RPG XRAY

005 Horror

January 04, 2024 The RPG XRAY Team Season 2 Episode 5
RPG XRAY
005 Horror
Show Notes Transcript

This episode’s topic is HORROR. Horror is one of the oldest RPG genres and has wrapped its tentacles around much of modern tabletop game play, but what is it? What makes an RPG horror in tone, mechanics, or gameplay? Are horror games scary? Should they be? Can they be? All this and more on this episode of RPG XRAY.

Appendix X Links

Jason:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Ethan:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Erik:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Brendan:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Ethan:

Joining the X-Ray team today are Jason Beaumont, Brendan Power, Eric Saltwell, and myself, Ethan Schoonover. As always, before jumping into the main course, we like to start things off with an amuse-bouche we call Appendix X.[BLANK_AUDIO]

Jason:

So in appendix X, we do a little summary of all the media we're consuming currently with a particular eye toward how it could be applied to gaming. I'll start off. I have been playing a game called Dave the Diver recently. Dave the Diver is a PC game, I think only at this point. And you play as a man who's diving in a lagoon in a tropical location, finding fish, bringing it back up and giving the fish to a local sushi restaurant. You then serve patrons at the sushi restaurant where you earn money and then you could upgrade the sushi restaurant in your own equipment, your own scuba equipment. One of the things I think is cool about the game is it actually has a ton of heart. It's one of those games where you're introduced to characters and you think they're just kind of utility characters. They're there to sell you a piece of equipment or give you a quest. But over multiple hours, you really learn a lot about the individual characters and really delve into them.

Erik:

.

Jason:

And I think that's something that we do a lot in tabletop RPGs. That campaign play is especially good for. You meet a character, they seem like a minor character, and the recurrence of them allows you to kind of get into depth and a little bit more about what that character is and what their motivations are.

Erik:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Jason:

And that's, I think, where some of our best tabletop RPG memories come from are certain of those kind of recurring characters.

Erik:

I feel like I played that game in college.

Jason:

Eric.

Erik:

I mean, I was a fry cook at Long John Silver's in college, so.

Jason:

Yeah. Yeah. The difference being you weren't probably catching the fish that you were serving.

Erik:

And I didn't own the restaurant, that's for sure.[BLANK_AUDIO] No, no, no.

Brendan:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Erik:

[BLANK_AUDIO] I lovingly remember the day that I got to upgrade my job and

Brendan:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Erik:

cut the slices of fish out of the big brick of frozen fish.

Ethan:

[LAUGH]

Erik:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

So for my amuse-bouche today,

Jason:

Yeah.

Ethan:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Erik:

I wanted to talk about an actual play that I'm listening to. And I just wanna say that this is a totally unsponsored plug. I have been listening to the actual play of the God's Teeth campaign by Caleb Stokes in his Patreon, Delta Green Dead Channels, and it is just sublime.

Ethan:

Very cool, do you wanna tell us a little bit more about that or

Erik:

It is superb. It is amongst the best scenarios I've seen in, I don't know, since I've been playing maybe.[BLANK_AUDIO] Yeah, so Delta Green, yeah, so it's, I think, appropriate to today's topic.

Ethan:

what you like about it?[BLANK_AUDIO]

Erik:

It's a horror game, Delta Green's a horror game, or close to it somewhere between horror and thriller. And the God's Teeth campaign is a decade spanning modern era horror, which has some slight Lovecraftian overtones, but is, I don't know,

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

is very not in your face about it and really puts an emphasis on the human

Brendan:

>> Having read the pre-release versions at the end of the published,

Erik:

horror and is just amazing.[BLANK_AUDIO]

Brendan:

I will say it is extremely grim and very terrific.

Jason:

Yeah.

Brendan:

So, yes.

Erik:

Yeah, it is definitely capital H horror.[BLANK_AUDIO]

Brendan:

[BLANK_AUDIO]>> I have been re-consuming Gravity Falls, the cartoon that was on, I think Disney XD, Disney Channel, I don't know, for a couple of years, and is now on Disney Plus. With my younger kid, it is set in, I think, Oregon, at some kind of roadside Cheerio amusement stand where twin siblings encounter, who are sort of forced obligated to spend the summer with their great uncle, their gruncle. I think they encounter all sorts of weird cryptids throughout the course of the series. And there is a sort of meta plot that ties into ultimately them saving the universe, I suppose. But it's useful in terms of gaming in variety of ways.

Jason:

Yeah.

