So in this post I mentioned the fifth episode of Hantverksklubben, our ongoing GM-less freeform experimental group. Ron said he thought of breaking it out into a separate post, and I said I might as well make a new post about that session, since we didn’t have a Hantverk session this weekend. This session is about a year old, and the original post can be found in Swedigh here.
The fifth game meeting for Hantverksgruppen was about horror. Participants were myself, Bunny (Björn) and Hellzon (Anders). This was an interesting theme, as the horror genre in role-playing is quite strongly linked to hard GMing and minimal player power, while we played without preparation and without GM. In addition, we played without regular characters. I want to make a slightly more in-depth explanation of the story this time, as I think the structure is interesting precisely given the lack of a game leader.
The old dance hall. At the end of the last century, a gathering place for a living countryside, now a conference and activity center for small groups who want to get away. At the end of the summer, it is rented by a group of six friends: Anna, Frida, Benny, Anton, Pedro and Kalle, to celebrate their annual crayfish party in accordance with tradition. But things are not as they used to be. Lisa is not with them, after her sudden suicide a few months earlier. And the atmosphere is tense between Anna and Anton, who recently broke up, after which Anton and Frida became a couple.
But during the party they forget this and for a few hours it is as if old times have returned. Until Benny is found floating face down in Lake Mälaren’s dark waters. They decide to call the police, but two problems arise: First, Kalle admits that he has an arrest warrant against him for financial crime. Second, Benny’s illegal drug stash is somewhere among his belongings.
Kalle quarrels with the rest of the group and finally runs away angrily when the others refuse to wait until tomorrow to call the police. Anton and Anna go to Benny’s tent and Pedro to his car to look for the pill stash, while Frida collapses on the sofa in the great hall. But when Anton and Anna go on to the car, Pedro has disappeared without a trace, and even worse, someone has been in the great hall and stolen all their mobile phones, while Frida was asleep.
They try to get to the landline in the office, but the door is locked. Back in the great hall, Kalle appears. He looks ravaged, says that Pedro went wild and tried to kill him. Anna goes to her room to find the keys to the office, while Frida needs to vomit, and asks Anton to hold back her hair.
Anna is in her room, bandaging the wound she received when they tried to break into the office. Picking up the keys. The power goes out. Footsteps approaching. She locks the door. Outside, Kalle’s voice is heard. “The others are down there. Come out, we need the keys.” She’s terrified. Locked inside the room. With a trembling hand she unlocks the door and opens it. Sees nothing, but hears Kalle’s breath. With the keys sticking out between her fingers, she strikes with desperate force straight at Kalle’s face, pushes past and runs. Running, tripping, sobbing. Out, away, out into the woods.
Kalle follows. Out to the car, starts it, lets its headlights illuminate the forest edge. Anna lies quietly, pressed against the wet ground and barely dares to breathe. During what seems like an eternity, she listens to Kalle’s voice calling for her. He’s not angry, he says. He’s worried about her. Pedro is out there. She was so fucking hot tonight. He admits that he is in love with her. In the end, he even admits that he killed Pedro. And Anton, because he had been such an asshole to Anna. And Frida, she deserved it. Anna lies still and tries in vain to calm her heart and breathing.
In the end, Kalle swears, gets in the car and drives away. Anna remains, not daring to move. Faints. Wakes up the next morning and stumbles into the house to call the police.
What was interesting here is that a horror story of this type would be very difficult to get with a GM without very inhibiting and strict restrictions for the players. The atmosphere was tight, and the last scene, when I played Anna and Bunny Kalle, felt eternal, when Kalle shouted out to Anna, who was lying still in the woods.
Here is the list of topics and techniques we discussed before we started playing:
- Bleed, playing close to home
- Address the player
- Grounded characters. Human, three-dimensional.
- Working with contrasts, corrupt something beautiful
- Scare yourself. Work with the imagination. Retroactive horror.
- Work up the mood, let it take time. Vary the tension.
- Take control: suspense techniques (but let them make decisions and be active)
- Suspense vs. horror
- Lack of information
- Hint things, build on past hints and do the obvious next step
- Disrupt the narrative structure – challenge the direction of the story to create a twist
- “Ouija board effect”, apophenia (pattern recognition). Make it feel inevitable without anyone in the group controlling.
- Be explicit with your intention when setting scenes
- Work with word choice, voice modes
I think we worked on most of this. Above all establishing characters and letting it take time in the beginning I think really helped us get the feeling. To really get to know the characters. It was also very interesting to run just playerless horror, in that no one knew what was going on. There is no GM with a plan, and since we had no player characters, no one was safe. No one had plot armor. We did not even remove the player power in the scenes, but let players invent things in the scene while playing their characters. None of this felt like it was a problem for the horror effect or the feeling of discomfort. It was all based on a mood, on an empathy with the characters and on the fact that the events felt like they came naturally, from their own logic. I do not think that identification with the character is as important for horror as is often suggested in discussions about it.
So relating to the scene I mentioned in the other post, I can see now, reading more carefully, that removing the cell phones and introducing Kalle screaming about how Pedro had tried to kill him were two different scenes, separated by the attempt to get into the office to get the land line. I still remember this game as very tense and successful. I normally don’t enjoy horror RPGs so much because it usually involves taking away player agency, so the fact that we got this really tense horror atmosphere without removing player agency was encouraging to me. The final scene, where I played Anna and Björn played Kalle, was absolutely horrible. It seemed to go on forever, and it was mostly just him having a long monologue while I was lying down, trying not to be seen in the car headlights.
Another interesting part is that we never established what happened to Benny, the guy who was found in the lake. My theory is that he was simply drunk and drowned, and it was the police getting involved that made Kalle break, but one could also imagine that Kalle killed him. Kalle was already drunk and really stressed out. He had embezzled funds from his and Lisas company, and Lisa had killed herself because of the financial problems they ended up with, and now he was wanted by the police for questioning. Benny might have said something causing Kalle to snap and kill him. We will never know. I enjoy that kind of ambiguity in games sometimes.