For the past few years the Wellington Gaming Calendar has been reasonably stable. The year starts off with KapCon, which started some 17 years ago up in the Kapiti Coast, before moving to Wellington in about 1994 or 1995. In May there’s been a moderate-sized LARP (40 odd people) and in August Nasia organizes CONfusion. This year the May LARP didn’t happen for various reasons of little interest to us.
Well, for the past few years there has been some half-hearted debate about having a CON in between CONfusion and KapCon, but nobody’s really been committed to the idea or had any really specific ideas. Until this year, when one of the longest-standing members of the Wellington community decided that we should have a Horror CON as close to Halloween as possible.
One notable feature about Wellington CONs which may be either a plus or a minus, is that we generally expect a good standard of game when we turn up. And Fright Night is no exception. Dale made it dead clear to all of us GMs that our games had better be pretty good. And so naturally, I sat down to try and make sure that mine would be, which leads me into today’s topic:
Horror Games At Conventions
By all rights, a horror game ought to be the easiest game in the spectrum to run. The basic process is very simple: take a familiar and safe environment and arbirtarily mess with it until everyone’s dead, or has fled in terror. I’ve played in some excellent scenarios that did just that.
And yet, a large number of Horror scenarios go badly off the rails, despite my glib assurance of how easy they should be. Let’s turn to some of the things that go wrong.
In general, people need to buy into the game very strongly in order to be scared. Since the basic action of a horror GM is to then break familiarity by changing the world in some unpleasant way, the easy reaction for a player is to disassociate themselves rapidly. I don’t have an easy fix for this.
Coupled with this is can be a strong sense of deprotagonization, where the player will feel like nothing they do really matters. Some players will ride that train into hell, but many will phase out. For this reason, it is vital to keep up some appearance of hope.
Another common problem is that if you think back to my discussion of humour, I said that humour was founded on incongruities. And here I am suggesting that fear is founded in incongruities. The overlap is obvious: instead of feeling fear, you laugh at the bizarre events. A very common rationalization I’ve had from players about laughing at horror is that it’s either laugh or cry… to which I usually silently respond: yes, but you were supposed to cry.
Of course, if you decide to set your game outside the realms of the familiar and safe, you are removing a principal tool at your disposal. Especially when setting your game in somewhere that is expected to be dangerous anyway, the supernatural terror can start to seem just like any other challenge. What’s the real difference between a soul-sucking demon and a robotic killing machine to the player? It can be very slight, as both monsters simply remove the PC from the game. The player doesn’t need to worry about the distinction between having their soul and their mortal body destroyed.
While losing the aid of familiarity, you can use the alternate-world elements to make the initial setup seem more safe. You might find the same monster more frightening if used in Star Trek than in WWII, because you expect to die in a WWII scenario irrespective of the supernatural, but Star Trek is safe. But this can, conversely, lead further into a sense of deprotagonization.
But I think even more dangerous than all of these things combined is the risk of the unfamiliar becoming familiar. It has been years and years since I played in a Call of Cthulhu scenario that was really creepy or unnerving, because I have become generally familiar with the shape of both the monsters and the story. At times you can simply pretend to be frightenned or creeped out, and the effect is good… but I have had many scenarios ruined by someone who let themselves wear a blaise facade in the game because they were not frightenned in real life.
Clearly the more jaded your players, the more difficult it is to overcome the familiarity of past frights, and only by an arms race of ingenious violence can you keep them engaged. I have no easy fix for that either.
So, bearing all this in mind, I have produced Horror Victorianorum. I’ll let you all know how it went.