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Incentivizing Hope

(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.”[1]

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.

– Ryan

[1] Not that I have anything against tentacles. I’m not racist or anything.

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3 Responses to Incentivizing Hope

  1. You’d hate the traditional action-horror game I’m running on Thursday, methinks. I simplified a lot of elements into more traditional horror-fantasy for the sake of saving other elements for something that I might offer later down the line.

    Just to be a pedant, I’d point out that you could also say, “Your stepmother walks into the room and your blood chills. Why?” The trick, right, is that you’ve got to give your player opportunities to take hold of the situation and make a choice. To do something active and important in the narrative, not only colorful or reactive. (Though that’s one thing I am exploring in this year’s Halloween game—helplessness. In a little dose.)

    I’m digging this week’s posts, by the way.

  2. Wes Otis says:

    I run a lot of horror and action horror. I enjoy it.

  3. Doug says:

    It makes me happy to read these posts. I’ve been working on a horror game design that is rooted in the characters’ hopes (among other things) but I’ve been doing it mostly in a vacuum so I’m glad that to see thinking along the same lines. We have a playtest tonight in honor of Halloween, and the GM is going for a mindfuck kind of horror story, and I’m excited to hear how it turns out.