Friday, February 3, 2017

Your Hands are Bound by Forces Beyond Your Control and She Awaits You.

I've never really been one to enjoy horror games because they tend to begin on a simple premise: the player cannot win a fight with the villain. The extent to which this is enforced runs the gamut from the villain simply being more powerful than the players are able to overcome under normal circumstances to the villain being invulnerable to the players machinations. Some games I have been asked to play even go so far as to say that the players cannot cause harm to the creatures terrorizing them. 

I fundamentally reject such noise.

The Entomologists Dream by Edmund Dulac 1909

In role-playing games we are the heroes of our stories. We're not scared, little children hiding in the cupboard hoping that some shiftless drifter doesn't find us. We're the kids who pick up axes, guns, and knives to hunt that bastard down and show him what fear really means.  And yet even with that fundamental truth guiding our hobby I have found myself rendered powerless in role-playing games three times. The first time we were told that the mere sight of a creature drove us beyond the realm of sanity and thus we were devoured body and soul. I got up from the table and drove to a local bar where I proceeded to drink for six hours and fool around with women who though make-up was best applied by the bucketful. I still regret not having done so sooner that night. 

The second time I sat down at the table and the Game Master informed us that all of our possessions had been taken from us and that we awoke in a dungeon with monsters hunting us. I made plans to murder them only to be told that this wasn't the game we were playing. We were the prey. They were the hunters and if I didn't like it I could get the fuck away from the table. So I left and ended up fishing under the stars while a beautiful Jewish girl read poetry to me and asked me questions about God. 

I still don't have all the answers.

The last time I was sitting down to play a game when the Game Master told us that this would be a fantastic experience for all of us. We were going to be playing children who were hiding from some dastardly villain but that we couldn't hurt him. Hell, we couldn't even attempt to harm him. I left that table with my brother, Poot, and went down to the lake where we talked about our children and drank until the sun came up instead. 

Look, as role-playing enthusiasts we're often asked to pretend that our characters are bound by limitations all the time. This character isn't as strong; that one isn't so smart; that one likes to smoke and cut itself. All of these simple limitations are fine, but when you take away my ability to choose how my character will make its way in this fictional life I reject your game. 

I know the sort of player I am. I tend towards violence, bloody and unrepentant, and I like to push the limits of what is considered acceptable within the game world (though never in the actual world). I make off color jokes; use terrible accents; and am always planning ways to make my character the one thing in the game world that will scare the shit out of every Dragon and Devil alike. I want to use my mind to find the solutions to difficult situations and to take that away from me because you want to make the game scary is to ruin any fun I might have in the game. 

Now back to my book.

21 comments:

  1. "In role-playing games we are the heroes of our stories. We're not scared, little children hiding in the cupboard hoping that some shiftless drifter doesn't find us."

    Except... Sometimes we are. To some people (myself included) that sounds like enormous fun.

    It's not for you, and that's cool. But there's nothing inherently wrong with players being unable to defeat the monster. They can still make meaningful choices, it's just the focus of the game is survival instead of kicking arse.

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    1. Survival horror is actually a lot of fun when it's done correctly - by which I mean that I'm okay with it as long as you're able to make all your own choices. When the ability to fight is taken away from you its no longer fun for me. I want to be able to grab a stick from ground and hit the stalking monster across the face, or to lay traps for the thing stalking me as I would in real life. That may, ultimately, be where my problem with horror games originates: I should be able to do all the things I would actually do in real life within the horror situation and more often than not that is taken away from me.

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    2. I partly agree with you, and partly disagree. A player should always have agency and be able to make meaningful choices. They should be able to set traps, hit the monster in the face with a stick, etc. Those actions should have real consequences: for example, it might slow the monster down enough to let them escape and live another day. But "meaningful choices" doesn't mean "you can do whatever you want".

      Genres always close down certain choices. That's what distinguishes them from other genres. For example, a PC flying around and blasting energy beams from their eyes is a perfectly valid choice in a superhero game. It's not a valid choice in other genres. Killing the monster is a perfectly valid choice in some games (including some survival horror games), but it's not a valid choice in other genres (such as 'purist' cosmic horror).

