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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Playing the Devil: Mechanical Horror In Tabletop Games

Horror in games is a fairly well covered topic here on The Blogoblag.1 Son of Danse Macabre, in particular, just recently spat out a wonderful little article about how horror functions in games, both Zero Punctuation and Extra Credits have touched on the topic, and a number of games have come to fairly striking prominence in the past few year. (I'm thinking in particular of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which is terrifying even to watch.)

But that's all video games. What about the venerable tabletop game? Can you express horror in a board game, or a card game, or a pen and pencil role playing game like Cthulhu Tech or Bliss Stage or even the venerable old Dungeons & Dragons?

It seems like a difficult proposition. After all, one of the advantages of a video game is that the calculations happen in the dark and murky depths of your computer or console. You don't have to think in strict statistical terms, "Ah, well, my guy has more defense than my opponent's power, so I can take this specific number of hits, and then if I draw this card..." The thought process is something more along the lines of, "AAAAH run run run run I'M SORRY I DIDN'T MEAN TO MESS YOUR CHAIRS UP--OH PISSING BLIMEY THERE'S JAM COMING OUT OF THE WALLS!" You are, in short, too busy panicking and either trying to fight or run for dear life from whatever horrible thing is loping toward you with it's jaw hanging off and its eyes derping out like it's been hit over the head a few too many times with a crowbar to notice the underlying specific mechanics whereby you are fighting or running &c. You can't really get away from this in a tabletop game, though. No matter what your level of complexity is, ultimately you have to deal with the mechanical reality of the game all on your own, regardless of the flavor of the game itself.2 (check the footnote for a definition of that term "flavor").

There are a few different ways to get around this problem. I generally see them as dividing into one of two categories: effects that happen within the game, and effects that happen within the game world. One is fundamentally nonimmersive: you are afraid, overjoyed, empassioned, whatever, because of specific things happening in the game that directly relate to whether or not you're beating your opponent's face. The other is immersive in that it causes you to perceive the mechanics of the game not as mechanics but as representations of something real, and something that is emotionally resonant. You feel things based on the implications of their mechanics, not on the actual results in game terms.

The first category is easiest to both explain and capture. To explain, I'm going to use some examples from the trading card game Magic: The Gathering. Don't flee just yet, though, I'm going to try to break this down in simple terms that even someone who does not play the game can understand.

Check out this card, from one of Magic's recent releases:

Yeah, I know. That text doesn't look super accessible, does it? It's full of technical jargon, really. But I'll sum it up for you. Basically, in Magic, in addition to losing if your life goes down to zero, you can also lose if you run out of cards in your deck.

So, what Grindclock does is it builds up the ability over time to destroy more and more of your opponent's deck. Eventually, you'll have ground down their library to nothing, and you'll win. What makes this card a horror card--albeit a not particularly strong or visceral one--is the fact that your opponent has a time limit. They now have a fairly specific number of turns before Grindclock starts destroying their deck. This is when the game gets a lot more visceral, because suddenly you're in a race against time to destroy this diabolical machine before it destroys you. So, when this card hits the field, the first instinct is the one described above.

Er... minus the bit about the jam.

So, alright, that's horror in fairly weak, nonimmersive form. How about something that starts to move toward our second category? What we've got here, even if you don't understand the exact numbers and whatnot, is pretty standard Lovecraftian fare. This is a creature that's big, noneuclidean, horrific, and capable of decimating your opponent's armies. What makes this a horror card is the way it really screws over your opponent in grand form. See, each time it steps up to the plate, your opponent's creatures start simply dropping dead. And, what's more, your opponent has to choose which of their creatures goes to the chopping block. And then, on top of that, as soon as your opponent condemns their loyal armies to hideous sanity wrenching death, the fallen soldiers rise again and start killing their former comrades zombie style.

What makes this card wonderful is the fact that not only do you get the clock effect of the above--your opponent ABSOLUTELY MUST ANSWER THIS THREAT or they are utterly screwed--you also get the immersive flavorful horror of the fact that this is an eldrich abomination that creates hoards of clearly tormented zombies. I mean, look at that art. That's not pleasant art.

Note, in particular, the dude with a spear sticking out of him, covering his mouth in clearly self aware horror. [shudder]
But all of this is about making your opponent miserable. Is there a way of mechanically representing horror that affects anyone just looking at the card?

Here's another interesting little fact about Magic's mechanics. Each creature has a race and class in its creature type. The race is something like Human, Elf, Werewolf, Goblin, and the class is a job like Cleric, Soldier, Warrior, and so on. Not every creature has a job--a class--but every creature has a race.

