This is a public service announcement! (For the purposes of this announcement, “public” means gamer types in the Denver area who don’t have plans for this upcoming Saturday, February 13th.)
In case you haven’t heard, this weekend is Genghis Con, one of the largest and oldest game conventions in Colorado. It’s also when and where I’ll be running some Ghost Punchers RPG on Saturday night. Here’s the blurb:
“Mini Van of Death! The third time the same vehicle is involved in a horrific traffic incident, it’s clear that something evil and supernatural is at work… and needs to be punched!”
According to the Ghenghis Con website, there are still couple slots open for the game. So if you’re going to be at the con, and you’re looking to punch some ghosts, sign up and I’ll see you there!
I haven’t played Quake II in over a decade.
I played the heck out of the game when it first came out. I memorized the flow of it, attuned myself to its rhythms and patterns, and learned to recognize its subtle sound design cues almost on a subconscious level.
“New room? Probably a soldier hiding right around the corner. Is that sunlight through the doorway? Check the skies for lurking flying creatures; I can hear them breathing.”
(Despite my countless hours killing the Quake II aliens, I couldn’t begin to tell you their names. “Flying Barrel Thing?” “Machine Grunts?” “Stompy Railgunner?”)
Last week, I got a new desktop computer. Nothing fancy or expensive, but something good enough to run Minecraft and the Sims. On a whim, I also installed Quake II on it, just to see if the old game still held up. Within minutes, it all came back to me; it was like riding a bike made of a gun-toting space marine.
Quake II is apparently my gaming equivalent of comfort food. It’s tasty, easy to digest, and not really much of a challenge (turns out I still have a lot of the levels memorized). And that’s okay. I don’t always need challenges. Sometimes I just want to shut off the higher functions of my brain and focus on shooting aliens.
But the same way you can’t live off nothing but mashed potatoes (mmm mashed potatoes…), you need challenge in your gaming diet. The brain gets bored with a thing once you’ve mastered it, and doing the boring thing just because it’s there is how you (I) end up watching reruns of 1980s sitcoms when you (I) should just go to bed already.
I’ll play through to the end of Quake II. (I hate leaving game unfinished.) But after that, I think my next video game will be whatever the opposite of comfort food is — an unpronounceable dish in a new ethnic restaurant, marked on the menu with indecipherable icons, perhaps.
While it’s true that I don’t do reviews, I have been known to offer up recommendations from time to time. And since I’ve been thinking about horror so much these past few weeks (thanks for that, Ghost Punchers), it felt like time to present a couple recommendations in that genre.
The tagline for this graphic novel is “What if Raymond Chandler wrote Lovecraft stories?” and that’s about as spot-on as you can get. This thing is packed with hard-boiled dialog, film noir imagery, and sanity-blasting horror. The story, Nightmare on the Canvas, is intended to be the first in series of such graphic novels, each detailing a new adventure of Hank Flynn, a damaged WWII vet turned private eye.
While it might go without saying, I should point out that, as a horror book, this thing has some graphic and disturbing imagery. Nothing you wouldn’t expect from a story dealing with Richard Pickman and illustrated by master of the macabre Patrick McEvoy, but definitely not the sort of comic you’d want to leave lying around for the kids to pick up.
If Casefile: Arkham is a horror noir, Bone Tomahawk is a horror western. This movie came out last year, loitered in theaters for about a day, then moseyed over to Amazon, where it awaits your streaming pleasure. Kurt Russell stars as a sheriff who leads a posse into the wilderness to rescue folks who’ve been captured by cannibals. It’s more The Hills Have Eyes than Call of Cthulhu, with long stretches of suspense interrupted by brief bits of shocking violence. Again, it’s not for kids or the faint of heart, but if you agree that “cowboys and cannibals” should be its own genre, this might be the movie for you.
Whenever I pick up a new setting book for Savage Worlds, one of the first things I flip to is that setting’s list of character archetypes.
For the uninitiated, archetypes are kind of like traditional “character classes” (wizard, warrior, murder-hobo, policeman, construction worker, etc.) but they don’t lock you into a limited set of abilities. Instead, they merely provide a template for quick and easy character creation (“If you want to play a construction worker, start here”).
What’s more, by looking at the archetypes, you can get a pretty good idea of what sorts of heroes you can expect to find in the setting. For example, if the list contains Private Eye, Femme Fatale, and Crooked Cop, chances are you’ve got some two-fisted detective work in your future.
Which brings me to the Ghost Punchers RPG.
I’m not done designing the archetypes for the game yet, but here’s a brief preview of some of what you you’ll find:
- Academic: This bookworm has a head full of arcane knowledge and a fist full of righteous fury.
- Clergy: A proponent of hands-on ministry, this exorcist will defend his flock by any means necessary.
- Detective: Whether a private eye or a cop on the edge, this investigator has seen too much to ignore the horrors around her.
- Entertainer: Armed with a video camera and a YouTube channel, the entertainer dreams of someday punching ghosts on basic cable.
- Hunter: Driven by his past (and possibly a muscle car), this grim avenger has no life beyond finding and destroying ghosts.
