Posted on April 13, 2009 by Flames
Author M. Joseph Young has joined our ongoing Horror Design Project here at Flames Rising and tells us a bit about writing horror elements for his Multiverser RPG.
Some people think that horror is easy: dial up the kill rate, and soon every character is terrified.
What, though, if the characters are immortal?
This was the fundamental question we had to face in writing horror scenarios for Multiverser. Player characters are “versers”. Death is the doorway to take you to the next world, and the next world is where the next adventure awaits. Dial up the death rate, and for the verser it becomes a game of choosing how to die, how to end the horror and get somewhere nicer. Thus if we were going to create horror scenarios, we were going to have to figure out how to frighten someone who is completely unafraid of death. That meant understanding fear, and its more fundamental causes. Here are a few of the things we learned. Each has value.
Most players most of the time believe that they are in control. As long as they are in control, they are not afraid. Thus the first step toward creating fear is creating uncertainty.
In developing Haunted House, we wanted to use a poltergeist in a modern home to terrorize the character. We gave it useful abilities. It can manipulate the lightning, create sounds, push and throw objects, play with illusions. Heat and cold are within its ability, and it can sabotage flashlights and other devices, slam doors and windows, and similarly interfere with the character. Yet for all this, that makes it little more than an invisible magician. Most gamers will take that in stride, and fight. What makes the scenario work is not that the player faces a powerful invisible opponent, but that he does not know what he faces. The ghost starts with little things, spooky sounds, a cold draft, the moan of the wind. Brief shadowy illusions suggest horrors that then vanish. The character trips over something unseen in the dark. The battle will escalate, but initially it is about uncertainty: is this just a spooky place, or is there real danger lurking in the dark?
Something similar is done in Slasher Summer Camp. Here people start dying, but at first the authorities believe these are terrible accidents. Gradually the player realizes that someone is targeting the people around him. If he does not figure out what is happening, he might be next–and if he is not, he will be suspected. The uncertainty exists, at first because no one thinks that this has been anything more than bad luck, and then because no one knows who is behind the killings.
Slasher Summer Camp brings up another point. There is more to fear than loss of life. Threaten something about which the player cares, and he will fear the loss. In this scenario, before there is any hint of horror, the character meets the circle of friends who will become the victims. An effort is made to create points of contact: all but one are gamers, and they invite him to play. By the time the first “accident” happens, these people are his friends.
Similarly, in The Web we recognized that there are worse things than death. Here, characters are more likely to be maimed or paralyzed but kept alive and tortured. The worst enemy has the ability to steal the character’s strength, stamina, even his mind, while holding him prisoner over long torturous weeks. You might be immortal, but some injuries stay with you a long time.
The Web also recognizes another aspect of horror, one which recalls the aspect of loss of control: the futility of effort. The loss of control is closely tied to helplessness and hopelessness. One way that is achieved in this scenario is by selective penalties against skill use. These are not rational penalties, that some tasks are more difficult, or that all tasks are more difficult. Rather, a task is penalized “when it matters”. Whenever something important is at stake, whenever the character is fighting against the horror, when success matters, it is exactly then that the penalties attach. The result is a greater chance of failure at those critical moments, and the consequent feeling that the world is against you–because it is.
Not only is the world against you, its people are, too. In The Web, the creatures who are most human are predatory and cannibalistic. It need not be so blatant as that, though. Post-Sympathetic Man builds a modern society around the concept of the survival of the fittest. Not only will everyone take advantage of you in every way they can, they will commend themselves that they did the right thing. That evil permeates the world, and attempts to drag the character with it.
These have all been examples of insidious horror, the sort that frightens over time, wearing down the character’s–and the player’s–courage. There is, however, another type of horror, exemplified by The Cask of Amontilado.
In the original Poe story, the mood of horror is set by the narrator, Montressa, as he details the steps by which he lured Fortunato into a fatal trap. The Ray Bradbury replay in Usher II similarly has an oblivious victim walk to his own death. In running this scenario, the referee through the non-player characters attempts to keep the player at ease and unsuspecting. It is when the trap is sprung that the horror strikes with abrupt force, as the character realizes he now faces a lingering painful death in the darkness.
You might be immortal, but I can still terrify you.
M. Joseph Young – 2009
Post Sympathetic Man is published in Multiverser: The Second Book of Worlds. The Cask of Amontilado is by Edgar Allan Poe; it, along with Haunted House and Slasher Summer Camp, was used in the Multiverser novel Old Verses New, and the three adapted for gameplay in Multiverser Triple Play: Horror. The Web is co-authored with E. R. Jones for publication in Multiverser: The Third Book of Worlds.
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