Building A Deeper Horror World
  • Building A Deeper Horror World


    I think that, outside of comic books, the one media that I've glommed onto for the longest part of my life has been horror. But, the longer that I role-play the less interested I become in horror role-playing. Most of the 90s were taken up with Call of Cthulhu and horror-themed GURPS games that I ran. Both of these systems were great for horror for me, but something changed over time.


    Recently, in a couple of different non-fiction books I've read I encountered the term occulture. I like the term because it has the connotation of a culture or a society that is behind things. That is something that I think ends up being missing from horror games: a sense of being part of something larger, not just for the player characters, but for the opposition as well.

    The longer that I am a gamer, the less I am interested in the "lone wolf" concept that can be prevalent in gaming. My default, when I am running a game, is to do character creation as a group activity. Players come together to create a functional group of characters. For a horror game this means coming up with some sort of an organization to which characters belong. This ends up serving a couple of purposes: first, institutional knowledge and, second, continuity of player characters. I'll talk about the second first, mostly because it is the simplest concept. Horror gaming tends to have a fairly high fatality rate, so that means that sometimes a player character can die at an inopportune time, having a "central casting" organization that you can draw upon for replacement characters in a manner that doesn't suspend disbelief too much. (That was always a problem with Call of Cthulhu, it hurt the suspension of disbelief when we would have to recruit a random passerby because we needed a replacement character for someone who died.)

    Institutional knowledge in a role-playing campaign is a lot more important than most people realize. There are always those time, especially in a horror campaign, where the player characters need to have a piece of specialized knowledge to get over a plot hurdle. No group can possible cover every type of niche that might come into play during a campaign, and honestly they really shouldn't be required to do so. Having an organization to draw upon for background information means that the player characters can focus on being what the players want to have fun with.

    There are obviously other reasons to create organizations, or cultures, for your horror games as well. An organization can spell out the larger world around the characters. A focused organization in a horror game can (sometimes) mean that the horror player characters will face will tend to be of a specific type. However, it can also be that the organization is wrong and has been focusing on something that isn't actually the problem in the world. This can add to the horror of the setting, because suddenly the situation is different, and what everyone is prepared for isn't all that helpful to what they are about to encounter. Think about the soldiers in Aliens for an example of this sort of occurrence.
    Now, organizations are just a small part of creating an occulture for your horror games. If you've seen Hellboy II: The Golden Army you probably remember the scenes dealing with the troll market. The troll market hinted at the larger occulture of the Hellboy setting, and you can create something similar for your own setting that serves a similar purpose. Worlds are never a monoculture, so that means that there can be all sorts of supernatural creatures within your game world: from trolls and orcs to fantasy elves restated in a more horrific manner to any number of weird or unusual creatures. Another example of an occulture could be the city of Midian, created by Clive Barker for his novel Cabal and expanded in the movie Night Breed.

    The idea of a "city of monsters" isn't uncommon in horror fiction, but it isn't something that you see as often in role-playing games as you do in the inspirational materials. I think one of the closest examples that you see in RPGs currently would be the Cthulhu City setting book that Pelgrane Press put out for their Trail of Cthulhu setting. Everything that you might need for an occulture is found in this book: people, places and groups. Cthulhu City is interesting because it is a setting kind of like the Battleworld from the old Marvel Comics event comic from the 80s called Secret Wars. Parts of the various iconic settings of Lovecraft's fiction are mashed together to into a big nightmare of a city.

    So, we have the pieces, but what does all of this mean? There's more to an occulture than just a bunch of random NPCs, and a group or two. The idea is that there is some sort of community to the world that you are creating for your horror game is a big part of that. But what does "community" mean within the context of the world that you're putting together? Does it mean hidden marketplaces and late night buses that only serve witches and wizards, like in the Harry Potter movies?

