Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Shocktober Day 10 - Horror Gaming Fodder - Suspicion

So life intruded a little bit into my plans for my Shocktober posting, so to get caught up, instead of posting a Seed of Horror today, I'm posting an article about this week's theme - suspicion. I still want to get a Horror to Play post up before the end of the month about the movie I picked out for last week's theme of isolation, so I'll probably put an extra post up one of these weekends. Anyway, here we go!

Have you ever played a game of Diplomacy? It's one of the oldest board games that still gets played regularly at tables across the country, and it's pretty much a devastating set of rules that encourages lying and betrayal in its best players. You can't trust anyone in a game of Diplomacy, and it's always the go-to example of a game you should never play with a significant other. Sure there are other games where alliances are made and the only way a player can win is to break them, but nothing truly requires you to be a sneaky bastard like Diplomacy.

If you've played it before, you know that Diplomacy can be a helluva a lot of fun, full of excitement, and make you feel incredibly anxious. I might say that Diplomacy can actually be almost... scary to play. It can bring out a side of a person that they wished they didn't have. Without much effort, it can make you question yourself in what you'd actually do in a life-and-death situation. Unlike other games where betrayal is built into the rules - games like Battlestar Galactica, Shadows Over Camelot, or, obviously, Betrayal at House on the Hill - there is no mechanic that forces a player to betray other players. In Galactica, if you end up a secret Cylon player, you have to betray your fellow players in order to meet your objective and win the game. Diplomacy is different - you have to assume from the beginning that every player is out to lie to you to gain support and eventually win. You're on edge right from the get-go and it changes the feel at the table.

So why am I talking about a political intrigue/war board game for Shocktober? Nothing else compares to the kind of paranoia I've experienced in the few games of Diplomacy I've played. Not a horror movie, video game, and sadly not even a horror RPG have been able to make me feel just so uncomfortable and suspicious of those around me. I've been enamored with this incredibly basic game since first giving it a shot in high school. You see, if you're not familiar with Diplomacy and why it's so terrifying, it's just one simple rule which makes it click. In between rounds of play, each player has a chance to talk to each other player in secret and make deals, commitments, promises of support, etc. Then, after the secret negotiations happen, the players get back together, note on a scrap of paper what their actual move is going to be, and then all reveal at once. Through this simple model of play, you find out pretty quickly how eager your friends and loved ones are to lie straight to your face, and even better, how quickly you'll stoop to doing the same just to take over a little bit of extra territory.

All this finally brings me to my conclusion: uneven distribution of true information makes for a very fun and scary role-playing experience. Some of the best horror games I've ever played were no different than other RPG's except for adding in little slips of paper passed to between players or passed from player to GM. I prefer the passing of notes to taking time for players to go off to different corners of a house and secretly plot because it does two things: 1. it keeps things moving quickly and 2. there's no avoiding it - a secret is being passed right in front of your face - and unless your character also witnessed the information being passed, it adds extra tension to the game as players have to struggle with player-knowledge versus character-knowledge.

The best part about passing notes is that all things are equal. Don't like that your character's hated rival whispered something in the ear of the character your character most admires? Start your own secrets with a fourth character and raise even more suspicions. Ultimately I'm talking about player vs. player (PVP) kind of play which sits at the heart of a lot of great horror games. From the GM's point of view, it takes a lot of the work and atmosphere-building efforts out of the hands and responsibility of the Game Master freeing him or her up to plan even nastier turns.

It's all about an unequal distribution of knowledge, and that is what will get to players. It's bad enough when a player can't trust a non-player character to be a reliable witness or source of information, but when you're playing a one-shot, there's no reason the player sitting next to you at the table isn't just as dangerous and just as much out to get you. After all, with serial killers, the same rules applies as being chased by the bear. You don't have to be faster than the killer, just faster than the guy next to you.

The next time you're thinking about running a horror one-shot, I would really encourage you to try building in some player-versus-player fun just to add to the paranoia and anxiety of the horror. Make it clear that not everyone is making it out alive, and even better, that those who do survive will probably have to do some things they'll regret later to do so. It's an easy trick that amps up the atmosphere with minimal effort on the part of the GM, and anything that does that needs to be in a horror GM's toolbox.

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