Who Are We Scaring?

October is Horror Month here at the Ontological Geek!  All of our pieces this month relate to horror in games, and we’ve got a bunch of great guest articles lined up for your enjoyment. We’re still accepting pitches for about a week or so, so e‑mail us at editor@ontologicalgeek.com if you have an idea!

Fear and dis­gust are at the core of hor­ror. That those two emo­tion­al respons­es should in some com­bi­na­tion accom­pa­ny a good hor­ror story seems, if not incon­testable, then at least uncon­tro­ver­sial, but where those respons­es should be embod­ied is not quite as clear. If you tell spooky sto­ries late at night then it’s pret­ty clear you are try­ing to scare your friends (in fact, creep­y­pas­ta, a form of Internet ghost story which has its roots in this oral tra­di­tion, are often told in sec­ond per­son). But the sto­ries them­selves have pro­tag­o­nists, how­ev­er sketchy, and those pro­tag­o­nists are as impor­tant for instill­ing fear in the audi­ence as the hor­ri­fy­ing events that beset them.

The default posi­tion for a hor­ror story is that both the pro­tag­o­nists and the audi­ence should be affect­ed in the same way, but that clear­ly isn’t the case all the time. Protagonists may be unaware of how hor­rif­ic their sit­u­a­tion is, or is about to become, adding dra­mat­ic ten­sion; they may be so jaded or coura­geous or just so pow­er­ful that they do not reg­is­ter the hor­ror; or they may be the source of the hor­ror them­selves. On the other side of this, a genre-savvy audi­ence may not be moved by hor­ror tropes they’ve seen before, or may expect the jump-scares and so be pre­pared for them, or a hor­ror story itself may be played more for the sadis­tic or erot­ic plea­sure of its audi­ence, or with bleak humour to leav­en the atroc­i­ties. In addi­tion, there are a clear set of tropes and sig­ni­fiers of hor­ror that might be used in the ser­vice of a hor­ror aes­thet­ic with­out being used to active­ly hor­ri­fy; as exem­pli­fied by the (bril­liant) video for Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) by Backstreet Boys .

There are clear­ly a range of approach­es to hor­ror which involve scar­ing dif­fer­ent peo­ple at dif­fer­ent times and to dif­fer­ent degrees. In the major­i­ty of media forms those peo­ple (audi­ence and  pro­tag­o­nists) are sep­a­rate enti­ties, hier­ar­chi­cal­ly arrayed under the guid­ance of a sin­gle autho­r­i­al node. I want to look a bit more close­ly at table­top role­play­ing games, how­ev­er, because in these games the dis­tinc­tion between audi­ence and pro­tag­o­nist is sig­nif­i­cant­ly blurred, the hier­ar­chy flat­tened and the action is medi­at­ed by sys­tems of rules and feed­backs. This rais­es the ques­tion: who, exact­ly, is the game try­ing to scare?

The struc­tured, rule-based role­play­ing games that we are famil­iar with today devel­oped out of wargam­ing, a form which, by its very nature is a depic­tion of hor­rif­ic events, although not nec­es­sar­i­ly hor­ror events. Wargames abstract away from per­son­al expe­ri­ence; the play­er is issu­ing com­mands and check­ing to see how well those com­mands are exe­cut­ed. This is where the idea of morale comes in as troops face up to the banal hor­rors of war, as well as the fear and ter­ror tests that many fantasy-based sys­tems such as Warhammer or Warmachine/Hordes will call for when mod­els encounter more recog­nis­able sig­ni­fiers of hor­ror. Individual sol­diers can be sub­ject­ed to fear and dis­gust, but it becomes a logis­ti­cal prob­lem for the play­er rather than a vis­cer­al or vic­ar­i­ous one.

The new role-playing games, led by Dungeons and Dragons, turned that rela­tion­ship between play­er and game on its head with the intro­duc­tion of the player-character (PC). This hyphen­at­ed con­struc­tion bridges the gap between audi­ence and pro­tag­o­nist, sub­ject and object, mak­ing them facets of a whole that exists only in the shared space of a game. Players no longer mere­ly issue orders, but are embod­ied in the game-world and act direct­ly on the nar­ra­tive.

