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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

Allessus

First Post
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?
 

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Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
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?
If you’re doing a zombie apocalypse kind of thing, you could easily have the attacks start with just a trickle, with random numbers n subsequent waves, without ever using a true horde.

Just make sure at some point that there are enough in a particular wave to feel like a serious threat. Where the party gets the feel that- even if a single zombie is a cakewalk- sheer statistical force of numbers means the probability of serious injury or death is present.

And anything that affects visibility- darkness, lines of sight, foliage, a fog or layer of mist- takes things up a notch. My first D&D game EVER as a player was back in 1977, and I still remember the last encounter- which killed off my fighter and the party’s mage- was a purple worm partly obscured by waist-deep pea-soup fog.
 
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Allessus

First Post
My idea is not a wave, that would mean the pcs have toexterminate the threat or give them the perception they can clear the area. I want they understand that zombies are endless. By example: the pcs go through a forest but decided to rest. They start clearing the area of zombies and possibly they do. But they don't know when or where more can be coming. And if the noise will attract more.
Another example: the pcs have to combat some npcs. The encounter is that. But the zombies can be attracted by noise of the battle. How many? That's my question. Isn't a matter of lvl, i don't pretend to call more zombies as they become more powerful. I pretend something like the zombicide but need some sort of table and the factors that would make an horde or not
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Take your time. Drop hints in the form of writings left behind by academicians, alchemists and other educated types talking about the seemingly inexhaustible supply of undead.

Give them a spyglass at some point, and the first time they have a proper vantage place to use it, they can see a massive horde.

Have some of the zombies be clearly older than others because of the archaic clothing they wear. Or possibly even being recognizable as someone who died years prior.
 

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