      To use video games as an analogy, it's a bit like Resident Evil versus Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In Resident Evil, the player starts out vulnerable, but can eventually arm themselves with heavy weapons, etc. Sure, the threats they face also get stronger, but there is always a way for the player to fight back. In Amnesia, it's impossible to ever kill the monsters (in fact, you don't even get any weapons). Both games are fun, but I much prefer Amnesia.

      As a player, I want to play in horror games where there is no hope and I will inevitably either die or go insane. I do want to make choices along the way, but I also want the game to be true to its genre. There are certain assumptions I accept when I sit down to play such a game: i.e. there are no "heroes", the monsters are impossible to stop, and death or madness is inevitable. I prefer to run those games as well. I realise I'm in the minority here, but I just want to let you know that this kind of game CAN be very fun and rewarding. It's just not for everybody!

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    3. " player should always have agency and be able to make meaningful choices. They should be able to set traps, hit the monster in the face with a stick, etc. Those actions should have real consequences: for example, it might slow the monster down enough to let them escape and live another day. But "meaningful choices" doesn't mean "you can do whatever you want".

      "Genres always close down certain choices. That's what distinguishes them from other genres. For example, a PC flying around and blasting energy beams from their eyes is a perfectly valid choice in a superhero game. It's not a valid choice in other genres. Killing the monster is a perfectly valid choice in some games (including some survival horror games), but it's not a valid choice in other genres (such as 'purist' cosmic horror)."

      I don't recall arguing that I should be able to do whatever I want in the games, only that I shouldn't be restricted from doing things that I would be able to accomplish in real life. I understand where you're going, though, and completely disagree.

      Genres are artificial constructs that we have created to establish rules to our fiction that limit what can happen there. Sci-Fi has space ships or future technology; cosmic horror has creature from beyond; murder mysteries always have a detective. The best books, and games, are the ones that allow you to abandon such restrictions and just have fun. My favorite authors (Philip K. Dick, George Alec Effinger, Jack Vance, Robert Heinlein, Ursula K. LeGuin, Peter F. Hamilton, et al.) and role-playing games (Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, Gamma World, Metamorphosis Alpha, Warhammer 40K, Savage Worlds, RIFTS, et al.) all cross genres constantly to great effect.

      Limiting my games to the boundaries defined by a genre isn't something that I'm interested in doing. I want laser shooting dinosaurs and sword wielding barbarians in the same game. I want comic horrors and nuclear bombs blasting them back into the tear they've ripped in reality.

      "To use video games as an analogy, it's a bit like Resident Evil versus Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In Resident Evil, the player starts out vulnerable, but can eventually arm themselves with heavy weapons, etc. Sure, the threats they face also get stronger, but there is always a way for the player to fight back. In Amnesia, it's impossible to ever kill the monsters (in fact, you don't even get any weapons). Both games are fun, but I much prefer Amnesia."

      Never liked the early Resident Evil games as they always felt a bit boring - though the new one is just amazing! Also, hated Amnesia with a passion. There are more ways to kill that monster than there are stones in those walls but my only option is to run and hide. Absolutely hated it.

      "As a player, I want to play in horror games where there is no hope and I will inevitably either die or go insane. I do want to make choices along the way, but I also want the game to be true to its genre. There are certain assumptions I accept when I sit down to play such a game: i.e. there are no "heroes", the monsters are impossible to stop, and death or madness is inevitable. I prefer to run those games as well. I realise I'm in the minority here, but I just want to let you know that this kind of game CAN be very fun and rewarding. It's just not for everybody!"

      Hey, as long as you're having fun that's all that matters. It's obviously not for me but if you're enjoying it go for it!

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    4. "Limiting my games to the boundaries defined by a genre isn't something that I'm interested in doing. I want laser shooting dinosaurs and sword wielding barbarians in the same game. I want comic horrors and nuclear bombs blasting them back into the tear they've ripped in reality."

