives away to me the player that I should be on edge about *something*. Doom didn’t do that. You either noticed or you didn’t. It also slows down the play to something far from immediacy. Then there’s the GM describing the situation — which is either quick and incomplete, allowing for something closer to immediacy but lacking in rich details, or is detailed but removes the suspense that’s built around immediacy. Then there’s the to-hit roll, all of that. The farther you go, the more you drift away from the immediacy of an action horror video game or movie.
So, there’s that factor. There’s another that feels true in a movie or video game but feels false to me in a novel or RPG about horror: hyper-competency. One of the themes of a horror story is hopelessness, and I find it hard to feel like that when The Gun is presented as being equivalent to The Threat. That turns the protagonists away from fighting for survival — fighting for their own hopes — and into people who can fight for others. As a character motivation, that’s great, but I want a horror game to constantly feel like one’s own hopes are at Threat, that they can be chewed up and spit out for entering the arena of a Threat.
Hyper-competency shoots that story element to hell. The macho “they have tentacles, we have shotguns. Bring it on!” sense of action turns the characters from Victims into Heroes. For something paced like a video game, taking the role of a Hero is great. You still have a lot of lizard brain-generated tension to play with. But for something paced like an RPG or novel, I am more interested in the Victims.
(Hypoer-competency also tends to destroy the mystery element of a game, when all you need to know is where to shoot it. The mystery still exists, but the drive to it is lessened dramatically.)
That isn’t to say you can’t run a fun action horror game. Who doesn’t want to shoot up some vampires? But that’s not engaging in the themes I look for when I think “horror” because of the limitations of the medium.
 At least, to me. If there’s one earlier, I’m all ears. It certainly is one of the iconic ones.
 Back then, I had a SoundSource, so I was all about plugging my headphones in to hear in stereo. Man alive that was awesome. Not the SoundSource, but needing to wear headphones turned into loving wearing headphones in horror video games.
 I like what Left 4 Dead does, where you get audio cues that something is about to happen. That’s anticipation-driving insanity. I only wish I liked playing console FPS games, but I haven’t gotten used to the controllers yet.
(This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post. If you haven’t read that, you might want to before reading this.)
I’m going to start by saying that action-horror is weak sauce. It’s cheap. It’s easy. All you need to do to make action horror work is play a combat game where the deck is stacked against the players, making combat scary and lethal. Oh, and fight “monsters” that are either traditional horror creatures (vampires, werewolves, etc.) or fight “indescribable things with lots of tentacles.”
So, when someone tells me “let’s do a horror game,” that weak crap is the farthest from my mind. Granted, there are similarities. Combat in horror is fucking deadly. Some stuff is indescribable. But I look deeper, into character motivations, and find the true gem of horror there.
The trick is creating a situation where the players feel similar hopes, hopes beyond “I want my character to keep living so I can keep playing” — which is the only thing action horror really threatens. How do we do that? We make it so that the game emotionally manipulates the hell out of the player, that’s how. Which means looking at carrots and sticks.
(“Carrots” are ways in which the game rewards certain behavior. “Sticks” are ways in which the game punishes certain behavior. Google for more game design theory. Or just, you know, design games for more design theory.)
I like using carrots to facilitate building of hope. Let’s say we have a character with the hope “I want to keep my daughter safe.” That’s an easy hope, one of survival but not focused on self-survival. What we want to do it create a carrot around that hope. A carrot that encourages repeated use, in order to create an environment where that hope is continually desired or sought out.
That is to say, we’re engineering gaming Stockholm Syndrome. I have no shame in saying that. Gaming is like most of creative communal activities, in that they’re about positive emotional manipulation.
To explain how I’d do it, let’s use Fate as a baseline. (It’s almost like I’m preparing notes for a game I’ll release Friday…) I would treat that hope as an aspect. But here’s the kicker: I need you to want to engage in that aspect easily, more easily than any other one on your sheet. So I don’t just want to ask you for a Fate point for said aspect. If I do, it’s the same as your High Concept aspect or Inner Demon aspect or your Relationships to the other PCs aspects.
No, this Hope Aspect can be invoked for free. If you can justify it, you can invoke it. And I’ll be kind on the justification. That will cause people to want to engage that part of their character in the fiction. You, as the player, will be constantly telling me why your daughter’s safety makes its way into the game. You’ll be tricking your own brain into caring about that. I, as the GM, will only have to push buttons to make you describe how you care.
