Saturday, July 13, 2013

Hijacked by the Mythos: Introducing Lovecraftian-Style Horror into the Game

One does not need to play Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu or Pelgraine Press’ Trail of Cthulhu to have a game that uses Lovecraftian-style horror. Although the games named above, and many more, all offer the chance to play in Lovecraft’s world and fight against the entities that were born by him, Bloch, and many others, there is some baggage associated with them. You’re going to play something reminiscent of Rats in the Walls, The Call of Cthulhu, The King in Yellow, or many other Mythos-related stories, something inspired by HP Lovecraft or his contemporaries. There are options, however, if you don’t want to play a game that is purely based on Lovecraftian-style myths, and still want to have the style, atmosphere, or even underlying tone and theme of those old pulps. The GM can incorporate specific elements that contribute to the Lovecraftian-feel of isolation and alienism that come as a result of the revelation of cosmic horror.

We should first talk about what we mean when we say, “Lovecraftian horror.” For the sake of this approach to horror gaming, we’re talking about how the player characters may react to the revelation that all of their belief structures are wrong. The universe has no order, no meaning, and their religions, social structures, artistic endeavors, and accomplishments are ultimately meaningless. When characters make this discovery, they are driven mad and, in that madness, commit (what they may consider) atrocities against man and nature, or (in some cases) turn to worship those apathetic beings that brought about their pitiful condition. In a game setting, there’s usually a mechanic to facilitate that downward spiral from productive, valuable investigator to whatever he transforms to (intellectually, spiritually, perhaps even physically). The most common one may see would be a “Sanity” statistic, which is whittled away as the investigator encounters horrific creatures or things that have occurred due to Mythos influences (from a corpse or disturbing crime scene to an other-worldly Mythos creature). As the statistic gets lower, the player may have less control over their character until ultimately, the character becomes unplayable due to their madness.

The final and possibly most horrific result of sanity loss should be the loss of control of the character. No player ever wants to lose control of their own creation. However, the fear of that loss has possibly a greater impact to the player than the character’s death. One expects physical threats in a traditional RPG; the player willingly sends their character deep into a dungeon to face orcs, goblins, traps, and environmental dangers. The worst that happens watching the character die from whittled-down hit points or poor saving throws. It comes with the adventure: physical threats are expected and, most often, dealt with simply (most groups have a potent inventory of healing spells, magical potions, and skills that keep their characters’ bodies together). There is precious little fear of physical harm. The sword-wielding monster isn’t a threat; it’s a challenge to overcome.

There are some games (the Palladium system, for example), that incorporate the risk of insanity into their adventures, and players roll on a random table to determine their mental new mental state. Psychological status becomes another character trait which may, under specific instances, affect the character’s actions. Perhaps they are afraid of a particular style of monster, and may have difficulty in facing it (maybe triggering a fight-or-flight reaction), or the character becomes frozen when facing danger from a particular kind of source (did the character become afraid of fire, or swords, or men in armor?). The least-potent psychological threats come from random tables. However, there is risk. Someone playing a dashing cavalier would not want to run the risk of combat paralysis. A GM who wants to incorporate more psychological horror will use this tool.

There are two approaches when it comes to incorporating Lovecraftian horror into a roleplaying adventure: let the players in on the secret or not? The GM answers this question by looking at the kind of adventure they want to run, what kind of mood they want to evoke, and what kind of group they play with. For example, imagine a group that knows they are heading into a Lovecraftian-style adventure. The players will expect sanity-shaking horrors, loss of control of their characters, and a cold, hostile setting. They know it when they sit down at the table; they’ve agreed, like a kind of contract. The GM may find it harder to surprise the characters. Since they’re expecting the unusual, the uncanny, and the odd, it may be better to give them what they want: a rollercoaster ride of Deep Ones and Fire Vampires. They will look with excitement for the creepy abbey on the hill, and dive into the possibility of being forever changed by the influence of the Old Ones.

The GM may not be able to surprise the players, but maybe they like being scared. Maybe the adventures become more about how they handle the horrific events occurring around them. Maybe, by the end of the adventure, the group looks back and sees they’ve created a story about how the group joined together to become something stronger than just one person, how they relied on each other as they fought to push back the inevitable darkness for just another day.

