Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Horror in the Megadungeon

Today is Halloween, so I figured I’d celebrate by posting about horror in the megadungeon. As I may or may not have mentioned, the megadungeon is starting to get a serious dose of horror elements, and lately I’ve been contemplating how they fit in with the tenants I originally laid out when I talked about how I run Dungeon Fantasy. So with that in mind, I’m going to talk about the various things that I look for in good horror and see if they support or run up against what I look for in a good Dungeon Fantasy game.

Elements of Horror

To start with, let’s develop what we mean by horror. H. P. Lovecraft opened his 1927 essay, The Supernatural in Horror, with the line, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” That line nicely summarizes what horror is all about – fear. The horror story seeks to evoke a reaction of fear from the audience as a result of the events, characters, or circumstances therein, regardless of subgenre.

Each subgenre has a different way of approaching the evocation of fear from the audience – e.g., splatter uses the depiction of gruesome violence; psychological horror uses atmosphere, audience empathy, suspense, and tension; body horror focuses on the loss of self and loss of humanity; etc. – but even with all of their differences, horror stories tend to fall back on a couple of common devices.
Horror stories regularly isolate their characters from the rest of the world. This may be physical isolation (as in Alien or The Evil Dead), social isolation (as in Dark Water or Rosemary’s Baby), psychological isolation (as in A Tale of Two Sisters or Black Swan), or a mix thereof. Similarly, and partly because of that isolation, the characters in horror movies are generally quite impotent against the dangers they face. Ripley does everything she can to avoid the alien terrorizing her ship, but in the end, she doesn’t even kill it. Yoshimi is systematically stripped of every option at her disposal until she is forced into a less-than-ideal course of action, and I’m not going to even get into what’s going on in A Tale of Two Sisters . . . .

But perhaps the scariest thing of all, as H. P. Lovecraft wrote back in 1927 is the unknown. That primal fear of what might get you is unavoidable and universal across humanity, and every horror story relies on it at some point. Is the alien in the vents? Will the ghost take Ikuko? What in the motherloving name of all that’s holy is going on in A Tale of Two Sisters?

Did you notice what I didn’t ask? Nope, I don’t care if Ripley is scared, and frankly, it’s the calm demeanor of Su-mi and her father that add so much creepiness-factor to the atmosphere. The fear resides in the audience – not the characters. True, often the characters are terrified and made sympathetic so the audience will empathize with them, but this really is not necessary. The audience knows they don’t know what is going on, and they are scared of what might happen.

Horror in the Megadungeon

So now that we know the common elements that underpin all kinds of horror, let’s see how they fair in the most monstrous place on earth – the megadungeon. If they can stand up to the conditions we want to create, they’ll make for an interesting twist. If they can’t, then this notion will need to be dropped in favor of more fitting elements.

Isolation. In many ways, the idea of a megadungeon parallels the mythic underworld. It is a chthonic demesne filled with strange monsters and magic from which only the bravest heroes can return. The trip there is often a liminal one in which the heroes pass from the safe, civilized world, through the dangerous wilderness, and then into the earth itself. Is this an isolating experience? Most definitely. The adventurers are physically removed from any sources of aid and forced to face impossible dangers. So yes, isolation definitely fits the premise of a megadungeon.

Does isolation play well with agency? I would argue that it does. Certainly, it cuts off options during the delve itself, since the players can’t just send for help, but this prods players into making choices while still in civilization about how they prepare, how they travel, and so on. It spurs on creative decision making well ahead of the crawl itself, and during the crawl, isolation denies players the tendency to relay on others for help. The players are on their own and must exercise their creativity to overcome challenges instead of essentially telling the GM, “here, you get us out of this” every time they call for assistance. So yes, isolation does promote player agency by denying players the easy way out of anything.

Impotency. Quit snickering; this is serious. The adventurers in most RPGs are expected to be heroic, not ineffectual, and that’s an expectation that carries over to players, too. Players expect to win their fights, haul their loot back to town, and drink their wealth away. Directly stripping them of their power seems antithetical to fun, but let’s take a look at just what a megadungeon is. It’s a never-ending hole full of monsters that get progressively tougher as you go deeper. That means that no matter how far down you go, there’s probably something more powerful waiting to stomp you into dust. What’s more, the heroes cannot clear a megadungeon. They are at the mercy of the restocking rolls and random encounter tables. They can make a temporary impact on the dungeon, but it may well never be lasting, and even if it does endure, the monsters will outlast them. In that respect, they are very impotent indeed.

But sure, that’s not really what’s meant by impotency. This is about players probably dying during encounters, and I say that, too, is legitimate. Consider that in oldschool gaming, the GM doesn’t pull punches. TPK is a real thing, and players probably should bring at least one backup character sheet in case of death. Even if the players can control the difficulties of their encounters, things are expected to go sideways. There might be an impermanence to death, but even resurrection is costly – and that strikes at the heart of the resource management aspect of things.

From an agency perspective, true impotence isn’t cool. It’s basically just railroading the players into the horror novel the GM wants to write. But we can preserve some agency by letting the players do what they want, giving them a chance of succeeding in those goals, but stacking the deck against them. They might heroically succeed periodically – and that’s fun so don’t quash it! – but they’ll also fail a lot, too. That wandering encounter table? Make it mean. Those traps? Why not trap the traps so when they disarm them, they trigger another one? The monsters? Make them smart. Make them use tactics. Make them cooperate with each other. Now the players have an uphill battle that, if they win, will be legendary.

So in a way, impotence works, but it’s not nearly as strong as isolation is. Still, those moments when the players bite off more than they can chew will be plenty to evoke fear through lack of options. And since they did it to themselves, they aren’t stripped of agency; they just made a bad decision somewhere.

The Unknown. This is an unmapped megadungeon beyond the edge of civilization. Very little of its history is known, let alone what might be in it. Rumors abound, but rumors are often wrong. Even the woods and lake surrounding it are mysterious and dangerous. So there is much that is unknown, and is that good? Definitely.

Consider a game where the players know every monster they will encounter, have the map to the dungeon ahead of time marking every trap, pitfall, and secret room. They know what will happen before it does and can take appropriate precautions. Does that sound like an engaging adventure? I don’t. No, what makes an adventure engaging is not knowing what’s going to happen – and I don’t mean because of dice rolls. I mean things like, “Is there a lich behind this door?”, “What powers does that flying jellyfish have?”, “What’s in those big, deep pools of water?”, or my favorite, “Why is this area so empty?”

All of these kinds of questions build anxiety about what might be out there in players, who are, by the way, the audience in an RPG. They have goals and know what it takes to reach them – good rolls, good tactics, a little luck – but ultimately, they don’t know if they’ll have any of those. Nope. Because they don’t know just what’s in that dark hole.

So with that all said, I really, truly, think a horror genre megadungeon is very doable. The setting of a megadungeon plays well with isolation and the unknown, and it can be made to work with a sense of impotence while avoiding frustration simply by virtue of the game mode. Horror isn’t antithetical to agency, either; players get to make all the decisions they want, and in doing so, they tend to experience the horror even more directly because they are actively involved.

Will I go this route? Probably. Horror is a genre near and dear to my heart, and I haven’t heard of this being done too much with megadungeons. Will this require much redesigning? Nope! What I’ve already mapped and planned already fits rather well. I will just have to watch my descriptions to create the right atmosphere, but even down to monsters and room contents looks pretty good. I will likely alter the flavor of demons to be a bit more Lovecraftian, though, since they’ve been starting to lean that direction anyway. I think it might be cool not to have normally defined “angels” and “demons” and what not, but rather have “things” and everything else.

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