Monday, 30 March 2015

The Problem of Horror




Horror and urban fantasy are probably my favourite genres for roleplaying, I cut my teeth on the hobby with Vampire the Masquerade back in 1994 and it was White Wolf’s games and Call of Cthulhu, that got me hooked. With the exception of a long running Warhammer Fantasy campaign I was involved in, my favourite games are almost invariably modern, set in the real world, or something like it, and fairly dark; with only a few diversions into history and different tones. I like the fact that they feel familiar, that they use the modern world as a template, which makes so many character options viable without punishing the players. Admittedly in White Wolf/Onyx Path games this often means clinging to some sort of outsider chic, but I don’t see that as a bug, so much as a feature.

This isn’t to say that this type of game and the settings that are common to them don’t have their own problems, though. Nothing’s perfect and the nature of gaming can be restrictive in places; plots can boil down a few basic phases that lead, ultimately, to a combat based denouement. Sometimes that isn’t desirable, especially in horror where player characters may fall into ‘crunchy and taste good with ketchup’ category even when they’ve been through a lot of adventures and should be old hands. As with my article on Fantasy worlds, I’m not sure there’ll be anything new here, so be warned: this may be a load of old hat.

Let’s begin at the beginning with a biggie; population and the issue of keeping a secret. The old riddle has it that three people may keep a secret, but only if two are dead, and whilst it doesn’t scan directly into the realms of roleplaying, it has some traction. If we look at the global picture for the World of Darkness, or the various incarnations of Cthulhu based gaming, or even at worlds like Kult or Conspiracy X, it does start to look as if there’s no way that the monsters could remain hidden. Within the World of Darkness the populations needed to reflect the overcrowding of vampires or the guerrilla warfare between the Werewolves and the destructive forces they battle, suggests humanity would know the monsters were out there and would have adapted to deal with them. That’s before you add in mages, mummies, wraiths, changelings, the various other forms of shape changers, Asian vampires and mortals who know about what’s going on. Add the internet, smart phones, citizen journalism and all the other trends and paraphernalia that allow us to communicate across the world with relative ease and the whole thing starts to resemble a boiling pot with its lid perched precariously on the top, ready to slide off as things bubble out of control. In Call of Cthulhu there are so many different types of monster that if they’re all assumed to be at work at the same time, again the question becomes not ‘how did the investigators discover them’ and more ‘how were they not discovered earlier, and why didn’t someone bring sticks of dynamite?’ I know that just seeing the monsters in Cthulhu games is tantamount to signing into an asylum in a many cases but the way humans work, that would be as much of a signal flare as lots of eyewitness reports. What is it up at the old Cooper estate that’s meant the last five people to go up there have either gone mad or died? The pattern would lead anyone to assume something was amiss and that there was more to the world than was normally advertised.

To their credit most gaming companies have taken that into account and included the ‘net, Youtube and so on, as problems the monsters and hunters, who often don’t want to publicise their activities either, have to work around. Tellingly, the current World of Darkness includes the basic idea that normal humans know that there are things out there in the dark; responding by keeping their heads down and hoping that some other huckleberry will be attract the attention of the monsters. The only real solution though is to throttle back and let there be gaps, cut down on the size of your conspiracies and have room for cock up, not cover up.

This brings us to the issue of conspiracy. Most games have some sort of hidden, sub rosa, organisation buried within them, often behind fronts and sometimes with fronts hidden in fronts. They may be things to fight, or they might be places that offer the characters a sort of home in terms of ideology, identity or employment. Again there are issues here, can we really believe that an organisation like Aegis from Conspiracy X or the Delta Green conspiracy could remain hidden? The US government can’t even keep the NSA’s spying on email accounts hidden for long; whilst we might like to think that they’re staffed by slick, assured men in black, whereas in fact you’re going to be hard pressed to stop them playing video games or chatting on Facebook. To grab an example, Charles Stross, the author of the Laundry Files novels, has said that the most unbelievable part of his universe is how efficient the Laundry actually is, in the light of how many bungles the intelligence community has made in the past few years.

Tempting as it is to believe that hidden groups extend all the way through our society, pulling our strings, Illuminati style, the fact is that they can’t stay below the surface very effectively. We know about the Mafia, we know about, ironically, the Illuminati; things like Bohemian Grove and Bilderberg are documented, acknowledged and noted… It’s the nature of the business that goes on there that makes us suspicious, not the fact these events happen.