Brendan:

First of all, it delves into sort of all the stories about Bigfoot and biode gnomes and things that you work into various fantastical horror games. It also does a really good job of mixing tone between comic and horror. And it does achieve below the ladder even though it is, of course,

Ethan:

>> I absolutely, yeah, absolutely second that it is fantastic.

Brendan:

primarily aimed at young adults.

Jason:

Yeah.

Brendan:

But it's fantastic. Again. Oh, it's incredible.

Ethan:

That is one of my favorite cartoons. My kids and I, we will regularly have kind of like trivia,

Brendan:

I mean,

Ethan:

I guess where we like quiz each other on like what happened on season one and what's the name of so and so and it's great. I just love that it's such a shame that it was canceled.[BLANK_AUDIO]

Brendan:

it makes you want to delve into, of course, the process by which it got approved in the first place.

Jason:

Yeah.

Brendan:

Like, what was the pitch that where Disney was like, yes, this is what we want because it seems implausible.

Erik:

Have you guys read the physical journal that they sell at the bookstores?

Brendan:

But that is fantastic. Yes, yes, although all the various side projects that they've question about.

Erik:

Yeah.[BLANK_AUDIO]

Ethan:

Yeah, so I'll pick that thread up because it leads into what I did this summer,

Brendan:

Yeah, that's all great. Speaking of aura.

Ethan:

which was drive 5,000 miles and the first stop along the way.

Jason:

Yeah.

Ethan:

This was across from Washington State in the northern United States. Yeah, it was horrific, but also great.

Jason:

Chilly.

Brendan:

You know, you

Ethan:

But the very first stop that my son and I made because it was just my son and I on the way out and then on the way back it was the whole family. But the first stop we made was actually at a little place along the highway in Washington State that basically looks like the Mystery Shack from Gravity Falls and we were very excited about that. But over the course of our road trip, we listened to several audio books. And we started off with the Laundry Files.

Jason:

Yeah.

Ethan:

This is all re-listened for me. It was all new to my son and he was like, whoa, what is this? Laundry Files by Charlie Stross and then I followed that up with a book called The Rook by Daniel. I will have to, Daniel O'Malley is his name. So I really, if you haven't listened to the Laundry Files, they're great. It's kind of mandatory listening if you're into Lovecraftian horror and you like English bureaucracy. The same with The Rook. This is like, you know, if MI6 met Lovecraft and or MI5, I can never keep them straight. We'll go with MI5.5. But if English bureaucracy met like, you know, the horrors of the dark and the supernatural, that's what The Rook is and largely what The Laundry Files is as well. So loved both those books. They absolutely stand up for repeated listenings. These audio books or repeated readings. So check them out.[BLANK_AUDIO]

Jason:

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Erik:

Jason, how about you?

Ethan:

Oof.

Erik:

Do you find horror gaming?

Jason:

I'm going to kind of ask some questions to work the edges on where we think our definition is on it.

Erik:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Brendan:

you

Jason:

Monster of the week. Like do we view that as a horror RPG?

Ethan:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Erik:

I do not, I think. Sorry, and I should back up for a second and say, my view of horror is that it is not principally a role-playing game that is scary.

Jason:

Okay.

Erik:

That is like, I mean, there are scary games and certainly there is an extent to which that is horrific and that is horror. But when you think about horror games as a genre, it is actually to me the opposite of agency. That when you're playing an action game, an adventure game, a thriller, where if you look at like Knights Black Agents, which as a thriller is very, can be very scary. The difference is when I'm playing an adventure game or a thriller,

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

I am trying to overcome the challenge that is presented in the game. If that's some Lovecraftian horror or it's some human beings doing terrible stuff. But in a horror game like Aliens, which we're playing with Brendan, or purest Gumshoe, like very pure Gumshoe, Trail of Cthulhu, there I feel like that's really not the goal. That's not what you should try to do because really the game is set up so that you

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

can't win that, that that's not the goal, that's not how you're supposed to play. You're not trying to beat the Lovecraftian horror in purest Trail of Cthulhu. And so to me it's all about that in a horror game. You're not trying to overcome a challenge. You're just trying to experience the demise.

Ethan:

Mm.

Erik:

And for me that's why I would say that Monster of the Week is an adventure game.

Ethan:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Jason:

And so like I'm going to keep pressing on you with questions to work your definition a bit.

Erik:

[silence]

Jason:

So my life with master, which is, you know, an indie RPG where you are playing the minions of like an evil like, you know, overlord. Would you view something like that as a horror game or is it more up to the scenario?

