What if horror games are actually driven by banality? Is Call of Cthulhu best when it’s mostly full of the everyday?
Slow-burn horror is a tricky art. Investigation-based games are difficult to run well. And the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether horror campaigns benefit most from just… not being horrifying most of the time.
I don’t think this is necessarily true for shorter games. But I do think that the longer you can delay the game’s reveal of the unnatural, the better. The monster is always scarier *before* you see it, after all.
Now, I think that Call of Cthulhu is usually at its best when it’s driven by curiosity, or—like Unknown Armies—by obsession. That can vary a little bit for short scenarios, or for some games in settings like Delta Green where the PCs are given a clear task and mission. But when you get into the long haul, it’s the curiosity of the PCs (and the players) that pulls PCs out of their comfort zones and encourages them to dig deeper into places they shouldn’t—you know, like in a horror story. Curiosity and obsession are why PCs stick with their investigations even as things turn from banal to weird to bad to worse.
That curiosity, that obsession, can morph from the desire to know more to the desire to do something, to effect some kind of outcome. But that only happens once the PCs know enough, once they’ve already leapt into the deep water and know that the shore is further away than it looks. They know they’re stuck out there with the sharks—they might as well try to do something while they can.
But preserving the PCs’ curiosity, cultivating their obsession, that’s difficult. And that’s where I think the banality I mentioned above comes into play.
This ties back to the piece I wrote about dungeon crawls and stress cycles a few weeks ago. Basically, investigative horror games need their investigators to not be scared away from the mystery. If you throw the investigators into too stressful a situation too quickly, if you scare them too badly, there’s no reason for them to stick around. If you want the PCs to bite, to take the bait, the investigation needs to lure them in and build up the ominous and unsettling, while giving them enough resolution and reward for their digging that they want to keep going. And in the horror genre, the mundane is as much a part of stress-release as the horror is part of the stress.
Also, like I said, some obsession helps.
Players can help with this need for motivation at character creation by making their PCs hungry, by giving them clear ties that will drive them to engage even when things look bad. But storytellers bear the brunt of the load. And I think they can take up that weight slowly by easing PCs into the horror. If the horror is leavened with enough everyday normal mystery, it can ramp up gradually over time without causing too much stress at once.
This is something I think my friend Caroline did marvelously. I mentioned her years ago, here, talking about her excellent version of Tatters of the King (and how S.M. Stirling didn’t measure up).
She set before us a wide range of mysteries and strange puzzles. She gave us plenty of clues. She played out the many different characters with whom we interacted.
The key, however, was that most of the mysteries we faced were rooted in the mundane. We could dig and dig and uncover more material, and we could almost solve everything. We could build enough of an answer that we thought we had an explanation… except for a few oddly shaped holes.
There’d be ominous and uncomfortable moments along the way, scary things we had to face. Often those were regular human varieties of horror. Sometimes they were laced with something more. Many times, those moments came with the myriad people we spoke to, the ones who were almost completely sane—they worked very hard to pretend they were normal enough, and the little ways in which they weren’t only surfaced in quiet hints (unless the stakes were high).
She leavened the horrifying with the banal.
We, the players and PCs, were driven to fill in those holes. We wanted to solve the puzzle, to find out what told the rest of the story. We were already hooked by the time we found bits and pieces that were truly awful.
It didn’t end well for us, as is normal for Call of Cthulhu. That campaign is still one of my favorite examples of good horror storytelling. I’m so glad Caroline embraced the mundane in her pursuit of the terrifying.