Where this can fall down, is when conspiracies are meant to have been entrenched in history, ruling from the shadows over centuries. For one this doesn’t explain why change happens, or why we have the society we do. I appreciate that these are meant to be subtle monsters but if we assume a guiding hand then much of what we take for granted ceases to make sense. Unless some sort of very delicate hegemony is at hand would we have seen the development of our political or social systems? It becomes tricky and a wise GM keeps the conspiracy from having a totality of control; players need spaces to breathe and places of refuge.

In other areas the nature of these bodies seems right on the nose, Pentex in Werewolf the Apocalypse seems pretty close to the likes of the conglomerates who are carving up our world at the moment, only with a demon worshipping edge. If nothing else, they feel relevant, covering a niche that seems to be missed by a lot of RPGs, it seems odd that more focus isn’t swung onto corporate affairs in the hobby but this might reflect the ‘government bad, public enterprise good’, biases of American life (bearing in mind that the SF horror game SLA Industries makes no bones about the culpability of the big corporation in pretty much everything that’s wrong in the setting). Even then there’s a question over why there isn’t more of an Erin Brockovitch vibe going with secrets leaked and questions raised; something that applies equally to Cyberpunk, one of Horror’s kissing cousins. So again, the question of exposure and secrecy are writ large as things to work around. Why hasn’t the firm whose leaders are part of the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign suffered a fatal leak based on their dubious practices, okay business might keep their cards closer to their chests than government, partially because they’re less monolithic, but there are any number of examples of whistle blowing and so on to choose from. The obvious answer, I suppose is the huge dearth of belief in whatever it is that the game is centred on.

I do get a bit bothered by that, after all when you have stuff that demonstrably works, even if it may send you mad, why cling to the unproven faiths of childhood. I suppose it’s linked to our lack of acceptance of Global Warming; it’s too big, too unwieldy for us to perceive, and besides there’s no Mythos televangelists banging their signed copies of the Necronomicon on pulpits and telling us we’re going to be eaten.

The conspiracy can bring another challenge too, if the player characters are placed inside it (cunningly tapping into players’ self-identification with subcultures in order to shift copies), much of the horror diminishes. The scares and shock value of discovering what’s out in the dark is diluted, of course you know what’s out there; you’re a vampire/werewolf/part of the Delta Green and so on. The focus is meant to shift to reflecting on what you have to do in order to keep the secrets, or maintain the illusion of normalcy, and how you climb the ladder within your tiny sliver of society. You may have to lie to your loved ones, brainwash your friends; treachery is meant to become your watchword, as you lie and cheat your way through the world, either for the greater good or for personal gain. Like it or not, you’ve been drafted and there’s no room for civilians or nice guys in the armies of the damned.

This is where things often break down in play, it can be hard to maintain a balance between the unseen world and the visible one. Human affairs are easy to neglect in favour of more monsters and strife. The drain of coping with a failing marriage because you’re out on stakeouts for aliens or whatever, isn’t much fun for many people. They would prefer, perhaps understandably, that their characters have no weaknesses, nothing for a GM to latch onto. The legend of the GM taking innocents and using them as targets, in game I hasten to add, is well enough established to make player shy of adding background. In a genre that strives for realism in many respects, this undercuts that, diminishing the fear factor because players end up with characters who don’t really have anything to fight for. Again, and this might say something about the way companies work, this seems to be something that horror and dark fantasy RPGs are addressing. Whilst Fantasy gaming clings stubbornly to its old form, the games we’re addressing today mutate happily to become more relevant, and escape the shadows of the past.

Like a downward spiral though, this brings me to another issue, that of maintaining the fear factor. Horror is dependent on a number of things, shocks, scares and a sense of things growing suddenly bigger as pieces fall into place; something it shares with espionage fiction. Over an extended period of time, these tactics begin to fail, and players become used to what’s going on. Fear can plateau, lose its sting, or become just dull or sickening. Simply based on that there might be an argument for using horror games for short term engagements rather than something that lasts forever and a day.

