Emulating Genre

Er… having just told that I was planning to use my thinking time for Phaistos I find myself needing to calm down and recentre after an aggravated game of frisbee. Amazing, it does happen. Most of this is off-the-cuff, and I haven’t thought about it, and honestly, it may not make sense anyway…

The two genres with which I have the most experience for the least success are some variation on WOD supernatural horror and Westerns. Those are joined at some close plinth by fantasy as a general topic, and science fiction in the speculative and thought intensive mode. For the purposes of this post though, what I want to focus on is something that strongly distinguishes horror as we vicariously experience it, from say, fantastic explorations. That something is madness, which is pervasive in the Western genre too.

Madness, I hear you say, in horror? No, surely not! But it’s true: the madness in horror imbues both the situation, the environment if you like, and the characters. In fact, I think that it’s driven by studied contradictions between rationality and the things that provoke fear. Just like Westerns, only in Westerns we’re not invoking fear, but a Homeric quest for Kleos. Honour, fame, glory and prowess in one heady bundle. The way I’ve started to structure my thinking about this is to coin the term “regimented irrationality.” It’s a particular kind of madness, with rules just as strict and consistent as any within the rubric of literary studies can be.

In Horror, the genre is marked and defined by the ability of something to hurt the things you love. Characters in horror are usually unable to practically apply a rational and cogent approach to tackling the scenario, it approaches them through a blindspot. This is why Call of Cthulhu is dead: even your man on the street has a better-than-even chance of having heard the name and by the time you’ve rolled a couple of insanity checks, you know where it’s all coming from.

In Westerns, the story is governed by the need for escalation. The characters necessarily spend most of whichever work they’re in performing far below their nominal capabilities. I think the clearest example is probably For a Few Dollars More, where Mortimer begins the movie capable of simply gunning down Indio, but prevaricates and schemes for two hours before actually finishing him.

Of course, real people are not entirely rational, but really broadly, Horror movies and Westerns require their characters to act in ways well off the beaten track. Though less so than Super Hero comics… the number of villain monologues you’ve heard is probably only exceeded by the number of times you’ve heard a parody. I think that recognition of the specific irrationality of that genre is one reason why it has proved so popular, and has successfully spawned so many movies of late. I think the decline of the 80s-style action movie is due to the tropes becoming too apparent to the punters.

I mentioned Horror and Westerns though, rather than any number of other genres, because I think their particular foibles are largely uncharted in the same mechanistic sense as most other genres; by which you may interpret my focus as having narrowed to the field of roleplaying games.

People who play in a horror game understand the externals of the situation, viz-a-viz: their inevitable horrible death. As Hitchcock famously said, the fear lies in the anticipation, not the bang. Naturally then, people have focused on building a sense of anticipation and inevitability. The crudest example of this is Call of Cthulhu’s Insanity system, whereby the rise and fall of your insanity statistic relieves and builds tension respectively. The reason this doesn’t work is due to the focus on externals: things imposed on the character. The focus should be on the modes of character behaviour, and the underlying structures of it. I think something like Unknown Armies moves a very long way towards successfully encapsulating an appropriate psychology: a sufficiently comprehensive regimentation of irrationality.

In general, I think that Horror is more successfully done than Westerns. I think this because we are all accustomed to various levels of fear: glory is something we don’t get to experience outside of an occasional sporting victory, or having our name read in rolls of honour. Death is much more certain than the immortalization of our deeds in song.

My experience in running Westerns can be clearly divided into two camps:
1. Players will engage in a to-the-death fight with the main villain early in the game, or
2. Players will never quite get round to duking it out.

That is because the reason for delaying the fight is not rational. If you’re good enough to take him at the end of the adventure, it seems plausible that you should take him at the start too. There are usually some logistical concerns, such as minions, supplies and tactics, but these pale next to the irrational reason: you must be sufficiently imbued with kleos to be worthy of the conflict. This is essentially the reason that the slasher murderer in horror doesn’t kill you in the opening act: you’re not afraid enough yet.

What I’m getting at is this: there is something going on in the meta-game which demands resolution before the game itself can be resolved. This is the genius of Dread, the roleplaying game of slasher horror: it understands that fear must be accrued like compound interest, it can’t simply be deposited. Moreover, the fear must come from the player, not the character alone. Other systems try to build an affinity between the player and character, indirectly pressuring the player, Dread cuts right to the heart.

This, as I implied in my post on how to be a player, cuts against every nerve and instinct that we carefully hone in order to differentiate us from Wargamers: that in order to play the game, you have to play the system, you must buy in to the mechanics. This was my great frustration in running D&D 3: players always had their eye on the next feat, the next special ability, the next magic item, never on the character as a person. I see now how the meta-game construct inculcated that psychology of play.

In my quest to run a decent Western, I turned in various different ways to the game. How to balance skills, stats, probabilities of victory, drama points, villain points, and the like. I realise now how futile it all was, because I was trying to deal with the character, where it was the player who was the problem. Dread has solved the player problem for horror, or at least made that first huge start; and in my next post I shall explain how I have taken the first steps to solving it for the Western.

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1 Response to Emulating Genre

  1. I’ve ordered the Man with No Name trilogy and plan to re-watch them all over the next few weeks.

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