Saturday, May 2, 2009

A Quiet Fear

I’ve been thinking about fear as of late and what role that most primal of emotions plays in this hobby of ours. Part of this rumination has to do with me trying to explore new ideas in role-playing outside of the standard sword & sorcery genre. Another reason is because I’m currently working through a crop of movies and reading material of the horrific nature in order to try and switch the gears in my head to another setting. Maybe James Raggi’s post on D&D as a Horror Game fed the fires a bit too.

Let me preface these mental meandering by providing full disclosure. Up until the age of fifteen, I was a big baby when it came to horror. I remember having a slew of bad dreams from just catching a glimpse of the coming attractions for Friday the 13th whenever channel 11 would air it (the scene of zombie, hydrocephalic Jason Voorhees jumping out of the lake was the apex of terror for me). I made the mistake of reading a collection of Lovecraft’s revisions (revisions, mind you. Not even pure H.P.) while spending a week at a lakeside cabin in the wilds of Maine and that pretty much ruined that vacation. Even such clichéd claptrap as a darkened room and a camera in “murderer P.O.V.” was enough to make me change the channel, simply because I knew bad things were about to occur. What can I say? I was a sensitive child gifted with an abundance of imagination. Does that description sound like anyone else out there in this hobby?

As I grew older, I lost much of that fear and began to enjoy the occasional spooky movie or scary novel. I’m not what some would call a horror aficionado or a “gore geek” but I do like the emotional response and release that a well-done piece of high spookatude can produce. But the problem is that it has to be well-done and what I consider “well-done,” like most views on art in various mediums, is subject to some highly personal criteria.

Gore and viscera doesn’t throw my switches. I have a few friends who are fans of the splatter on the screen and I’ve picked up a little knowledge about how those effects are produced. Now, like seeing a magician after you know the tricks, all I see is foam latex and corn syrup when the gore splashes across the celluloid. Psycho killers, who usually appear in such gore extravaganzas, also do nothing for me. I remember someone once pointing out that, according to the FBI, there are roughly fifty active serial killers in America at any given time. With odds like that, one is more likely to die in the shower by slipping on a bar of soap and breaking one’s neck than by Norman Bates giving you the old butcher knife handshake (and that blood by the way: chocolate syrup. The movie is black and white after all). I did go through a period where zombies gave me the heebie jeebies but I got over that and with good timing. Zombies are apparently the new vampires in horror literature and films.

If you want to scare me nowadays, what you need to do is give me just enough information for me to do the job for you. I know for certain that I have a special effects shop inside my head that can crank out much more frightening images than Stan Winston, KNB or ILM ever could. Case in point: My favorite horror film is The Haunting (not the remake, the 1963 original). It’s easily one of the most frightening movies to ever have been made and it has one special effect. Everything else is either done with sound or the intimation that something truly and utterly wrong is taking place. The Blair Witch Project, once you get past the marketing hype and the “is this real?” factor, is another truly frightening piece of film. Many people were disappointed because “nothing happens.” Yes, that’s the point. Nothing happens that we witness directly. It’s up to you to fill in the blanks.

This is the same reason why role-playing games can be an excellent medium for telling scary stories. Not an ideal one, but an excellent one. The role-playing game isn’t that far removed from the campfire stories we heard and told as kids. Those stories, like the movies I mentioned above, generate their emotional response by purposely giving us just enough information to scare the crap out of us. Think about the campfire classics for a moment. How many of them actually feature a dead body? The only ones that come to mind is the one with the scratching on the car roof and the dead roommate in the “dog licks the hand” tale. In the other stories, it’s what the characters (and therefore you) didn’t directly witness that strikes a nerve.

When I’m behind the screen and there’s a need to start making the players (and their characters) unsettled, this is the same path that I follow. When it comes to fear around the gaming table, a little is often more effective than a lot. Give the players enough of a tease, even if it’s a clichéd one such as a tap upon the window pane, and make them do your job for you. It’s not always successful, as many factors can derail a good scare before it gets a chance to build of steam, but when it works, scaring the hell out of your players is one of the most rewarding things a referee can do.

James points out in his post that the players don’t get scared but they start worrying about their characters in a game if the referee is doing his job right. I see what he’s saying but I’m of a different state of mind. I think players can and should get scared if that’s what the referee is going for. Hell, getting players to worry about their characters is easy. Any level draining undead is going to get them a little worried, especially if they’ve been playing that PC from 1st level. I believe that a referee isn’t doing his job right unless he can scare the players without even bringing their characters into the equation. Any referee who gets a phone call the morning after a gaming session and has a player admit that he was spooked on the drive home or as he lay in bed that night has most certainly done his job correctly and can take pride in his skills.

