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.


  1. Relating to our discussion Sunday evening touching upon your thoughts here I do not completely agree with your points on the WoD games.

    They will, as systems go, lead on to give you a game based around a superhuman (NOTE: not hero) character and will perhaps neither not be the best one at it. However I find that these games have a differnt approach at the personal horror we are discussing. As a Narrator of a CoC(ToC)-game you will have another sense of control over the horror, the actual otherworldly part of the players experience as characters. Another wholly changing aspect is the difference in state of the character.

    In CoC you are actually protraying a human struggling to keep their reality whole. The difference between the nature of the character and the player wielding it is a feat that requires less work on the players side and thus less also means less responsibility over the horrific content. (Though perhaps not less responsibility of maintaining a horrifical theme to the game).

    In any WoD game that I've played, larped or run, I've found that the difference between an enjoyable session and a bad one is whether the players retain their composure and responsibility of their own content. Vampire (the Masquerade, the Requiem, it doesn't matter in this case) Is by some described as a vampire-superhero game (As I take you here.), here you find a scale of heroism from being the shining paragon to the reluctant anti-hero. I believe this is the fault of the players portraying it so and the Storyteller permitting it to develop in such a way. Personal horror is not only the fact of percieving horror on the outside of the character, it also encompasses the horror within, and in WoD more so. Returning to Vampire as my example of the system, this leads me to describe it as a game intended as a anti-villain game.

    That is to say, a game where the easy way is the despicable way and the 'good' solution is extremely hard (almost unattainable?) is the idea of this sort of personal horror. At the start of a vampire-chronicle the simple feat of waking in the evening and feeling the thirst is horror in itself. The ways of doing this are ample its here where the horror is lost. Most often due to players non-conciously engaging in gruesome acts of murder and mayhem without actually even progressing the scale. The horrors of the game is means to be coming from within the loss of anchor in the human world. A lot of roleplayers have not the stomach to experience the revulsion one can feel against the character one portrays. Delveing deeper and deeper into the mind of a being with a decaying sense of humanity. The horror of where lines are drawn...

    Some rambling, but hope they give something.


    1. Yeah, that was kind of rambling, and I'm not sure I understand all you are trying to say.

      But, I don't think there's any element in the game that reinforce the process of losing your anchor in the human world. You start as a superhuman and you get even more badass. Sure you might loose some Humanity but it's not much of a deal.

      I guess it comes down to if you want your game to have game mechanic for what has been termed "system" or if like in OD&D you only have rules for combat but it's everything else that happens that is the "system" and things like character development. Contrast that with games like the Forge style, where everything that matters is covered by mechanics.

      Personally I think Vampire start from the wrong end. You get powers, which distract from engaging in personal development. If it can be made to work for you, more power to you!

      My big thing with this post, personal experience of in game events, is probably relevant for both Vampire and other games where uncovering of information that may impact the behaviour of the character and his or her development.

      Or at least that was my hope and intention.

  2. this based on a particular published scenario? If so, may I ask which one?

  3. When your CoC is getting a little too heady, run a 1930s RKO classic like The Mummy. Or just do a Shadow tale. Too many people forget that one does not have to run into Nyarlathotep every scenario, or they rewrite the whole game into something not horror.

  4. Chet,

    Yes this is Tell my have you seen the Yellow sign? from Great Old Ones by Chaosium. It's written by Kevin Ross. It's really great.

    1. And I even have that volume! Guess I should read it one of these fine days!

      Thank you so much!!

      *jeep! & God Bless!
      ---Grandpa Chet

    2. Do so! I guess you understood which I mean, even with my misspelling...

  5. Tom,

    I totally agree that you should keep it varied. If I continue after this it will be more of the style you suggest before some more mythos.


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