View Full Version : Creating Horror in Fantasy Grounds

November 12th, 2013, 05:09
I have been following various threads on the Fantasy Grounds Forums ever since I bought my license last month. While the discussions on the 3.0 beta and the CoC Ruleset update have been interesting, I have been waiting with bated breath for people to start discussing Call of Cthulhu in this forum.

In the interest of sparking new discussions in this forum, I've decided to start the conversation with how to create horror in VTT. Many of you know a variety of techniques to scare your players, from appropriate music and lighting to the inevitable "BOO!" moment around the table. Unfortunately, many of these techniques do not translate well to the VTT environment. How do you use mood lighting when all you can do is control screen color? Where does the "BOO!" come from if you find your group limited to only communicating through chat (if your Teamspeak server crashes, for example)?

I have been finding myself interested in the dynamics of horror in the VTT environment ever since I first started playing with the demo version of Fantasy Grounds a couple of years ago. We live in a time when our concepts of horror have been built upon movies. We have grown on the musical score of Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. We've learned to deal with the leap out at you moments from Paranormal Activity. Visuals that turn our stomache like Cannibal Holocaust are a dime a dozen on Google Images. Evil Dead's campiness is prevalent and even the unknown has become a formula demonstrated by the Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield. All of the techniques we find in the movies of our age are easy to adapt and replicate when we sit around the table playing our RPGs. However, the ease of these trappings falls away when we lose our control of the environment and easy contact with our friends. How do we reclaim the creepiness of Lovecraft when our players are sitting under the bright light of their computer room?

As I've been building a modern campaign for Call of Cthulhu featuring the players as students at Miskatonic University, I've found myself thinking more and more about the true classics of horror. Before the big screen, there were the stories. Many a scary book has been written which has managed to creep me out as much if not more so than the movies ever have. Lovecraft himself wrote some of the best stories for raising the hairs on your head. In my opinion, our solution lies in the classic techniques of the written word, not the flashy ease of modern cinema.

In my opinion, crafting a true horror campaign in a VTT environment such as Fantasy Grounds is an opportunity to really grow as a Keeper and as a writer. There are ways to incorporate the table elements we have found ourselves relying on, such as piping appropriate music over the voice chat. However, it should be seen as an achievement of honor to manage to creep your players out using only the written word. To that end, Lovecraft provides an excellent treatise entitled, "Supernatural Horror in Literature (http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/essays/shil.aspx)" which should be considered a must read for the Keeper starting to craft true horror in Fantasy Grounds. Lovecrafts insight has guided a century of horror crafters ever since he penned his words, inspiring the written word, musical pieces, and even cinema itself.

Once you've managed to get a tenuous grip on Lovecraft's inner workings, it would behoove yourself to take a look at the latest modern technique for generating a sense of horror. There are the big names out there that should be recognized as masters of the craft, such as Stephen King, Clive Barker, or Richard Matheson. However, as brilliant as the big author's are, their techniques are better suited for the linear tale rather than an RPG. They require the lead-in of the novel to bring the fruit of their horror to full bloom. While their techniques should be recognized, understood, and utilized to a certain extent, I consider another source to be better suited for modern inspiration of table top horror.