Erik:

I mean, so in Life with Master I feel like the scenario is much more embedded into the game.

Jason:

As a.

Erik:

It's less of a system and more of a game where the level design is built in. But yes, I would say that for me Life with Master is a horror game.

Jason:

Okay.

Erik:

[silence]

Jason:

And that's because why?

Erik:

It's because you really, the game is not, if you look at the mechanics, if you look at the scenario, it is not about, I mean I don't think, I've actually never played Life with Master, but my understanding of it is that it is not about, hey, how do you get free from the yoke of Master, right? It is really about the horror of having to live with that

Jason:

Right. Right.

Erik:

and not being able to overcome it. It's this thing that you can't overcome. And so that's not what you want to experience in the game.

Jason:

Right. So you don't have agency, right?

Erik:

[silence]

Jason:

So that lack of player agency is like a key ingredient to you.

Erik:

Yeah, absolutely. Yes. Because to me that's intricately tied with what am I trying to do?

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

Am I trying to overcome a challenge or am I trying to experience my failure to overcome a challenge?

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

[silence]

Jason:

And to me, like that's, I was, cause I knew this question was going to come up. One of the things that I would say just as a game master that I have experienced running horror games is that the players are really bought in to wanting to experience horror.

Erik:

[silence]

Jason:

Usually like they've joined the game because they actually want that lack of agency. Like they want a bad thing to happen to their character. They get disappointed if you play a call a Cthulhu session and like you're not rolling sanity rolls enough. Like they're kind of bummed that their character didn't have some sort of dramatic sanity losing moment or some, you know, moment of complete cosmic terror. And so I think that there is an important part of the genre where players are like, yeah, I just want to experience like my character having something terrible happen to them. And that's like where I'm going to get pleasure out of this session.

Ethan:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Brendan:

Eric, to your point earlier, I do think that helplessness is, you know, often interesting, interesting component of, of, or content or games or movies, etc.

Jason:

Mommy.

Brendan:

And I, you know, I don't know that I think it's mandatory, like, or, or required, uh, to a social, I mean, I guess, you know, I think for me, uh, you know, you, to, to God's teeth earlier, which has, um, truly a bunch of sort of, uh, horrifying representations of human behavior in service of, you know, some, some, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, and I, you know, I don't know that I think it's mandatory, like, or required to a social order, I mean, I guess, you know, I think, for me, you, to God's teeth earlier, which has truly a bunch of sort of horrifying representations of human behavior in service of, you know, some, some ineffable power, essentially.

Ethan:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Brendan:

And those things are horrific in part because they take place prior to the characters becoming involved. And, you know, the implication is that, you know, there's been terrible abuse of humans for, you know, many years leading up into the, the, the events of the game.

Jason:

Yeah.

Ethan:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Brendan:

And that, that itself is, you know, the sort of undertone that, that, you know, guides the entire campaign going forward. And, you know, I think that that is horrific, but it's sort of a, I don't know, a background corridor to, you know, the, like what's, what's rampaging through the bushes or in the near eye woods. And how can I address and stop it? I mean, I think that there's a, you know, a component of, you know, obviously horror games are most successful, I think, when players have the ability to imagine for themselves, you know, like to, to assemble the details they've, that they've learned throughout the course of the game. And then, you know, create, can talk for themselves through the actual, you know, horror in their minds. And, you know, the, obviously many people are afraid of being helpless and be powerless, unable to control their destinies.

Jason:

Well, so to explore that a little bit, like let's use Curse of Strahd as an example.

Brendan:

[silence]

Jason:

Curse of Strahd may be the most played horror RPG scenario, like of all time. Right. And that I would say thematically is about the player characters trying to become lights in the darkness, trying to actually bring some sort of hope to like a doomed land. Would you would that fit your definition of horror still, Eric?

Erik:

[silence] No, because Curse of Strahd, while it is scary and has tones and themes of horror, which, I mean, yes, there is a common day, everyday sense of the term horror, in which, of course, Curse of Strahd is a horror toned, horror themed game, but in terms of being a horror RPG, I don't think so, because the goal is to defeat Strahd and you're trying to do it and you are given the tools that make it possible.

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

And so, to me, that's an action game. I think really telling here is for some of the really horror games, like Trail of Cthulhu, Call of Cthulhu, there are these two ways that you can play both of these games. There is purist and pulpy, and I would say purist is supposed to be the most horror of the horror, and pulpy is supposed to be the more adventurey actiony, and really the only, because you could play any of these scenarios either way, kind of,

Jason:

Is it?