If the players are unaware that the adventure is featuring Lovecraftian elements, the GM has great opportunities to drop small clues and hints that there are things amiss in the setting. As the players and their characters piece together the clues, the bigger secret is revealed (whether that secret is the influence of a Mythos entity over the local temple, cult activity, or a secret about the origin of the campaign world is up to the GM). Seemingly-normal encounters and scenarios take a more sinister twist as they discover small differences (maybe a monster they’re accustomed to defeating easily suddenly is immune to steel, or every time the player character magic-user casts a spell, they hear a whisper on the air).

There is danger to this kind of approach. The players may resent being surprised by a sudden Lovecraftian twist to an adventure or a campaign. They may have strong feelings and preconceptions about the game and their setting, and could feel like their game is being hijacked by the Mythos.

The GM has to consider the group’s style, likes and prejudices. What does introducing horror to the adventure add to the experience? What are the consequences of these differences? If the group is sitting down to play The One Ring, is a Lovecraftian story-arc appropriate?

How does a GM incorporate Lovecraftian horror into their game? The most effective way, if they are not interested in actually running a horror RPG, is to use small, disquieting clues that hint that there’s something wrong. Initially, the GM should be subtle and not outright horrific. In a fantasy setting, maybe the party magic-user’s spells look different in a particular place, or the cleric’s healing spell doesn't work the first time they try to cast it. In a modern setting, perhaps a PC’s phone rings every night at 3:17AM for just three rings (and, if answered, the character only hears a faint, “…click…click…”).

As the adventure progresses, those small clues become bigger elements. The cleric finds it harder and harder to cast healing spells outside of combat, and can only cast them in an excited state (while being actively attacked, for instance). The detective being woken nightly hears something different over the phone one night (“click…click…click…click…BANG!”). The effect of the clues becomes more sinister, actually making a difference in the characters’ actions (the cleric has to put himself in danger during a big fight to be of use to his party; the detective takes modifiers to some actions one day because of constantly being woken). The GM should use these elements sparsely; overuse just makes the adventure tedious and difficult to play (“Really, -2 again today because of the damn phone?”).

Eventually, the game will draw to the “Big Reveal.” This is the element that will change how the characters see their world…an event that has the potential to change the tone of the entire campaign, or even shut it down. It doesn't have to include the appearance of a big boss-monster, or the discovery of a large conspiracy. The Big Reveal is more about the impact on the characters. For example, if there have already been clues and hints about some of the group’s enemies being influenced by a sinister entity in the adventure, the Big Reveal could be that the party’s company has been infiltrated by that same entity and their safety-net of allies has been compromised. The end result is that the group feels isolated, alienated, and vulnerable. Their world or, at least, their view of the world has been changed.

Using some of the examples from earlier, perhaps the cleric discovers, via an ancient tome found in a treasure-hoard, that the origin of his healing magic isn't from a god of light and honor, but from one of battle and slaughter, and he is likely vexed by the heresy that’s been committed in his name for the past generation. Or perhaps the detective, during the course of his missing-person investigation, learns that the subject was killed in a depraved game of Russian Roulette after being kidnapped by the Yakuza (and the time of death was 3:17AM). The end result of both examples: their belief systems have been shaken. Their sense of normalcy has been shifted. This is not the world you once knew.

And what comes after that? If there is a mechanic for loss of sanity or oncoming psychological trauma, it might be time to roll dice and see what effect is on the character. With the player’s permission, the character may change (develop a phobia of late-night calls, or the influence of the Yakuza?). The horrific reveal has a potentially greater purpose: creating a drive in the character to make things better, or to do greater. The vistas of the world have been opened, and things are bigger than they thought before. Perhaps the cleric fears the re-emergence of the god of slaughter, and becomes a crusader against him. Perhaps now that the investigator knows that there is a world beyond his own, he strives to give the ghosts rest by avenging their deaths.

Lovecraftian cosmic horror is made more powerful when one sees personal effects. Cosmic horror transforms into personal, psychological horror. It can be a story element, making the game into a funhouse-of-terror for the players, if they want to enjoy a wild ride ending in madness, playing the old game of chicken: do we go insane before we die, or die before we go insane. But a stronger use of horror is to change the character’s perception of their world. As they discover more, they can’t help but change, for good or ill. Horror is not just a setting element, a way to make people jump when the big scary eight-tentacle spider jumps out. It’s a tool to potentially make richer stories that incorporate the character’s motivations. Horror can be the catalyst for change.