Have any of you ever heard of the phrase Creepypasta? An Internet Meme, creepypasta consists of short and micro stories written primarily on forums with the intent of invoking feelings of disgust, fear, and revulsion from the reader. Many of the attempts are trite, but there is some true genius there. In particular, I invite everyone to consider the fact that creepypasta attempts to invoke intense versions of those feelings in a handful of paragraphs! More importantly, many of them succeed! A story that delivers these intense emotions in only a few paragraphs is flexible enough that it can be adapted to player input on the fly, without losing the core of the horror. creepypasta.wikia.com (http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/Creepypasta_Wiki) is a website that catalogs a variety of creepypasta stories that stand out above the crowd (be careful, there are some NSFW stories in there). The Suggested Reading (http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/Category:Suggested_Reading) page is a good place to start, although I recommend Genetic Experiment X2E (http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/Genetic_Experiment_X2E), Gateway of the Mind (http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/Gateway_of_the_Mind), and the Russian Sleep Experiment (http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/The_Russian_Sleep_Experiment). While they are much longer than traditional creepypasta, the Humper-Monkey's Ghost Story (http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/Humper-Monkey%27s_Ghost_Story) and the multiple Fifty (http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/50_Foot_Ant) Foot (http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/****_the_2/19th) Ant (http://nothotbutspicy.com/para/50fa3/) stories that follow are an excellent read from Tim Williard, an author who has also published the Year of the Zombie material for the d20 system (caution, that third link on the word "Ant" is generating a "Malicious Link" warning in Kaspersky tonight, but I've ready it without incident at that website last month - proceed at your own risk though).

As for my campaign, my personal style has always included a slow start to the campaign. I feel that it gives the players time to feel out both their new characters and also the world that I'm crafting for them, as well as gives me an opportunity to observe which parts of my world grab their interest so that I can better develop those aspects of my campaign. To that end, I'm blending some of the long techniques from the modern authors for my overall story-arc, but I'm also including elements from creepypasta as short term arcs to keep the player's attention while the longer arc develops. My long arc revolves around the characters gaining immortality at the price of surrendering control of their bodies every time they "die" to the being giving them eternal life, with the climax being centered around forcing the characters to choose to allow the otherworld being unfettered access to their world in exchange for eternal life, or to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to deny the being access to their world (with end game consisting of either an epic conclusion to their character stories, or a rapidly escalating story of trying to fix the wrongs they have done similar to the plotlines of "Friday the Thirteenth the TV series"). While that long arc develops, the characters will find themselves in various situations revolving around horrific science experiments (Russian Sleep Experiment) and locked in scenarios (the first and second Fifty Foot Ant stories).

November 14th, 2013, 04:30
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

For the initial part of this discussion, I intend to elaborate on elements that Lovecraft discusses in his Supernatural Horror in Literature (http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/essays/shil.aspx) article.

Lovecraft truly hit the nail on the head with this statement. Whenever time is spent contemplating the true nature of fear, the road inevitably leads to the unknown. There are greater philosophers than I who have elaborated on this point, and Google can bring up many papers devoted to this very subject. I'll simply state that, more often than not, the root of fear grows from the observer just not knowing.

With this concept, we can start playing with the silly putty of fear in our campaigns. Call of Cthulhu is a horror genre game, but when you start working through the mechanics and details described in the various manuals another element quickly becomes noticeable. Call of Cthulhu is a game about mystery, and this is not a coincidence. At the root of every Call of Cthulhu game is an element of the unknown, and it's up to the investigators to dig that black heart out.

Our culture of the Horror Movie inspires us to prop up the central horror at the beginning of the story, and then lead the characters through a merry chase as they try to find the correct method to defeat the villain. This works well for action packed stories, and is how Horror has embraced Action in the time limited framework of a show or movie. However, as a tabletop RPG and even more so as a VTT RPG, we find ourselves able to play without the artificial constraints of time. In this sense, the techniques that movies teach us start to fall apart. These techniques work for movies because they must convey to us a full and rich story within a very short time frame. On some level, we as viewers recognize that and allow them to use blunt elements to provide recognizable depth without investing as much time into it (i.e. the heroine falls in love with the hero because he's the hero). I firmly recommend that we abandon the fast paced timeline of the movie and adopt the creeping stories of the written horror.

One of the reasons that I prefer slow starts to my game is because it provides a framework for the characters to recognize the "natural world". It's one thing to say, "This is the real world, and here's how I'm breaking the rules for horror's sake." within the first hour of the game. It's another thing to allow your players to explore the world with their characters, to experience how bureaucracy operates in the timeline, to witness how NPCs interact with each other, and then tear the veneer of this normal world with the brutal murder of the meter maid just because he happened to look to closely inside that car. In order to give the players a sense of the abnormal, it is important that we not skimp on providing them the normal first.