- Martial Artist: Putting the “punch” into ghost-punching, this melee master is a specter-slapping machine.
- Mystic: This wise one is in tune with the spirit world—especially the parts that need a good punching.
If you have an archetype you’d love to see that isn’t on the list, please let me know and I’ll do my best to accomodate you.
As I noted in my previous post, the problem of a horror-themed storyworld is that the world must contain numerous potential stories, but with each story the audience consumes, the more the audience knows — and the more they know, the less frightening the subsequent stories become.
A great example of this is Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, and specifically the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game that’s based on it. It’s hard to find players who won’t come to the game with at least a passing knowledge of Cthulhu, Hastur, Azathoth, and their minions. It’s easy for such a player to let the air out of the story by saying something like, “Wet footprints in the museum? Stolen Innsmouth artifacts? We’re up against Deep Ones here, folks, so get your guns out and look for anyone who smells like fish.”
There are at least three ways to address this problem (I’m sure there are more, and I’d love to hear about them from you in the comments or on Twitter.) which I’ve called Go Hide, Go Big, and Go Small.
This is the most obvious solution: keep the characters (and by extension, the audience) in the dark as much as possible for as long as possible. Even when they come out the far side of a horror story, they’re not sure what just happened. By hiding the true, horrific nature of the world, you keep them ignorant, and therefore powerless and scared.
I’ve got a couple problems with this solution. For one thing, you’re just prolonging the inevitable; when the audience eventually figures out the horror elements, the jig is up. For another, you run a greater risk of annoying, rather than frightening or engaging your audience (a little mystery is fun; too much is frustrating).
Nevertheless, if your project calls for a short-lived storyworld (like for an ARG or a fiction anthology), this might be the best solution. There’s something to be said for keeping it simple.
The key to this solution is to expand the world with each story, so that what the audience learns from one story doesn’t take the suspense out of another story; each story adds more mystery even as it reveals previous mysteries. This works especially well in storyworlds with serial stories, such as TV shows likes X-Files, LOST, or Supernatural. (I’m sure there’s a horror books series I should be listing here too, but I’m drawing a blank.)
One downside of this plan is that it’s terrible for non-serial stories. If you watch LOST episodes out of order, the later episodes totally spoil all the horror and suspense of the earlier ones. Another drawback is that by constantly expanding the world in order to keep some of it mysterious, you inevitably create a dense mythology (that can make your world inaccessible) and risk that your revealed mysteries aren’t as satisfying as the audience was hoping for. (See the last few seasons of LOST for examples of both these things.)
In this solution, the true horror is in the specifics of each story. So while the audience may know, from previous stories, the secrets of the horror in general, they don’t know the secrets of this horror in this story. For example, someone playing a Ghost Punchers adventure might come into it knowing the mechanics and metaphysics of ghosts, but he can still be frightened by a hidden room full of blank-faced dolls in a daycare where several children have gone missing. Clearly the dolls and disappearances have something to do with ghosts, but what? And why are the dolls suddenly pointing at me and chanting my name?
This is the most versatile solution, and the one I like the best. Versatility is the key to great storyworld because it allows the most different types of stories. Going small doesn’t force your stories to hide big secrets from the audience or require your audience to consume them in sequence. You can add those things, but they are spice, not the main course.
Wrapping it up
Let’s see if I can summarize all three posts here…
- Horror comes from powerlessness.
- Powerlessness come from ignorance.
- To keep your horror storyworld scary, you need to keep your audience ignorant long enough to be frightened, but not so long they get frustrated and walk away.
Knowledge (it is commonly said) is power. And power (I have previously said) is what horror is all about.
The more you know about a threat, the more power you have. The more power you have, the less frightening it is. That’s why unseen, mysterious monsters are so scary: because we have no knowledge of them, we have no power — and there is nothing so terrifying as being powerless.
As creators of horror stories, we have all the knowledge and therefore all the power. (Of course we do! We’re the ones making this stuff up!) We determine how much knowledge the audience and the characters get to have — and can even take it away if we want to give them an extra jolt of fear. (“I was wrong about ritual! It’s not a binding, but a summoning! We have to get out of here now!“)
By managing the flow of information, we can adjust the characters’ power. Give them more when you want them to feel good (“We know the monster’s weakness! Let’s go kill it!”), and less when you want to raise tension and suspense. We must be careful not to withhold too much knowledge from the audience, however, or they will feel frustrated, rather than pleasurably scared. (This is doubly true when the audience and the characters are the same, such as in video games or tabletop RPGs.)
This is all well and good for individual stories. But what happens when you’re creating an entire storyworld? The audience carries over its knowledge from one story to all other stories in the world, thus making them that much less frightening. That’s a problem.
That, my friend, is the horror world paradox… and we’ll be tackling that in part 3.
As I nibbled around the crunchy edges of the Ghost Punchers RPG this week, I had a few thoughts on the nature of horror-themed storyworlds. And since I haven’t done a storyworld post in a while, I wanted to share those thoughts with you!