Erik:

and the difference is, am I playing to overcome the challenge in the horror, or am I playing to experience it? Yep. I'm not.

Jason:

So.

Brendan:

Sorry about all I have.

Erik:

[Laughter]

Brendan:

[silence]

Jason:

So.

Erik:

That's how I was with God's Teeth. I was like, okay, I don't want to describe it because I don't want to give away any spoilers.

Jason:

Right, right. Okay.

Erik:

Yep.

Brendan:

Haunted houses.[silence]

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

[Silence] So, I definitely have played a bunch of 5E that was played and was intended to be and was, I think, was scary. And that's just purely about the scenario design, but it was scary. It was not, you know, I don't know if it was horror in the sense that I, the kind of technical term that I was using.

Jason:

Right.

Erik:

Yeah.

Jason:

Yeah. Hey.

Erik:

Yeah. Yeah, and I think, Brendan, just to answer your question, I think it was more creepy, right? It was much more horror themed and people were creeped out more than actually scared.

Jason:

I've definitely experienced creepiness more often in a tabletop RPG than actual horror and fear.

Erik:

Yeah. Okay, now, what about something like a movie? Have you experienced something that really scared you in a movie?

Jason:

Yeah, for sure. I would say movies and video games definitely have a much more profound emotional effect on me.

Erik:

[Silence]

Jason:

And I think, I mean, it's also probably the case that when I'm playing RPGs, a majority of the time I'm the game master. And so like I don't get to kind of like go along for the ride because I know what's behind all the doors, you know, so that I think maybe limits by experience, I would say your, you know, Eric runs a once a year Halloween. Dread session where we, you know, we use Jenga and, you know, play out a horror scenario and I would say I have experienced really deep feelings of tension and worry and anxiety during those games. And they're not just because of the scenario. They're also just because of the mechanics and totally.

Brendan:

The physicality of the Jenga set.[silence]

Jason:

I think it makes a huge difference. I didn't expect that before I played it.

Erik:

[Silence]

Jason:

I was like, whatever, this is going to be stupid and like a gimmick and it's not at all. It's like, in fact, it's maybe one of the most effective mechanisms for creating like real tension at the table.

Erik:

Yeah, and I think that's both the aesthetics of the physicality of it, and it's also the fact that you know that every time you play a Jenga piece, you know that mechanically things get harder every time, right?

Jason:

Right.

Erik:

And more and more tense. I'm very actually very interested to play Ten Candles, which also has some physicality in that you like ten physical candles, and as those candles burn out in the session in the real world, the game gets harder and closer to disaster, and you know that eventually all those candles will burn out and the characters will meet a horrible fate.[Silence] Yep.[Silence][Silence] Yeah.[Silence] So the last time that we played Dread, and I think you were not there, Ethan, we also...[Laughter] We, in an attempt to extend that moment of tension and anxiety, right? Like, what I really love about Dread is when the tower gets really really unstable and people have to pull it and it's just so fraught, and in an attempt to extend that, I added a mechanic where you could, where there were four cards face down on the table, and if the tower got really bad, you could choose to draw a card and one of those four cards face down was the death card, and it's the same as if your tower gets knocked down, and when somebody draws a card, now there's only three cards there if they didn't draw the death card. And Jason, I think as somebody who was at the game, I wanted to ask, like, do you feel like there was a difference between when you decided to draw from the tower and you had that real physicality of the tower being precarious versus when you would go to the card?[Silence] Mm-hmm.[Silence] That's right.[Silence] Yep.[Silence] Yep.[Silence][Silence][Silence] Yep. Yeah, that's a good way to put it.[Silence][Silence][Silence][Silence][Silence] Mm-hmm.[Silence][Silence][Silence][Laughing][Silence] I think that's a good point. Ethan, just to come back to what you were talking about with atmospherics. Do you think that that's why movies are so much better at creating real scariness and fear in people in a way that games can't, is because the visual nature of the medium and the deep atmospherics and the sound is just better able to do that limbic system activation?[Silence] Yep.[Silence] Yep.[Silence] Absolutely, for me, that's arachnophobia, the movie that was like, I watched it in college with my roommate, and it was like late at night, and we literally had to turn the lights on. It was...[Silence] Exactly. So I feel like I try really hard to build those atmospherics. I am planning a dread scenario that involves being stuck on the open ocean and like recording wave sounds and trying to play them. We had in one of our dread scenarios an evil thing that smelled like sugar cookies, and I tried actually melting wax and putting sugar cookies in the wax and then having like an incense burner thing that would heat up the wax while we were in the room so everybody could smell the sugar cookie, which is just supposed to be a contrast with the horror of the thing.[Silence] Yes. Yep. But I still find it super hard to create that so much atmospherics that you are transported into the character in the way that you are in a movie so that even though you know that you're safe at your movie seat, you still feel that fear. And there's just, I don't know, do you guys think there's just too much of a divide there and it's something we shouldn't try to overcome and we just accept creepiness?[Silence] Yep.[Silence][Silence] Sorry, just to say, Brendan, about I feel like you suffer through the fact that I am very bad at this as a player. I feel like when we've played Aliens and I try to play a horror scenario and embody the horror, I find myself getting off track and off rail even unintentionally all the time. So for example, I was playing in Aliens, I was playing a mechanic effectively and has an agenda item that they need money, right? And this kind of maid in the Aliens game, I'm looking through the ship, trying to find money, embody my character, but it became almost, you know, almost became more comedic in that this character is being kind of money grubbing and is in this scary scenario but is focused on this like, "Oh, I gotta go raid the starship" or whatever it is. I feel like I have a really hard time with staying in that moment that you're talking about, Ethan.[Silence]

