I just finished two of H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories. They weren’t the top of the heap for what I’ve done by him and definitely not the best horror I’ve read. However they were great in illustrating two very diverse attitudes towards cosmic horror that are key to gaming in that style. Shotguns, dynamite, and research vs atmosphere, tension, and certain defeat. It’s action investigation vs the slow reveal of hopelessness. I thought I’d touch on how each achieved their tone and how in someone’s home game. I’m not going to summarize the stories as that would make the post undigestable. I’ll mention the basic plot structure because that’s important but if you want to understand the specifics in context, read the stories here and here, or check out the plot summaries on Wikipedia.
The Lurking Fear is a simple horror story in the tradition of the slasher or monster movies we have now. There is a rumor of something terrible out at this remote place, someone dies to spur an investigation or foreshadow, the protagonists show up full of certainty of safety, they are quickly abused of the notion as one or more die. It differs from modern tales here, after the first real monster encounter in that instead of striving to escape the protagonist spends all his energy attempting to find the monsters secret in order to kill it. Modern tales the first instinct is usually to escape, which then turns into an attempt to destroy. Eventually after losing many companions he stumbles upon the secret and learns the horrible truth. He then comes back with dynamite and friends and destroys all trace of the monster(s).
The Thing on the Doorstep is much closer to the cosmic horror Lovecraft is famous for. A intelligent academic who lacks wisdom begins to study the dark arts. He goes too far and ends up losing his mind to an evil force. There is a brief moment where it appears he has won before being utterly destroyed. His best friend tries to avenge him but ends the story voicing the fear that his mind may be the next to go and he has no defense for it. It is only implied that there is no hope hear as opposed to The Shadow Over Innsmouth where we see the narrator go insane in front of us.
The tone of these stories is entirely different, the objective is different and therefore the nuts and bolts have to be different. The pacing of Lurking Fear is one of ups downs, with multiple moments of high climatic action and then a release. It starts off with exposition before quickly moving onto action. Jump scares or the literary equivalent are prevalent. The monster is a mystery, barely hinted at and kept hidden till the very end.
Contrast this with The Thing on the Doorstep which starts off with a grabbing action scene, almost in media res, before moving on to a very slow exposition build. The pacing is steady building tension to an ending we already know. It finally satisfies the the reader with answers at the end but the climax contains no real action. From that standpoint it’s almost an anti-climax. We know the terrible outcome from the beginning and the villain, while not technically revealed to halfway through or so is implied almost from the moment we meet them. Things are still left off screen though, hinted at dark terrors beyond mortal ken, so terrible as to defy words.
There’s probably a bunch of other literary techniques used that I didn’t pick up as I read these for enjoyment, not to deconstruct. I also didn’t read them so much as listened to them on audible at 3x speed, not the best for trying to pick up apart a text for analysis and review. So understand that there’s plenty of other possible features to find and highlight in your games, this is hardly exhaustive.
Speaking of which how do we emulate these stories at our tables? My first thought goes to system as always. While there are many great procedural type games, GUMSHOE is the best I’ve found for investigation and so suggest Trail of Cthulhu for the Lurking Fear. It’s light on action but Lurking Fear ins’t a run and gun story. When they figure out the monster, it’s all shotguns and dynamite, overwhelming force to kill the things before they get a chance. The Thing on The Doorstep is harder. There is no real mystery to solve and honestly not much of a problem to set right. You definitely want a story game here, something that’s designed to focus on creating a narrative and less on overcoming obstacles. FATE could theoretically work, but it’s still a conflict resolution engine and there’s no real conflict to resolve. This is about exploring a theme. If you went with FATE I would say remove the skills and fudge dice and simple use compels and invokes to share narrative control. That actually sounds really interesting now and I think I’ll write a one shot to try it out. Thanks guys.
My other thoughts for systems are Dread, which is pretty obvious, but there is a bit of conflict resolution there and it seems also to imply that you can win, in an overall sense, not just in a you survived today sense. These could be handled in the meta but I’d prefer to get a system that truly matches tone. I have some advice on how run a truly Nihilistic Cthulhu scenario in dread that I’ll write about some other time. Instead I think I’ll go with Fiasco. I know, it’s not perfect either but it’s meant to handle PC’s getting fucked horribly and with some adjustment to the ending tables you can make it as dark as you want. I’d remove any positive entries on the ending results table and replace them with some form of madness. The scene framing and resolution picking die mechanic is not as great as the Jenga tower for building and maintain tension, however, it works very well for implying the horror and hinting at things off screen. The tension comes from the natural beats of the story instead of artificially created(or enhanced) via mechanic. There’s probably some hacks that could be done adjusting the number of dice in the pool that would highlight tension but I’m gonna leave the standard for now.
So we have our systems. What now? Well Trail walks you through adventure building based on the skill selection of your players, handles the investigation by itself. So what’s left is hiding the monster to the right moment and mixing up encounters enough between action and lull to keep the players engaged and on the edges of their seats. The last is a basic GM 101 technique but for this I would suggest following Robin D Laws advice in Hamlets Hit Points. In addition to mixing up the type of encounter you need to make sure you don’t string together too many up or down beats in a row. No more than 3 of each I would say. If things are going great for them, 3 up beats, make sure something turns against them. If things are going terrible, give them a win. Don’t base these on obstacles they can overcome and try to adjust difficult. Instead if something bad needs to happen, attack something they have no control over they need, like an NPC or the library full of research. If good things need to happen, they stumble across an asset or an ally happens to have something they need.
That’s the easy part. But how do you keep a monster hidden, while still showing a threat? Well like above you can attack NPC’s, objects, or places, that they have some attachment to. But don’t only focus on threatening things in the story. RPG’s are mechanical in nature and when ever you want to engage the players you should to the mechanics first. If you need the story to go a certain way, and there are no mechanics for it, ala FATE’s compel, stick to the fluff. In this case though we don’t need to actually hurt the players, just threaten them. GUMSHOE gives each player points in skills they can use to get over things. You could just keep throwing encounters to drain those points as threats. Or you could deliberately make that a failure condition on a roll(beyond the fear and sanity stats that already work that way). So when we need to threaten the players but we have no NPC to attack, like when the Narrator in Fear is digging in the grave and confronts the monster which immediately disappears in a cave in. Call for the San check like normal, but add another check, probably preparedness. Failure means a loss of points in Preparedness as some the gear gets lost in the cave in.
Pulling off Thing on the Doorstep will be much harder. For one thing improv games like Fiasco tend to degenerate into silliness real quick. This can be handled by planning out what relationships you pick from the beginning. Roll as normal, but make sure you are looking ahead and try to talk about each choice as you make it. I would also suggest replacing two white dice with black as in general things should go poorly across the story. Also limit the when the dice can be pulled, so that there must be at least 2 white dice left when the second act begins. In the end though it requires alot of trust between players to pull this off. Skill isn’t need so much as an honest desire to work together to achieve that goal.
There’s no real overall take away here. Look at the literary techniques used to create the effect of the genre you’re emulating. Try and make them come through in the game whether through GM trickery, group cooperation, or designed mechanics.