    Of course, answering these questions aren't just the purview of the GM of the game. Creating a horror world with some depth to it can be spread out across the group, with players contributing to the world's creation as well. This can help to invest players in the world of the game, and it can allow the GM to focus on other parts of the campaign. In one of the games that I am running currently I had each of the players come up with a location where their character likes to hang out when they aren't doing the "stuff" of the game. This served a couple of purposes because knowing what a character does for fun can tell you just as much about that character as their reactions to the stresses of combat might. Plus, with five players in the game that gave me five locations that could be dropped into a session at any time, to help fill out the world of the game.

    A world with depth to it is a world that players want to interact with. The recent conversations here on the site about which of the D&D game world from previous editions might be brought back for 5E demonstrate that. People want to revisit worlds that are engaging.

    Most of the things that I've mentioned throughout this article are everyday things that have been made into something fantastic. The Hellboy troll market is just a farmers' market that has the addition of mythological creatures. The Knight Bus from Harry Potter is sort of like a public transit bus combined with some of the amenities of a passenger train, all combined with magic. Using the everyday, and adding fantastic elements to it, is one of the best ways to create the occulture of your horror world. You can create something like the troll market by looking at your local shopping mall (while they are still around). How do you supernatural up a mall? There are mazes of hallways and accessways in malls that you don't see. As a mall contracts, there are spaces for stores and restaurants that get covered up and hidden away behind walls and panels. In some cases, entire malls close up and get sealed away. If your area doesn't have a convenient bridge to locate the troll market under, why not hide it in the lost spaces of an abandoned (or nearly abandoned) shopping mall? That once thriving bourbon chicken stall in the food court can become the location of a nose to tail stir fry joint operated by an up and coming orc chef.

    Anything that is a trend in the "real world" can be replicated to give depth to your horror world. What does a foodie eat in an occulture world? What kind of Charcuterie plate would an orc chef put together? Answering questions like this can fill in more information can give you interesting details about the world. For example, in our world most cultures believe that horsemeat is something that you just don't eat, same with domestic pets like cats and dogs. But there are other cultures that eat all of those things. Why? Is cured unicorn meat an underground delicacy that a lot of cultures frown upon?

    Creating a world takes a lot more than just filling out people, places and things. Going from a "world" to a world means thinking a bit more deeply, and thinking about things that you might not normally think about in your games. Creating an engaging culture in a fictional world means thinking about the sorts of things that come up in the real world. Now, while I wrote this article in the terms of a horror setting that is more or less the modern world, but you can just as easily apply these ideas to your fantasy campaign settings as well. Do you want the players to be talking about this game world in five or ten years? It is time to dive a little more deeply than usual.
    Comments 23 Comments
    1. MNblockhead's Avatar
      MNblockhead -
      Celestial Charcuterie Plate:

      unicorno involtino
      couatl capicola
      pegasus bresaola
      ki-rin kabanos
      salame di solar
      deva-liver mousse
      planatar pate
      guardinal galantine
      empyrean confit
      stuffed hollyphant snouts
      foie gras de lillend
    1. Pauper's Avatar
      Pauper -
      There's really just one problem with this concept when applied to horror games (as opposed to intrigue or similar types of games): part of the thing that makes a game a 'horror' game is the presentation of the unknown and/or the uncanny. A well-developed, competent organization with institutional memory defuses a great deal of this source of horror, because someone in a competent organization will have experience or knowledge of the thing that the group needs to tackle in the current adventure.

      This, to me, is why 'the world' in a horror game should more resemble something like "Kolchak: the Night Stalker"; there are individuals that might have understanding of the horrors you are facing, but they are deliberately hard to find, because if they were easy to find, the horrors themselves would have found them and removed them for their own protection.

      This doesn't even address the central conceit of Lovecraftian or "cosmic" horror: that mere knowledge of the true nature of the universe is harmful to the human psyche and destroys that which makes us human in favor of remaking us in preference to 'reality'. Any organization in a Lovecraftian universe that is competent enough to put the pieces of the puzzle together is already serving one of the Great Powers of that universe, because there's no way to understand how the universe works and maintain one's humanity.

