I’m generally not inclined to post gaming war stories but I have been known to take requests. To gratify one such wish and to perhaps give you a clear idea of what I find frightful in a role-playing game, let me tell the tale of the first time that I can remember being unnerved by the events of a friendly game session.
Many years ago, I had a friend who lived in a house situated on a road that is about as close as one gets to rural in my neck of Long Island. That road is just over a quarter mile in length and is bordered by undeveloped woodlands to the east and has a total of five properties situated along its western side, most of which are set back some distance from the road. Those five homes are each separated by a distance of no less than a hundred feet and stands of thick woods are interspaced between each property. The first of the houses along that road had been abandoned for many years and the road, which resembles a tunnel overhung by tree limbs, has no street lights whatsoever. The road is also a single lane street; cars meeting abreast on the road must pull to the verge to allow each other passage.
One afternoon, I found my way over to the home of this friend, Steve, and there, accompanied by his older brother, Bill, and two other mutual acquaintances, ended the day with a session of free-form role-playing. It was a thrown together session, much of it improvised on the spot, and we were only vaguely using some D&D mechanics to run it. At the time, I had no exposure to Call of Cthulhu outside of seeing references to it and ads in Dragon magazine, but we were basically playing CoC in an unstructured form.
The setup for the game was very basic: Bill was running the game and the rest of use took the roles of four longtime friends who gathered weekly for a night of dinner and poker at each other’s homes. That evening, in the game, we’d gather at the home of Steve’s character, who lived in a house situated on a narrow, wood-lined road very similar to the one that ran just outside the window in real life. Steven’s character had a neighbor, an addled older gentleman, who lived in a home which exactly resembled the abandoned house that stood, in reality, some hundred yards away from where we were playing. That old man was considered mostly harmless by us four friends, although he did have the tendency of requesting our assistance in all manner of onerous chores (moving furniture, cleaning out his gutters, running his errands) from time to time.
As the game progressed, our dinner and poker night was interrupted by a phone call from this old gentleman. It seemed that he required our presence at his home to assist him in some unspecified matter. Since the call came in the middle of our poker game and we were certainly loathe to leave the poker table prematurely, Steve’s character assured him that’d we’d be down as soon as our evening’s entertainment was completed. A few hours past in game before we, grudgingly, decided to see what the old crackpot needed now.
A short walk down to the geezer’s home concluded with the four of us rapping upon his door several times without answer. Knowing that the old man was not inclined to lock his door, we ventured in to see if perhaps he had injured himself or otherwise was unable to answer our call. Our exploration of the home turned up nothing amiss. Even the old elephant gun the man kept on the mantelpiece of his hearth was untouched. The only oddity that we found was in the basement.
It seems that the old man had been doing some excavating in his cellar. A large section of the cement floor had been broken up and a dark pit, with a ladder thrust into its mouth, yawned before us. A camera, rigged with what appeared to be a homemade electric-eye shutter trigger, was aimed at the hole. A quick search of the house turned up a flashlight, which we shined down into the dark, thinking that perhaps the man had tumbled into his dig and injured himself at the bottom. The flashlight’s feeble beam revealed that the hole opened into what appeared to be a natural cave system, one that none of us had the slightest inkling of existing. We called to the old man, thinking that he had gone below for some bizarre purpose, but our cries remained unanswered.
After some deliberation, the four of us decided that since the hour was late, we had no reason to know for certain that the man had gone down into those caves (the man owned no car, travelling by taxi or offered rides, so we had no idea if he had gone out for the evening after he called us), and that none of us had any desire to become embroiled in yet another one of the old man’s troublesome “favors,” we’d depart the premises for the time being. We all agreed that we’d call upon the man in the morning to see if he was unharmed and to perform whatever task he needed. Thus, the four of our characters went our separate ways for the evening.
The next morning found us on the old man’s porch and, like the night previous, our knocking went unanswered. Venturing into the home again, we found a somewhat different scene before us. The elephant gun was no longer above the fireplace. Instead, it now lay on the carpet of the living room. The barrel of the gun had been twisted into almost a complete U-shape and an investigation of the weapon proved that it had been fired. There were no signs of this discharge in the walls and ceiling of the room, nor was there any blood to indicate the gun had found its target. In addition, a search of the home revealed that many items and pieces of furniture were askew, as if someone had made a mad dash through the home, knocking things aside in their flight.
Now very much concerned, we descended into the basement. There, we found a strange, viscous substance on the cement floor that seemed to originate from the mouth of the pit. Checking the camera and its automated shutter system, we found that several pictures has been taken sometime during the night. Again, our cursory examination of the pit and our cries of the old man’s name turned up nothing. It was obvious that something occurred in our absence and we promptly called the police.
