Front-loading the horror


Another fruitful horror game last night and subsequent discussion with Dale had me lying awake until 2AM pondering some different options and ideas. I thought I’d share some jottings that are still forming into a cohesive picture:

Chekov said that if a gun appeared in Act I that it should be fired in Act III
Hitchcock said that the fear was in the anticipation not the bang

What this means is that there are no real surprises – but the lack of surprise is what’s driving the tension. You know that the worst is coming, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The Ring‘s basic message of “in 7 days, you die” pitches its horror concept right at the heart.

In RPGs I think there is a strong tendency for us to try and surprise people, and I think that while this can be done, it is very risky. A lot games do have some kind of a twist, but this is often more of a reveal than a game-shaper – it is often post-facto exposition. This can work well, but if the intent is for a twist to rehabilitate 3-odd hours of confusion and irritation, it’s usually too little, too late.

I think that one of the main reasons why Call of Cthulhu fails in the con environment is because the surprise that Lovecraft was able to spring on his protagonists is already old hat to the average gamer. This leads either to a group ignoring the elephant in the room to try and be surprised all over again, or “meta-gaming” their experience: almost goading the GM and scenario into lashing out early.

So the question is: how do you put the gun on the mantlepiece in an RPG?

Probably the best job I’ve ever seen of this was Grant Robinson’s second Fright Night outing: Judgement Night. A game that fairly up-front showed us in-game that in order to make it through the scenario, we would have to be prepared to make some sacrifices. And I’m not talking about giving up chocolate for lent.

His specific gimmick for achieving that front-loaded sense of impending doom can’t work everywhere, but it is a great pointer to the right direction. Which means addressing head-on the #1 complaint about CoC:

It’s a race to see whether your character goes insane first or dies, featurning mostly incompetent characters, and nothing the character does actually makes a bit of difference.

This is what CoC is about, undoubtedly. What the GM needs to do is ensure that going down this route makes sense to the players and to their characters.

This concept helps us re-cast some staple Horror-GM advice:
1. Establish Normalcy
Not because this gives you a screen to hide your surprise, but because it sets the stakes up-front for success or failure. The world is a beautiful and lovely place because the alternative is what is happening in your adventure.

2. Get player buy-in
Not because you want them to try and keep their character alive, but so that they will care when they “inevitably” fail.

3. Tell, don’t show
Because the fear is in the anticipation, not the bang!

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