It's 2023. Smartphones Exist. Horror Gaming Still Does, Too.

1685987921391.png

I’ve been writing horror material for RPGs for over ten years. I’ve run horror games for much longer, dating back to the early 90s. In all that time, I keep hearing a strange declaration.

“Oh, I can't run horror games in the modern day. Technology makes them not scary and too easy.”

My knee jerk reaction to this is the same: you’re wrong. But, since two words does not an article make, I decided to dive into how horror stays alive in an era where everyone has the internet in their pocket.

Let’s talk about that wondrous device which you may be reading this very article upon. Does it always work? Do you always get reception? Horror often takes place in remote locations and, as a spoiler to anyone that doesn't go camping, reception sucks in the great outdoors. I literally have to drive for fifteen minutes from our summer cabin to get any reception when we are there.

For that matter, remote places aren’t the only ones that will leave characters wanting for more than one bar. Older buildings are often made with materials that can block reception. And we’re not just talking about ancient crypts here; anything from a big box store to a bank can leave a character without a way to call for help. Stores are loathe to fix this problem because they don’t want shoppers to find an item on their shelf and hop on to Amazon to purchase it for a lower price.

That also assumes the phone doesn’t get dropped in mud or bounces off a rock when it gets dropped. These are finicky devices meant to be used in a quiet room and the great outdoors doesn’t care how delicate they are. Damaging them may sound like a contrivance, and they can be, but they can also be the result of mixed successes or concessions. You might have been able to fend off the Beast of Bray Road, but you probably cracked your screen when it tossed you into the car door.

The next issue folks raise is that smartphones render clues inert. All you have to do is go online, type “how to kill a vampire” into Google and you’re ready to slay. These days, not only are search engine results not as tight, they also pull up a lot more noise to signal. Sorting through the junk takes time and skill. Just like if a character had to travel all the way to a spooky library and back.

What about characters part of some sort of secret monster hunter organization? Surely there’s some kind of app that would filter out bad info? That may very well be, but that allows the GM to focus on other ways to complicate the players lives. If they have the Hlsng app, chances are the immortal vampire knows about it and can take precautions against their weaknesses since they know they are out there. Or what if they coerced whoever updated the database to have false information?

The third issue connected to this is how quickly society would break down once someone posted a video of a real werewolf to the Internet. The veil between our regular society and our secret supernatural world would be torn to shreds forever.

This has always had an easier explanation in that people’s opinions aren’t that easily swayed. There are a lot of ways the public could explain it away: a neat SFX fake or a viral promotion for a horror movie, for example. The internet is rife with videos where someone got turned into a werepenguin. Beyond that, the past few years have sadly shown that people will hold their opinions in the face of actual scientific evidence. There’s barely a need for some sort of immortal conspiracy scrubbing the internet (though that can also happen nowadays). People do a good job of convincing themselves they are right far more than we every thought to admit.

The key here isn’t to render a player tool useless but to create tension when they use it sometimes. Success with complication feels like less of a cheat than just saying no. A complication gives players a chance to overcome a problem. Smartphones are a tool, just like cars, just like guns, just like fire. They can be useful in the hands of a main character but they also aren’t unbreakable.
 
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad

Rob Wieland

Rob Wieland


MarkB

Legend
This is still mostly finding ways to defeat the smartphones. For the best horror results they should be weaponised. Like, the characters spend most of a session communicating with a friendly NPC via text who's in another part of town trying to help them out. Then near the end of the session they find the NPC's body, several hours dead, and missing one hand - the hand which the monster's been using to unlock the phone via fingerprint so that it can impersonate the NPC to send them misleading messages.

Then later, when the monster is close and stalking them in the dark and they need to remain absolutely silent and hidden, each of their phones in turn lights up and vibrates as the monster uses the NPC's phone to call them.
 



I know for me once I got my phone I have never felt fear again. This thing is amazing. Between the flash light and the round plastic edges I can fend off anything.

What about vampires you ask? Easy just Google image search crucifix and just need to remember to hit my screen every so often.

Werewolf? No problem downloaded an MP3 of mating calls from Nat Geo. I'm a lover not a fighter.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
As noted, it’s mostly about the list of narrative permissions the smart phone gives you and the ways those permissions lessen the tone of horror. And honestly, the fact that there's a list of ways that people have come up with to overcome the problem of smart phones shows how disruptive they are. You don't need to find solutions for things that aren't a problem.

Darkness, isolation, lack of information, and lack of evidence are great ways to ramp up horror that the smart phone can destroy or significantly reduce.

Yes, you can either target the phone or weaponize it as mentioned above but that comes across as really cheap really fast. Like any other tool, if the referee simply stops it from working because that tool would destroy the ref's plot, the players can smell it like a fart in a car.

Grounding smart phones and keeping them realistic rather than let them be treated as super-tools is a far, far better way to deal with them than simply denying that they're a problem or arbitrarily targeting them until they become useless. Again, if they weren't a problem, you wouldn't have to go out of your way to target them.