A trap that I witness many a Keeper fall into is the attempt to define exactly how horrific a scene is. Many have fallen from describing horror to describing camp when attempting to give fine details. This is not because they lack skill in writing or description, but because they lose sight of the fear of the unknown. You may know exactly how to describe a scene that leaves you shaking on the verge of wetting your shoes, but your fear of the unknown is not someone else's fear of the unknown. Tabletop RPGs are a game of imagination, and precise descriptions tend to turn off parts of the imagination. It can be more effective to simply describe the steady dripping of blood rather than the grisly tears in the victim's flesh, or the scrap of skin on the wall instead of the pile of mutilated meat in the center of the room. Consider the following:

The bones of the victim have been bent 90 degrees against their natural flex, and tatters of skin flayed from the muscle to tie the bones into these unnatural angles. Irregular drips of blood fall into the puddle of liquid that should have been inside the corpse but instead forms a pattern too horrific for your mind to process. These remains are so twisted beyond the normal that you can't even make out the sex of the victim.

I have described what would be a truly horrific scene to me. However, which part of this stands out as something to really be scared of, and naturally draws you to want to know more? For most of you, that would be "forms a pattern too horrific for your mind to process." While I have described a grisly scene, by not giving a description that pattern takes on a life of it's own in your head. What kind of pattern could be like that? Why couldn't you process it? How bad could it really be? All of this leads you to want to have your character take a closer look, perhaps justified by an attempt to follow the plot point, but at the heart of your desire is the need to dispel the unknowns in this element. To dismiss the fear so that you can remain in control. Unfortunately, while this fragment is powerful, the fact that it's the only vague element can be seen as the Keeper baiting the character into following a rigid plotline. Let us now consider:

The bones have been twisted into an eldritch pattern that should have toppled long ago, but remains upright. It's hard to tell what is skin and what is muscle as both are tattered off the bone and woven together into an indecipherable covering hiding portions of the grisly mass. Irregular drips of blood fall into a puddle that seems too large for the remains to have contained, but now form a pattern too horrific for your mind to process. Attempting to determine the identity, or even the sex, of the victim gives you uncontrollable shudders as your mind contemplates how a human body could have been rendered into this..... thing!

In a sense, I have given far less detail about what exactly is going on here. However, what I've done is used descriptors that force the player to construct the scene in their own heads. By leaving out the details of the actual subject, I have invited the player to construct the scene for themselves. This construction introduces the personal fears of the player into the scene. One player may find torn skin to be more disgusting than bone, and this description allows them to construct a scene with their personal disgust in the forefront. One player may consider the psychology of emptiness a personal affront, and this scene triggers that offense with the concept of being bled out. The deliberate dehumanizing of a corpse tends to affect a large number of people, many of whom might not have known that this bothers them! By leaving the actual state of the subject vague, I have constructed a scene that more widely inspires fear in the group than any kind of detailing I could have laid out. I have played up to the unknown, and the human nature to conquer the unknown through defining it. In addition, focus is drawn to many elements of the scene, leaving the player to find their own plot hook as they pry out details through their character interactions with the victim.

November 15th, 2013, 15:43
Some of what I am about to say is, I think, exactly your point, but perhaps put a little differently. So, short version: I agree. :P

Verbose version: I've thought about these questions as well. One thing that perhaps lends to the difficulty is the breadth of the genre that we call, "horror." For example, Friday the 13th and its "sh-sh-sh...ha-ha-ha" and the "BOO!" moments - that is what I think of as a slasher film. Nothing wrong with that, but in my opinion, slasher is a genre that just does not translate well (or really, at all) to an RPG. The things that are most cool and most signature about slasher flicks: The BOO scares, the rollercoaster ride build and and release tension... it is intensely sensory, not cerebral, depending on stimulating your senses. That's cool and enjoyable, but in my opinion that kind of scare is nigh-on impossible to reproduce in an RPG, especially VTT.

