You are here

Hantverksklubben 5: Horror!

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.

Department: 
Actual Play
Games: 
freeform

Comments

Simon Pettersson's picture

This is a comment from the original thread, by Björn, who suggested the theme and played in the session:

I found it as a great strength that we were three participants who actively worked to bring our techniques for fear and discomfort into each scene. We all took responsibility, and it resulted in both high tension and that we introduced complications and problems in scenes we did not set ourselves. Flashlights broke, we cut ourselves, we suddenly disappeared, we became scared and paranoid - without a GM or a system giving us these consequences.

None of us knew what the hell was going on. Benny's sudden death remained unexplained. But our reactions to it, where we took turns portraying the other five, really did the trick of scaring ourselves and each other.

Then the story clicked as well. The last scenes were heartbreaking, dangerous, personal. Kalle roared to the forest where Anna was hidden that 2020 is a shit year, that the devil's coronavirus has ruined him and Lisa. She took his life, he brought out the monster inside him. We talked about playing close to home, being human, building on each other's hints. Three techniques that I think really helped to let us tie this together.

Simon's comment: Oh yeah, I'd forgotten that it was the coronavirus that was driving Kalle's and Lisa's company into financial difficulties.

Ron Edwards's picture

... is to identify the value I am receiving from the Hantverksgrupp posts.

At some point we will talk about the system which is almost always present, supporting the variants or proposed points of attack per session. It could even be written out as a rules procedure. However, that's for later, as right now I mention it only to acknowledge the foundation for the work at hand, per session. Whenever the group meets, and when they start to play, within a few minutes everyone knows who is who, what is what, where they are, and specifically that things can happen and new events can arise.

Given that substrate of function, the group’s ongoing work at hand, or points of attack, are all things which so much role-playing design avoids, in any form of play as played, not merely received. Mystery, fear, character ownership, surprise, and all sorts of other things.

[here I wrote a personal judgment regarding this phenomenon and its history; it is not for the timid and would distract from what I’m really aiming to say]

Let’s avoid an important misunderstanding: this has nothing to do with the distinction between known before play and invented during play. Their format typically uses the latter, but the dynamic thing to be investigated could have been been prepared and known to one person at the table just as easily – its dynamic qualities would still be in full view and, for lack of a better word, under question just the same.

That’s the most important point: every thing that’s been put into the “hey let’s try it” state for each session that Simon has shared, is specifically at risk to fail. Not to work. Not to be achieved or felt in play. Forced into arbitrary or boundary-crossing territory in order to happen at all. Flat in execution. Eclipsed by other things that became more powerful or fun.

This isn’t engineering work. It’s real research, investigative and experimental in the best and most playful sense. There’s nothing on the line: not product development, not social status, not friendship ... and you just reflect honestly on how often those very things are on the line in terms of RPG design, to see how important this is.

Simon Pettersson's picture

Given that substrate of function, the group’s ongoing work at hand, or points of attack, are all things which so much role-playing design avoids, in any form of play as played, not merely received. Mystery, fear, character ownership, surprise, and all sorts of other things.

I'm having a hard time understanding this bit. You mean that the mystery, fear, etc, are things that are played, i.e. created by the players, rather than received, i.e. created by the game?

That’s the most important point: every thing that’s been put into the “hey let’s try it” state for each session that Simon has shared, is specifically at risk to fail. Not to work. Not to be achieved or felt in play. Forced into arbitrary or boundary-crossing territory in order to happen at all. Flat in execution. Eclipsed by other things that became more powerful or fun.

Yes, this is very true, and it's the basis of the whole activity and the reason for starting it and calling it the Handiwork Club. There have absolutely been whole sessions and individual scenes that have been … not bad, because we're generally pretty experienced and can make up decent stuff with little effort, but less than stellar. Some sessions where I haven't been really satisfied afterwards. Perhaps the next time we miss a session I'll post one of those. It could be interesting to look at, and also avoid the illusion that everything we do is just mindblowing all the time.

Ron Edwards's picture

You mean that the mystery, fear, etc, are things that are played, i.e. created by the players, rather than received, i.e. created by the game?

