The Plain People of Gaming: Hideously Oblique Documents

One of my favourite bits of working on Hideous Creatures – and the infamous H*wk*ns P*p*rs, for that matter – was writing up the in-character handouts that accompany each monster. Part of the joy was obviously seeing what artistic wonders Dean Engelhardt would come up with, of course, but even if you’re not blessed with a brilliant layout artist, you can still have fun generating fiendishly oblique handouts that hint at greater horror.

First, pick one or two aspects of the creature you want to highlight or foreshadow. These might be:

  • Horrible portents associated with the creature, so the players recognise them when they encounter them later on. A stench, a distinctive sound, a bizarre physical phenomenon, a sensation – anything that heralds the approach of the horror.
  • A distinctive way of killing, so the players recognise the creature’s victims for what they are.
  • A supernatural ability or phenomenon associated with the monster
  • A thematic association – if you’ve got a crocodile monster, your handout should reference something crocodile-related – Egypt? Rivers? Survivals from primeval times? Eggs? Lurking dangers? Floating logs? Teeth?

The trick is to find something that’s strongly associated with the monster in the scenario, but is still deliciously ambiguous. A bloodless corpse with neck wounds screams ‘vampire’ a bit too loudly, but unexplained illness with the symptoms of anaemia – that’s great, especially if you describe it in such a way that the players worry about other possible horrors too. Is the anaemia caused by a bloodsucking horror, by weird radiation, by an internal parasite? Foreshadow, don’t fore-explain. In handouts like this, aim for ambiguity that only gets resolved when the players actually encounter the monster.

You can be quite subtle here – the simple existence of the document means the players will give it added weight, and comb the document for hints. For example, say your monster is associated with weird time dilation. You could write a short diary entry where a young heiress talks about how she went out riding one morning after breakfast near the old standing stones, and lost track of time – she thought she was only out for a short time, but she arrived back to find it was already mid-afternoon. On its own, that’s a dull piece of text – but the fact it’s a handout means the players will pay added attention to it. (Note that they’ll also pay attention to irrelevant pieces of it – expect the players to get jumpy at mentions of horses, investigate the family history of the heiress, and investigate the old standing stones.)

(Also – the incongruous placement of a handout is a really great technique. Finding a heiress’ journal in a country house is unremarkably – it’s part of the conceptual furnishings. Finding that same journal in a ruined lighthouse, or a cult hideout in a slum, or in a tomb that hasn’t been disturbed since it was sealed 3,000 years ago – that’s a lot more intriguing!)

Second, catch ye hare. Think of the sort of handout you want. Try starting with a real piece of text to get a sense of language and phrasing. A diary from the 1920s is going to read differently from a diary from the 1960s – and that’s going to be very different to a blog post from 2008. Diaries and letters are the most flexible sort of handout, but they’re a bit cliche. Newspaper articles are always good as a starting point, but can’t get too close to the real mystery (unless you can hint at a sinister reason why the journalist was prevented from investigating and digging deeper). Official accounts, like coroner’s reports, are good when you want to summarise an incident (or describe a mutilated corpse in detail, which can be really handy – it lets investigators use forensic techniques on a death from maby years ago), but hard to keep to short, and the best handouts are short and punchy. Shorter documents – records, auction listings, classified ads – are tricky, as you’ve got to tell the story entirely in implications. (Using google image search can often find scans of old articles and clippings for a visual reference).

Third, have a purpose in mind. A handout might:

  • Tell a story: Usually, the story of how someone else suffered a horrible fate at the hands of the monster; you want to hint at what might happen to the player characters if they’re unlucky.
  • Suggest a line of inquiry or course of action: Mentioning a location, object, book or individual in a handout can be prompt to the players to investigate
  • Foreshadow the monster: This sort of handout is really just to add foreboding; it doesn’t need to tell the players much, other than “there’s something bad out there, and here’s one trait associated with it”.
  • Hint at unplumbed depths: Handouts are great because they give exactly as much information as you want, and no more. The players can’t ask more questions of a piece of paper; they can’t spend points of Interrogation or Intimidation to learn any more. Therefore, if you want to include vast conspiracies, lost civilisations, or deeper mysteries that are outside the scope of your intended game, use a handout to drop hints of those greater depths.

Here’s a worked example of how to build such a handout.

We’ll start with a Trail monster that isn’t in Hideous Creatures – the Masqut. They’re the reptilian denizens of the Nameless City of the Arabian desert – the things of whom it is written that is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die. The entry in the Trail core rulebook – and in Lovecraft’s story – doesn’t give much detail on the monsters. They’re like crocodiles or seals, they walk on all fours, some of them are mummified, they hate humanity, and there are more of them in a vast cavern underground. Oh, and there’s a spooky wind.

I’m immediately put in mind of Feejee mermaids and other monsters of taxidermy. Maybe an art dealer bought what he thought was an amusing fake, but was actually a real mummified masqut… and then, to highlight the underground nature of the monsters, maybe the earth collapsed under him. “Art” plus “underground collapse” makes me think of Paris and its catacombs; even if my adventure isn’t set in Paris, I can incongruously place this handout in the belongings of some victim of the masqut, prompting the players to wonder what Parisian taxidermy articles have to do with the disappearance of their pal the archaeologist in Arabia.

A quick google turns up this clipping (from https://parisianfields.com/2015/09/13/a-city-built-on-air/). That’s a mundane and explicable tragedy, but we can build off that – if we set up our incident as an unexplained coda to it, we can refer back to that earlier collapse and reuse some of the same language, giving us:

SECOND TRAGEDY IN PARIS

The collapse of another building in Paris is likely linked to recent rain storms and flooding, giving rise to fears that the foundations of the city are being eaten away. The most recent incident involved a warehouse owned by M. Salon, an art dealer and taxidermist, which collapsed into a hitherto undetected gulf below. M. Salon and two of his staff perished in the accident, and his newest acquisition, described as a ‘mummified cockatrice’, was also lost, entombed once more in the depths of the earth.

A little over-wrought, perhaps, but enough to disturb the players…

2 Responses to “The Plain People of Gaming: Hideously Oblique Documents”

  1. Dean Engelhardt says:

    Speaking as someone who has had the challenge of visualizing the (sometimes-ambitious) handout ideas dreamed up by Gareth and other great Pelganistas … this advice seems very sage indeed. I personally love having evocative in-world documents to drop in front of players. If they are done well they can definitely draw people into the game setting in a way which nicely complements the verbal description of the GM.

    Long live the grand Pelgrane handout projects (but then again, I would say that :) )

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