      If you really want to model a horror-style magical culture, I'd steer away from Harry Potter (which, IMO, only works if you presume that everyone in authority is either incompetent or secretly omniscient) and focus more on a universe like The Dresden Files or the city of TunFaire in the Garrett, P.I. books -- it's a world where horrors exist, and knowledge is out there, but you can never be certain if the people providing you with knowledge are doing so for your benefit or that of the things that are hunting you.

      --
      Pauper
    1. Pauper's Avatar
      Pauper -
      Charles Stross's Laundry Files novels are another good example -- a secret organization, filled almost entirely with people of good will, who nevertheless have to make difficult choices and do terrible things to keep even greater horrors from consuming the world.

      --
      Pauper
    1. Doctor Futurity -
      In some sense this is a problem of saturation. Nothing is wrong with horror as a genre steeped in isolation and helplessness, but when you have experienced it (via game, fiction or film) countless times you become innoculated to it, and start looking for novelty. The best solution is to show restraint in the genre and not consume too much, but that runs counter to our culture of entertainment consumerism. Instead, one then seeks increasingly strange and more novel approaches to revive the experience, leading to a sort of downward spiral of increasingly genre savvy takes and retakes on the genre, which inevitably results in a shift in the genre to something different.
    1. Celebrim's Avatar
      Celebrim -
      Quote Originally Posted by Pauper View Post
      Charles Stross's Laundry Files novels are another good example -- a secret organization, filled almost entirely with people of good will, who nevertheless have to make difficult choices and do terrible things to keep even greater horrors from consuming the world.

      --
      Pauper
      Well, sure, but I think this point only serves to reinforce your earlier point about how this approach defuses the source of the horror: Stross's 'Laundry' series at some point along the way left the Horror genera behind and started more and more resembling a pulp thriller. The horror tones are increasingly just window dressing and fear isn't something I think is being deeply considered by the stories, and all the central Lovecraftian conceits are long gone in the rear view mirror. These aren't exactly sorcerers whose knowledge of the universe is destroying them or their ability to be human. Heck, you can have vampires and deep one hybrids as very human beings with very human concerns and personalities who are serving human interests and not the Great Old Ones. Heck, in recent books even the thing in the black pyramid and its agents and similar alien creatures are presented as basically human and intelligible beings. The world Stross is now presenting in the Laundry-verse is decidedly a 'humans are special' sort of universe where things aren't actually bleak and hopeless and the world is basically understandable, fathomable, and controllable by human intelligences. Heck, he's gone as far as bringing five-color capes into the universe and pulp secret agents who also are wielders of mighty magics. He gotten very far afield from where things were in 'Colder War' and 'The Atrocity Archives'. As a setting, it presently resembles more D&D than Call of Cthulhu, and a big part of that has been a largely competent organization preserving institutional knowledge. Recent books have more in common with the Star Wars cantina and everything despite its alien appearance being basically human in motivations than it has to do with Lovecraftian horror or any of its descendants (compare Stross's treatment of alien things with the alien of 'The Thing' or the xenomorph of 'Alien').

      The article goes in an interesting direction, but it is not the direction that I expected it to go based on the title. When I thought of deeper horror, I thought literally of deeper and more meaningful scares. But the article doesn't even think about deeper and more meaningful scares, and instead goes in the pulpy heroic goofy direction of classic D&D, Harry Potter or Terry Pratchett's Disc World. This might make for a more gamable universe, but it won't bring deeper horror or deeper reflection upon horrific things.
    1. Christopher Helton's Avatar
      Christopher Helton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Doctor Futurity View Post
      Instead, one then seeks increasingly strange and more novel approaches to revive the experience, leading to a sort of downward spiral of increasingly genre savvy takes and retakes on the genre, which inevitably results in a shift in the genre to something different.
      You say this like it is a bad thing.
    1. Doctor Futurity -
      Quote Originally Posted by Christopher Helton View Post
      You say this like it is a bad thing.
      Nope! Well maybe I wrote it more melodramatically this morning when I posted but it's not a bad thing...just different. But to give you an idea, I'm nowhere near exausted on the horror genre, and while the idea of a shift in approach is interesting in its own merits, it doesn't (once done) feel like the same genre to me. I may love my Lovecraft but I've never been a fan of Supernatural or Buffy. OTOH I love me some X-Files, and that definitely provides some structure to a genre that manages to blend the two.