Ethan:

[BLANK_AUDIO][BLANK_AUDIO]

Erik:

[Silence]

Ethan:

Yeah. Yep.[BLANK_AUDIO]

Erik:

Yep.[Silence]

Ethan:

Yeah.

Erik:

[Silence]

Ethan:

[BLANK_AUDIO] This is not Monsters Inc, people. I'd like to just propose a category refinement, I guess. And that would be that there are no horror games, or there are horror games, but they are one very tight, small subset.

Erik:

Great.

Ethan:

There's a lot of horror themed gaming. You might even put D&D in that category, right?

Erik:

Yep. Yep. I think it certainly can be.

Ethan:

Yeah.

Brendan:

and you're distinguishing between horror and horror themed in what way what is what is the

Ethan:

Okay. So, Call of Cthulhu, I kind of almost don't think is a horror game for the most part.

Brendan:

year you

Ethan:

There can be.

Erik:

I'm on the same page with you, by the way, Ethan, about this.

Ethan:

Yeah, yeah. These are maybe not the best terms, we can workshop them, but I would say that there are games that are tension games.

Erik:

[Silence]

Ethan:

And there's overlap between all these. This is like big Venn diagram territory, okay? Tension, there are scary games that have scares or maybe even jump scares. I'm not sure. That can definitely happen in gaming. And then there's horror games that are horrific, right? And that's the category. I think that when we talk about horror gaming, I think a lot of us, when we think of the indie games that we've played, we think about these because they are things like nihilism, the inevitable deterioration, lack of agency.

Erik:

[Silence]

Ethan:

And that's horror in sort of a deep and very kind of adult way.

Erik:

So, when I think about this lack of agency and that really horrific, the thing that comes to my mind is, Brendan, I don't remember the name of this campaign. It's a collection of super purist Trail of Cthulhu adventures that you turned me on to and then I ran for Ethan and for, actually, you played in a game. Do you remember what it was called?

Ethan:

Yeah.

Brendan:

yeah that was graham walms walmsley's uh campaign for trope to it's uh the collective version is called the final revelation i think

Erik:

Yeah, The Final Revelation. That's right. So, I want to ask, because I often, like, I've run a ton of horror games. I've run Dread, I've run this purist Trail of Cthulhu, but I often have a very hard time with it about, like, is this really working as an RPG? Because, like, is this just me?

Brendan:

okay you

Erik:

Often these horror scenarios are also very linear or railroady because you often know what the horror is and if the characters are the ones making the horror, I often find that it's not scary. Am I just saying a play and then people are kind of improving in my story? Or, you know, what is the player trying to do here?

Ethan:

I feel, I definitely feel like that a lot of the time with Gumshoe Games in general.

Erik:

And, I don't know, Ethan maybe is somebody who played in that purist game. You can tell me what your thoughts are here.

Ethan:

But let me think about that for a second. Anybody else have any comments?

Erik:

Brendan, I know you've played in this and clearly you've definitely read a ton of purist Trail of Cthulhu.