Next time the Big Reveal. Does it ever have to really happen?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Discovering Defenses

Its a Friday night and I’m at my son’s karate school. There are only two students: my son and a young black-belt. The instructor and I talk while he leads the boys through their exercises. We reminisce about old TV shows we watched as kids, debating our favorite Catwoman, his is Julie Neumar, mine is Eartha Kitt. As the class ends, the discussion drifts from what inspired our imaginations as kids to what inspires us as martial artists. We identify some of those universal things that tie his eastern martial arts and my western swordsmanship. I show him a plate out of Fabris. The duelists are contorted in an uncomfortable position: bodies bent, arms bent up with elbows pointed to the sky, blade parallel to the ground.

He immediately sees the value in the guard. Its similar to one his own instructor taught him. He demonstrates, his body leaning back, arms crossed in a manner that protects the body but seems able to strike if someone were to punch or kick at him. It takes me a few moments before I see the similarities.

I’m impressed, not that he’s able to decipher the guard so quickly (especially in a martial form with which he’s unfamiliar), but because he immediately finds its practicality and applies it to his own technique. We step back and forth for a moment, demonstrating how the guard blocks away an attack and immediately strikes back.

Looking back, I found the exchange between the instructor and myself interesting because when I was first learning that technique, it didn’t immediately make any sense. I’d studied Italian swordsmanship for a couple of years, and had just been introduced to Fabris. A small study group consisting of a couple of people and myself were going through the manual, page by page, plate by plate. When we initially came across this plate, we were confused. The position just didn’t look right. Obviously, it had to have some value. Fabris had no small amount of prestige and influence. We had to assume that the plate had validity. There was the picture of an unusual guard with accompanying text. We just needed to decipher the puzzle.

We had a well-developed plan of attack. One fighter served as the aggressor, the person doomed to die in our experiment. That was our objective: kill the aggressor with Fabris’ instruction. The defender would strike the killing blow with the appropriate technique (I initially had that honor). One person was the director, a choreographer who, using clues from the plates and the texts, put us into our positions and guided our movements. The three of us became a cooperative troupe, each discovering the validity (or lack thereof) of each action from our unique perspective. We each communicated with each other, and shared what we learned through our own eyes of aggressor, defender, and director.

The first thing I did as defender was to go into position and sit there, like it was a passive guard. The contortion felt ludicrous. It wasn’t stable. There didn’t appear to be any more value in this guard as opposed to an upright guard. I didn’t feel particularly vulnerable, just uncomfortable. I couldn’t imagine that this was a position I’d want to maintain in a fight.

And that was just wasn’t. The plates are snapshots that serve a particular purpose. In this case, the movement described on the plate is the position one would put oneself in shortly before one strikes. The text helped with that discovery:

“Begin forming this guard as you are still upright. As you see your opponent approaching, gradually lower your body and withdraw your sword; once your opponent is within the measures, he will find your body as low as possible and your sword as withdrawn as you can possibly keep it without taking it out of line.” (p. 38)

So we followed that advice. I started upright, in a second guard (knuckles upward, sword straight out at almost shoulder-height). As the aggressor stepped forward, I slowly pulled my body down, my body crouched, elbow up, sword forward, until my opponent was close enough for me to strike.

It still felt like something was lacking. Would my opponent advance slowly? Would I, slowly and deliberately, draw myself down and contort myself into position, and wait for a moment to strike? According to the text, once my opponent was in range, I would, “quickly unleash an attack to the inside in fourth.” It seemed possible, but seemed like a long way to go for the action. It felt a bad self-defense class that would teach, “Okay, if I grab you just like this, then you do this...”

“What if they don’t grab me just like this?”

“Well, I have another technique for that...”

It didn’t seem right, that a fencing manual that has survived this long, that has been interpreted, shared, and copied for the last four-hundred years would be reduced to “If this, then that,” instructions. There should be movements that would be familiar to anyone who was learning to fight. We should be able to identify the value in the guard and the actions. Fabris was teaching students how to keep their lives in a time when young men armed with both sword and ego travelled together in the same social circles.