      It's all in the execution, really. I think I'd be fine with any approach which still retained the structural and emotional resonance of horror even if it did structure it within a sort of group-based existentialist collaboration (don't games like Delta Green and Chill's SAVE organization sort of do this already? I would posit they succeed in a relevant framework without sacrificing the core conceits of the genre.)

      EDIT: I can provide another example of how adding a sort of deeper resonance to the heroic plight in horror backfires and sort of fries the feel of a genre. Read Lumley's Titus Crow novels....good pulp reading, but they manage to (imo) take the mythos horror of Lovecraft and pastiche it into something tantamount to an MK Ultra psychedlic roller coaster ride through the mythos, complete with the Big Damn Hero and a general feeling that no matter how fun it might be, it's still managed to turn its horror roots into something fantastical and comic-bookish. Not bad in and of itself (I enjoyed reading them, up to a point) but not exactly exemplary of what the core strengths of the genre are, either.
    1. Dannyalcatraz's Avatar
      Dannyalcatraz -
      1) Just because an organization accumulates arcane and occult knowledge, does’t mean that their knowledge is required correct or complete. Incorrect or incomplete information can be more dangerous than actual ignorance.
      “Now that we’ve got our Tommy Guns loaded with silver bullets, those vampire goombas don’t stand a chance!”
      2) Just because an organization accumulates arcane and occult knowledge, does’t mean that their knowledge is free to the Party. They may choose not to share it, of course. And if they do, there may be a price to pay, and it may be heavy. And paying the price may have repercussions beyond the initial costs.

      ”In order to destroy the Black Lodge, we all had to participate in the Ritual of Homophagy. Even Bethany realized this, that’s why she willingly sacrificed herself.”
      “You didn’t have to ask for seconds.”
      3) Just because an organization accumulates arcane and occult knowledge, does’t mean that they’re on your side. They could be neutral, they could be opposed, or they may have goals that you hadn’t considered.

      ”We had him! Because of you, we finally had him! Why did you stop us from using the Eye of Osiris to destroy Alkthetheth completely?”

      “Because The Balance requires his continued existence. All praise be to The Balance!”
      4) Just because an organization accumulates arcane and occult knowledge, does’t mean that they’re telling the Party the truth.

      ”So what did you tell the North Side Gang to use against Al Capone’s vampire minions?”

      “I told them that silver bullets were anathema to the damn greasy bloodsuckers.”

      “Ooohhh...good one! You might get promoted for that!”
    1. Christopher Helton's Avatar
      Christopher Helton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Dannyalcatraz View Post
      1) Just because an organization accumulates arcane and occult knowledge, does’t mean that their knowledge is required correct or complete. Incorrect or incomplete information can be more dangerous than actual ignorance.
      Yep. That's one of the things that I explicitly mention.
    1. dco's Avatar
      dco -
      For the first part some RPGs already did that long ago:
      - Kult: you had Metropolis, the real city, the rest was an illusion to slave humanity (like Matrix). It suited better the tone of the horror stories of Clive Barker and movies/games like silent hill.
      - The spanish RPG Ragnarok: The meteorite that killed the dinosaurs and started a glacial era brought something more. Players work for the Merrick House, an english editorial about the occult, the editorial has an inner circle with a library and senior people who had faced the occult.
      - The first Vampite the Masquerade, more focused (or at least the initial adventure) on the horror of becoming a vampire and discovering what lied behind the common world, it had a defined society of vampires, clans, etc. For us the other editions degenerated to vampire super heroes/villains all with their individual plans.
      ...