I'm not clear on what "created by the game" means, but I don't want to keep going back and forth with "what do you mean" statements. I'll say it over from scratch and see if it makes better sense. In fact, I will now say the thing which I originally edited out of my intended comment:

Transitive media, or perhaps transferred: someone creates content in some medium, packages it, and transfers it to the perceptions of an audience. Their response is whatever it is, but for sake of discussion, let's say it is reasonably close to the intended effect of the creator.

For this to happen in role-playing, one or more persons at the table are like a pitcher in American baseball, or perhaps like an archer. Their goal is to hit a target for an intended effect. Or think of them as a stage performer with impressive technique, for which their goal is for the audience to weep or laugh or otherwise be emotionally affected. The content is given from them to the receiving persons.

A mystery? The GM will create (or read) its full story, parse out the evident details we start with, adjudicate the order and pace of discovered information (but not too much), determine its most dramatic denouement, and ultimately reveal the big picture to our delighted eyes. Frightening? The GM will scare us! Either with thrills & chills of their delivery, or with open personal and social challenge (see John Tynes' account of grabbing players and shouting at them).

For any and all of this, and please include "challenge" or "drama" or "old school," at least one person at the table is not playing with the rest of us. They are managing play. As the texts tell them explicitly to do, they are managing us. Play is not the medium; it is merely a gathering for the transport of other non-play media from that person to the rest of us, as if they were each new season of Netflix or a voluminous series of fantasy paperbacks, or at least, the representative and only supplier of these things.

What I'm saying has nothing to do with concentrating backstory and many situational authorities into one person. That's not the point. The various designated indie games of today are no better - indeed, arguably worse because they pretend otherwise - because they merely spread the above forms of control around the table, so that no one is playing with anybody. And just as with the "trad" games, openly objecting to it is social taboo.

With any luck this puts us onto common ground.

Simon Pettersson's picture

After a few read-throughs, yes, I think I got it. To try to rephrase it, the central activity of producing all of these things – drama, mystery, fear, etc. – is in Hantverksklubben done at the table through the interactions of the participants, i.e. play. This is in contrast to having it be produced in a pre-written adventure module (whether written by the game company or by the GM) and delivered by the GM, having it improvised by the GM and then delivered, or having it produced by following a pre-written "recipe" stipulated by the mechanics of the game.

A style that is more reliant on prep and less on improv could have the GM prepare the substrate, the basis, for these things, but not try to prepare the dynamic thing itself. The GM can make a bunch of prep from which drama/mystery/fear can grow once it meets the table and the group plays with it (in both senses of the word). The GM neither preps nor creates the thing itself, merely the raw materials for it.

Ron Edwards's picture

Yes! The core concept isn't whether anything is prepared or not, but whether play itself generates the events (meaning situations'/scenes' outcomes), emotions, responses, "new" nows, and moves with and past anything that was put into play by a single person at any time. In that context we can finally begin to talk about agency, Bounce, and constraint, as principles in action during play itself ... and that's what you're actively doing with each "try this" installment of the group's sessions.

Sean_RDP's picture

I have a few thoughts about this and have enjoyed reading this as it provokes thoughts and at times strong emotions. In some ways it reminds me of my experience that I wrote about here in Before the Campfire. I want to share some thoughts on what I have read. 

GM-less

I am not convinced such a situation exists in reality. I am thinking now that is more appropriate to say GM-Diffuse play, where the authorities and responsibilities are shared across each player instead of just one. It could be that it is just a different term for the same phenomena, but I would be interested in a deeper discussion about it.

Saying No

One of the most important factors in play are the moments when as a player or a character we do not get what we want, with the idea that this motivates us to look for ways in play to redress this. I am curious how that worked with the three of you? As an example and pulling from some of your comments in another post, say I wanted Benny to stay alive a bit longer to establish some emotional stakes. But everyone else wanted him to be the first one to die. How was that determined among you?

I appreciate you sharing these experiences.

Simon Pettersson's picture

Sure!