This gets into horror gaming theory I call “stimuli vs response.” As a GM, I have providence over one of two things: what situation provokes a response, or what response you give. I cannot give you both without risking you checking out of the game entirely. I can say “A monster comes in the room!” but leave how you response up to you (and potentially the dice, with “A monster comes in the room! Roll your Withstand Horror skill.”)
Or I can say “Something comes in the room and your blood chills.” — but I can’t tell you what that thing is. I have to ask you what would cause your character’s blood to chill at that moment. That’s because if I tell you something that you can’t buy, then I’ve told you something that takes you out of your character’s mindset.
(I have a lot more tricks for that, but this post isn’t on that subject.)
With a Hope aspect, I have the tools to provide stimuli, in the form of threatening something you as a player have defined as caring about. And you can respond to situations presented by invoking that Hope to get out of a jam. So far, a win win. You’ve defined something you care about in your character and continue bringing it up.
Here’s where I’ll stop for today. I have the player side of this, a carrot they can use that causes them to continue re-engaging with their character’s hope, and in a way that causes the player to potentially survive the game longer. (And I mean player: with the character out of commission, the player is done playing.) Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the other side of this, and how to turn this carrot into a force of torment and hell.
 Not that I have anything against tentacles. I’m not racist or anything.
I wrote this article on my old LiveJournal a couple years back. I want to talk about it some more this week, so this Monday post will be reposting & editing that old article.
We’re awash in a sea of horror media in month. In an age of slasher flicks and tributes to the triplet gods of Gratuity, Shock Value & Special Effects, I feel that some people have lost sight of what something means to be “horror.”
I’m not particularly interested in the tropes & trappings of horror these days. Things like werewolves, gushing blood, creepy houses, etc., bore the hell out of me. It’s the themes of horror that turn my crank. Naked of the genre trappings, you could say it’s about fear. After all, characters in horror media are often afraid, and we as media consumers are often afraid for them.
But fear alone lacks meaning. I’m afraid of spiders–but my life, even a YouTube moment where I’m locked in a room with a tarantula (and if you try that, I will cane you), isn’t horror. In fact, it’s closer to dark comedy than anything else, very much schadenfreude.
So how does fear become something with meaning? When you couple it with hope. The core of a horror story is the turbulence of hope. And it’s not just character hope, but hope being built up in the media consumer.
The reason that my being scared of spiders isn’t horror (for anyone other than me, jesus man) is because there’s no hope displayed or at risk for the consumer of that that media. The reason that zombies trying to get to the characters in Night of the Living Dead is horror is because hope has built up and is being threatened.
Hope is not an instantaneous thing to ask of a media consumer. To build up a reader/viewer’s sense of hope, we have to see the character express two things:
(1) a sense of the character’s relationship to the world outside of an immediate crisis situation;
and (2) a sense that investing hope in a character would pay off if they survive.
Furthermore, you need two more elements to make it horror:
(3) a sense that the risk to the characters, and thus to your hope for them, is real and in a manner that is irrevocable;
and (4) for that risk to be somehow alien or mysterious, and thus be unpredictable
Let’s look at #1. Now, if you just start off a movie with a gruesome murder of a teenage couple necking on Secluded Murder Point, that isn’t something we’ve invested hope in. Hell, we’re probably expecting them to die. In a vacuum, that’s not horror, it’s just a snuff film. But, as an opener to a film, it establishes the sense of risk, the threat to our hope for these characters,especially if the early victims resemble our main characters. (And if they don’t, the filmmaker is fucking it up.)
To really get a sense of hope, we need to see the main characters interact outside of the crisis. In some films, you see that interaction in the first act, before the Threat has been presented as targeting the main characters. Other files, like The Cube, the threat is immediately dangled in front of us. Still, even though the characters start off in the crisis, there’s time for interactions with one another that we learn about them and are able to hook into hoping for them.
Which is to say: downbeats are way crucial for a horror story. (Of course, you could just read Hamlet’s Hit Points for a fantastic education on the subject.)
With #2, we need a sense that hoping for these people will pay off if they survive. This is where I see the biggest problem with some people who build games that focus on party death as the absolute end-state. If, going in, you know that all the characters are going to die, then you’ve completely cut the balls out from the sense that hope will pay off. If the characters are destined to die, it’s more akin to tragedy than horror.