      And that does indeed sound fun (what's not to like about laser-shooting dinos?), but not everybody enjoys that kind of kitchen-sink gonzo approach all the time. I guess my main objection is when you say it's a "fundamental truth guiding our hobby" that players should be powerful heroes. Your own personal preference is for powerful PCs who can potentially overcome any adversary, but it's not necessarily bad game design to make Cthulhu indestructible.

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    5. The fundamental truth that I described in the post is that we should be the heroes of our stories. That doesn't necessarily mean that we should be powerful - lots of heroes aren't powerful - but that we should have the ability to affect our situation.

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    6. Ah, ok. I can agree broadly with that. When you said it is "noise" to present players with an unharmable enemy, I thought you meant it was flawed game design. If you're just saying this is all your personal preference, then I can very much get behind that.

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  2. I have never played an actual horror game. What I will say on the subject is that after nearly 25+ years of game mastering, I have no clue how to run a horror game well. I have never tried, but I don't think I have the chops to ramp up tension among my players to the point where "fear" would be the result.
    I have run some tense encounters, I have had some dark dungeons, but Horror movie style fear is just not in my tool set.
    The fact that I hate horror movies might have something to do with it. I don't enjoy the genre so I never worked on it in my RPG's.

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    1. I would love to read some about your dark dungeons Mark. Have you written them up anywhere on the blog already?

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    2. No I haven't, you know some stories from past games might be overdue.. Though I don't have you deft writers touch . I don't think I could pull off a series like "So you want to be evil?" even if I do have some stores on a similar par.
      Also, it's been a long time since I ran an actual dungeon.. I should do that.

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    3. Yes, you should totally do that.

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  3. Not to sound blithe, but it reads to me that you've not taken the time or been given the opportunity to evaluate these games before you sat down, and maybe that's not the best for you or the people you intended to play with.

    That said I'd have a hard time in a game where I was flat out told I couldn't do a thing that was within my character's capabilities. If there are consequences, the GM can tell me and ask if I'm sure. Otherwise, they should remember they handed me a character sheet, not a script.

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    1. "Not to sound blithe, but it reads to me that you've not taken the time or been given the opportunity to evaluate these games before you sat down, and maybe that's not the best for you or the people you intended to play with."

      I can see how you could read it that way.

      My personal rule when it comes to trying new game systems is that I withhold judgement on them until I've made it through three sessions. Then I decide if they're for me or not.

      In the case of the games above I enjoyed the first one until my ability to choose how my character acted was taken from me. The second one I left after I had hatched my seventh plan to kill the monster that was chasing us and was told that we were the prey and the monsters were the hunters and if I didn't like it to GTFO. The third one took away any opportunity for me to defend myself besides cowering in a cupboard while the villain murdered other children. Not my idea of a good time so I left.

      "That said I'd have a hard time in a game where I was flat out told I couldn't do a thing that was within my character's capabilities. If there are consequences, the GM can tell me and ask if I'm sure. Otherwise, they should remember they handed me a character sheet, not a script."

      And that was the crux of my issue with the three games I discussed in the post.

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  4. I agree - it's important to communicate the kind of game beforehand, otherwise it will inevitably lead to frustration.

    I don't think having an unkillable monster makes a game railroaded, though. That's not been my experience as a DM or a player.

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  5. I've run Chill successfully, and the way I did it was not to create fear, but simply tension. Fear isn't required for horror.
    Meanwhile, limiting player options sounds like railroading, and is the sign of a lack of skill in the GM.
    In all three cases, excellent choices on your part.

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    1. I really need to try out Chill sometime. From what I've heard the system is supposed to be a lot of fun.

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  6. "Meanwhile, limiting player options sounds like railroading, and is the sign of a lack of skill in the GM."

    It can definitely be railroading (and the examples put forward in the post do sound like poor-GMing). However, in principle, it's also possible to have a sandbox with limited player options. As a concrete example, jim pinto's "King for a Day" (*spoiler*) includes an unkillable enemy in a Anglo-Saxon style sandbox. Graham Walmsley's purist scenarios for 'Trail of Cthulhu' would likewise be good examples of where limiting player choice does not equal railroading.

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    1. I need to check out pinto's King for a Day. He's an interesting guy.

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