The problem with this skill set, like a lot of referee skills, is that it can’t be easily taught. It must be learned through trial and error and by knowing what can get your players worked up. That’s pure on the job training, although some role-playing games (the Ravenloft boxed set, the White Wolf titles) do present some basics from which to start your experiments in horror. It’s a talent worth cultivating if you’re serious about this whole game master thing, though.

15 comments:

Joseph said...

I've got to agree with you 100% on The Haunting. I first saw it in a film course in college. I think the power comes from its ambiguity; even at the end of the movie, you still don't know what the heck was causing it all.

JimLotFP said...

I saw Blair Witch Project two times. The first time was a matinee at tiny independent theater... I was the only person for that showing. Right up front. I didn't know anything about the movie, hadn't seen any of the hype, other than, "arthouse horror movie not getting squashed by critics."

It scared the hell out of me! I remember taking to the streets after it was over, stumbling around, the hot Atlanta sun seeming strangely dim as my mind tried snapping back to the real world.

I then saw it on opening night in general release. PACKED THEATER. When the movie ended, there was silence. Nobody got up. Nobody seemed to know what to make of it. Then someone said, "That's IT?" and everyone started talking and moving about, and from overhearing conversations, people really didn't like it.

I was in contact with one of the higher-ups at the film studio at the time (he's in a prog metal band) and he said that they knew the film wouldn't have any legs once it hit general release, and the "slow rollout in the smaller theaters hyping up a blowout general release opening weekend, and then quick decline" marketing plan was in place from the very start.

I haven't seen it since, but I think a good horror movie doesn't really stand up to repeated viewings... if the suspense is gone and you know how everything ends, it's a bit hard to be scared, isn't it?

Christopher B said...

"...players don’t get scared but they start worrying about their characters in a game...?"

I missed that post, but I think James is way off base. Having run and played in many more horror games than any other genre of RPG, I know from personal experience that it's possible for players to get spooked by a game.

I agree, however, that this is a difficult thing to achieve. Even with the proper GMing skills, there's no guarantee of successfully creating fear in the players. There are a lot of good "how to run a scary game" essays out there, but even following these step by step does not mean success is guaranteed. Ultimately, it all hinges on a multitude of factors, many of which are beyond the control of the GM: player mindset, group mood, environment, etc. While aspects of these can be managed (you can use in-game events to affect the mood of player, and you can dim the lights, play appropriate music, etc. to enhance the atmosphere) they are never completely under your control as a GM. (A player in an antagonistic mood, or a rowdy or otherwise uncooperative group dynamic will ruin a game regardless. On the other hand, a creepy wind on a moonless night helps in ways no mood music ever will.)

In 20 years of horror RPGing, I can count on my fingers the number of games that really left players with the creeps. (Including one that to this day nobody who was involved remembers what the game was about, but everybody remembers being creeped out afterward.) But those rare few make it all worth while.

(BTW: I was like you in regards to horror when I was younger - and The Haunting was one of the movies that left a huge impression on my young mind - but I did end up becoming a huge horror buff.)

Matt Finch said...

I think there's a huge difference between what I'd call horror-fear on the one hand, and the type of anticipation and tension that I think is the sweet spot for an adventure RPG.

Don't get me wrong - hearing "Oh, that's creepy" from a player indicates a home run. If that's all James is saying (and it's clearly part of what he's saying), then I'd agree with his point. But I'm pretty sure he's also making a larger point and I tend to disagree beyond the observation that lots of S&S fiction has creepy elements and that the game benefits from this.

Players should have a healthy respect for the dungeon, and fear for their characters lives. But the degree of fear shouldn't reach the "why the hell would we go into this place, let's go fight bandits" level. At that point, I think you've gotten into an area where a different game system would tend to fit the genre. Cthulhu Dark Ages is one that immediately springs to mind if you want a game that matches up with horror rather than adventure.

The line between "that's creepy" and "we're doomed, screw it" is an important line, because it defines two utterly different mindsets for the player. "We're doomed" is a Call of Cthulhu mode, and fun in that mindset. But I don't think it is the norm for D&D at all.

JimLotFP said...