Moreover, many role­play­ing games’ rules aim to be descrip­tive rather than pre­scrip­tive, as part of the gen­er­al sense in which they are non-competitive. Even in the most stat-grinding of games, the games­mas­ter is expect­ed to pro­vide a chal­lenge rather than work all-out against the play­ers, and as such there is no need for sys­tems to medi­ate between com­pet­ing play­ers or to define the lim­its of play. D&D makes both of these posi­tions explic­it when dis­cussing morale; this is from the Rulebook includ­ed in the 1991 boxed set Dungeons & Dragons Game:

In a bat­tle, the play­ers decide whether their char­ac­ters will fight, flee, or sur­ren­der. This is their deci­sion alone; no PC can be forced to sur­ren­der or to flee if the play­er does­n’t want him to. The play­ers’ char­ac­ters are as brave (or cow­ard­ly) as the play­ers want them to be.”

While the DM can check to see if mon­sters are scared of the PCs, the PCs can never be forced to be scared of any­thing, which in prac­tise often boils down to them being scared of noth­ing. This despite the core game­play of D&D being much clos­er to tra­di­tion­al hor­ror than it is to the fan­ta­sy lit­er­a­ture its con­tain­er set­tings emu­lates. A small, iso­lat­ed group trans­gress­es into an enclosed, badly lit, world with its own logic. They are sym­bol­i­cal­ly sep­a­rat­ed from the wider world, with lim­it­ed resources and unsure of what they will face. The dark­ness is preg­nant with unknown foes; as like­ly to be undead hor­rors, hideous beasts or unworld­ly mon­sters as the orcs and gob­lins of gener­ic fan­ta­sy. All this ought to lead to a game of ten­sion and panic, but it rarely does.

Most groups end up play­ing dungeon-crawling games as power fan­tasies strode through by bul­let­proof char­ac­ters. Yet the designs of the games, at least in their early iter­a­tions, are geared towards sud­den and vio­lent death for the unwary PC. D&D is a hor­ror game in all but name which has been soft­ened by pop­u­lar demand. This is unsur­pris­ing when con­sid­ered his­tor­i­cal­ly; a key inno­va­tion in role-playing games was char­ac­ter con­sis­ten­cy over many play ses­sions. This in turn engen­ders a sense of empa­thy for char­ac­ters beyond that usu­al­ly expe­ri­enced in a one-off board or wargame and which is at odds with a high mor­tal­i­ty rate.

You can’t blame the play­ers for this dis­con­nect, either, as they have no real cue telling them to be scared. This was addressed very quick­ly with the release of Call of Cthulhu, Roleplaying’s other grand inno­va­tor and pri­mo­gen­i­tor. Call of Cthulhu is explic­it­ly a hor­ror game, rather than just implic­it­ly one. It also intro­duced the san­i­ty point sys­tem as a par­al­lel of the stan­dard hit point mechan­ic as a way of quan­ti­fy­ing hor­ror. This mechan­ic goes com­plete­ly against the men­tal deter­min­ism of D&D.  In this case say­ing that actu­al­ly there are cir­cum­stances in which the char­ac­ter might act con­trary to the play­er’s wish­es, but for­mu­lat­ing it as a func­tion of the exter­nal world: just as being hit enough times takes away a person’s phys­i­cal agency, so being exposed to enough hor­ror will inhib­it their men­tal agency.

Here we are very clear­ly scar­ing char­ac­ters, and this works quite neat­ly with the inde­scrib­able nature of Lovecraftian hor­ror. We’re not scar­ing play­ers, because it is impos­si­ble to make the play­er as scared as the char­ac­ter, or even close to being so, because the char­ac­ter is expe­ri­enc­ing some­thing that can­not be trans­lat­ed out of the game world and into the play area. They can only be told that this thing is so scary that their char­ac­ter is brought this much clos­er to total insan­i­ty by expe­ri­enc­ing it. Used judi­cious­ly, the ten­sion of san­i­ty loss can itself pro­vide a dif­fer­ent kind of fear for the play­er, as the GM shows their power to uni­lat­er­al­ly make a char­ac­ter unplayable by mere­ly reveal­ing knowl­edge. Playing Call of Cthulhu can be an expe­ri­ence of hor­ror for both play­ers and char­ac­ters, but on dif­fer­ing lev­els.

Later hor­ror games have fol­lowed through on this idea of hor­ror through loss of con­trol, usu­al­ly via mechan­ics to sim­u­late panic or instinc­tu­al respons­es. Sometimes a bit of con­trol is left for the play­er; Unknown Armies allows a choice between panic, paral­y­sis and fren­zy, but makes the play­er stick to that deci­sion once it’s been made, adding an ele­ment of meta-gaming and dra­mat­ic ten­sion to the sce­nario as the play­er has to weigh up con­sid­er­a­tions, either nar­ra­tive or sta­tis­ti­cal that the char­ac­ter would not, a very dif­fer­ent kind of ten­sion to that of rolling a die.