But that's okay, because as you point out, there are other forms of horror that lend themselves far more readily to RPGs, VTT included. The CreepyPasta page was a cool example - thanks for the link! One of my favorite examples of horror is the movie Session 9, or another one that you actually mentioned, The Blair Witch Project. I thought both of these did a great job of building tension while making your imagination and your mind the primary vehicle for the horror and scares. They give you just enough rope to hang yourself, so to speak, and trust that with that rope you'll do a far more effective job than the moviemakers could do. And they keep things centered on that oldest and strongest kind of fear.

And though CoC is generally classified as "horror," a very big aspect of the game for many has been something that is more of an amalgam of genres than straight horror. Take a bit of Lovecraftian horror, mix in some 1930s radio drama ala "The Shadow," a wee mite of classic TSR dungeon-crawl here and there, a little bit of Indiana Jones, and a few other influences and you have: Big pulp adventures like Masks of Nyarlathotep. These games do contain horror, but it shares center-stage with a lot of other elements. The resulting stories have been a huge (defining, even) part of the "standard CoC" experience for many, many gamers. And that's cool, too, because it gives us all the latitude to relax at times and have some other kinds of fun and helps alleviate burnout.

But definitely, I agree that some kinds of horror lend themselves better to RPGs, and I think that's where a Keeper looking to dial up the horror elements in his stories should begin. Give the players something to think about. Slowly build dread. Don't show all the cards right away. And simultaneously, I think it's important not to be TOO mysterious, because a lot of times what seems obvious to me as a Keeper, having the advantage of knowing the whole story, is not at all obvious to players or their characters, so if you aren't careful you can make the mystery too impenetrable and lose players' interest.

Thanks for your thought-provoking comments and links, Bubo.

Hector Trelane
June 2nd, 2014, 04:49
Helpful advice on using descriptions and pacing from novels, rather than movies or TV, and on leaving fertile "white space" in descriptions for the imagination to take root. I like how the second description of the same scene also draws us more into the psychological experience of the viewer.

I'm a new Storyteller who's even newer to the horror genre-- more tips and examples would be quite helpful!

June 2nd, 2014, 22:42
I haven't done a Cthulhu game session, however I do utilize horror in some of my Fantasy Games.

Since people tend to be "visual" and "aural", You may have to get clever in your setup.
I play over Skype voice, and I do have a few selections of "creepy" soundtrack files that I play over the call... but be slight in this, you take over the bandwidth and no-one else can speak if you load their headphones with creepy noise.

Pictures speak a thousand words, if you have the skills with photoshop (or whatever you may use for image editing).
You can find a lot of creepy stuff over Google Images.
Images like distorted dark hallways (Game Snapshots in Skyrim or Amnesia, NWN2...make your own if you have the games)
Sets the mood when you show these images during the gameplay.

Ah, The meeting place...
Pick the hallway of your choice... Choose Wisely!

Maps can be embellished with the occasional blood splatter and streaky-blood drag-marks with a smear tool in Photoshop.
I also use 2 tone cloud rendering (Red/Black, Purple/Red, Orange/Blue...) over the map and set the cloud layer as Darken/Multiply/Overlay/Linear-Burn... Experiment until it looks creepy (Opacity is key as well).

Following the downward slope, as you reveal your map... (Players coming from the south)
This wont end well, will it?

Revealing this slowly as the players travel towards the Room on the Right:
Had the players a little on the edge as they saw a Gigantic sarcophagus.
By now they know, blood on the floor is not a good thing.

Although they don't "look" that scary as you look at them now, players in anticipation of danger changes all of that.
My players were really feeling antsy after the first blood splatter actually meant "DANGER", thereafter, the sight of these was a whole new ballgame.

June 3rd, 2014, 13:57

June 7th, 2014, 17:36
Just started reading this thread, as a lead-in to receiving the upcoming 7th Edition.

What an absolute huge bundle of information/advice/insight.