Monthly Archives: July 2010

Horror is Other People

I just finished reading Stephen King’s Under the Dome, which may be one of the best books I have ever read. I had to stop reading it at work because it was affecting me emotionally, and I just finished up with a several-hour stretch of reading in one go. It’s a massive book, that you cannot put down.

I have a memory from middle school, where an English teacher told us that a good story invokes an emotional response- that if you are reviewing another person’s story, even if you don’t like the content, if the text incites emotion inside you, even if you don’t like that emotion, it is good writing. (Perhaps excluding such things as someone with an opinion you passionately disagreeing with provoking anger. But then, maybe they conveyed their hateful position really well.)

This is perhaps the most relevant thing to writing that public schools have ever taught me.

I am a relative newcomer to King’s work; I started a few years ago with the Dark Tower series, read 1408, then moved up to It, ‘Salem’s Lot, and recently Under the Dome, borrowed from Tim’s shelves or found on the bargain bin at Half Price Books.

Throughout those three novels, there is a supernatural element to be sure- It, the vampires of Salem’s Lot, and the Dome. And the supernatural element does some pretty horrifying things. But the scenes that left the biggest emotional impressions in all three books were deeds done by normal people to normal people.

The supernatural dulls the pain. We expect the vampire to drink from the damsel, the zombies to eat the brains, the werewolf to tear people to shreds, and whatever the hell It is to do whatever the hell it is that It does. We read the lurid descriptions of gore, but does it scare us? Does it touch us?

King has a knack for ensemble casts; so there’s always the chance to throw in a scene with a normal person doing unimaginable things to normal people. And when it’s a normal person doing the killing (or worse), we don’t necessarily need the gory description. The act itself is enough. It hits closer to home. We weren’t expecting it, we weren’t prepared for it, and the real horror is evident.

(This is particularly obvious in Under the Dome, where the Dome is essentially a Dues ex Machina to crank the isolation up to 11 and focus in on imperfect characters in a stressful situation.)

As a writer, I feel this is an important realization. Horror needs to have a human element. Otherwise it’s just a monster mash.

As a gamer, to an extent I feel I already knew this: play close to home. Horror’s pretty hard to come by in D&D, where you have wizards and knights and orcs; it’s easier in Vampire which is set in the modern day (but you still have vampires and werewolves and mages, oh my). Dogs in the Vineyard? There’s a supernatural element, but it’s subdued. Sorcerers are other people. Human, imperfect people, doing evil to other people. You’ll get a look of shock in Dogs. You’ll be the horror yourself. Jeepform games take this all the way to the edge; your character might be a cutout, and you have to mentally project yourself onto it, you deal with real world issues, and the emotions are your own.

But when you know this you can still have horror with the fantastic; you just have to keep it close to home. Escape from Tentacle City works because it starts largely as camp parody, but the characters evolve and become human as the game goes on- you find yourself killing off people you actually find you care about. Wicked Nights makes the conflicts largely about humans and human interests- vampires are largely antagonists. If you want horror in D&D (and it certainly can be done), you have to make the victims human (either not just cut outs if they’re PCs, and not just background cast if they’re NPCs). Disturb the player.

Because horror is not a vampire, or a dragon, or an indescribable monster. Horror is other people.

Future Fantasy: Skills

The Future Fantasy Skills document is live. Thanks to everyone who made suggestions about the first batch of skill musings (especially Abram.)


Future Fantasy: The Overwatch

The Overwatch represents my first attempt at designing a leader. Man, leaders are tough to design. I feel like I’m really all over the place on this, with lots of powers that feel more defendery or controllery than anything else. However, I feel like I am tapping some cool design space with the Communications Tap and the focus on Immediate Actions.

Anyway, Overwatch!

Escape From Tentacle City: Award Nominations

Escape From Tentacle City is having a good month, it would seem.

First, I found out it was nominated for an Indie Rpg Award. Not too surprising, since it’s an indie rpg, and therefore qualifies. The fact that it was one of the first few games to be submitted, and therefore is way up at the top of the page is great news- I had thought that Tentacle City was much more obscure than that.

But the big, big news is my Ennie Nomination! With a nomination for best interior art for Escape From Tentacle City, it’s clear that the game is getting noticed. I have the mad combination of Jason Morningstar’s inspiring art, Micah Bauer’s awesome layout, and my own humble art direction to thank for it. This is a wonderful book, and I’m glad to have it recognized.

