See Page XX: Forget It, Jake, It’s Existentialtown

See P. XX

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Some mysteries, like that of life itself, never resolve themselves in anything other than new, stranger questions. Deconstructed mysteries like David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) and Mulholland Drive (2001), Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) retain the outward form of the mystery genre, with clues and questing investigators, without the reveal at the end. Some supposedly straight mysteries, for example Edgar G. Ulmer’s Grade-Z oddsterpiece Murder is My Beat (1955) present such a peculiar set of clues that they too seem to throw the sureties of the genre into a spiral of arbitrary result. From Zardoz (1974) to Inception (2010), many dreamlike, trippy, or alternate reality films follow the seemingly structureless structure of the existential mystery.

In The Esoterrorists and Fear Itself, the Mystery Man’s Ocean Game, created by master monster-maker Dave Allsop, very much follows in this tradition. In case you missed it, it’s right there in the name of the psychologically sadistic outer dark entity: the Mystery Man. This enemy targets the protagonist, turning his life into a series of clues that leads anywhere but out. He destroys his victims by gradually enmeshing them in a hellish, hallucinatory pocket reality.

At first the Mystery Man’s invasive bubble version of the world bleeds into the real one. The hero goes about his everyday life, as weird manifestations bubble in its periphery. Over time they take greater focus, intruding more often, with increasing intensity. Finally the target becomes completely mired in the Ocean Game illusion.

Existential mystery could likewise torment your Trail of Cthulhu characters. Due to pineal gland experiments, a ritual gone awry, or an accidental drift into dreamland, characters could find themselves trapped in an otherworldly realm. In Ashen Stars this effect might occur when your ship drifts into a stellar anomaly, quantum disturbance, or the disembodied aura of a dead Vas Kra. Though it would impose a big drift in genre, even Night’s Black Agents spies might find themselves running operations in a psychic reality created by blood magic. Alternately, you could ditch the genre trappings of the various GUMSHOE game lines for an exercise in unspecified modern weirdness. Or jump publisher boundaries to create your own GUMSHOE-powered iteration of Over the Edge. Whatever the trappings, the solution to the mystery might require the victims to comprehend how and why their reality shifted out from under them. But then there’s still the final question: how to get out.

Before trying this, get buy-in from your players to make sure they’re ready to care more about experiencing the mystery than solving it. For many groups, you may prefer to present the mood and structure of the existential mystery but allow for a scene where they finally figure out what’s going on, get the heck out of there, and put everything away in a neat little box.

A scenario in which investigators do not seek realistic clues which lead them from one actual location or see into another requires some questioning of what is a scene and what is a clue. You might sprinkle a number of weird facts into a scene. You could determine in advance which ones are sufficiently creepy or evocative to pull them further into the story toward another scene. Alternately, whichever detail the players most obsess over becomes the pathway to another, equally puzzling follow-up. This of course requires you to improvise more than a standard scenario might. But then you don’t have to worry about it making literal, as opposed to thematic, sense, making your task considerably easier.

The ending of an existential mystery depends on a central question: are the characters resolving something inner, about themselves, or outer, about existence itself? In the first case, the scenario is most likely resolvable. The characters interact with people, places and situations reflecting their internal conflicts. They either overcome these and escape, healed, into an ordinary reality where questions have answers, or fail, and are trapped forever in the labyrinth or otherwise destroyed. If it’s existence itself they’re tackling, they’re screwed, baby. It’s labyrinths all the way down. Enjoy the minotaurs!

The witnesses, shady characters and monsters they meet along the way will even more than usual embody universal symbols and archetypes. As a student of that classic existential horror mystery, The Wizard of Oz (1939), you already know the drill. Along the way the heroes will meet psychopomp characters who point them on the way, twisted antagonists bent on turning them from the road, and companions of various outre stripes whose limitations the hero must overcome to in order to access their full aid. In many RPGs, this last category might be filled by the other player characters.

Naturally you skin these figures as dictated by the signature tropes and images of your game’s genre. The psychopomp might be the manager of an underground club, an alien star child, a Bucharest arms dealer, or a deceased professor, his advice appearing in the form of a scrawled final diary.

In existential mysteries locations take on a looming significance. Describe a dreamscape version of reality, with ordinary locations distorted, twisted, and blown up to cavernous scale. Render workaday places eerie by depopulating them. Instill the sense that events are unfolding just out of the characters’ sensory range. They hear a party, or the disturbed laughter of maniac children, but no matter how quickly they run toward the source of the sound, never manage to fully behold it.

As GM you don’t have to decide at the outset whether you’re running a journey of inner or cosmic significance. You can instead gauge what the players expect and either deliver that, or satisfy them with the switcheroo of their secret desires. Generally they’ll want to solve the problem but in a horror environment they may instead feel let down if they fail to shamble their way toward to a sanity-blasting outcome.

3 Responses to “See Page XX: Forget It, Jake, It’s Existentialtown”

  1. gdave says:

    This post genuinely freaked me out a bit. The empty billboard in the foreground? It has my name on it! And my last name isn’t very common. A quick Google search reveals that there is a company called the Pattison Sign Group, so I’m assuming that it’s a sign they made – but I can’t remember ever seeing a billboard or similar sign with the design/manufacturing company’s name prominently featured like that.

    Given the post’s subject matter, and what the sign looks like in that third image – as I stated, genuinely freaked me out a bit.

  2. Aaron S. says:

    Agreed, gdave. This was a very unsettling post.

    Robin, thank you for tackling the subject of existential mystery from a roleplaying angle. Makes me think I need to pick up Fear Itself or The Esoterrorists after all…

  3. Thanks Robin, great as always!

    I’ve always thought “Chinatown” is prime for a GUMSHOE™ scenario!

Leave a Reply to gdave