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Fear of the Unknown

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Quote Originally Posted by H.P. Lovecraft
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
For the initial part of this discussion, I intend to elaborate on elements that Lovecraft discusses in his Supernatural Horror in Literature article.

Lovecraft truly hit the nail on the head with this statement. Whenever time is spent contemplating the true nature of fear, the road inevitably leads to the unknown. There are greater philosophers than I who have elaborated on this point, and Google can bring up many papers devoted to this very subject. I'll simply state that, more often than not, the root of fear grows from the observer just not knowing.

With this concept, we can start playing with the silly putty of fear in our campaigns. Call of Cthulhu is a horror genre game, but when you start working through the mechanics and details described in the various manuals another element quickly becomes noticeable. Call of Cthulhu is a game about mystery, and this is not a coincidence. At the root of every Call of Cthulhu game is an element of the unknown, and it's up to the investigators to dig that black heart out.

Our culture of the Horror Movie inspires us to prop up the central horror at the beginning of the story, and then lead the characters through a merry chase as they try to find the correct method to defeat the villain. This works well for action packed stories, and is how Horror has embraced Action in the time limited framework of a show or movie. However, as a tabletop RPG and even more so as a VTT RPG, we find ourselves able to play without the artificial constraints of time. In this sense, the techniques that movies teach us start to fall apart. These techniques work for movies because they must convey to us a full and rich story within a very short time frame. On some level, we as viewers recognize that and allow them to use blunt elements to provide recognizable depth without investing as much time into it (i.e. the heroine falls in love with the hero because he's the hero). I firmly recommend that we abandon the fast paced timeline of the movie and adopt the creeping stories of the written horror.

One of the reasons that I prefer slow starts to my game is because it provides a framework for the characters to recognize the "natural world". It's one thing to say, "This is the real world, and here's how I'm breaking the rules for horror's sake." within the first hour of the game. It's another thing to allow your players to explore the world with their characters, to experience how bureaucracy operates in the timeline, to witness how NPCs interact with each other, and then tear the veneer of this normal world with the brutal murder of the meter maid just because he happened to look to closely inside that car. In order to give the players a sense of the abnormal, it is important that we not skimp on providing them the normal first.

A trap that I witness many a Keeper fall into is the attempt to define exactly how horrific a scene is. Many have fallen from describing horror to describing camp when attempting to give fine details. This is not because they lack skill in writing or description, but because they lose sight of the fear of the unknown. You may know exactly how to describe a scene that leaves you shaking on the verge of wetting your shoes, but your fear of the unknown is not someone else's fear of the unknown. Tabletop RPGs are a game of imagination, and precise descriptions tend to turn off parts of the imagination. It can be more effective to simply describe the steady dripping of blood rather than the grisly tears in the victim's flesh, or the scrap of skin on the wall instead of the pile of mutilated meat in the center of the room. Consider the following:

The bones of the victim have been bent 90 degrees against their natural flex, and tatters of skin flayed from the muscle to tie the bones into these unnatural angles. Irregular drips of blood fall into the puddle of liquid that should have been inside the corpse but instead forms a pattern too horrific for your mind to process. These remains are so twisted beyond the normal that you can't even make out the sex of the victim.
I have described what would be a truly horrific scene to me. However, which part of this stands out as something to really be scared of, and naturally draws you to want to know more? For most of you, that would be "forms a pattern too horrific for your mind to process." While I have described a grisly scene, by not giving a description that pattern takes on a life of it's own in your head. What kind of pattern could be like that? Why couldn't you process it? How bad could it really be? All of this leads you to want to have your character take a closer look, perhaps justified by an attempt to follow the plot point, but at the heart of your desire is the need to dispel the unknowns in this element. To dismiss the fear so that you can remain in control. Unfortunately, while this fragment is powerful, the fact that it's the only vague element can be seen as the Keeper baiting the character into following a rigid plotline. Let us now consider:

The bones have been twisted into an eldritch pattern that should have toppled long ago, but remains upright. It's hard to tell what is skin and what is muscle as both are tattered off the bone and woven together into an indecipherable covering hiding portions of the grisly mass. Irregular drips of blood fall into a puddle that seems too large for the remains to have contained, but now form a pattern too horrific for your mind to process. Attempting to determine the identity, or even the sex, of the victim gives you uncontrollable shudders as your mind contemplates how a human body could have been rendered into this..... thing!
In a sense, I have given far less detail about what exactly is going on here. However, what I've done is used descriptors that force the player to construct the scene in their own heads. By leaving out the details of the actual subject, I have invited the player to construct the scene for themselves. This construction introduces the personal fears of the player into the scene. One player may find torn skin to be more disgusting than bone, and this description allows them to construct a scene with their personal disgust in the forefront. One player may consider the psychology of emptiness a personal affront, and this scene triggers that offense with the concept of being bled out. The deliberate dehumanizing of a corpse tends to affect a large number of people, many of whom might not have known that this bothers them! By leaving the actual state of the subject vague, I have constructed a scene that more widely inspires fear in the group than any kind of detailing I could have laid out. I have played up to the unknown, and the human nature to conquer the unknown through defining it. In addition, focus is drawn to many elements of the scene, leaving the player to find their own plot hook as they pry out details through their character interactions with the victim.

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Writing , Horror


  1. GMTroll's Avatar
    I've never run CoC but have run various fantasy games for some years and I'm still learning from GM's (DMs, Keepers, Storytellers etc) all the time. After reading this article I truly feel that I have learned something about myself as a GM and how I can improve my narrative, even if it's not horror. Thank you.
  2. SilverKey's Avatar
    Some great points about using narrative during gameplay! The HPL quote is what initially caught my attention. I'm a licensed mental health therapist and teach graduate students psychopathology and human development (among other things). As we move into discussions of trauma and anxiety, an important dichotomy is the distinction between fear and anxiety. HPL was attuned to fear and his use of the literary technique of confirmatory endings is perfectly suited to his emphasis of fear - of death, of the unknown, of failure, whatever. Each protagonist faces their fear in the end, whether monster or madness (or both). But running an RPG is a different task. The narrative methods you describe are more attuned to anxiety - worry or concern about an unknown (or at least not immediate) threat. Anxiety is that nagging sense something is wrong, it may be specific (I'm worried I will fail the test and disappoint my teacher) or nebulous (something is wrong, but I don't know what exactly or why). It's hard to generate fear in players, but anxiety is more accessible. Leaving details to the imagination feeds anxiety in players because coping requires more specific knowledge of the threat. Thanks again for sharing your ideas on this!
  3. Whatepok's Avatar
    Super post:)
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