This does highlight one reason for the broad vista of monsters, factions and other things: to keep things fresh, even if the knock on effect is an increasingly porous Masquerade. Familiarity breeds contempt, things that were scary three weeks ago cease to be so because after a few adventures they become ‘known knowns’ or ‘known unknowns’ in the words of Donald Rumsfeld. You can’t scare people with something they’ve seen and defeated, but if you rely on an ever broadening cast of threats you’ll eventually tip over the apple cart. Depth not width is the ally here. Give the PCs a mystery to dig for and you can touch on the impossibility of the ancient conspiracy and temper it with the knowledge that it never got beyond a group of families, who have done incredibly well and one of whom may be running for President, or a society that has colonised Oxford University and are bending it to their will at the behest of unseen masters (who may be, in the style of David Icke’s lizards, in the reality next door).

Further issues arise when you take into account that most games start the player characters from a position of innocence, or failing that, ignorance at odds with the usual player experience. Whilst some books take care to shield the player from the nature of the game, often tucking away monster stats and meta-plots and vital facts away in the GM’s section of the book. This can be a stretch, acting as a way to further diminish the impact of horror. In Vampire, for example, you can play ‘guess the clan’ from powers, looks and so on, robbing the game of a lot of its mystery. It is one of the many challenges the genre offers players to keep from allowing player knowledge from influencing the game too much; arguably more than in Fantasy or Science Fiction gaming, where the maintenance of mystery can be less important.

It seems to be a reverse situation to the one you find in vampire or zombies films where none of the protagonists has ever, ever seen a vampire or zombie film and consequently, have no idea on how to deal with the threat they discover. Weirdly, that’s a conceit that could hold water in the 1980s when horror was still very much under the carpet, something ‘nice’ people didn’t talk about. Today though, oh come on… are you telling me you haven’t seen Buffy or Dracula, or Night of the Living Dead? Our mainstream culture has become so colonised by tall, pretty and dead things that you can barely move for them. And again, familiarity breeds contempt.

Horror gaming offers different challenges to the player, essentially it isn’t so great if you want to bury your head in the sand and beat up orcs, because the world outside your window doesn’t cater to that sort of behaviour. Horror offers a different sort of release valve, one that might be seen as more ‘feminine’ than the macho flexing of muscles and punching of bad guys found in fantasy or superheroes. Where it challenges players is that very often the urge to simply smite things is only a short term means to an end, one that may offer drawbacks, rather than advantages. Killing that vampire may only alert the rest of them that they’ve been discovered; wiping out a nest of cultists only gets the FBI involved. So finding ways to work around things, and having a knowledge of how the world works can be advantageous, one thing that, quite apart from the supposedly scary nature of the games, marks these games as probably being better served for adults rather than teenagers (I’m sure there are people out there who started out playing horror games, but the stereotype is that most horror gamers are a bit older). That being said there’s no doubting that the nature of investigation has changed over the years, a game set in the 1920s might allow PCs access to newspaper’s morgue, assuming the back issues aren’t all online now, would such a thing happen in today’s security conscious world?

Pagan Publishing, as long ago as the 1990s, updated the idea of the Investigator in Delta Green, working to eliminate the issues that most people would have in the mundane investigation process; bureaucratic sleeping policemen that would render the civilian unable to gain access to official records or allow them to investigate witnesses. I think this is in part why the idea of PCs belonging some sort of group has become so prominent in the past few decades, where you don’t dwell in the shadows, using supernatural powers to get what you need, then some sort of backing or access to extra, covertly obtained, resources actually become sort of necessary. Of course modern media hasn’t hurt that either, Twin Peaks and X-Files opened up a new vista for gaming in the popular imagination, making aliens cool again; RPGs usually follow the trend rather than setting it. This isn’t to say that there are no games which cast the characters as independents, only that they may well find the deck stacked against them.

Where then do we take horror gaming. Unlike the issues I have with Fantasy gaming I don’t believe these are baked into the way games are put together, and many of them are probably necessary to keep the games going. Variety is needed, as is innovation and horror games provide both. Rather than seeking to reinvent the games completely, possibly a set of guidelines regarding campaign creation would work best, with a simple ‘don’t use everything in the toy chest’ as one of the first principles, followed up with ‘and keep the arcs short, snappy and frightening’. Beyond that we’re into familiar territory, with characters dedicated to roles in the game rather than attempting to rounded individuals… again something that can be talked out at session zero or at least in character creation. The key, rather than starting again, is to fine tune and get the best out of it for everyone.