Horrible Mistakes (And Learning From Them)

By | October 19, 2013

Welcome back to our month-long look at horror in gaming! The success of a session, especially when dealing with scares, often comes down to presentation. The most trite dungeon crawl can feel fun with good polish, in much the same way that a poor introduction can sour players on a new game.

So today I want to talk about some games with horror elements that I have run in the past decade. The presentation of the situation and information to the players made a major difference in the games – for good and for ill.

Let’s start with what I personally find to be the best teacher: Abject failure.

Many years ago, I ran a supernatural play-by-email game with horror elements that ended quickly because of a series of missteps on my part. There were many problems, including:

  • Competing expectations: The players expected a game of “supernatural CSI.” I had plans for bizarre crimes in a small Southern town influenced by magical thinking. Those two conceptions were diametrically opposed – one built on science and another on reality-warping hijinx.
  • The wrong kind of scarcity: The players lacked knowledge at the beginning, and their efforts to gather more were stymied by magical forces in play. These magical forces were changing reality from A to B and back to A again, after shifting some small aspect of A.  After the first few roadblocks of misinformation, the players stopped looking for knowledge.
  • Poor presentation: Supernatural elements were changing reality around the players. Unreliable narrator techniques are difficult to use well in games, and my first attempts made the players feel separated from the game instead of intrigued by the possibilities.  In fact, they thought I was making mistakes in the narrative and then trying to cover those mistakes up.

Since there wasn’t an immediate threat to push them forward (the players were investigators who arrived after trouble started), there wasn’t even the narrative equivalent of an adrenaline rush to push through the bad parts of the game. Actions that were meant to provoke wonder merely caused confusion.

I had not run any kind of session zero that would have allowed me to set out my ideas and hear what the players wanted. The resulting clash of assumptions hobbled the game from the start. It could have been salvaged, if I had been more experienced.

Returning readers will realize that some of the potential problem spots I warned against came up in this one mini-campaign. The players were frustrated by a lack of progress and understanding because circumstances were changing too quickly for them to get their bearings.

I tried an unstable world story again many years later.  This second time, the players were trapped on an ocean liner that was entering a reality-shifting vortex.  The technique I used this time did not make constant, subtle changes to the game world around the players.  Instead, the game began firmly grounded in “reality,” then began to shift slowly, with increasingly dramatic changes.  As more and more of their environment changed around them, the players realized that reality itself was changing.

One player declared, “Oh shit, I’m the unreliable narrator!” and sat down, closed his eyes and meditated with some nicotine until he could get a handle on what was happening.  The players were able to accept and recognize the change much more readily, because they were “eased into it.”

Easing into the idea of something horrible is one of the key elements of horror.  When things happen too quickly, the result is often shock instead of any kind of lingering dread.  Letting the players work themselves up is often the best way to introduce horror to a game, though it requires the guide to watch for the cues that work for each group of players.

For instance, one group of my players still talks about the creepy rock they found in one of my campaigns:

The players first came across the substance Desriden while exploring an ancient ruin from a war centuries earlier. The outside walls and the entire interior were covered with the coral-like rock, which was purplish-black in color. It shined a bit in the dark and seemed almost inky in the light.

I described how their cloaks caught on the sharp edges of the rock, as if the rock was trying to grab them. The more the players examined the Desriden, the more they began to see shapes and patterns in the way the rocks were formed. One sharp bit of rock seemed like a tooth. Another looked like a jagged fingernail reaching out. A dip in the rock seemed to open like a screaming maw.

The players quickly decided to avoid the coral as best they could. Other things took priority and it was a session or two before they decided to examine a sample they’d collected in more detail.

The small piece of rock had slowly grown to cover the container holding it. A piece of metal inside the box had been completely turned into more Desriden. A search for more information revealed the name of the black coral and that it came from the Lower Hells. The remaining rumors allowed their imaginations to run wild about the substance.

Whenever possible, give the players enough time to think out loud about what makes a person, place or thing in the game important. One, that helps indicate why that person, place or thing is important to them. Two, their insights can spur new ideas that can be better than what the guide comes up with alone. The reason is because all people, guides and players alike, are natural storytellers. The theories and ideas players brainstorm usually are tied to what they want to be true or what they are afraid might be true. Both options offer many wonderful opportunities for the guide to shape the plot.

But you must use careful judgment here: if you use player suppositions to rewrite planned structures too blatantly, they may come to realize that they’re writing large swaths of your story. This could cause a cooling effect on roleplay, robbing you of a vital source of information about what the players think and feel, and robbing them of a vital source of fun.

By this time, the players’ speculations about the Desiden made them wary of going anywhere near the substance. That didn’t stop them from spying on some excavations by their enemies into items left over from the long-past war. The players watched as a pit full of Desriden was uncovered. While debating about what to do next, one of the workers cut himself on the coral.

As soon as a drop of blood fell on the black rocks, the entire mass of Desriden in the pit began to move like mudslide in reverse. The worker was engulfed by the hellstuff. The players fled.

More and more Desriden began to bubble out of the excavation, as if it were gaining mass or coming from somewhere else. Now the players were convinced that the Desriden was malevolent and contained the souls of those condemned to hell.

I didn’t realize just how much of an effect this had on the players until a few sessions later when stories surfaced about an enemy spellcaster whose arm was covered with the black coral. The players organized a small army to take out this one man because he seemed to have control over something they feared.

The Desriden was memorable because the players spent time learning about it and interacting with it. The substance was scary because every time the players thought they understood it, a new detail would make it a threat all over again. The players never felt fully comfortable and in control around the Desriden.

That lack of control was never enough to have the players become frustrated or quit. And I made sure to have most of the Desriden’s attributes written down weeks in advance. This helped ensure that the players didn’t feel like I was making all of it up as I went along.  This is vitally important to running horror: the moment the players start thinking about you instead of what you’re presenting, reality intrudes and tension dissipates.

There’s nothing wrong with winging things in a game, but that tends to change how some players view discoveries. It’s often best for a guide to keep quiet about his or her sources of inspiration. Let the players scare themselves and a horror game will go much better.

Next time I’ll go over some comments from our readers and a few last ideas for the month of October. See you then!