Horror, Die Mechanics & Risk Management
Yesterday, I started off Horror Week with a discussion about dice mechanics in horror games. There were some comments about how to do a variant on Fate that would work, which got a “it won’t work” reply from me. Today, I’ll talk about why it doesn’t work for horror, because on the surface it seems like a good idea.
Alan said (among other things):
For Fate you could front-load the expenditure of fate points and only allow for the +1/+2 bonus, never the reroll. But I suspect this will lead to further, hard to predict ramifications.
This is a “how badly do you want it” mechanic, much like Gumshoe‘s General Abilities mechanic. And for horror, these are toxic.
Imagine if you will the following hypothetical slice of a game session:
GM: Okay, so you turn into the alley, with the horror behind you. Shit! The alley is a dead end. There’s a fire escape along one of the buildings that’s secured, and a large & rather full garbage bin nearby. What do you do?
Player: Could I reach the fire escape from the garbage bin?
GM: You could try.
Player: I totally do!
GM: Roll Athletics.
Player: Okay, so I have four points in Athletics. How many should I spend…
And now all the tension in that moment is deflated, thanks to shifting from tense narration to an abstract economic game. It’s a decision point that moves from the lizard brain into the rational brain, due to the fact that it gets into intangible numbers rather than natural language and requires something we humans are good at doing: wishing to keep what we have and worrying about loss & risk. In that regard, the mini-economic game is interesting, but it’s a very different game from “dear god I feel dread” that a horror game need to survive.
Player: I’ll spend two points. [Rolls] Barely succeeded!
GM: Sweet! You leap to the fire escape in time!
That’s the good outcome.
Player: I’ll spend two points. [Rolls] Missed by two! Crap! I should have spend them all.
And there’s the outcome where the dread of the poor reaction is mixed with the anger of miscalculating a bet. Two different emotions from two different places that conflict rather than support each other.
Player: I’ll spend two points. [Rolls] Made by two! (Wish I hadn’t spent those points.)
And there’s the outcome where the elation of a good outcome is mixed, again, with the anger of miscalculating a bet. Two different emotions from two different places that conflict even worse.
If you’re not trying for tension in a game, this mechanic is fine. It’s an interesting drama management system, where you ask the question of “how much do you want this?” But in a horror game, abstract economics breaks tension at its most crucial moment: the point right before mechanical revelation. You have to rebuild quickly coming out of that moment of gambling and the emotional hook related to that outcome. And that’s not fine, which is why the “maybe you could spend Fate points before the roll” doesn’t solve the problem.
(Which is why I have this odd desire to run a Chinatown (the film) game with Gumshoe, rather than one of its horror variants or and of the games where you need to know a lot of unique IP in order to know why the clues in the game matter.)
Such mechanics also prompt thought & consideration before the roll, to weigh spending more or fewer abstract resources. What if they weren’t abstract? What if we could use natural language rather than numbers to introduce the “how bad do you want this” element? What if that wasn’t a resource, but a form of consequence generation? What if whatever currency you used had a linked meaning in the fiction rather than purely dramatic management?
A lot of questions to ask about what feeds into a horror mechanic, which is why I love looking at horror systems.
Audience participation: What systems work for you for keeping tension? What don’t? Why? It doesn’t have to be specifically horror, as long as it keeps strong tension and could probably be used for horror.