More the­mat­i­cal­ly, D&D’s hor­ror line Ravenloft is a set­ting that is about the most fright­en­ing thing that can hap­pen to the aver­age pow­ergam­ing dun­geon loot­er. The set­ting is a roam­ing, self-contained ‘demi­plane’ that picks up char­ac­ters at whim and while it is filled with all man­ner of demons and vam­pires and other clas­sics of the hor­ror aes­thet­ic the real ter­ror for most play­ers comes when they realise that they can never leave. Ravenloft is a direct chal­lenge to the per­son­al free­dom so ven­er­at­ed in the rest of the game.

Then there are the games where the player-characters are the source of hor­ror. Even though the hor­ror of the World of Darkness is sup­posed to come through pre­dom­i­nant­ly in the sto­ry­telling, the sys­tems rein­force that the source of the power the char­ac­ters have is intrin­si­cal­ly dam­ag­ing to the world and to them­selves. The Humanity sys­tem in Vampire: The Masquerade, a sort of mark­er for how depraved a char­ac­ter is, can be an effec­tive way of forc­ing the play­er to con­front the hor­ror of their own char­ac­ters actions. As the char­ac­ter gets more pow­er­ful they have fewer com­punc­tions about com­mit­ting atro­cious acts, but as the sys­tem forces those act to occur ‘on-screen’ the play­er, if not the char­ac­ter, is forced to endure the hor­ror of the sit­u­a­tion.

And of course, even in a game like Call of Cthulhu, atmos­phere and descrip­tion can cre­ate an atmos­phere of hor­ror as well as they can in any other sto­ry­telling set­ting. Nevertheless, the ten­sion pro­vid­ed by die rolls should not be under­es­ti­mat­ed. Even in non-dramatic set­tings, dice add drama. Where you have very clear lim­its on what PCs are able to achieve phys­i­cal­ly, or if it is entire­ly up to the GM, then action sequences can stul­ti­fy. This is fine if action is not the main thrust of the game, but on the other hand prob­a­bilis­tic sys­tems gov­ern­ing con­tests and com­bats can gen­er­ate nat­u­ral­ly and pro­ce­du­ral­ly the kind of risks and rever­sals, the this-might-just-works and how-could-it-possibly-go-wrongs that are inte­gral to dra­mat­ic sto­ry­telling.

But hor­ror isn’t real­ly about com­bat, or at least if it is it shouldn’t be about the kind of com­bat you can walk away from unscathed. The real­ly good idea you sud­den­ly have should be the one that saves your life this time only and by the skin of your teeth. Cthulhu shouldn’t just die on the roll of a nat­ur­al 20. The sys­tem should be stacked against the play­er so that they have to fight to sur­vive, and so that they know that they are up against things that have more power than them. Done like this, the small illu­sion of con­trol being grad­u­al­ly erod­ed that the dice give the play­er can be a very effec­tive tool for scar­ing them when the mon­sters that the char­ac­ters face may not be able to do so.

Here the spec­tre of play­er knowl­edge vs. char­ac­ter knowl­edge becomes appar­ent. When play­ers are scared because they know how close to death they are then they are scared in a way that char­ac­ters can’t be. So we come full cir­cle, with sys­tems for show­ing char­ac­ters how scared they should be scar­ing play­ers, and sys­tems for rais­ing ten­sion in play­ers ide­al­ly feed­ing back into the game­world and mak­ing the char­ac­ters tense and wary.

For me this is the key to hor­ror in the table­top set­ting. A gam­ing table is an often rau­cous place, with peo­ple drift­ing in and out of con­cen­tra­tion; atmos­phere can be hard to main­tain. Meanwhile, a mon­strous reveal is a dif­fi­cult thing to pull off. Even if the char­ac­ters have never seen what­ev­er foul hor­ror you unveil, the play­ers prob­a­bly have, because there’s a pic­ture of it in the guide behind your screen. Coercive and unfair mechan­ics and the ten­sion of how that will affect their char­ac­ters can help trans­late that hor­ror out of the game world and into the play­ers, and more crude­ly, can force char­ac­ters to act appro­pri­ate­ly to their sit­u­a­tions.  Without this con­stant reminder, this nag­ging doubt, that every­thing might not be alright, the power to hor­ri­fy is lost. Even the most atmos­pher­ic set­ting can col­lapse into lit­tle more than a spooky aes­thet­ic, while the most hor­rif­ic of acts can con­tin­ue, nor­malised by sys­tem and expo­sure, with­out the power to shock.