Call of Cthulhu, the monsters notwithstanding, is not a splatterpunk bloodfest of tentacles and slime. It is not hack and slash, nor is it shoot and slash. It’s all in the atmosphere and it’s up to the Keeper to build and maintain that atmosphere. You might think that it’s difficult to do that through the medium of e-mail – after all, unlike their character, the player is in a well-lit room, well-fed and rested, safe and sound. Why on earth should they feel scared when they read an e-mail? And how can the Keeper ensure that they do?
This is where background reading comes in handy. I’m assuming that the potential Keeper has an interest in horror literature, otherwise he’d be playing D&D or Traveller or any non-horror RPG.
By reading, I don’t necessarily mean HPL (although he is, with suitable caveats, an excellent starting point). What the Keeper needs to do is to immerse him or herself in horror literature, and specifically the more psychological variety. I’m including in this film and TV sources as well. A good place to start is the HPL essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” and seek out the texts listed therein. I’m grateful to this essay because it steered me to such works as Machen’s “The Three Impostors”, which is a splendid read and the works of Algernon Blackwood. M.R James I had already discovered and HPL’s description of his work as “gifted with an almost diabolic power of calling horror by gentle steps from the midst of prosaic daily life”. This description should be ingrained on the DNA of every Keeper because that, in a nutshell, is what they must do.
One of the key words in that description is “steps”. An adventure where the party meets the monster within the first few turns is going to be a very predictable story indeed because the plot has reached its conclusion and once the monster makes its appearance, there are very few places for the story to go – die or run are the two options that come to mind.
The good Keeper can eke out the fear by ensuring that the horror increases in small but significant increments. Matsch’s Law and the German proverb "Lieber ein Ende mit Schrecken als ein Schrecken ohne Ende" (better a horrible ending than horrors without end) are the antithesis of this philosophy. The players should never be in the position that they are certain that they have reached the end. The greater the tension, the bigger the shock when things finally snap.
In the Majestic adventure, the tension builds because the party don’t meet anything specific for a good while but they encounter aspects of the uncanny almost from the word go. There are also stretches of prose that evoke bleakness, isolation and an unspecified menace that cannot be defended against because its location and therefore its threat are unknown.
Another source of inspiration for generating an atmosphere of mounting horror and menace is to look within. The keeper needs to ask “What really scares me?”
Because, at the level of the amygdala, we all share deep-seated fears; evolutionary pressures have hard-wired into our psycho-biological make-up reactions and instincts that we don’t even think about and yet we are fully aware of the effects of those reactions.
A good grounding in those reactions and the ways in which emotional responses are generated can give insight into the way that fear works. Once the Keeper knows how fear happens, he can devise methods to play on those mechanics and increase tension.
Returning to the HPL quote on MR James, the use of aspects of ‘prosaic daily life’ can reap dividends when it comes to making the players edgy or nervous. We all have a psychological comfort zone within which we feel safe and secure. That zone is often filled with the everyday, the normal; things we trust and know are harmless.
But are they? A good trick to pull when invading the players’ comfort zone is the “are they what they seem?” one, where seemingly normal people, places and things are twisted that little bit to suggest there’s something more to them. The players’ minds will do the rest – and this tendency of the mind to fill in the gaps can do the Keeper’s work for him in numerous other instances as well. Research the way that the mind works – hypnagogic hallucinations, paraeidolia, apophenia, sensed presence; it’s a fascinating subject in itself.
We referred, in an earlier instalment, to the need for the Keeper to stay two steps ahead of the party. Now we can see another benefit of this tactic – the party’s reactions can be picked up and used by the Keeper to rack up the tension. Something works particularly well? Use it. Something didn’t quite have the required effect? Ditch it. By a process of evolution, the ability of the Keeper to get under the skin of his players will be honed and a better, scarier, more vivid and immediate experience will be had.
It’s all in the description when it comes to pbem. You may not be HPL, but by reading around, you’ll be absorbing the techniques, prose and ideas that made great horror writers memorable. Look at the stories that really unnerve you (and CoC is about unease and unsettling rather than outright terror) and try to work out what it was that caused this effect. Analyse the techniques the writers used to evoke that experience. Do the same for adventures that you have played in the past and see how the tension was racked up.
Until next time, pleasant dreams!
Adventuring in Sunnydale, Derry, and Hawkins - I've been digesting the *Dresden Files Accelerated *RPG off and on over the past several weeks - an activity balanced by family, work, finishing my grad...
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