      Now you have more options, for example Cthulhu had Deltagreen, it changes the game to conspiracies, hidden agencies, etc and Flashlight?, the victorian era, with cabbalas, secret orders, etc. If you want something with more action Monster Hunter International, hunters of monsters and big conspiracies to uncover, demons want to conquer the world, Cthulhuesque monsters from other dimension want to conquer the world, the government wants...
      And a lot of games that now I don't remember.

      Some of those games also had some funny places, I always loved when a player bought a big absurd watch in a market of Metropolis because it could sense the real hour there, but in a crude way it inoculated a big parasite in his body and he fell unsconscious, the rest of players started to discuss if they should chop his arm.
    1. Imaculata's Avatar
      Imaculata -
      Key to a good horror game in my opinion, is the unknown. I've been pondering if I should run a D20 Modern zombie campaign, and if so, what that might look like. But one of the biggest problems with zombies is that not only are they cliche and repetitive, but they are not unknown. I think all of us know what there is to know about zombies, how they behave, what they can do, and what causes a zombie outbreak. Not having any of these things be 'unknowns' is a big obstacle to making a zombie campaign suspenseful.

      So I think if you want to make such a campaign suspenseful (and I think this goes for just about any horror campaign), you have to toss out the predictable, and introduce unknowns. For my hypothetical zombie campaign, the cause of the outbreak could not be any virus or mutation, because that is the most common and predictable reason for any zombie outbreak.

      This also made me think about what zombies can be, and what they can do. It made me realize that the threat had to evolve over the course of the campaign, and take new more terrifying forms, without betraying the essence of a zombie horror story.
    1. Dannyalcatraz's Avatar
      Dannyalcatraz -
      With known critters, you might want to cast a broader net, going not only back to the original lore, but also to see how other cultures or writers have handled them.

      There was some modern-day vampire movie where the heroes were big into the lore. The movie wasn’t that good, but one part stood out. The heroes had captured a powerful vampire they were...I don’t remember (like I said, not the best film). Anyway, the vampire started to break from captivity, endangering the heroes. So one of them pressed the panic button...

      This released the contents of dozens of huge bags of rice into the room- hundreds if not housands of pounds of rice falling everywhere. This is because the legends stated vampires had an obsession with counting rice, and could not apchase or attack someone until all of the grains had been counted. IOW, this was meant to slow the vampire down enough for the heroes to escape the room.

      The heroes breathe a collective sigh of relief as they turn to run for the exit, only to hear the vampire speak (paraphrasing), “Seven billion, four hundred sixty three million, two hundred ninety nine thousand, four hundred and five grains.” before they’ve taken more than a few steps.

      The legends were right when they said they had to count the grains. They didn’t say how fast they could count.

      ***

      With zombies, what if they were like some of the old legends say, and repelled or held at bay by salt, the purer the better? Other defenses beyond total body destruction (say, by immolation) were merely an inconvenience. Even parts were dangerous.

      (I was reminded of THAT lore in a dream. I intended to use it in a modern horror setting, with bloody scrawls like “The shore will set you free!” as part of the hints.)

      Or what if they weren’t undead, but like some of the RW stories of zombies- persons debilitated and controlled by the drug cocktails of evil priests...

      Borrowing a page from Serpent and the Rainbow, a pharma giant researches the cocktails in search of new treatments for diseases. But here, either a spill or a deliberate release of the cocktail variant (by a terrorist, zelot, or a black ops gov’t agent, take your pick) results in a zombie outbreak. The initial outbreak is closed-ended, but if any of the survivors report feelings of euphoria or hallucinations, some black-market chemist might gin up a further variant formula for his latest & greatest street drug.