Brendan:

yeah sure yeah i mean i do think that you know i think fakes wrote famously one of the scenarios in that campaign has no combat at all uh nothing to actually fight and uh i think that uh you know there's just sort of this um it is it is a little real roadie in that there is a conclusion to be had um but i think it's probably

Ethan:

Yeah.

Brendan:

relatively unsatisfying

Erik:

(silence)

Brendan:

uh for for players who are unfamiliar with um the the tropes of uh Lovecraft's uh you know uh written works certainly and i and i think i think you know those those purest adventures do you have um you know really you know grim outcomes that that that are tonally appropriate and or i think you know to my mind horrific because of the um the way that each each of the conclusions of those adventures sort of um

Ethan:

Yeah.

Brendan:

yeah it does they certainly do some

Ethan:

Yeah.

Brendan:

for um player control and player agency to some extent and i and i think that's where a lot of the horror comes from ultimately um there's essentially nothing to be done in certain scenarios or other ones where um you know the players find out that their own um actions were you know out of their own control their their complete control and those things are all you know i'm i'm warming i'm warming to your idea that uh for a game to be truly a true true horror game there has to be some lack of control or helplessness that uh

Erik:

(silence)

Ethan:

Okay.

Brendan:

that is um attached to it[Silence]

Ethan:

Okay. Just a moment there though. So I think that unlocked something for me. It unlocked my heart.

Erik:

(laughter)

Ethan:

No. So it unlocked the idea that when you're playing a game, a Gumshoe game like that, where you're a little bit on rails,

Erik:

(silence)

Ethan:

I think all Gumshoe systems, all Gumshoe systems games kind of suffer from this in a way, where you end up or you can end up with a very kind of on rails, you know, scene by scene experience. I think that in that situation, it doesn't feel too, like I don't, okay, if we were playing a game of Gumshoe, it's not a horror themed game and it was still kind of that on rails experience where you're going from scene to scene. It doesn't seem to me fundamentally different if it's a horror theme or not or horror game or not. And there is a lack of agency in those scenarios in the sense that, you know, you're kind of progressing through this story structure, but you're doing it in a way which is sort of like playing jazz. Like you're riffing. So, Brennan, when you said like that you have to be familiar with those tropes, I think that's really key, right? You need the group that you're playing with to be familiar with those tropes in order to successfully improv through them. And the joy and the fun of the game is watching each other build on those tropes and build on the narrative points in the game. Like we may know where the song is ending, right? But the way that we get there and the riffs and the solos, right? Like the drum solo, like all that stuff that happens during the game is watching somebody really express their kind of deep understanding of narrative structures

Erik:

(silence)

Ethan:

in a beautiful and fun and interactive way in the way that a good jazz band kind of does it. That's like a lack of agency, but it's, I mean, is jazz a lack of agency? Like there's a structure to songs, but then there's also the improving and the riffing and things like that.[silence]

Erik:

I think I agree with you that there is a relationship there with Jazz. I think when I hear you say that, what I hear is there's room for agency, but only, like, at a much smaller scale, right? In terms of, like, well, what I do within a scene or how I try to get the clue, that's all different. You know, that's my agency. Even if ultimately that's not going to impact the large story, it still gives me some freedom to be my character and to decide how I express that, even if it's not going to change the story as a whole.(silence)

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

(silence) Yep.

Ethan:

Yeah, so that reminds me a little bit of playing chess. Like if you imagine playing chess and you start off the game of chess and you're missing half your pieces, but your opponent has all their pieces, that to me is sort of like, that's a horror scenario, right?

Erik:

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Ethan:

And there's a chance you could win, but your experience is going to be this like game of attrition, right? Where you're inevitably, you're going to be losing pieces from the start, right? And your avenues of success are going to be whittled down from a million on the first move to, you know, a thousand on the second move to a couple hundred. And then you're down to single digits pretty quick, but there's still a chance.[silence]

Erik:

So, what is the fun in, I mean, actually, I'm not saying it isn't fun, I'm just trying to do an analysis here. What do you think is it that's fun about, like, let's assume that you probably, you know, you're not Garry Kasparov, so you're in this situation, which means you're probably going to lose. Almost certainly going to lose. What is the fun that people have when they play that? Like, is it just the pleasure of losing? Is it that I'm actually trying to win and likely to be disappointed at the end when I'm unhappy?

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

Like, what is my mindset there? This is what I have trouble with in all these horror games.

Ethan:

I think it's exploring the permutations. Like watching like, oh, look at this beautiful, you know, this is different than the last time that we, even if you're losing, right?

Erik:

(silence) Yep.