Darkness. Smart phone flashlights aren’t that powerful. Their range is limited and the light isn’t that bright. My wife and I went to a cave once and she forgot the flashlight in the car. We tried using our phones as light sources but they were useless for anything more than a few feet away. They were great for lighting up the wall right next to you and the open air in front of you, but the light didn't reach the opposite cave wall nor did it reach the roof of the cave. And, as so often repeated around here, turning on a light is a great way to tell all the monsters around exactly where you are.

Isolation. Smart phones let you reach out to people via phone calls, video chat, text message, and the internet. That's really an amazing feature when you think about it. But in most cases with horror, it's more a matter of physical safety than mental isolation that's the risk. There's also the oft-mentioned lack of signal outdoors and in-some-doors to deal with. People don't always pick up phone calls or video chats. People have lives and are out living them. Even with the phone in their pocket, they don't always pick up. The asynchronous nature of text and the internet also don't really help with isolation. If anything it can ramp up the feeling of isolation. And, as mentioned, having your phone light up and start making noises when you're trying to hide would be a nightmare. In any kind of captive scenario, the literal first thing someone would do is take the target's smart phone and power it down, smash it, or throw it away.

Lack of information. “Google can bring you back 10,000 answers. A librarian can bring you the right one.” —Neil Gaiman. Smart phones would let you effectively have a library in your pocket either via wifi or cellular data. Blocking those is a simple, if brute force method to prevent this...but it also smells of obvious desperation to the players. Being able to reliably make "library use" or equivalent skill check at will is huge. As mentioned above, a simple internet search isn't usually enough to get you the answers you need. Especially if the information is esoteric in nature. Despite what some people think, not everything is on the internet. Separating the informational wheat from the chaff is also a skill unto itself. Need to know the exact coordinates of the capital of New Zealand, you can search for that. Need to know how to deal with a mi-go, you're out of luck. Not providing names to monsters is a great way to ramp up the horror generally, but it also prevents quick searches.

Lack of evidence. Being able to provide photographic evidence of what happened after the fact is huge. But it's also been basically useless since the advent of special effects, photoshop, and "AI" art generators. There's no photo that can't be easily faked. If the make-up artist and photographer are even halfway decent at their jobs, there's no way to tell if what's in the photo is a real monster or a person in a rubber suit. Same with audio. And as mentioned, there's also the credulity of the people you're talking to. A skeptic will not believe you no matter what evidence you provide. A believer will believe you regardless of your lack of evidence. Smart phones don't change that.
 
Last edited:

It also may be bad news if the things the PCs are hunting can see further into the electromagnetic spectrum than we can.
There's a Mothership adventure in Hull Breach that does that. You can't see the monsters unless you're looking through the special prototype camera and that sound terrifying.

Or consider doing something like Silent Hill, where your phone vibrates harder as the ghost gets closer...
 

The third issue connected to this is how quickly society would break down once someone posted a video of a real werewolf to the Internet. The veil between our regular society and our secret supernatural world would be torn to shreds forever.

This has always had an easier explanation in that people’s opinions aren’t that easily swayed. There are a lot of ways the public could explain it away: a neat SFX fake or a viral promotion for a horror movie, for example. The internet is rife with videos where someone got turned into a werepenguin. Beyond that, the past few years have sadly shown that people will hold their opinions in the face of actual scientific evidence. There’s barely a need for some sort of immortal conspiracy scrubbing the internet (though that can also happen nowadays). People do a good job of convincing themselves they are right far more than we every thought to admit.
This is where your essay breaks down and ceases being useful, I think.

If monsters existed and it was possible to record them, they'd be recorded, and people would not easily dismiss them. The gambits you suggest would work about once each - "SFX fake" and "viral promotion for horror movie" - they're fine for some one-off deal - they don't work for a campaign-based setting.

As for people ignore scientific evidence, sure, but that's a huge problem for cover-ups, not a benefit. When we're getting ever-increasing (and it would be ever-increasing) and consistent footage (and it would be consistent, too) of supernatural beings and happenings, the "I want to believe!" crowd would be both be: A) right for once in their lives so even more insistent than normal and B) very effective in disseminating that information widely and ensuring its survival. They also cross over hard with the sort of people who are into real science and quite skeptical but just fascinated by fringe stuff, who would quickly find they couldn't easily dismiss this - so you'd have a double threat. The sort of people who are into conspiracies won't be convincing themselves monsters don't exist, either.

So this is a real problem, and any modern horror RPG that doesn't address it isn't credible/plausible, it's just ignoring the problem and hoping it goes away.

You need a solution - either magic and monsters inherently mess with cellphones and similar technologies (people will still manage to get film footage, but that'll be a lot tougher and easier to contain) - or you indeed have some kind of widespread conspiracy to suppress this information. Or the monsters are just incredibly rare, like vanishingly rare (which is rarer than they are in any modern horror RPG I can think of).

