Monday, April 30, 2012

Personal horror

A few days ago once again sat down behind my Trail of Cthulhu screen as the Keeper of Arcane Lore. Once again we travelled back to New Orleans in 1929, as imagined by Kevin Ross. This time, people went mad.

I'm beginning to appreciate the way this scenario is put together. The tome The King in Yellow is the key for it, and today the characters found the book, and read it. Telling them what they found made me realize how the whole of the scenario is modelled on and structured by that book. But, the big thing I wanted to talk about was how that book affected the characters, and the players.

Kevin Ross has provided the Keeper with a short summary of the physical characteristics of the tome, and a quite detailed summary of the content of the text, and how it affect the reader. Combining this with how Ken Hite suggested Hastur as a viral meme, I managed to portray the reading experience of the tome in a way that I had never tried or experienced before. I'll get into some details.

I have not read Chambers, but this book might follow his story. I don't know.

So, the setting is a city and the characters are a royal family fighting over succession. A stranger arrives, in a Pallid Mask, and he bears the Yellow Sign. He proclaims the coming of the King in Yellow and at the ball he is the only one not who has not removed his mask, and then it is revealed that he has none. Somehow the city is then replaced with Carcosa and the city is now situated by the lake Hali and everyone goes mad.

So, how does this related to the scenario, and how did I use it? In the scenario, it's Mardi Gras and everyone is dressed up and there's a masquerade ball at the end of the scenario. As you can see, the idea of masks is a common theme, as is the idea of a ball. But, the question of identity and duplicity is also important.

When the first character read the tome, she lost 5 SAN at once and I decided that her feeling of identity had started to slip, and that the idea of personal belonging became kind of hazy, cleptomania struck her as quite logical. Also, she at once started to wear a mask.

The second character read the book, and lost slightly less SAN. That character was most strongly affected by the duplicity of cities, places and time. I described how time and place suddenly had no meaning, and how the one turned into the other just like the city in the book had turned into Carcose. It had always been Carcosa.

The third reader had notes from the others, and here I emphasized the labyrinthine qualities of the text, and how plot lines twisted into each other, and how the pages seemed to be out of order. The main thing to freak that character out was how the literary qualities was as mutable as the reality in the story was.

What I did was I gave all the players different views of what they had read, and how it affected them differently. I had great help of the summary of the text, and could use different parts of it for retelling and rephrase things to freak the character out. Many times when you play CoC, you find a tome, read it and dock some points of SAN and now you have learned occult knowledge and are slightly more crazy. I found that actually have something to present to the players was important, and one of them even noted the fact that they all got something different from the experience. Suddenly the otherworldly qualities of the cthulhu mythos became tangible, or more real. It drove home the idea that you could actually be affected by reading a text. It became personal.

I think the first time I came across the idea of personal horror, was in the World of Darkness games, like Vampire. In those games you play the monster, and thus it's personal. I became bored when I realized that it was just a super hero game dressed in black leather and lace. Call of Cthulhu on the other hand is often criticized for being slightly too cerebral and too focused on the indescribable. I think the criticism is often well founded, but maybe focusing on the personal experience of something like a text could be a way to make it more personal, and make the player connect to the character to some extent. The themes in the setting, and the weird qualities of the text reinforced each other. By underlining the shifting nature of reality in the text, the shifting nature of the reality in the game was kind of implied. Since it was different for each character and it became more personal, isolated and possibly even hinting at the utmost loneliness of all character in the face of the mythos. Can you say "existentialism"?

It was a good session.
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