I am not convinced such a situation exists in reality. I am thinking now that is more appropriate to say GM-Diffuse play, where the authorities and responsibilities are shared across each player instead of just one. It could be that it is just a different term for the same phenomena, but I would be interested in a deeper discussion about it.

Yeah, I've seen it be called "GM-ful", as well. I don't think the exact terminology is important. Depends on how you define a GM, and I don't think there's one definition that's better than another. I'm used to saying GM-less and I think everyone understands that term, so I don't see a need to change it, but I have nothing against other terms, either.

In our case, a GM-like role can even sort of emerge and disappear in play. Sometimes whoever sets the scene doesn't play any character in it. That becomes more of a GM-like role in that scene. Sometimes the scene setter does play a character, and it's more of a hybrid. In all cases, the other players have full authority to invent things in the fiction that is beyond the influence of their characters, but that's possible in a bunch of games with a GM, too.

One of the most important factors in play are the moments when as a player or a character we do not get what we want, with the idea that this motivates us to look for ways in play to redress this. I am curious how that worked with the three of you? As an example and pulling from some of your comments in another post, say I wanted Benny to stay alive a bit longer to establish some emotional stakes. But everyone else wanted him to be the first one to die. How was that determined among you?

If I say Benny's dead, he's dead. If you're really against it, because you think it ruins the story or because I'm doing something socially assholey, you can protest, and then we talk about it like grownups. This hasn't happened, and it would be a social thing, not a game thing, if it did. If you as a player or as a character didn't want Benny to die, well, too bad. You roll with it, and work with the story forward to make something cool from it (as you say, look for ways in play to redress it). There's no negotiation of the fiction, and no takebacks.

Simon Pettersson's picture

Of course, there can be moments of "Hang on, you say Benny comes in, but he died, remember?" "Oh, shit, yeah, sorry, scratch that" and similar things. And in "Fighting against oneself" session 20, we had a "I grab your hand and jump with you" "No, as you reach out, I pull my hand towards me, which causes me to lose balance and I fall". So it's not always 100% smooth, but it mostly is. Little bumps like that happen and it's fine.

Sean_RDP's picture

Okay that makes sense and it feels like drawing those hard lines should work well. 

"Like grownups"

And that is an excellent point. Often times we ask questions based on the least common denominator. What happens if someone is an asshole? and that kind of thing. If someone is an asshole on an ongoing purpose, why would I play with them? But in design spaces, and I am as guilty of this, I see a lot fo design geared toward making a game asshole proof. Well, they always build a better asshole, so its kind of a waste of time. lol.

Simon Pettersson's picture

And that is an excellent point. Often times we ask questions based on the least common denominator. What happens if someone is an asshole? and that kind of thing. If someone is an asshole on an ongoing purpose, why would I play with them? But in design spaces, and I am as guilty of this, I see a lot fo design geared toward making a game asshole proof. Well, they always build a better asshole, so its kind of a waste of time. lol.

It's even worse. By trying to make the game asshole proof, you're actually rewarding assholey behavior. Here's something I've seen so many times:

  • Okay, so you have this task you're supposed to accomplish (a quest).
  • And you are given a limited amount of resources to accomplish the task (point-buy character creation).
  • And if you fail in the task, you are eliminated from the game (character death).
  • But whatever you do, don't do your best to use those limited resources to try to maximize your chances of accomplishing the task (minmaxing).

When people, and especially gamers, are presented with a challenge, their instinct is to try to beat it. So when you try to make a game "asshole proof", what you're doing is you're setting up a challenge. You're making it difficult to ruin the game. So what are players going to try to do?

If you instead make it easy to ruin the game, if you make it fragile, you remove the challenge. I've never seen a player who gets the authority to invent anything just say "I become almighty, kill all my enemies and rule the world with an iron fist". What would be the point? There's no challenge. I mean, GMs generally have unlimited powers, so why aren't they doing game-breaking things all the time? Should we design rules to stop them from just being able to invent a thousand dragons that stomp on the characters? No, because GMs don't do that. What would be the point? They wouldn't be proving anything.

Add new comment