See P. XX
A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Lovecraft specialized in tales of cosmic horror, in which the insignificance of mere personality pales when confronted with the utter indifference of a materialistic universe. His heroes go mad or are destroyed by monstrous stand-ins for a reality that takes no note of human concerns. Our motivations and choices don’t just mean nothing when viewed against the Mythos’ geological time scale and the mindlessly biological nature of its entities. They lie entirely beside the point.
The school of personal horror, as found in Fear Itself, instead explores the horror within. The heroes, or perhaps anti-heroes, of personal horror tales meet destruction when taken to the cruelly logical endpoints of their own inner struggles.
Many modern horror writers, in keeping with our era’s focus on characterization, prefer to meld the Mythos with tales of personal horror.
If classic Lovecraftian protagonists can be said to be destroyed by a personal flaw, that would be a particularly scholarly or scientific variety of hubris. Their need to look where all the omens tell them they should not leads to mind-shattering truths they wish they had never sought. In this they follow the template of the venerable granddad of science horror anti-heroes, Mary Shelley’s Victor von Frankenstein. He in turn traces his mythic antecedents to the Prometheus of the novel’s subtitle, and also to Daedalus. Both lofty, symbolic figures far from the sources of literary psychological realism.
Trail of Cthulhu pulls its protagonists toward horrific revelation with Drives. These allow players to choose why their characters read books of madness, go off on jaunts seeking suppressed cults, and descend into Antarctic tunnels.
Fear Itself has you personalize your character by specifying The Worst Thing You Ever Did. This not only gets you to think of your PC as an anti-hero and not a problem-solving ass-kicker, but gives you, the inner corruption that may lead to your undoing. To help you and the GM turn it into narrative, it asks you to express this in the form of an event.
The upcoming GUMSHOE One-2-One doesn’t use either mechanic. However the political and individual corruption of its introductory setting, 1937 Los Angeles, filters into scenarios that fuse the personal and the cosmic. And while I’m not the boss of Ken, I wouldn’t be surprised to see personal horror also infuse its way into The Fall of Delta Green, set in the era when hubris spiraled into a shattering of collective norms and the flying of any number of freak flags.
You can add horror to standard Trail games set in any era by adding an inverse quality to the Drives. Ask players to specify not only a Drive, but a Worst Thing You Ever Did. Suggest that they tie one into the other. This creates a unity of character—even a DramaSystem style pair of dramatic poles, from the sympathetic intentions of the Drive to the dark side of the WTYED.
Invite stumped players to steal from the following list of example Worst Things. For those who prefer to create their own personal nightmares, I’ve left some of the Drives as exercises for the reader.
Adventure: “I left my wife and children at home while I went off on a journey to the South Seas. The opportunity to fight pirates thrilled my blood. A year spend marooned on a tiny atoll taught me strength. When I returned, it was to their graves—they had died, alone and afraid, taken like so many others by an influenza epidemic.”
Bad Luck: “While helping my young brother string Christmas lights, I fell from a ladder. I landed on him, killing him. I didn’t do it on purpose. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel responsible for his death. Because even then I knew of my curse, and should never have exposed him to the danger of my presence.”
Curiosity: “They say curiosity killed the cat. It certainly killed the cat I performed a live vivisection on, when I was seven.”
Duty: “I officiated at an exorcism. Sanctioned by the church, though they will never confirm that. I did not listen to the others who cried out that the girl could not breathe, so intent was I to drive the demon out. They defrocked me, said the girl had epilepsy. Maybe she did, but at least the devil inside her no longer walks the earth.”
Ennui: “I grew so bored once that I toyed with a young man’s heart, merely to see it break. Perhaps I thought his naivete and freshness would once again open up something alive in me. But I tired of him before the experiment had ended, and discarded him. One night I came home to find him in my bed—a gun still entwined between his dead fingers, a fatal self-inflicted wound marring that handsome face.”
In the Blood: “My mother said she wanted me to kill her, before a terrible transformation turned her into something I would not recognize. I laughed. I always told her she was prone to drama. Then one night she disappeared, leaving behind the corpses of our chambermaid, the chauffeur, and the village doctor. I should have listened. When it starts to happen to me, will anyone believe me?”
Revenge: “In my haste to avenge myself against the marauders who slew my parents, I captured the mad wanderer who sometimes trespassed on our estate. Certain he knew more than he would admit, I tortured a confession from him. A confession that led me nowhere. The poor devil would have said anything to escape my misplaced wrath.”
Sudden Shock: “I don’t know what the worst thing I did. I just remember that after they found me in the park, there was something in my mouth—a fingertip, severed by my teeth.”
Thirst for Knowledge: “I stole a forbidden book from the Ashmolean Museum Library. As soon as I knew of its existence, I had to plunder its ancient Aramaic and fully comprehend its demonic lore. Other minds could not stand the strain, would be implacably drawn to do evil with its secrets. But I knew better. I could keep them, safely. What I did not predict is that, while in my possession, the book would be stolen. And those others, whoever they were, slew innocents and summoned a terrible being to stalk the land. Had I not been rash, that dread tome would still be in the Ashmolean today.”