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

overgeeked

B/X Known World
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.
We have research that points directly to people not changing their minds regardless of any evidence presented. We also have mountains of anecdotal evidence on every forum since the net started. People just argue. They throw up a post with an opinion and just dig in and defend that opinion vs all comers. Less than once in a blue moon will someone admit to being wrong, to say nothing of taking up a contradictory opinion.

If someone suggests that a skeptic is going to suddenly become a believer in Big Foot simply because of a grainy video, or werewolves because of a digital photo, or the Silurian hypothesis simply because of some errant archaeological evidence, etc, then I’d suggest that person spend a few hours looking at conspiracy theory websites. There’s mountains of “evidence” for all kinds of bizarre stuff…and yet, the vast majority of people don’t believe in that stuff despite all the writing, blogs, books, photos, videos, audio, etc. And it’s not because they haven’t seen or heard any of it before.

Now throw that into a horror gaming context. The small town sheriff talking to some snot-nosed kid with a blurry smart-phone photo of something with big teeth isn’t going to suddenly ignore their lifetime of skepticism, years of negative experiences with this particular snot-nosed kid, and suddenly take up arms and go charging into the woods to hunt werewolves. More likely the sheriff will think the kid’s high and dismiss him or lock him up for everyone’s safety.

Again, if someone’s a believer they will believe you, regardless of your lack of evidence. If someone’s a skeptic they will not believe you, regardless of your mountain of evidence.
 

log in or register to remove this ad


MGibster

Legend
I ran a game of Vampire 5th edition, and the players elected to be part of the Camarilla which had a real strict rule against cell phones. Despite telling them the Camarilla was terrified of cell phones because the Second Inquisition has used them to track down and kill vampires, it was next to impossible to completely wean them off of cell phones, and towards the end of the campaign I had vampire hunters use their cell phones to track them down.
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.
I think it's best to allow the cell phone to be used as another tool to help the adventure move along.

1. Let them use their phones to look up information. Not everything is online of course, but maybe they'll find something that helps them get to the next scene.

2. Let them call for help. The average police response to a 911 call in the United States is 10 minutes. That's a long, long time when you're imperiled. Will other PCs arrive any quicker?

3. Let them record something. For Call of Cthulhu, whose to say what a creature might look like. Whose to say everyone will believe its real?

4. The bad guys have cell phones too.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I ran a game of Vampire 5th edition, and the players elected to be part of the Camarilla which had a real strict rule against cell phones. Despite telling them the Camarilla was terrified of cell phones because the Second Inquisition has used them to track down and kill vampires, it was next to impossible to completely wean them off of cell phones, and towards the end of the campaign I had vampire hunters use their cell phones to track them down.
Yep. Watch some true crime shows. It's really amazing what people can do with the tech. And it's not always good.
I think it's best to allow the cell phone to be used as another tool to help the adventure move along.

1. Let them use their phones to look up information. Not everything is online of course, but maybe they'll find something that helps them get to the next scene.
Very true. Easily searched for answers are not likely to be the kind that will really help the investigators during a CoC game.
2. Let them call for help. The average police response to a 911 call in the United States is 10 minutes. That's a long, long time when you're imperiled. Will other PCs arrive any quicker?
And what will the cops do when they get there? Likely arrest the PCs for making false statements and making a fake call to 911.

Did the PCs leave a trail of cultist corpses around? That's mass murder. Did the PCs leave a monster corpse around? That's animal cruelty or murder if it looks human.

Calling the cops is generally a terrible thing to do as a PC.
3. Let them record something. For Call of Cthulhu, whose to say what a creature might look like. Whose to say everyone will believe its real?
And anyone who watches that video will have to make a SAN check. That's likely when Delta Green shows up and starts pushing people around.
4. The bad guys have cell phones too.
Exactly. The cult leader has video evidence of the PCs charging in, guns blazing, gleefully mowing down cultists by the dozen. They carefully edited the video to remove anything bad the cultists were doing, of course.

There's lots of ways to play this stuff. The referee simply saying "no, cell phones don't work" is about the worst possible response.

But it's also wrong to say that smart phones have no affect on horror. Yes, they clearly do. Otherwise people wouldn't need to come up with ways to circumvent their use. You don't try to fix something that's not a problem.
 

Vaslov

Explorer
“Oh, I can't run horror games in the modern day. Technology makes them not scary and too easy.”
I have run into this since the internet and cell phones changed communication and found it both surprising and odd. If first came up for me in the 90's in a CoC game. When I think of Lovecraft's writing he generally had characters with newer technology from their day in the stories. My take cosmic horror is always bests in current times, not 100 years in our history. Make it relevant to our own life experiences. Not to say it isn't fun to play in the 1920's or 30's as well.

Using the newer technology to enhance the horror is part of what I find fun running horror games. It's coming up with new ways to surprise players. When they realize color out of space moves via cell towers transmissions how will they stop it as it taunts them jumping from phone to phone? What is stopping it from already spreading everywhere if it has this access already? Is the technology the problem? Or is it part of the solution as well? The red herrings write themselves as your players minds start going wild with new possibilities.
 

Yep, if the pandemic and other events in the US has taught me anything, it’s that people will happily maintain their beliefs, even when shown a mountain of evidence that disproves those beliefs.
Some folks don't have to go to reddit for wild conspiracy theories and folks who won't change their minds despite mountains of evidence. They just have to go to holiday dinner.
 

giant.robot

Adventurer
I find the idea that smartphones ruin horror games a bit silly. The idea presumes that smartphones (and the Internet) work in ways they clearly do not.