I've never played the Cthulhu games but I have owned the Cthulhu Dark Ages book. I really didn't see much point in it since aside from a Lovecraftian bestiary, I didn't see much difference between what it offered and how low-level D&D plays.

As for the "We're Doomed" issue... I hear that a lot in regard to CoC gameplay, but that doesn't match up to the Lovecraft stories I have up on the shelf, where as often as not the horror is defeated, or at least successfully avoided.

I don't set out to doom my players (I do enjoy it when they succeed!), but I do make sure there are opportunities in my adventures for them to become doomed and I use the "creepy" factor as a warning that things are going to get very strange and perhaps a bit nasty. I consider "screw this, let's go fight bandits" to be just as valid a choice as going into the dungeon, and definitely the smart thing to do if they have no real reason to go in.

As for scaring the players for real... right now we play during the day in a room that has a room-length window next to the table, with my girlfriend baking brownies and pie and all sorts of good stuff for them every week. Making them less than cheerful is difficult unless the dog is farting, in which case they aren't paying attention to whatever's happening in-game anyway. ;)

Andreas Davour said...

Blair Witch was an "interesting" experience for me.

I got up after a short while and left the theatre and felt sick, since the unstabilized hand held camera made me seasick!

Could we get another post about the horror techniques that have worked for you and your group? I love to read war stories. :)

Amityville Mike said...

I think the power comes from its ambiguity; even at the end of the movie, you still don't know what the heck was causing it allYour absolutely right. Ambiguity is uncertaintly and that which is uncertain is therefore unknown. And humanity has a long legacy of being scared of the unknown.

I actually prefer a movie that doesn't go out of it's way to answer all the questions it possess, which The Haunting certainly does.

Amityville Mike said...

Then someone said, "That's IT?" and everyone started talking and moving about, and from overhearing conversations, people really didn't like it.

I've got a few friends in Hollywood, one of whom provided me with a copy of TBWP two months before it was released in theatres. I had the opportunity to show it to a few groups of people before it was available to the public and it was interesting to watch their reactions to it. The people who knew that it was a work of fiction really enjoyed the movie and had a great time being terrified.

The folks who knew nothing about the movie and went in blind were absolutely scared shitless by the film...until it was explained to them that what they just witnessed was a movie and not a real event. A lot of those people became really pissed, even outwardly angry, at the movie and denounced the film as a crappy horror movie in which "nothing happens." It was interesting to watch their attitude change in light of that revelation. The film hadn't changed, just the context in which they were viewing it.

I haven't sat back down and watched it again in a few years and I'm certain that "you can never go home again" once the intitial shock has worn off. I should probably give it another viewing though to see my response to it years later. I'm loathe to tarnish my memory of the movie and the enjoyment I got from it the first time around though.

Amityville Mike said...

There are a lot of good "how to run a scary game" essays out there, but even following these step by step does not mean success is guaranteed. Ultimately, it all hinges on a multitude of factors, many of which are beyond the control of the GM: player mindset, group mood, environment, etc.

Very true. I'd hate to be the GM trying to run a spooky CoC game in the middle of a loud, crowded convention floor during a bright, summer afternoon. I'm not saying that'd it would be impossible to do but the deck would be stacked pretty high against you. My hat would certainly go off to anyone who did manage to sucker me into the mindset during the game, however.

Amityville Mike said...

The line between "that's creepy" and "we're doomed, screw it" is an important line, because it defines two utterly different mindsets for the player. "We're doomed" is a Call of Cthulhu mode, and fun in that mindset. But I don't think it is the norm for D&D at allI agree and although managing to give your players the willies is a rewarding experience, it's most certainly not something that should be attempted very single game. If I knew every game session was going to be a fright fest, successful or not, I'd lose interest in that game. Fear is only really effective when you have other emotional responses to provide the necessary release.

D&D and CoC are two completely different games when viewed through a wide lens. Although there's some spill over with the horror elements, when you sit down to play either one, you're buying into the frame of mind associated with that game. As you say, Part of the fun of CoC is just trying to be last man standing but knowing your doomed anyway. D&D, despite all the scary crap that occur, at least presents the illusion that your character's demise isn't 100% guarenteed as long as you're smart and lucky. With CoC you go in knowing that your screwed sooner rather than later.

Amityville Mike said...

As for the "We're Doomed" issue... I hear that a lot in regard to CoC gameplay, but that doesn't match up to the Lovecraft stories I have up on the shelf, where as often as not the horror is defeated, or at least successfully avoided.