Ethan:

This is different than the last time I lost. Like, oh, now I'm losing my queen and my rook and the king over there in the corner.

Erik:

(silence)

Ethan:

Last time it was, you know, five pawns. This is a totally different experience, and it's kind of beautiful to watch how that plays out. And then maybe, and maybe you do win every once in a while. I think if you didn't win at all, ever, if there was never an avenue for success, it wouldn't be fun.[silence]

Erik:

Yep. I agree with you. I think it's some kind of tension. Like, with the horror games that I run, if that's Cy Run or Dread or whatever, I feel like I definitely try myself to, you know, have it not be a total party kill every time for that reason. But I also always feel like I'm cheating when I do that, because I feel like I'm going, I'm making it more thriller and less horror.

Ethan:

Okay, but let's go back to the game Desperation that we all played from Bully Public Games, which is card-based.

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

And the narrative in that, it's a horror game for sure. I would say like 1800s, late 1800s, small, yeah, small town, like a settlement and the interactions between these individuals.

Erik:

(silence)

Ethan:

And the outcome is predetermined.[silence]

Erik:

Yep.(silence)

Ethan:

Well, okay. Are we at risk of spoilers? Fast forward 60 seconds if you want to play Desperation, you know, without any awareness of it. But is it predetermined that everybody dies?[silence] Okay. That's actually a tighter correlation of the chess analogy in that regard, I suppose.[silence][silence]

Erik:

(silence) So, what if I had a game of, let's say, 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, right, and it was fantasy adventure themed, right? It's orcs and nothing surprising, you know, all the stat blocks. But every round, every roll has an additional -1 to it. So your first action in the game is -1, then -2, then -3. Like, this is a game you're going to fail and your characters, if they do anything, will end up with a TPK. Is this a game now that is not horror themed and not scary, but we would say is still horror because of the fact that you can't really play it to overcome the challenge?

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

(silence) Yep.(silence)

Ethan:

Yeah, there's something, I mean, it's certainly, you're headed in the right direction, I think, Eric, but I feel like there needs to be, first of all, there has to be, I think, some surprise or randomness.

Erik:

Yep.(silence)

Ethan:

Like, it's okay to know that the Jenga Tower is going to fall. We know that.

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

But when that happens is really like there's an element of our control, or at least the illusion of control.

Erik:

(silence) Yep.(silence)

Ethan:

And the time that it happens is indeterminate, although inevitable. And I think that if you have a mechanic which is determinate and inevitable, like, then it's less scary, right? Then it is tactics. Then you're playing a tactical game.[silence]

Erik:

So is this about the necessity of tension? Is that what you all of a sudden start to miss in that weird game scenario that I came up with? It's just that there is no tension because it is so determined.(silence)

Ethan:

I think there can be tension in a tactical game, but what you're missing there is sort of the sense of loss, maybe? I feel like there's a sense of loss in horror games where you're like, this is almost a body horror thing.

Erik:

Okay.(silence)

Ethan:

You know, it's funny, I was thinking about DCC's magic system, because in that system, there's actually a lot of loss.

Erik:

Yep.(silence)

Ethan:

And DCC gets a rep as a very Gonzo game, but it wouldn't take much to play DCC in a very grimdark horror way with no rule changes at all.

Erik:

Right.(silence) Yeah.(silence)

Ethan:

If you were looking at it as the story of this poor fool who decided to tamper with magic, and what happens is he goes out into the world, and then slowly, like, his body is atrophied and hollowed out, and there's body horror like Cronenberg couldn't even imagine, his limbs turn into crab claws. I mean, this is like The Fly, right?

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

And so it's very easy to imagine that as sort of a body horror kind of inevitable.

Erik:

(silence)

Ethan:

And in DCC, that is almost an inevitability when you use magic.

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

I mean, maybe DCC is a hidden horror game in a way.

Erik:

(silence)

Ethan:

It's just that it's sort of like, and maybe that's part of its appeal to me, I don't know, but that has all those components, right? There's like slow attrition. I think slow attrition is part of the horror games that we've been talking about in general. It's certainly part of Call of Cthulhu with sanity, it's certainly part of playing Dread. Every game that we've talked about that's successful with horror has slow attrition.

Erik:

Yep.(silence)

Ethan:

So I would say slow attrition is not the only part of horror because it can become just tactics like Jason was mentioning.

Erik:

Mm-hmm.(silence)

Ethan:

It's a required component of a successful horror game.