So we did it again, and looked for more clues in the text or the art. The director wondered why, “cuts are more easily parried from this guard” (a line from near the end of the description of the guard). The aggressor then changed her attack. As I coiled down, she moved forward as if she were delivering a cut downward to my head. We found that, if the timing was right, the attack was thwarted by my “withdrawn” blade and my head was out of the way of the attack. From there, I could deliver a killing retaliatory blow (precisely in fourth, with my arm crossed across my body, palm up...just like the text said I should).

It all came together when we decided to move at greater speed, delivering our attacks with more sincere intent. The aggressor rushed me, swinging her sword down to the top of my head.

I reacted appropriately, by yelling in fear and ducking. It seemed like the most rational reaction.

Look back at the plate. Imagine yourself in the position of the fighter presented in the artwork. Imagine someone swinging a sword down on your head. The subject there is ducking out of the way, voiding the body, parrying the downward-striking attack with the outstretched blade. From that position, it seems like the most natural action to stretch your arm forward, like a spring-driven trap, and thrust in fourth to kill your opponent.

It was like we’d just unlocked some arcane secret. We switched roles, over and over, so each of us in our little study group could see the action from their own perspective. Each of us agreed that, when done full speed, with intent, this technique seemed not just effective, but natural. One could even say it seemed like the most rational thing to do.

We could not have deciphered the value of the plate without several key elements. We each had to see the action from our own perspective. We each had to know the basics of how to fight...our guards, footwork and bladework. We had to trust the author and his material. We had to believe in its value.

The material was a puzzle...a crime scene that we had to enact ourselves, over and over. The text and plates gave us guidelines, like clues to the crime. We took the starting and stopping points, directions that moved us forward to the ultimate objective: the aggressor defeated, and the defender saved.

Once we discovered the technique to decipher the plate, we could apply it to the rest of our study. The plates do not exist in a vacuum. Their value is hidden if you try to take them alone, on their face. A plate, if taken alone, without sincere study in the company of the others in its manual, is meaningless. We were able to unlock the value of the plates by applying our knowledge of those universal truths in swordsmanship, those foundations of timing, distance and accuracy, and relying on our trust in the material, and utilizing our own passion and perseverance to uncover a seemingly-arcane technique.

Fabris was certainly not trying to obfuscate his material. But we, students of defense studying the text four-hundred years later, may have to approach the manual like we’re interpreting art. We can take it out and dissect it, applying it based on our perceptions and our experiences, comparing it against what we already know. We can debate a style’s value against other techniques we know. I imagine that’s how my son’s karate instructor thinks about it, when he sees an Italian swordfighting guard and immediately applies it to his own skills.

Text and images from Art of Dueling: Salvatore Fabris’ Rapier Fencing Treatise of 1606. Tommaso Leoni. Chivalry Bookshelf. 2005.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

TV in the RPG

You saw the Christmas Day Doctor Who episode yesterday, right? Tell me that the coolest thing about the episode wasn't the menagerie of companions surrounding the Doctor. Dude, I want a whole show just about them. An ultra-violent Sontaran, a Silurian and her wife (they're detectives!), the Doctor's hidden TARDIS...all in a backdrop of Victorian London with the creepy Great Intelligence institute behind the scenes...

You wish your gaming group was that cool.

Look, I want to play that Sontaran in a game. I don't care what the game is...crap, it can be f'in Teenagers From Outer Space. Rolemaster. One Ring. I don't care...I want some goddamn laser monkeys.

Laser monkeys. I'm pissed off I didn't think of those.

I finally got around to watching the rest of Blood and Chrome, the Battlestar Galactica "Young Bill Adama Chronicles" mini web series. Damn fine little show. Gunfights. Cylons. Cool piloting. But tell me that the entire series wasn't a gaming session. The quick come-backs, the one-liners, the antagonism between Bill and his 2-month 'till going home copilot...right up to the very end (which, I imagine, introduces the premise of the new show). It was a damn gaming session.

And that's not a bad thing. I know there are people who say a good gaming group should be the A-Team. I'm not entirely certain I disagree.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"I have no conscience, being creative."

A new computer equals a hope that I'll put in a bit more work. So lets hope for the best.

I wrote an article for an SCA publication recently. I've submitted it to the editor of the publication and am waiting to hear back. Writing on the netbook was difficult. My eyes are already starting to go, and there were limited options when trying to edit the document. Plus, I was using Google Drive, which isn't the most intuitive thing I've ever worked with.