I think the difference in CoC to Lovecraft's actual stories is the same one that exists between the game of D&D and the literature that inspired it. Each is a distored reflection of its sources.

Some of Lovecraft's stories do have the appearance of ending on a positive note, albeit barely. But then again, we're witnessing those stories as isolated events that occur to the character(s) on a one-time basis, so it's possible for them to momentarily escape for the horrors that man should not know before the screen goes black and the lights come back on.

If you pull the camera back far enough, however, and see the big picture, mankind is doomed and any little victories he might achieve do nothing to stem the tide. I find that this is much more visible in CoC simply because your playing a character who must confront those eldritch horrors time and time again, and sooner or later - most likely sooner - he's going to be destroyed by those forces. You can only buck the odds for so long before the house finally wins.

As for scaring the players for real... right now we play during the day in a room that has a room-length window next to the table, with my girlfriend baking brownies and pie and all sorts of good stuff for them every weekAs mentioned above, you certainly can't scare the pants of your players if the atmosphere doesn't give you a little help. I can't think of anything much less fear inducing than fresh baked goods. Unless you can figure out a way of incorporating them in a situation so out of context with the normal associations of baked good...Hmmmm. That'd might be a fun experiment to try. Could I make muffins sinister?

Amityville Mike said...

I got up after a short while and left the theatre and felt sick, since the unstabilized hand held camera made me seasick!

You're certainly not the only person who felt that way. I heard more than a couple people complain about the motion sickness they got from the film. It didn't bother me personally, but strangely, I find that I've been avoiding the movie "Cloverfield" for some time now solely because I understand it was shot in a similar style.

Could we get another post about the horror techniques that have worked for you and your group? I love to read war stories.

I think I could probably do that.

JimLotFP said...

>>I find that I've been avoiding the movie "Cloverfield" for some time now solely because I understand it was shot in a similar style.

Ohhh Cloverfield pissed me off so much that I bought a Rifftrax to try to salvage the rental and scrub away the anger that movie caused.

The Wrestler is largely shot like that too.

>>If you pull the camera back far enough, however, and see the big picture, mankind is doomed

See, I never bought into this as an effective scare tool in Lovecraft. Growing up convinced that a nuclear war was coming sooner than later, then finding out the Earth's going to be consumed when the sun turns into a red giant (not to mention constant variable "we'll get hit by an asteroid/global warming will kill us all/worldwide disease" doom panics... mankind and nature seem likelier to do the job faster than horrors from beyond. :D And I take the "mankind doesn't really matter in the grand scheme" as the way things really are, so that doesn't bug me either.

So the "big picture" ideas of Lovecraft don't phase me much. It's the individual bits like "Aliens want to put your brain in a box and fly it to their home world!" that creep me out.

Mr. Scratch said...

An excellent resource for putting the heebie-jeebies into your players is GURPS Horror by Kenneth Hite. Light on rules and heavy on what makes us scared and how to scare others. The dissection of fears and their expression as monsters should be fodder for a thousand shared nightmares (e.g fear of madness leads to "The Psycho Killer" while fear of the other leads to "The Unseelie"). A personal favorite bit is the campaign setting that takes place in London in the aftermath of the War of the Worlds.

Scott Clark said...

Interesting--I've always been too high-strung to deal with horror stuff, too, but I've only adapted in a really narrow way. Fear and suspense I have no problem with -- in entertainment, I mean -- if it is part of a story. But I won't go seeking out thrills-n-chills books or movies. Seems like a bit of fear is necessary to a lot of RPGs, and that's fine--it's all pretty abstract and in-the-head.

It's when the written words or moving pictures cross over into gore and/or cruelty that I just check out. I know this makes me a feeble ninny to some ways of thinking, but whatever. A friend of mine used to jokingly tell me I wasn't "properly desensitized."

I just don't get why you'd *want* to watch a person being mutilated or tormented. If it's shocking or unpleasant, why pay for the privilege? If it's enjoyable--well, seek help. Visual media have a pretty direct shortcut to old parts of the brain, so you can understand *how* somebody ends up getting off on gore and torture. But going with it just disturbs the hell out of me. Even when the action is faked, the *desire* to see this kind of thing makes me worry about how tenuous someone's bonds to their fellow humans must be.

This being the non-flameproof internet, I should say that I'm not telling anybody else what they should or shouldn't do.