Erik:

And why do you think it is a required component? Like, what role does slow attrition play in making the game horrific?

Ethan:

Well, desperation has slow attrition, right? Because you know that bad things are going to happen over the course of the act structure, right?

Erik:

(silence) Yep.(silence) Yep.

Ethan:

And I would say that what slow attrition does, first of all, it has to be stated. Everybody has to buy into it.

Erik:

(silence)

Ethan:

And it creates that sense of anticipation. But you're not exactly sure when that penny is going to drop.

Erik:

Mm-hmm.(silence)

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

I could see that. Maybe for me, when I hear you say that, it makes me think that part of what that slow attrition does is, if we said a horror game is one where, you know, you don't have this agency where the goal is not to overcome the challenge. But if it becomes such a complete, like, if I know in the moment, as I'm playing each moment, if I know, oh, well, this is all going to end badly, this is all ending badly, like, I don't even have to think about it. I'm not holding my character close in a way that makes me afraid to lose it because it's so determined and in my face. And whether it's what Jason said, which is only some of the characters die, or it's what Ethan said, which is this, like, slow drip and you don't know, is my time now?

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

Is it now? Is it going to happen now? These all give you that little kernel of hope that says, in the moment, even though I know, like Jason said at the beginning of Dread, I know I'm probably going to die, I'm still holding out that option that if I don't have that glimmer of hope, then I can't, I can't care about the fact that I'm going to die and I don't experience that same cathartic experience when I do die.

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

Before I pitched three sub-variants of actual horror, let me pitch at least my three elements of a horror game based on this discussion.

Erik:

Great.

Ethan:

Element 1 is slow and inevitable. I think inevitable is probably the key modifier here. Slow, inevitable attrition. 2 would be increasing constraint over the course of the game. And then 3, the third factor, would be the slim, perhaps, possibility of escape.

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

Or success. I'm not sure what, you know.

Erik:

I think that, yep, I think that plus, the only thing I would add to that is that eventual demise, that lack of agency, that like, players, like you're not going to ultimately overcome the challenge. I think that feels really good to me, those four things.

Ethan:

So is eventual demise, though, in conflict with the idea of the possibility of escape?

Erik:

No, I think it is. I struggle with this with every horror game that I run, and every horror game that I play in is, like, you need to walk that fine balance where, like you said, or maybe I said, I don't know, that I need to be holding on to my character as I'm playing it. It's got to be precious to me.

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

But at the end, I'm not playing to, I'm not playing, the enjoyment I get is not about me trying to really overcome the challenge because that's not what's going to happen and if that's what I want to do when I play the game, I'm going to get frustrated, like that chess player. And so on the one hand, I have to have some glimmer of hope, but then not experience it most of the time, right? And that way I can hold it close and want to be lucky and be that one winning, but then feel that failure at the end and know that that's because it's a horror game, I can feel it without actually feeling like a failure, right? I don't feel like I played badly. I feel like I played great.

Ethan:

[silence] Alright, that feels like a pretty good overview and analysis of horror role-playing games.

Erik:

[silence]

Ethan:

I certainly feel like I have more insight into them now. I liked the breakdown of factors of horror games, as well as differentiating games they may present themselves as horror games, but I think are definitely not. They're either adventure games or tension games or scary games, but they're not necessarily horrific. One thing that I'm going to take away from this discussion besides that analysis is also the personal challenge of trying to use atmospherics better at the table to create those other factors, tension and scariness.

Erik:

[silence]

Ethan:

Maybe I'll see if we can truly scare each other at a game in the near future.

Erik:

I love it. I love it. That's definitely what I'm taking away from this as well is, I mean, you know, we're all nerds who talk about this stuff all the time, but that limbic system, atmospherics and the importance of it and why it allows horror in movies, but not, but it's so much harder in games. I think that's what I want to walk away with is focusing on how do I make that happen.

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

[silence][silence] Amen.[silence][silence][silence]

Brendan:

Well, that's it for this episode of RPG X-Ray. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving us a rating and review on your favorite podcast platform. Your feedback helps us improve the show and reach more listeners who share our passion for roleplaying games.

Erik:

[silence]

Brendan:

[Silence]

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

And that's a wrap. Great.

Ethan:

Alright, excellent. Thank you guys.

Erik:

Yep.

Brendan:

Same.

Erik:

[silence]

Brendan:

[Silence]

Ethan:

Okay.

Erik:

[silence]

Brendan:

[ Silence ]

Ethan:

[ Silence ]