Bill, the referee, invoked the classic horror movie cliché of the uncooperative authorities (there was no body and no blood at the scene, so the police ruled it a missing persons case and would take no action until the obligatory 48 hours had elapsed), leaving the four of us to solve the mystery on our own. Our first action was to get the film developed to see what clues the pictures might contain. Thanks to the one-hour Photo Hut, we soon had our answers. The pictures revealed the terrified old man emerging from the pit and running towards the stairs. The next image showed something rising from the hole. The picture was strange as the image of whatever it was that followed the old man was blurred, although the rest of the basement visible in the picture was crystal clear. We could only get the impression of huge, distorted, bulky form. The last picture showed the thing again, this time descending back into the hole with the old man’s inert body being dragged in its wake.
Since this was a horror game, we four of course decided to go in search of the old man, who was hopefully still alive somewhere in the caves beneath the house. Equipping ourselves at the local camping & sporting goods store, we returned to the house and climbed down the ladder into the unknown cave system. Luckily, one of the characters had some experience spelunking and my own character was an army veteran who had seen combat duty, so we thought ourselves not completely unprepared for the challenges that might await us.
Our exploration of the cave system revealed that it was much larger than we had expected. As we sojourned down its tunnels, we unearthed several relics that proved we were not the first to pass this way. Some items dated to the current day. Others seemed to be relics from the colonial period. Lastly, we found items that could only have been dated to the years before the European arrival in the Americas. Then, we found the door.
Carved from solid rock, this Cyclopean portal opened into the tunnel in which we had been traveling. The door stood ajar, although we would have been hard pressed to open it ourselves even with all four of our efforts combined. On the floor next to the door, we discovered a soft stone disk that bore the carving of a five-pointed star with some obscure glyph in its center. As I said, at the time of this game I was unacquainted with Lovecraft or Call of Cthulhu so I didn’t identify the stone as an Elder Sign, but I knew enough about horror that a five-pointed star always meant bad mojo was afoot.
As the four of us examined the stone and the massive portal, we detected a sudden drop in temperature around us. We could see our breath begin to fog in the gleam of our lanterns and, quite soon thereafter, the air began to reek with some horrid stench. Desperately, we scanned the darkness around us with rifles in hand and our flashlights picking through the gloom.
And that’s where we stopped the game.
We all agreed that it had been a great gaming session and planned to return to game to see what horrors awaited our characters in the caves. Unfortunately, time and schedules never allowed us to pick up that game again and, for all I know, my character is still down there in the dark, waiting to meet his fate. I said my goodbyes and started home - down that dark, wood-shrouded road. The one whose doppleganger had featured prominently in the game we just finished. The one which had an abandoned house in the exact same location as the old man’s home in the game. The one where a quarter moon had looked down up it and the shadows stretched across the decaying asphalt, much like the one on which I currently made my journey.
I’m not saying that I ran past that abandoned house on my trip home but I will admit to a light jog, at least until I reached the main road with its streetlights and homes whose glowing windows hinted at signs of human occupation. Sleep was a little dicey that night too, once I got home.
That game night was twenty years ago and, as you can no doubt tell from the clarity of my recollections of it, it made quite a deep impact on me. There are games from a month ago I can’t remember that well. Over the space of two decades and with more experiences with horror in role-playing games from both sides of the screen, I’ve pinpointed the three reasons why that game night was so effective.
One was the immediacy of the setting. There’s a good reason why most campfire stories begin with “In these very woods, on a night much like tonight…” It immediately drops the audience into a place they can quickly identify with and picture in their minds. Bill’s use of the very same spooky road that ran just outside the door was a masterstroke. There was no need to waste time with trying to paint a vivid picture when we were all familiar with where we were in the game and could imagine it from our own knowledge.
The second reason is the direct opposite of the first. Although the location was familiar, the events of the game were not. By this I mean that since I had no previous experience with Lovecraft or Call of Cthulhu, I was unable to place the events and occupants of the game session in delineated categories. What’s more frightening: “a faceless, black monstrosity with wings like that of a great bat” or “a nightgaunt”? One is all imagination; the other a recognizable thing with stats and associated literary baggage. This game wouldn’t be quite as terrifying to me now, but innocence is something we all lose with time and it’s difficult to go home again.
The final piece of the terror puzzle is the factor that I spoke about in an earlier post. It can be argued that “nothing happened” in that gaming session and that is true on some level. But, in my mind, there were terrifying events. Bill just left the heavy lifting of picturing those events up to my own internal horror machine. I could envision the frenzied flight of the old man as a horrible thing lurched after him. I could see the shapeless bulk and the nauseating form of the creature, even though my character and the camera couldn’t. I knew what was lumbering through those dark caves towards us. I scared myself that night and did quite a good job of it. That’s my preferred way of doing so and, if I can scare myself, I know I can use what frightens me to get under my players’ skin.
So there you have it. The somewhat overlong tale of my first scare in a role-playing game. I’ve learned a few tricks about how to create such an experience from the other side of the screen and I’ll touch on those is a later, hopefully much briefer, post. Until then, don’t go into the basement…