As for the rest, instead of trying to look at corner cases where cellphones don't work - which let's be real, get rarer and rarer, and are far rarer in much of Europe than they are in the US, you need to accept they will work in a lot of cases, and think about how that's going to impact things. The more you contrive reasons for them not to work, the more you weaken the verisimilitude of a modern-day set horror.

Also satellite phones exist and are only getting more common, and whilst non-explorer PCs are unlikely to start with them, if you're running any kind of campaign, that will be one of the first things PCs buy - and they are not sufficiently expensive so as to be unaffordable.
Darkness. Smart phone flashlights aren’t that powerful. Their range is limited and the light isn’t that bright. My wife and I went to a cave once and she forgot the flashlight in the car. We tried using our phones as light sources but they were useless for anything more than a few feet away. They were great for lighting up the wall right next to you and the open air in front of you, but the light didn't reach the opposite cave wall nor did it reach the roof of the cave. And, as so often repeated around here, turning on a light is a great way to tell all the monsters around exactly where you are.
This is good for cellphones, but modern portable lightning technology has advanced insanely in the last decade or so, thanks to LEDs and better batteries.

Any character can buy torches, lanterns, super-powerful megalights and so on for less than they used to, very easily (from Amazon or wherever), which are brighter and last far longer (and may well be much sturdier) than the lights of say, 30 years ago.
That again is something to be dealt with and accepted in modern-day set horror. For one-shots you might be able to dodge it by people being unprepared, but with campaigns? Nah. You have to accept that you can't use darkness the same way in 2023 that you could in 1993, let alone 1953.
Even with the phone in their pocket, they don't always pick up.
This is a ridiculously overplayed and weaksauce device in modern horror and thrillers, and should be avoided. People almost always look at their phone when they get a call, and whilst they might screen it, in most real-life situations where anything remotely important is happening, the caller will immediately text them - that's the nonsense in a lot of movies, which rings really false - where people don't text when a phonecall isn't picked up. We all know from accidents and illness and so on that people do text.

And people look at their texts all the time. People look at their texts at inappropriate times even. Pretending like people don't see texts and don't pick up phones is like 50%-90% as desperate as saying "your phone inexplicably doesn't work".
Lack of evidence. Being able to provide photographic evidence of what happened after the fact is huge. But it's also been basically useless since the advent of special effects, photoshop, and "AI" art generators. There's no photo that can't be easily faked. If the make-up artist and photographer are even halfway decent at their jobs, there's no way to tell if what's in the photo is a real monster or a person in a rubber suit. Same with audio. And as mentioned, there's also the credulity of the people you're talking to. A skeptic will not believe you no matter what evidence you provide. A believer will believe you regardless of your lack of evidence. Smart phones don't change that.
Smart phones do change this equation considerably, because only irrational skeptics will completely not believe you. Anyone who is even basically rational is going to consider things a little more seriously like, would you have been able to fake this? Do you have a motive to fake this? Is it even possible to fake this on a budget of less than tens of millions? Especially when you're in the picture doing the Oliver Queen's grave meme over the dead body of a werewolf or a mi-go or whatever. And it's a video, not a single picture.

You have to be real about this if you want to bring the players with you - people will believe reasonable video evidence. But we have cellphones, and we know their real limits - and one of those is that getting footage of quick-moving stuff or sudden events is hard and not reliable. If there's a dead or severely injured werewolf, and you aren't running away from it, you will be able to get good footage of it - if you stake a vampire and it turns to dust, you may well be able to get good footage of that. But if something leaps out and attacks the group, it's much less likely anyone will have any real, useful footage of that from a cellphone camera.

Certainly I agree that it's not impossible to run horror set in the modern day, but if you lean out, and towards trying to make stuff that should work, not work, you're not really agreeing with your own thesis, instead of you're just finding ways to negate modernity. Instead lean in, I'd suggest - don't make phones not work, but do make them capable of being screwed with by the same sort of magic and supernatural shenanigans that might have made a face appear in a mirror or blood from a statue - not being disabled, but using them as another angle to mess with PCs.
 

I think one of the challenges to this line of reasoning is that people rarely change their minds. It can happen, but it's just as likely they'll reenforce their current belief system and rationalize it away. Even if presented with multiple instances of evidence, people will go to great lengths to not admit they are wrong. This is why many victims of con artists stay in their thrall long after the game has been revealed. Most true believers and skeptics will double down but you might convince a few key characters to jump ship.

My post wasn't meant to encourage GMs to break cellphones. I wanted to encourage discussion on viewing them as a tool that can be useful while still allowing for tension in modern stories. Letting the supernatural use them against players is a good idea, just as much as a spell backfiring or a gun hovering in the air and shooting back at the players. The scariest stories are the ones where the heroes have the tools they need and the monster is still one step ahead.
 

Remove ads

Latest threads

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top