1. Consumer cameras have been a thing for more than a century. Pictures of eldritch horrors aren't magically more effective from an iPhone than a 35mm camera. A blurry picture of a werewolf isn't going to convince anyone. Smartphones don't have the best low light performance so taking pictures of a vampire at night isn't going to turn out that great.

2. Walkie talkies have been around since WWII. They can provide instantaneous communication between characters like a cell phone. Long range communication doesn't automatically break horror settings.

3. Have you ever tried looking things up on the Internet? It's a total crap shoot. Mythos tomes in CoC are not going to be digitized and put online. There's precious few rare mundane books digitized and put online. If werewolves and vampires aren't common knowledge the characters aren't going to find a TikTok video explaining how to harm them. Posting evidence on a conspiracy forum will have the same effect as flat Earth or lizard people naughty word.

4. People are terrible at communicating when they're stressed. So what if they can call other characters? Screams and panicked descriptions aren't necessarily helpful. Location sharing isn't super precise, finding someone who is injured or unconscious is still difficult.

5. Lights on phones are not great. They can help you find your keys in a dark room but they're no replacement for a real flashlight. The existence of flashlights shouldn't break horror games anyways.

In a modern setting smartphones are just fine tools for characters. Like any other tool the characters might have they shouldn't just be an "I Win" button. If the character can't pass their skill checks their phone doesn't magically help them. I'm fact it might penalize checks because searching the Internet often sucks. If the player can't come up with a good reason a phone solves their problem there's no reason for it to solve their problem.
 

jaerdaph

#UkraineStrong
I think the first time I really thought about this was when the 2006 remake of When a Stranger Calls came out. My first thought was, how are they going to remake a movie that relied so heavily on pre-cellular landline phones for the plot? And while the remake isn't as good as the 1979 original, I thought the simple explanation at the beginning of the film was pretty clever for the time: the babysitter had her cell phone taken away by her parents as a punishment for going over her minutes.

And while I've definitely seen the "technology negates the horror" sentiment a lot in the past, I haven't really seen it as much lately. If anything, I've seen a lot of folks preferring to set their modern horror scenarios in 2019 to avoid having to deal with 2020 and COVID that was so omnipresent and unavoidable.

Edited for spoilers.
 

MGibster

Legend
Consumer cameras have been a thing for more than a century. Pictures of eldritch horrors aren't magically more effective from an iPhone than a 35mm camera. A blurry picture of a werewolf isn't going to convince anyone. Smartphones don't have the best low light performance so taking pictures of a vampire at night isn't going to turn out that great.
It's not the existance of camera phones that's a game changer it and of itself but their ubiquity. In 1994, if you carried a camera on your person at all times you were either a professional, a very enthusiastic hobbyist, a weirdo, or some combination thereof. There are more than 5.3 billion mobile phones on the planet right now and 83% of them have cameras. When I went to the mall with my friends in 1994 nobody had a camera on them. If I were to go to a mall with my friends today, close to 100% of them would have phones.

This does serve to make it a bit more difficult to suspend disbelief for a games like Werewolf which have whole secret societies of magical beings of some sort. But I'm generally willing to suspedn my disbelief to play a fun game. Delta Green explains that the supernatural is so vanishingly rare that even with the ubiquity of cameras it's hard to find. And in Vampire, even a large urban area like the San Francisco Bay Area you're only going to find like 70-100 vampires there.

Walkie talkies have been around since WWII. They can provide instantaneous communication between characters like a cell phone. Long range communication doesn't automatically break horror settings.
But hardly anyone ever carried walkie talkies around. Even camping, I don't remember ever seeing someone with a radio who wasn't a park ranger or some other occupation where one would be necessary for them to do their job. As with the camera, it's the ubiquity of the phone itself.

Have you ever tried looking things up on the Internet? It's a total crap shoot. Mythos tomes in CoC are not going to be digitized and put online. There's precious few rare mundane books digitized and put online. If werewolves and vampires aren't common knowledge the characters aren't going to find a TikTok video explaining how to harm them.
I think the best course of action is to let the players use the internet for things they can reasonable expect to fine. Mythos tomes are pretty much out of course, but in Call of Cthulhu terms, I'd let them make a Library Use roll for mroe mundane things. Not everything has been digitized of course, but they might find the library has Carl Orne's papers in their archives which is open to the public.
 

Faolyn

(she/her)
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.
This could also be where you make your monsters different. Although my players haven't encountered them yet, in my Monster of the Week game, vampires are actually intelligent, land-adapted cephalopods who use a combination of "squidly shapechanging" and different biochemicals in their bite to effectively mimic the legendary vampire. They have three hearts--staking one of them won't do any good. Since they're a recent addition to the world (they only made it onto land when deep sea expeditions found them), the vast majority of people have no idea that vampires are anything other than what the books and movies say they are. Most of my other monsters are "different" like that as well.

Of course, you don't have to go that far. Think of the vampires in Discworld. A stake to the heart may reduce one to ashes, but the second a drop of blood gets on any bit of that ash, then even if the ashes had been scattered on the wind, the vampire will begin to reform. Then, the goal of the adventure isn't just to kill the vampire but to make sure it stays dead.

Also, in MotW, it's assumed that the characters are competent and very quickly find out the monster's weakness (every MotW monster has a weakness), so for that game, the goal is the hunt, not the kill. So it doesn't matter if you know exactly how to kill a vampire. It's getting to the vampire that's the important part. How easily can you kill a vamp who's smart enough to always remain in public areas, surrounded by innocent humans, without causing mass panic, looking like a deranged murderer, or getting filmed and put on youtube?
 

Remove ads

Latest threads

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top