Last night, I was reviewing Mothership with some close friends while complaining about Alien:Covenant and my friend Nick said something that’s stuck with me while I think of how best to write scenarios for horror RPGs.
He said that horror games should put to you a choice in any given situation, which is that you can either survive the terror, solve the mystery, or save the day.
…But you should only be able to do 1 to 1.5 of those things.1
The idea is that you can absolutely survive a given scenario, if that’s all you focus on doing. But if survival is your number one priority, you won’t be able to solve the whole mystery, or save the day. In fact, you’ll only be able to figure out some of the mystery, or save some of the victims. Why? Because you put survival above everything else, and that’s okay. That’s your choice.
Or maybe you wanted to save the day, you wanted to save the ship, or stop the cultists, or defeat the monster. Awesome, no problem. If you put all your resources towards that, you can do that. But you’ll do so at a cost, maybe you barely make it out alive and you never learn why you were attacked in the first place.
Or if you want the golden ending, you want to save the day and you want to learn the deep dark mysteries of whatever? Well, that’ll cost you your life.
And that brings me to what I think is so great about this survive, solve, or save mindset: it focuses on dilemma.
In some old screenwriting book2 I have lying around somewhere it says that good movies are about dilemma, not choice.
A dilemma is a question of the greater of two goods or the lesser of two evils.
A choice between good and evil isn’t an interesting choice for most audiences most of the time. What really gets audiences invested in a character is when they have to choose between two things that no one should have to choose between.
I would argue that in most D&D games this is a choice between the greater of two goods. From a meta-game perspective, the PCs are choosing between a variety of adventure hooks that they find awesome. Should we go to that sunken ship where the Grasscutter sword is supposed to be or should we go to that castle, kill the vampire and take his stuff? They know that there’s danger involved, but they are motivated by which of the potential rewards will be greater (you could probably frame this again into all choices made by PCs are a greater of two goods because they are choosing what they think is going to be most fun, but that’s not what I’m interested in).
If you’re a good DM you’re probably varying up your dilemmas and throwing things at your PCs like “oh a dragon is going to burn down the town on the left and orcs are going to raid the town on the right, which do you want to save?” And that’s awesome. You should be doing that.
But in a horror game they should always be choices like that.
They should always be choices between losing your loved one or losing the orphanage to the ghost. Between saving the ship or saving yourself. Between destroying the keepers of Bamophet’s sabbath or touching that tiny glimpse of immortality. Between your mind or what your mind hungers to learn. The greatest rewards should always come at a the greatest costs.
Now, what I’m not suggesting is that if your PCs have solved the mystery and saved the day you amp up the difficulty and kill them because that fits into the genre tropes. I’m saying that you design your scenarios where that shouldn’t even be possible. If there’s any genre where it’s appropriate to go hard the whole time, it’s this one.
Oh, you want to know what that cultist was doing with that book? Well, you’ll need to read that book. And that book’s in some obscure proto-language, which you’ll need to learn. Meanwhile the ritual murders continue, unabated. But you had to keep reading that book. And congrats, you read it, and now you’re teleported into the dreams of a comatose serial killer whose psychic energy has infected all of his cultist servants. As you make your way through the dream, you find a way to kill the beasts that are terrifying, even to this despicable specimen of humanity, but in doing so, you find out that there’s no way out of the dream. You’re trapped inside the nightmares of a dying murder god. But hey, the cultists will stop murdering, so that’s good. Do you feel better now that you know why they were doing it?
This leads me back to Zak S’s wonderful Hunter/Hunted model, which was the first thing I ever read about Horror RPG structure that got me thinking about this. And they fold really well into each other, because in H/H, if you’re not making progress on the solving aspect, then the surviving and saving aspects start to come knocking.
When I was growing up the joke about Call of Cthulhu was always “Why would I want to play a game I can’t win?” And its taken me until now to realize: You can only not win if you define winning as getting all three: solving, saving, and surviving. You can win Call of Cthulhu, or Dread, or Mothership, or any other horror RPG. Of course you can.
It just might cost you your life.