Naming the Threat in Horror games

I love story games. I love making things up on the spot, building off of one another’s ideas and creating a world and a plot together on the spot.

I’ve noticed that story games in the Horror genre suffer from a particular problem here: No one wants to name the monster lurking in the shadows. This is both good and necessary to the extent that fear relies on the unknown and that once you identify the threat as a zombie—or a vampire, or any other known quantity—it becomes known and is no longer terrifying, even if it’s ridiculously dangerous. But it’s also anathema to the core mechanics of shared storytelling because what is unpainted is unrealized and what is unnamed cannot be painted.

The ideal, I imagine, is that we name the threat as something none of us are experts on and then progressively specify details about them. We can peak under the sheet, but we never pull the sheet off. This is something a GM or an experienced group could do consciously in any such game, but it’s always my aim to take the burden of conscious action off players via mechanization.

First, an example: My character was chased by something through the alleys. All I know is it’s breathing sounded like a broken whistle. Your character relates a ghost story her grandparents used to tell about The Brass Mutt, and how it would take away naughty children. Next we find tracks in the shape of small horseshoes, filled with a liquid like a mixture of blood and oil…

Now I’ll analyze what I think was working there. We started off creating two details about the threat, one very broad that lightly implies an urban nature, and one fairly specific, unusual, and evocative to a core sense. Next, we invented a label we could use to talk about the thing—note that it doesn’t matter that the label is accurate or precise, just that our characters have a way to talk about the thing—and that name implies something about the threat, in this case that it’s apparently metallic, and a combination of two or more things, probably an animal like a dog. We also created a personal connection and a history, as well as narrowing down the monster’s modus operandi. Finally, we invented a clue that creates two more specific details about the creature’s being, and that opens up a path for us to follow (or avoid). Following will always lead to more clues and/or a dangerous encounter, while avoiding it allows the threat to fester unseen while we struggle with our character’s personal problems.

We could create a chart to guide players, or a set of moves, or a randomizer:
Sometimes we want a specific detail about the threat, ideally something unusual and that appeals viscerally to one of our senses.
Sometimes we want a vague detail that collapses the possibility space in half or so, while still leaving room for multiple possibilities.
Sometimes we want to create a personal connection between one or more player characters and the threat.
Sometimes we want to learn about a history (or for games where it’s appropriate, a prophecy) to ground the threat in our community beyond the current moment.
Sometimes we want to learn what the threat does. Or to whom. Or when/where/how.
Sometimes we want to learn why the threat does what it does or is what it is.
Sometimes we want to be put on a path toward or away from an encounter with the threat.
Sometimes we give the thing a name. Sometimes we change it.
If the threat is starting to sound familiar, we want to learn something unexpected, that pushes our threat back into the unknown.

As often as possible, the answers to these prompts want to be anchored to something we know (either from popular culture or that we previously defined in-game) on one end, and something unknown on the other end (either a unique idea, or a seeming contradiction to what we thought we knew). In the example above, the tracks are animal-like, supporting the ‘mutt’ idea but dogs don’t wear horseshoes and these tracks are too small for a horse; and the bloody, oily liquid supports the ideas of violence and that the monster is mechanical, but the way it fills the tracks is strange.

What else? Horror games (and horror storytellers) often do a good job of satisfying Horror tropes like isolation, pursuit, grisly evidence, and inevitability, so I’m less concerned with duplicating those efforts. But I’d love to hear your thoughts on the (positive and negative aspects of the) problem, and any other prompts we could give players to address it.

Failing-to-name-the-thing is a fairly common occurrence in improv and story games, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it pose a real problem outside of Horror. Yes, it’s more interesting to know that the powerful artifact our party is chasing through the Middle Ages is a chalice carved from dragonhorn, and that whoever drinks from it can breathe cold flame, but loses a part of themselves… but the story doesn’t really hinge on that information. I want to learn the details of the beef between our characters, but if that history isn’t revealed before our little drama ends, it will still have been enriched by the tension between us. But when we get to the climax of our Horror and the threat is still so vague that we don’t feel comfortable explaining how it’s killing us one by one, that’s a problem.

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I’m pretty sure that what you want here is Annalise.

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I think I just designed a Descended From the Queen game.

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Annalise is one of many games I’ve got a copy of, have reads bits from, but never gotten to play.
I dig the way claims help the story fold back back on itself, and some other features like Moments, but I’m not seeing the direct connection to this post…

Have you checked out Lovecraftesque? It solves the failing to the name the horror problem by asking players to create and then revise a theory of the horror underlying all the mysterious happenings after each scene (the game calls it “leaping to conclusions”). At the end of the game, one player volunteers to share their theory of the horror in a big reveal. I’ve only played once but I found this technique very effective!

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I’ve not, but that sounds solid. Thanks for the recommendation.

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Lovercraftesque also has going for it (or against it, depending, I guess) that it isn’t an RPG in the sense we usually use that, it’s a shared-narrative story game. It’s basically a guided exquisite corpse story read aloud. I love-love-love it, but you’re sharing one character’s story to an inevitable conclusion, so it may not accomplish the goal you want, if what you want to is to find a way to make this work for player character-based RPGs.

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@JimLikesGames has the right of it. Lovecraftesque by @BeckyA and @rabalias is absolutely fantastic for this stuff. The limits it puts on the horror based on how far into the story you are keep the creepiness level just right…

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So, the thought process in the OP is sort of in the DNA of Lovecraftesque, in fact. We’d come up against the problem of the “black box” a mystery thing that someone creates in a story game, and then nobody is comfortable popping the mystery. Other players add more mysterious hints, but actually taking all those clues and making a firm decision seemed to be something most people find uncomfortable.

We didn’t exactly create the game in reaction to that, but in retrospect I’m sure it played into our thinking.

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Been thinking a lot about horror in general, and I’ve recently come to this conclusion: if you don’t know what the horrific thing is, it can’t hurt you. If you’ve got a spooky monster and it’s killing people without rhyme or reason, you’ve got a creature feature, which is part of the horror genre, but isn’t horrific. It’s important to the setup that the players don’t know anything about the monster, but if everything about it is random, there’s no satisfaction to unraveling the mystery.

Now I don’t think this means you need to pull everything back to already existing monsters., but I believe you need something at the end of the yellow brick road. Even if you randomly generate the monster, I think that needs to be something prescribed to the players/participants/victims, and it needs to be set before any actual play starts.

I don’t think assigning a name robs a monster of it’s power, it just crystallizes what the monster is. You can name drop early on, in which case you need to shift the player’s fear to trying to stop the monster from doing what they know it can do. Or you can name drop right at the end, in which case it needs to be the final puzzle piece, the aha moment.

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