AW AP, Session 2: Ways to Control People Other Than Money (And Sex)

We were missing Amelia and Shari last night, so their characters were stuck in the lab, and out on hippie spirit journey, respectively.

We meet our, well not heroes, but survivors maybe, a week after the events of the first session. Wolf and Frost have had time to heal up. I’ve made my fronts, and come up with some questions to ask the players here or there, or questions just to pose to myself and see what happens.

One of those is “Will Frost sleep with Jarvis?” Jarvis needs to give Frost a gift worth 1 barter, so he does- and hands over a snowflake pendant, and sort of nervously asks Frost to come to bed with him. Frost reluctantly agrees. Now we get to apply sex moves- not just Frost’s Skinner move, but Jarvis has a sex move too: Can You Live With Yourself in the Morning: If you have sex with Jarvis, take -1 forward. The players love it.

Other leading questions: I ask the chopper who’s maybe planning on usurping the hardholder how long he’s been screwing Abe’s wife (since I got into town), and the Battlebabe who’s bounty he’s trailing (no one, I’m the bounty that someone’s trailing.) I think it’s interesting that the player rejected my hook that I offered and instead countered with his own- certainly good for player agency, but it meant I had to step back and evaluate it, and the potential of a bounty hunt was shelved for at least a session while I had time to rethink the situation. Tim’s battlebabe was fairly parched for direct bangs for the night- he was offered a fairly simple job by Jarvis, which he did. He spends most the rest of the session wallflowering.

Frost complains of a headache to Marsh, and wackiness ensues: Marsh assumes Jarvis is a brainer and is screwing (mentally) with Frost. Frost puts his arm around Marsh while they go for a walk (to get time and intimacy for fascinate), blows his fascinate roll, and made the mistake of giving time and intimacy to the brainer. Marsh blows his brainer roll for whatever he was doing, and deals harm to Frost. More headaches.

Marsh: “Frost, Jarvis is a bad man. He controls people. And I don’t mean with his power, or money, or influence.” (Pause) “And not with sex either.”

Meanwhile, Abe has Shit Head the Chopper pull Wolf the Gunlugger in to speak with him, and decides what he’s going to do with her for killing Char- and decides to make her Shit Head’s responsibility. Shit Head and Wolf go off to another hardhold, Mercer, to find some missing traders. Along the way, Wolf wanders off to find supplies, gets horribly lost, gets ambushed by a cannibal family at a Big Boy Burger restaurant, knocked out, and taken in for meat. Shit Head goes off alone to find her. He kills the whole gang, but not before they put him to 10:00 on the harm dial and he finally passes out. Later, Wolf recovers, and drags them both back to the gang, where she’s now acting as temporary leader.

(This is going to lead me to create a free custom move for the Chopper: When you put another character in charge of your gang…)

People see Frost walking around town with his arm around Marsh, so people assume they’re a couple (especially given Frost’s employer’s reputation). Later Marsh attunes to the psychic maelstrom, and gets a vision of the slaughter at the Big Boy Burger from the perspective of one of the ferals (and presumably sees his friends die), and cries. A lot. Frost learns how to open his brain (from Winkle, the 80 year old ecstasy cultist), and learns Mercer is bad news in a big way. Wolf finds Vinny the trader, who says Mercer is bad news in a big way.

Marsh goes in a truck with 2 of Abe’s enforcers to rescue the gang, blows his read another roll, so I ask him (as Lugnut) “what does your character wish I’d do?” Marsh’s default answer is “touch my hand.” Lugnut is understandably creeped out. Frost and Beastie steal the local NPC savvyhead’s truck (yeah, he’ll be real happy about that) and take Winkle with them. Somewhere along the way, pretty much everyone meets up, and Sunny, Lugnut, and Winkle split off to search the Big Boy Burger for clues, Wolf sends some of the gang to scout out Mercer, and everyone else goes back to get Shit Head medical attention.

Other fun quotes:
“So, is there any chance that one of Shit Head’s gangers has a medkit and knows how to use it?”
“Ha ha ha ha, no.”

“Tim: I want to read Jarvis. What does he intend to do?”
“Oh, he’s looking for muscle so he can overthrow Abe. (As Jarvis): Yeah, it’s just bouncing work to start, but if you take to it, maybe there will be growth opportunities.”

Also, I learned that a small gang can seriously screw up 2 PCs, even fighty ones (Chopper and Gunlugger)