Here at the Inquisition, we tend to tackle the broader questions that face us gamers, and since we’re featuring horror stories in the month of October, we’ll ask ourselves one of the most basic, salient questions: what, exactly, is the nature of fear, and how do we incorporate it into our games?
Fear presents in many different forms: horror, creepiness, terror, revulsion, dread, foreboding, fright, and so on. Don’t go mistaking me for an expert in psychology or medicine, but my lay understanding of the essential quality of fear is that it is a visceral emotion that ultimately serves to protect us. We are afraid of those things that we subconsciously (or consciously) believe will bring us harm. Some of the most common fears are related to (what I assume were) common dangers to our ancestors: being gobbled up by monsters, things that we can’t see or don’t understand (the dark), falling from great heights, and so on.
The problem is that while these fears may have protected us once, as we have become more sophisticated culturally and technologically, many have become less relevant. There is less that we don’t understand, but darkness no longer holds untold dangers (and we can produce artificial light to aid our sight), and so on. Maybe this is an extremely simplistic artificial dichotomy, but I think you could probably group all kinds of fears into two categories: fear of the unknown, and fear of the known.
Fear of the Known
It’s easy to dismiss, but the fear of the known is very powerful. We know all about our reactions to certain stimuli: some of us are intolerant of pain, others intolerant of small spaces, others of things more innocuous. We know all about how these things go, and thus, we’re fearful. I don’t like small spaces; there’s something about it being hot and stale that just gets to me very quickly and I become sweaty and motion-sick. Thus, I have a tendency to fear or at least be anxious about approaching situations where that is a distinct possibility.
This falls into the realm of “rational fear”, which, admittedly, is a nebulous and not really definable concept. However, I’m comfortable calling it that because I fear situations that I know will cause me discomfort. Now, my tolerance for those situations is obviously not what you would call desirable, but the anxiety is very real.
Departing from these minor worries I think we come to the true horror of the known, and that’s when we know how bad something can possibly get. This is your Heart of Darkness, your All Quiet on the Western Front. We are terrified because we know how horrible man can be, we know what evil and depravity lies in the deepest recesses of some people. Sometimes the known can be more horrifying than the unknown.
Fear of the Unknown
Horror masters like Lovecraft and Poe worked closely with the fear of the unknown, boiling down one of humanity’s great, existential fears. We are naturally a race of scientists and information gatherers, we seek out data to confirm our beliefs and suspicions. Nothing seems more frightening to us than phenomena that we cannot explain, articulate, or manipulate. I can’t get into why we fear the unknown with any authority – but I can say that we like to be in control of our own environment, and many of our more personal fears stem from having a lack of control or a lack of knowledge about our own situations.
We, as people, as gamers, have wonderful imaginations and those who are the most imaginative might be the most susceptible to the horrors lurking in the dark depths of the unknown. These creatures take the shape of that which subconsciously makes us the most uncomfortable or will cause us the most pain, things that no one could ever know, things that we might not even know ourselves. The unknown is an amorphous mass of evil that is everything we revile at once.
Bringing it to the table
And that’s all well and good, but how do we incorporate the fear of the unknown and the known into our roleplaying games? I think it’s tougher than you might believe.
One of the necessities of good storytelling is to ground or frame our stories in believable realities – that means that to aid our suspension of disbelief, we need to be set against a backdrop of believable worlds. But we also must frame our stories against understood worlds, which is something that we sometimes lose when playing in homebrew worlds.
I have generally been on the GM side of the screen, and after returning to the role of player recently, it underscored how important having a known and an unknown is when it comes to worldbuilding. When you play a game like Call of Cthulhu or World of Darkness, a lot of your work is done for you, as those are set against the backdrop of a pre-existing world: our own. Yes, each is a perverted version, but ultimately those games are so effective because the perversion of that world is the point. There shouldn’t be vampires or werewolves or shoggoths or magic or any of the fantastically horrible things that exist in those worlds, because this is reality, and those things don’t exist.
But you don’t have that same luxury when it comes to fantasy worlds. Your players are going to be plenty willing to accept the existence of shoggoths because they live in a world where dragons and dryads and driders and demons and devils and dire alligators are all common. That one important part that is so easy to leave out when describing the world is just what is normal.
I’ve created two homebrew fantasy worlds now: I played in the first one for five years, and I just started a new campaign in the second one. In the first one, I made it very clear to everyone that there was a lot unknown about the world, but the one fact of which everyone and their mother was certain was that there were no undead. When something died, it was dead forever. You see, a century in the past, after the tribal squabbles had subsided and the known world was peacefully divided, the great powers resolved to eliminate the undead threat from the world. The greatest warriors, scholars, and theologians from around the known world banded together and swept across the four nations crushing any undead creature that could be found. So complete was their genocide (ungenocide?) was that the creators of undead were also proscribed, and all knowledge of how to do so was confiscated and (presumably) destroyed.
So, you see where this is going. When you are grounded in a world where something definitively does not exist, and then it shows up, that could be horrifying (or it could be wondrous, or something else entirely). I’m far from the first person to come up with this concept: Lovecraft, George R.R. Martin, and many others have wielded this tool far more deftly. But you should also realize that by defining your world explicitly, you can also foster fears of the known – this is the common conception we have of the savage orcs (mostly descended from Tolkein) as warmongering, brutal peoples. We fear them because we know how bad they can be.
As the blog carnival continues, we’ll tackle more fear- and horror-related topics as we approach Halloween, such as how to actually, you know, scare your players, if you’re into that kind of thing.
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