Horror is all about power. More to the point, horror comes from a lack of power. Being powerless is scary. (“Oh no, the axe-wield slasher is coming and I’m naked in the shower!”). Discovering that you’re powerless is scary. (“Bullets have no effect on this thing!”) And losing the power you once had might be scariest of all. (“You have to have faith for that to work.”)
As creators of horror stories and storyworlds, we have the power. The audience for such works come to us looking to be scared, willingly putting themselves under that power. But unlike, say, slasher victims in the shower, the audience has the ability to walk away if they’re not having fun anymore. They have the ultimate power: to close the book, to turn off the movie, to quit the game.
That’s important to keep in mind. Because while frightening the audience is part of the job, the whole job is to entertain them.
As the year draws to a close, you may ask yourself, “Wasn’t Darrell working on a Ghost Punchers RPG? What ever happened with that? Did he get distracted by Star Wars or some other shiny object and completely forget about it?”
Rest assured that I have not forgotten about the long-promised RPG. But I have been distracted by shiny objects such as (for instance) paying work. Nevertheless, progress is being made on the project, and I’d like to take a minute to share it with you.
I’m a big believer in outlines. They provide much-needed road maps for creative endeavors, and break huge scary project into bunches of little bite-sized tasks that are more cute than intimidating. Here’s part of the current outline for the Ghost Punchers RPG:
Those Who Punch Ghosts (Character Creation)
- New Hindrances
- New Edges
- New Powers
Have Fist, Will Travel (Setting Rules)
- Ghost Rules
A World of Ghostness (Setting Details)
- A Brief History of Punching
- Ghost-Hunting Organizations
- Locations of Note
The Monster Behind the Screen (GM Section)
- Making Ghosts
- Making Adventures
- Making Campaigns
- A Rather Long List of Ghosts in Need of Punching
- The Obligatory Sample Adventure
I’ve already started filling in the details on this outline, and will share more as I continue to do so. But I wanted to bring it up now to (a) remind the world that the project exists, and (b) publicly commit myself to getting it done in 2016.
We were an hour east of Nebraska, returning home from Thanksgiving with family, when the tire blew.
This wasn’t the first time we’d suffered a blowout while traveling cross-country to visit relatives. This wasn’t even the second time we’d had a roadside emergency on one of these trips. At this point, I wasn’t even surprised. Spending quality time on the side of the road had become a questionable holiday tradition, like fruitcakes and drunken uncles.
I spend the next 30 minutes crawling around the vehicle in the cold and dark, grateful that I’d packed a flashlight for just such an occasion. We would have been on our way and hoping to find a tire store open at 9:00 PM Saturday night, except for one. Last. Stupid. Lug nut. It wouldn’t come off.
To be fair, the nut itself wasn’t technically to blame. The true culprit was the bolt it was attached to–a piece I later learned is called a “wheel stud.” This stud had come loose from wheel assembly; it turned with the nut, so the nut couldn’t unscrew. We had no choice but to call for roadside assistance.
Our roadside assistant was named Sam. His garage was just at the next exit, which we could see from our spot on the side of the freeway. Sam grunted at troublesome wheel stud.
“Very unusual,” he said. “I think we’ll have to cut it.”
I gave the nod. Sam hacked through the studs with a power cutter, producing enough smoke and sparks to satisfy Michael Bay. He then attached the spare tire to the four remaining studs, though he didn’t recommend driving for long like that. What’s more, he warned us that the end of the stud still inside the wheel would fall inside and tear up the emergency brake system.
Turns out, it didn’t so much tear stuff up as lock stuff down.
We got the van to the Super 8 at the top of the ramp before the tire refused to turn more than half a rotation. Dragging the dead tire, we literally limped into a parking space and rented a room for the night.
Long story short: We weren’t able to get the wheel fixed and tire replaced until Monday afternoon. Even then, as Sam handed over the keys to the van, he warned that the battery was old and weak.
“If it was me, with my wife and kids, I’d keep it running all the way to Colorado.”
As much fun as that sounded, we opted instead to pick up a new battery in Omaha. At this point, our credit card was already fat and sweating, so I figured the cost of a battery was nothing compared to the risk of spending yet another night on the road.
We finally got home from our Thanksgiving road trip around 2:00 Tuesday morning, about a day and a half later than expected. We were exhausted, broke, and missing a day of both work and school, but safe.
And that’s something to be thankful for.
National Novel Writing Month is over, and I have nothing to show for it.
Okay, that’s not true. I have over 30 thousand words to show for it, as well as a killer outline I feel really good about, but it’s it’s not National Outline Writing Month is it? I didn’t finish the book. I failed.
I have excuses. And they are glorious. The most obvious is Thanksgiving, which somehow ended up in November this year and really threw off my groove. The other involves an epic tale of cross-country survival deserving of its own blog post. (Maybe on Friday.)
But I’m okay with this failure. I’m pleased with what I got written, and know I’ll finish it soon enough. I also learned lessons about story structure that improved my writing, sped up my process, and will hopefully help keep me writing fiction when November 2015 is a smoky ruin in my life’s rear-view mirror.
And as far as failures go, I’d call that a success.