That is, you have if the most important thing from a hope perspective is survival. On the other hand, if you know that a character going to die, you can re-shift back to horror by investing hope in them achieving something important before they do. (Or, to give some Lovecraft love out, hope they can achieve this before they go mad–the mental equivalent of death.)
(Aside: once you’ve seen a story, you know which characters are destined to die. Why then can you re-watch/re-read a horror story? Because of emotional memories attached to horror beats in it — because you know what’s coming, you can slightly re-experience it. But, it isn’t the same. However, that doesn’t turn it into a tragedy, because no one is building into the framework upfront that specific or all characters are fated to die.)
Now, the modern American horror movie makes the hope focused on survival, and my language shows that, but that needs not be the case. Indeed, hoping that you can do some good before you go insane or turn into a monster hope enough for horror. (My language also shows a bias towards film.)
That said, the most important part of #2 is that you have to want the hope to be justified. Some characters are set up as clear victims early on, that aren’t worth investing hope. When they die early, they tend to do so in order to serve point #3. (Though, when they don’t, that downbeat gives them a chance to redeem themselves in the eyes of the audience, potentially creating a powerful sense of hope as guilt for wanting them to die or at least not caring is mixed in.)
I should make it clear that we don’t have to hope for what the character is hoping for. The classic B-movie T&A horror flick actually works on this–what the viewer is hoping for is to see topless the hot girl who is shy about taking her clothes off, and, well, to see it again. When they’re Threatened, our hopes for that (or for that again) is risked. Granted, this is actually a very low hope because the characters are being objectified rather than sympathized, but I think it’s important to note the distinction between character hope & consumer hope, and that it’s consumer hope that matters.
Of course, we can also hope *for* the demise of a character, and this sometimes works as well, especially when that hope isn’t fulfilled immediately because the character survives — but in this case, the hope continues to exist…until we’re made to feel guilty for it as I mention above.
Anyway…so we have downtime to invest hope in characters and justification that the hope will be worthwhile when paid off. And #3 has been mentioned–a need to see that the risk to the characters is real. Otherwise, we actually don’t need to hope very much, as instead we assume.
(#4 is something worth talking about in another post, because it’s the thing that separates horror from romance.)
In a sense, that’s another reason why the YouTube video with me threatened by a spider is not horror — we don’t know what’ll happen if I’m bit. But in Arachnaphobia (man the fuck alive I hate that film), we see what the spiders do to people. The sense of Threat is very real, which is the bit of magic required to make hope matter.
So, here’s the interesting part: by hoping, we’re actually doing something engaging with the work even though it can’t respond to us. Our hope for a broader thing, like “I hope the brother and sister survive” turns laser-focused with each scene and its immediate Threat, like “I hope that the sister doesn’t stop to investigate the noise she just heard!” Or, to call upon that classic stereotype, “Girl, get out of the house!” Yes, that classic stereotype of that dude yelling at the movie screen is a very clear example of this engagement at work.
Consider: even if you’re not yelling it, you’re at least definitely thinking it.
And that’s important, because it’s those little hopes being rewarded or crushed that make horror a roller-coaster ride. When it’s crushed, that’s both a disappointment and a relief, because you no longer have to continue putting your emotional energy into that hope. On the other hand, hope can string you along for scene after scene, and trick you right at the end. (Remember the part in Deep Blue Sea when Samuel L. Jackson’s character started to get his dramatic, inspiring speech on, only to be very quickly and unceremoniously killed by the shark from out of nowhere? That’s a dramatic example of this happening–admittedly not from a great movie, but that’s my go-to example. Deal.)
Spurned hope can turn into a lot of other things, like anger (“Motherfucking shark!”) or bargaining (“Okay, well, they can’t really kill any more characters, can they?”). But the problem is that, if the writer isn’t careful, they’ll spurn hope too often, which leaves us with the double-edged sword of the horror genre: it requires the threat of hope to work, but if that hope is threatened too often or taken too much, then the consumer stops putting energy into hoping and the emotional payoff of the story is lost.
That’s all for now. My plan for the rest of this week, should I choose to accept it, is to write about how hope in horror is injected in our games. (I may also talk about how cheap and weaksauce action horror is in gaming, because, hey, soap box.)