Sunday 22 April 2012

Supernatural Horror in Gaming

Lovecraft's essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, written between 1925-1927 is an interesting work in it's own right.  In it, the author traces a literary tradition of Horror writing starting with the earliest European folklore, continuing with the Gothic Novel, touching on numerous modern writers, and ending with several of Lovecraft's contemporaries.  What is more interesting to me at the moment, however, is Lovecraft's theory of Horror which he outlines in the essay's introduction.

The Nature of Horror

The essay begins with the oft-quoted statement that:
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
This fear, Lovecraft assert, "must not be confounded with...mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome."  Rather, the fear he is talking about results from:

A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces...and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain -- a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the dæmons of unplumbed space.
 In other words, Cosmic Horror is the ultimate expression of Fear of the Unknown, where the Unknown threatens to overthrow even those venues of reality we think we know well.

Practical Advice from the Master

In any case, Lovecraft asserts that:
Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation.
 This focus on mood over plot is certainly evident in Lovecraft's tales.  In one of my favorites, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the protagonist learns more and more of the horror of his situation, but even so, the story ends with more unrevealed than revealed:
We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y'ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.
 The reader is left with no definite explanations, only with a vague, yet evocative impression of unknown horrors in the murky depths.

In my mind, this is one of the major problems with attempts to codify Lovecraft's writings into a consistent "mythos".  A mythos takes the focus away from atmosphere and places it squarely on plot.  Furthermore, it tips the balance in the mind of the reader from unknown to known.

Application to Gaming

A DM, by nature, has to give a good deal of thought to "plot".  What sort of entities does the party enounter?  How many?  What are their abilities?  Nevertheless, Lovecraft's statements leave me wanting to also add a mood of horror to my games.  How can this be done easily and effectively?  For me the default option is to "add another random generator" to the mix.  So here's one for a specific scenario I have in mind:

  1. Shrine with a hideous idol and a few 1000-year-old coins recently placed in a coffer
  2. The ever-present chirp of crickets stops.  Pack animals must make a morale check or bolt in panic
  3. Raving bum, too drunk to stand, makes ominous references
  4. Dull scratching noises, apparently coming from within the solid-rock walls
  5. An inhuman cry is heard.  Any local hirelings must make a morale check or flee in panic
  6. Pile of freshly removed organs on a stone floor.  Any medical/biological professionals in party will not be able to identify what type of organ, much less the species it comes from
  7. A more well-preserved room with murals on the wall.  The language/artistic tradition is not known, even to an expert.  The scenes depict conical entities going about various indeterminate tasks.  In fact, the shape of the walls seems to reflect some strange non-Euclidean geometry.
  8. You sense movement in the deep bushes.  If party investigates they find a 3 pronged footprint unlike anything they have seen.  If they open fire first, there will also be a thick, whitish ichor.
  9. Some sort of workroom, full of cobwebs and dust.  In it, rows of unidentified implements/substances, not all of them benign.
  10. A broken wall in the basement, which, if explored, connects to a secret door in another building. There, there is a well which continues the network.  How extensive is this tunnel system and where does it lead?

Of course, random tables aside, after this post, Noisms is probably going to accuse me of being a Frustrated Novelist!

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