Taking The Mists Seriously For A Change

2008 July 8
by Vanir

As many of you may have guessed by this point, I have an overactive imagination. I have always been this way, and it is a great asset to me in my daily life. I’m very rarely really bored because usually if left idle my brain just does whatever the hell it feels like and leaves me to sort out the pieces. (It’s more fun than it sounds.) As a kid, I daydreamed quite a bit too. However, there was a real nasty side of being a kid with a powerful imagination. I was the kid who wouldn’t go near the basement at night, especially with the lights out. I was convinced there were monsters under the bed, in the closet, behind most doors, and generally anywhere I wasn’t looking right then. Very frequently, I was not a big fan of bedtime — I can’t even count the number of times I found myself screaming for Mom and Dad. Sometimes I knew what I was afraid of, but the really bad ones were when I woke up and I was scared out of my mind and I really didn’t know why.

I can’t honestly say I still don’t get the willies walking through my house in the dark in the middle of the night. Our house is built into the side of a hill, and we’ve got a long dark hallway that ends in two underground rooms. And at night, if there’s no lights on, you can’t see a damn thing. And almost every time I pass it, I can’t help but look just in case. Sometimes I’ll look at a window and think I see movement or be expecting some monster to mash its face up against the glass suddenly. And the thing that’s been creeping me out recently is when I go in to check on my baby son in the middle of the night, I’ll open the door and cringe expecting to find some horrible thing hunched over his cradle looking at him.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a grown man and I can make my will save and fear check vs imaginary monsters. But it’s just that nameless fear, the momentary chill up the spine, and the realization that holy shit that would really be creepy that really make things interesting. When this happens, for a brief moment, I’m a helpless little kid again and there’s nothing that can save me short of a light switch or Mom and Dad.

Let Them Scare Themselves

The feeling I just described is how horror works in my mind. I watched an ungodly amount of “horror” movies as a teenager, but just some random guy hacking up sorority girls doesn’t scare me. Some gruesome beast shown in HD with blood and slime and pus everywhere is fun to look at, but not scary. What is scary, then? Well, the problem isn’t so much in the subject matter so much as it is the presentation. If the same monster is talked about in hushed voices by the locals lest the beast hear us and the protagonists of the story run across a grisly scene of the monster’s doing, that’s a good start. That plants a few seeds in a person’s mind about what this thing is and how the hell it could have done that even though they possibly don’t even have the slightest idea what it really is. Or, even better, what if they realize they could be next? Then they’re looking around every corner and staying awake nights and just as soon as they drop their guard…. well, you know. That’s way scarier.

The point is, it’s scarier when it’s not spelled out for everyone. As a DM, you don’t have to say “a troglodyte approaches” or Tell the players about the seemingly unstoppable hulking figure lumbering toward them, with scaly dull mottled skin, evil red eyes, and a tail that indicates nothing human this way comes. For that matter, nothing says you can’t just make it dark where the PC’s are. That Light spell of theirs isn’t going to illuminate a dungeon like the inside of a Wal-Mart. Be vague. When you do give up details, give up the scary details if you can. Whatever the player thinks is happening is probably a lot worse than what’s actually happening, and when the lights finally shine on the beast only to show it was just an emaciated kobold they just killed, they feel awful silly. At least, up until the bushes rustle behind them.

Horror campaigns aren’t easy to pull off, and it’s not difficult to see why in most cases. Our group is going to start a Ravenloft campaign here in the next couple weeks (run by our friend/evil specialist/minister and soon-to-be contributor Katherine and her husband Carson), and I can’t honestly say I’m not worried that we’re not going to take it seriously enough to be effective (at least without some severe beatings). You can’t force a beer-and-pretzels (or in our case sugar-and-caffiene) group to be scared. I’ve personally borne witness to the grisly death of a well-made Cthulhu campaign run by our poor friend Kanati (due in no small part to me playing a psychic rugby player and speaking in a Scottish accent the whole time). It’s also hard to take a bunch of hardcore power gamers who have the monster manual memorized and have them be scared of most things you put in front of them. Matter of fact, if you do succeed in making a monster vague and scary, these players are probably going to feel helpless and get pissed off. Horrible things happening to a power gamer’s character aren’t roleplaying devices, they’re “nerfs” to be avoided. For instance, a curse on a wizard PC’s hands that makes them slowly get gnarled and blackened and useless is a great storytelling tool and an impetus for the PC’s to get their job done to save him. To a power gamer, you’re giving him penalties to spellcasting (for no good reason damn you!). You’re going to get a giant bushel of analysis and strategy, a lot of frustrated, and not a whole lot of scared. Our group has both of these in spades, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how we can have fun in such a horror-intense setting.

Hip To Be Scared?

My best guess is that a good place to start would be to make sure everybody’s on the same page as to what we’re looking for out of the campaign. That means I don’t make any psychics that talk and act like Shrek with a Magnum .45 pistol. That means that Stupid Ranger has to occasionally suspend her natural ability to produce a rule that saves everyone at the last second. It means that everybody needs to let go of the numbers and the dice and to listen to the slow, dark things happening to and around them and to think holy shit that would really be creepy.

If we can do that, I think we’ll have ourselves a successful horror campaign. I’m dying to hear any input our readers can offer us on the topic before the campaign kicks off. Help us scare the crap out of ourselves!

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Ostar permalink
    July 9, 2008

    Let people’s imagination fill in the blanks – it will be scarier than your description could ever be. The original Karloff Mummy (1930’s) had a great scene that brought me chills.

    A man is reading the forbidden scroll with the mummy in the sacrophagus in the background. The mummy’s arm slowly moves. Cut to the man reading, and a bandaged hand slowly reaches in and grabs the scroll from him. The man looks up offscreen and freezes in horror. The man backs up against the wall, and just slowly starts laughing, louder and louder, as his mand has clearly snapped. The camera pans away to the doorway, were you see only two trailing wrappings on the floor disappear jerkily through the door as the mummy is gone. And the insane laughter continues. You never see the Mummy. And seeing it would not have made it as frightening a scene.

  2. daegunkoh permalink
    July 9, 2008

    I love that feel. In one setting, I set my PCs against the Mad Born (Five Nations, Eberron Sup.) I started with them finding abandoned villages with two kinds of footsteps, the dragging feet and soft, careful steps in the snow. Eventually, they found a fortified village. The overall hitter was that they didn’t see a single one until the end. Instead, all I gave them were descriptions of them from the villager, who were barely able to defend themselves, and the MadBorn corpses via the Speak with Dead spell. With the spell, I had the corpses slip between “I” and the “We/Us” of the hive-mind. It’s a great feeling when one of the players says “Someone is going to have to walk me to my car.”

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