Spooky Significance

We are controlling this transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer,
we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. [We] will control all that you see and hear.

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Trust is a fundamental but largely unnoticed requirement of the tabletop roleplaying game medium, which makes it ripe for exploitation in a horror game like Fear Itself. Players are effectively blindfolded when playing the game, relying on the Gamemaster to tell them everything they see and hear.

Player: I look around the room. What’s there?

Gamemaster: There’s a table and some chairs. There are letters scattered all over the table, and what looks like blood spilled on the floor. Old, dry blood.

In the usual course of play, all those things that the Gamemaster described are true facts in some platonic in-character reality. By saying “there’s a table there”, both Gamemaster and players agree that there’s a thing in the game that behaves just like a table in the real world. The players may each have a different mental image of what the table looks like – one player imagines it as a little coffee table, another as a great big dinner table, a third as a battered round table salvaged from a bar – but everyone agrees that the table is a table.

The Gamemaster is like a clear pane of glass, diligently conveying the fictional reality to the players.

Obviously, if the Gamemaster flagrantly betrays this trust, the players are going to (entirely justifiably) be annoyed.

Player: I look around the room. What’s there?

Gamemaster: There’s a table and some chairs. There are letters scattered all over the table, and what looks like blood spilled on the floor. Old, dry blood.

Player: I pick up the letters and examine –

Gamemaster: The crocodile eats you.

Player: What crocodile?

Gamemaster: Did I say table? I meant crocodile.

If you undermine that trust a little, though, it can be a devilishly effective tool for subtle horror. You can draw the players’ attention to the strangest details, or subtly corrode the character’s sense of reality. Instead of a clear pane of glass, the Gamemaster is filthy, smudged, warped or cracked(1).

Player 1: I look around the room. What’s there?

Gamemaster: There’s a table and some chairs. There are letters scattered all over the table, and what looks like blood spilled on the floor. Old, dry blood.

Player 1: I pick up the letters and examine –

Gamemaster: As you cross the floor, you notice this pattern in the blood, this shape. It’s like a face looking back at you. For a moment, you swear you recognise it.

Player 1: I examine it more closely.

Gamemaster: It’s hard to find again. You’re walking back and forth, bobbing your head around, trying to get the angle right.

Player 2: Can I look?

Gamemaster: You never saw anything in the blood. It’s just a splatter on the floor.

Or

Player 1: I pick up the letters and examine them.

Gamemaster: Most are in plain brown envelopes, but there’s one in a green envelope.

Player 2: I’ll take a look at that one.

Gamemaster: Which one?

Player 2: The green-envelope one.

Gamemaster: They’re all in brown envelopes. You haven’t seen a green one at all.

You can lend significance to an item, much in the same way that a movie camera might linger on a particular prop or part of the set to fix it in the viewer’s mind as being worth noticing.

Player: I look through the letters.

Gamemaster: They’re all just bank statements, bills, junk mail, that sort of thing. One of them catches your eye – it’s a flyer for a local church. It looks unwholesome to you – the illustration shows this sickly yellow light falling out of a cloud to shine on this skeletal cross. You get the impression that the flyer’s slightly worn around the edges, like someone took it out many times to look at it.

You can play with the emotions and desires of the character, tugging at the usually inviolate connection between the player and the fictional avatar.

Gamemaster: You feel strangely drawn to the bloodstains. Looking at them is pleasurable and weirdly satisfying. It’s like they’re written in a language you don’t quite know, but something in you is learning it.

Or

Gamemaster: Looking at the bloodstains, a feeling of tremendous anger wells up inside you. Your heart’s pounding. Your mouth goes dry. Suddenly, it feels like it’s your blood there on the floor.

The Gamemaster isn’t overriding the player. It’s an unexpected and foreign emotion, not an forced action. It’s still entirely up to the player to decide how to react. Some players will just work this unexpected emotional cast into whatever they going to go anyway.

Player: I try to ignore it. I examine the letters. I’ll spread the letter out on the table to read it, because my hands are shaking so badly.

Others embrace this sort of direction.

Player: I’ll get down on my knees and start licking the blood off the floor.

You can even recruit the other players in your nefarious schemes.

Gamemaster: Ok, guys. Bob’s character lost a lot of Stability last week, and is having trouble connecting to people. So, in this session, whenever Bob starts talking to you in-character, I want you to smoothly rotate your heads to look at him, and give this big fixed leering grin, like this? And then play normally. Pretend that you didn’t do anything weird.

Again, be wary of overusing tricks like this. The aim is to disconcert the players, not make the game frustrating to play – but for a horror game, it’s hard to resist the temptation to exploit the Gamemaster’s position in the medium. You’re perched between the character’s eyes and the character’s brain, like some monstrous parasite. You control everything they see and hear, everything they feel and experience…

Fear Itself is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the creatures of the Outer Dark? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

[1] This description also works for many GMs even if you drop the metaphor.

4 Responses to “Spooky Significance”

  1. Frederick Foulds says:

    The link to purchase Fear Itself links out to Gaean Reach…

    • Frederick Foulds says:

      This said, this is a great article on GMing horror. The advice is equally applicable to Trail of Cthulhu as well. Thanks!

    • Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan says:

      Not sure how I managed that. Anyway, I’ve updated the link to go to the teaser page for the new edition.

  2. Alias says:

    Myth-Holder has crystallised my thoughts elonquently again. Harkens me back to my Kult days… a rather dark (understatement) game that played on peoples perception of reality.

    Cheers!

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