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.