Yeah, I'll use that as an excuse for why I'm not producing.

So gamers...what have you done to increase your productivity?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Game project updates, complete!


Okay, not all that much progress, but some progress, still.

Like I said in a previous post, I'm working on a project for National Game Design Month...a little miniatures wargame that I'm calling, "TAKE THEM TO THE ARENA!" My fist step was to pull together some old notes and try to form one consistent, comprehensive product out of them. I found that while I was compiling everything, there was very little coherency through my rules and ideas for play style. Once I really pinned those elements down, my ideas would just ramble, and eventually dissipate into smoke.

Here's what I came up with: I want a small, simple game that could be played with few additional materials. I want to keep the simplistic aesthetic of the old Ziploc-packaged wargames, or even little-black-box games of the old Steve Jackson Games days. I want rules that have little complication or cross-referencing (two pages would be ideal). I want a game that can be picked up and played at the drop of a hat, something that can take a little bit of time, that can be carried in a pocket. I want it to reflect what I love about playing games, particularly those styles of games.

So everything I write has to comply with the above paragraph. Last night, I wrote out an outline for sequence of play. Its two pages in a Moleskine notebook. Now that I look at it, I may have to amend how many pages I'm willing to take make the rules. Charts will be necessary, but I'm thinking of just adding them to the character dossiers (I would like to make as many things immediately reference-able that I can).

There will now be a short Q&A, where I invite my imagination, subconscious and sense of insecurity to ask whatever they like.

Q: How will your game be distributed?
A: I'm thinking PDF, and then I'll package some in plastic bags. Seriously, I wasn't kidding about Ziploc.

Q: How much are you going to charge?
A: I was always told, "If you're good at something, don't do it for free." So I'm probably giving it away without cost.

Q: What are you doing for artwork?
A: ASCII? Pencil drawings? I have no idea. I'm going to need that. If i have to charge an illustrator, then I may have to actually make a marketable product, so I'm still thinking...

Q: Have a schedule?
A: Yes. I'm hoping to have a playtest available in the next week. Then I'm going to play the hell out of it and tweak it.

More later...maybe even pictures from my notebook.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Short thought about Western Martial Arts

Sunday evening, I took my new hand-and-a-half sword out of its scabbard and took a file to some nicks that were across the edges. I checked each edge carefully, taking different files to the areas that had some burrs or dings. I oiled the blade, and then polished it with an old washcloth.

Its different than with my rapier, where the dings and burrs are much less pronounced. Contact between weapons in the SCA is less dramatic. In this western martial arts class I got to participate in had much more drastic attacks, attacks that were delivered with greater intent And the edges of my sword showed it.

National Game Design Month! Also, I'm Bad At Updates!

Really, was my last post in August? Man, I'm really bad at updates. No wonder I only have five followers.

Hello, people!

For the last bunch of years, I felt sort of bad that I never had enough motivation to finish a NaNoWriMo project. Things always got in the way, I ran out of steam, I'd find something else to amuse me, blah, blah, blah. Yet, this year, I hear about National Game Design Month (

Okay, this I can get behind.

Do I believe I have enough motivation to take a game from inception to finished product in a month? Sure! Will my game be fun? Possibly! Will it be commercially appealing? Probably not! But hey, what do you want in a month?

The game is a miniatures-based skirmish game, set in a gladiatorial arena. Its inspired by a post I saw on Google+ about an old gladiator wargame designed to fit in a cookie tin. I've been twisting ideas around in my mond for a while after that, and jotted down some ideas. Now, I'm ready to make it happen.

The mechanics are coming pretty easy. I'm using a simple matrix comparing an active and resisting stat for each opponent. The matrix will provide a target numberm which has to be beaten on a single die roll. Die result gives the character result. I'll see how that works out.

I've found the biggest problem so far is in deciding the tone of the game. A gladiatorial game can be pretty grim, but I'm not sure I want to go that route. I'm thinking something a little more farcical. We'll see what heppens when pen gets to paper again.

For artwork, I'm thinking all pen and ink sketches. Give it an old-school wargame-in-a-ziploc-bag feel.

So, I'm off to work on it. Tell your friends to follow my progress, if only to point and laugh.