Unless you're talking about a Priest of Norn. Because those things... well... let me borrow a description from friend of the blog and guest contributor Yanmato:

"...When I first saw the art for Priests of Norn , I got cold. Almost from the art alone. Although, the fact that the card's creature types was just "cleric" helped. Not "human cleric" or "elf cleric" or "mutant cleric" or "construct cleric" or even "horror cleric." Cleric. There is no word for what they are. But we do have a somewhat poetic way of describing what they will do to you. They will cleanse you, purify you, and make you holy. They are... clerics. Of a sort."
This is the part where you start shivering uncontrollably. Or is that just me?

So, that's one example of horror that is just inherent in some of the mechanics and flavor of a single card, horror that has less to do with what the card does once its in play and more to do with what it implies and depicts. But is there a way to mechanically represent something that, if you play it, will be more horrifying to you that to your opponent?

I think Cloistered Youth is a good example of this. See, this is a card with two sides. At certain points in the game, you can make the decision to flip it from the "good" side to... the other side. And... well...

That's what she turns into.

A lot of the horror comes from the art and flavor text. Look at the transformed flavor text: "The fiend tormented them by recounting the girl's memories, as if some part of her remained inside that twisted shell." That's some of the most horrific imagery I've ever come across, partly because it's a horror tinged heavily with despair--this isn't just "OH GOD SHE'S TURNED INTO A MONSTER," it's "Oh god, she might still be trapped in there, and there is nothing we can do to save her."

But that isn't enough for this card. Oh no. This card goes one step further with it. Look at the mechanical trigger for her transformation. "At the beginning of your upkeep, you may transform Cloistered Youth."

" may transform Cloistered Youth."

" may transform..."

Yeah. Think about that. That little girl that's trapped inside of a possessed horror? That sweet little doomed girl? Guess what?

You are the one that doomed her.

You are the one that chose to let her be consumed and devoured by the Thing inside of her, so that you could get a bigger, scarier monster. All so that you could win some stupid duel.

And you know, you could read the transformed ability as her taking chunks out of your life. Sure. That's pretty standard. But I prefer to think of that one damage you receive each turn as self-inflicted. This is the pennace you do--the suffering you inflict upon you own mind--in response to the horrible bargain you have struck.

This card tells a story each time you cast it and flip it. It tells a story about the dark depths to which you, yourself, can sink in the pursuit of power.

That's mechanical horror.

Thanks to the incredible posters over at the Wizards of the Coast Flavor and Storyline board. This article simply would not exist without your amazing help and input. I know I didn't do all the topics the justice they deserve, but maybe I can do a followup article at some point. As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days. Oh, and I'm looking for guest entries this month, so if you have something interesting to say about things that generally fit the theme, send them my way.

1. i.e. The Internet

2. "Flavor" is a term that refers to any of the nonmechanical aspects of a game. So, something like art style (or even the presence of art) is flavor, as is little text on a card or in a monster's description in an RPG that tells us what the creature looks and acts like, or what a spell does. The names of spells and creatures fall into this category, and even something that has a mechanical effect--a creature being a Dragon type, for example, or a certain spell being characterized as Ice Magic, or a weapon in a fighting game being counted as bladed rather than bludgeoning or whatever--can be considered "flavorful" effects, even though they have a mechanical side.


  1. Ooh, you picked one of my examples!
    How would you represent horror in a Dungeons & Dragons setting? It seems even harder, since your characters should be able to beat everything you throw at them.

  2. Yxoque, as a DM, I would have to say that horror in a D&D game would come most often in the form of suspense, with typical horror elements narrated in. You say that characters should be able to beat everything you throw at them, but I posit that the characters should JUST BARELY be able to beat everything you throw at them. But make it look hopeless from time to time.

    As for visceral horror? Anything where they have to fight some demon-child-thing. Since D&D loves narration, narrate the hell out of that child's blood-curdling scream, its devilish glee in wounding the characters, etc.

  3. Hell, I was IN a horror-themed D&D campaign, and it actually ratcheted up the tension and fear admirably. Dim the lights so that your players can only just read their character sheets, pick monsters that have a very, very real chance of killing them (without making it a certainty that it'll kill them... you want to be sporting about it), and after that just add in the usual horror techniques from movies, novels, and video games. It can be surprisingly effective when it's done right.

  4. Honestly, if our group hadn't SUCKED, the time you pitted me against my former mentor would've taken a lot out of me. I mean, it did anyway, actually, since I was deliberately playing to stop him rather than kill him. That was an emotional fight, even with the dumassery of our companions...

    I think it just depends on how willing your players are to get into the game. Really make them fall in love with certain NPCs or settings or aspects of their own PCs, make them as immersed as possible, and then start systematically and horrifically tearing down everything they love.

    And yeah, I'm always in favor of dimming the lights.

    Oh, and props. One of the reasons why this is all Creative Commons is that I'm really hoping someone picks up my zombie idea for a game and uses some of the fake documents and stuff that I created. Fake documents are always wonderful.

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