      Same could be done with a malfunctioning viral VR program.
    1. Eltab's Avatar
      Eltab -
      Quote Originally Posted by Dannyalcatraz View Post
      Or what if they weren’t undead, but like some of the RW stories of zombies- persons debilitated and controlled by the drug cocktails of evil priests...
      I've read a sci-fi story where the zombies are truly dead, but then infected by a germ that triggers the nerve synapses. In order to slay the zombies, you have to spray them with antibiotics - or even bleach (to kill the germs).

      The hero saves the day by finding a warehouse full of Clorox.
    1. Dannyalcatraz's Avatar
      Dannyalcatraz -
      Quote Originally Posted by Eltab View Post
      I've read a sci-fi story where the zombies are truly dead, but then infected by a germ that triggers the nerve synapses. In order to slay the zombies, you have to spray them with antibiotics - or even bleach (to kill the germs).

      The hero saves the day by finding a warehouse full of Clorox.
      That sounds familiar.

      FWIW, there are fungi, microbes and parasites that essentially zombify their hosts.

      http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and...hosts-zombies/
    1. Dannyalcatraz's Avatar
      Dannyalcatraz -
      Quote Originally Posted by Dannyalcatraz View Post
      That sounds familiar.

      FWIW, there are fungi, microbes and parasites that essentially zombify their hosts.

      http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and...hosts-zombies/
      ...and thinking about it, you see variations of the living zombie idea in sci-fi quite a bit. Old Star Trek did it a number of times- the symbiotic plants (defeated by hormones released by violent/extreme emotions), the giant flying cells (killed by light), the planet dominated by Landru (outwitted by Kirk, it overloaded itself in embarrassment).

      ST:tNG had the video game that dominated players (defeated by counter-hacking).

      Add the mind-controlling aliens of countless movies- Invaders From Mars, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, etc.- and you can see you can have all kinds of fun with variants.

      All things considered, it’s the time of the season...for ZOMBIES!
    1. MichaelSomething's Avatar
      MichaelSomething -
      Quote Originally Posted by Christopher Helton View Post
      You say this like it is a bad thing.
      Considering the reaction to 4th Edition, it very well may be.
    1. Jhaelen -
      Quote Originally Posted by MichaelSomething View Post
      Considering the reaction to 4th Edition, it very well may be.
      You mean enthusiastic and excited? 4e was the best edition of D&D, period.
    1. pickin_grinnin's Avatar
      pickin_grinnin -
      I have always run my games (CoC, D&D, etc.) as sandboxes, with a lot going on all over the place. The players end up following any leads or rumors they want - or simply wandering about, in some cases - and don't always follow them to a "natural conclusion," as you would have in a more single-plot driven game. The worlds are fully fleshed out (I spend months or more designing them) before play begins, including various subcultures, root mythologies, and more. As a result, players end up with bits and pieces of information that may or may not be "real," since they get them from NPCs and organizations with various perspectives and interpretations.

      More recently, I have started using organizations to deal with the problem of characters dying relatively easily. I usually don't design those organizations myself, though - I just give them opportunities that can potentially lead to the players developing them on their own (ex. getting the deed to a house or building). Having a base of operations of some sort helps with a lot of things, particularly when you are looking at long-term campaigns, rather than individual adventures here and there.
    1. Allessus's Avatar
      Allessus -
      Hi, am thinking for a zombie campaign and have problems to set the cr for the encounter... I mean in a outbreak the zombies are endless... By example, the pcs leave a building and find themselves surrounded by zombies, maybe just a few have spotted them but fight the zombies would make a horde go after them or more precise the pcs encounter just 3 zombies and try to kill them but the noise will call more. So how many will come? Or how many can be in the area to be attracted by noise and how many will follow the alerted zombies even if haven't spotted the pcs?
    1. Allessus's Avatar
      Allessus -
      Also i am trying to make the campaign with a touch of fear so a heavy fog covers the area, which means low visibility, but it works in 2 ways, also the zombies are affected. Lets say they leave the building to enter the fog... How many zombies should be in the area and how many will enter/leave the area if don't spot the pcs?
    Comments Leave Comment