I visited the Baron this evening. He was well,
even pleased to see me this time. As always, however, he kept his face hidden, made sure
that a good deal of shadow fell across it. There was the usual small-talk, but at some
point during the night, he said this to me.
"H.P. Lovecraft was the first to admit that it's the nameless terrors that carry the
real chill, the ones that don't just fire up your imagination, feeding you what you want
to hear, but actually disturb you--screwing you up inside and making even the most
chronically black-hearted among us crave sunlight and birdsong. The nature of the monster
is not merely associated with the unknown, but it is the unknown itself.
We can't help it; it's programmed into us, a handy survival technique. We despise the
unknown. It's not instinct. Oh no, that would be getting away too easily. It's actually
learned. Think back to your childhood, to your lifespan up to this point. Absolutely
everything has been a new experience at one time or other. And so many of those
experiences have been glorious, opened new worlds of pleasure and intrigue.
But don't lie: the majority of new experiences have hurt like hell. You have a good reason
to detest the unknown, to fear it. We all do. The first experience following birth is the
pang of hunger. The first experience following walking is falling down. The first
experience following riding a bike is crashing into something. From the time that we
emerge from our mothers, we are rigorously trained to anticipate new experiences--and with
them--new pain. This is the very essence of horror. You can know only enough to be aware
that you do not want to see what undulates behind the curtain. You can't stop it. You know
that, too. Experience has taught you well. It is a force of nature. It will come. It
All you can do is remove it.
There are three ways to do this. You can:
1. Flee. Escape. Hide and never look back. This is of
course the simplest and most time-honored method of removing the monster. Another thing
you can do is to...
2. Fight it. Destroy it without hesitation. Release all that pent-up aggression toward the
unknown that you've been accumulating since birth. Crush it utterly and make it small, so
small that only your power remains, so that it will now feel what you have felt all this
time--the feelings of insignificance and anxiety. It is as though you have traded places
with it. If so, watch out or you might...
3. Become it. Up until now, only the monster has held the power to terrify, to control its
victims through fear. But you have taken its place. Perhaps you are the monster now,
terrifying others, but that is better than being a victim.
But am I talking about reality here, or your games?
Even when all other emotions and acts are affected in the role-playing environment, horror
remains the one purest, truest emotion. It is at the moment of horror that reality and
role-playing become indistinguishable.
It is our conditioning, you see. Our constant exposure to the unknown, over our lifetimes,
conditions us to react to it on an unconscious level. We no longer have to consciously
realize that a phenomenon is unknown to us. Instead, the deeper part of our brain carries
the reflex, so that a strange noise may give us pause even when engrossed in a
particularly stimulating conversation. We freeze because the real person we are, the ocean
of awareness behind the mask that we call our self, has been trained to recognize the
significance of the unknown. It shuts everything else down, dedicating all the body's and
mind's energies to acting to minimize the pain that it has learned comes riding piggyback
on the monster.
It is because this process is unconscious that the greater mind (what John Steakley
referred to as the "Engine" in his lovely novel "Armor") makes little
distinction between fantasy and reality. Any experienced GM relishes this fact. It is this
fact that allows fear of the unknown to translate well into literally any imaginable
genre. And players love it, especially when they're barely conscious of it, when it slides
into them unexpectedly, like a needle that slips through numbed outer flesh to probe at
their viscera. The GM doesn't even have to worry about details when he's trying to horrify
his players. In fact, often fewer details have a more pronounced effect, as players use
their imaginations to fill in gaps in the GM's narrative. It is at points like this in the
game that players will invariably behave irrationally, or exchange nervous glances. Horror
is contagious, and despite what some may believe, numbers do nothing to decrease the
horror, especially of one group member can look at his/her fellows and see that they feel
the same level of fear as he/she does. Fights may break out. Player characters may
spontaneously attack the nearest target in futile attempts to release the anxiety of their
player masters. Some may exhibit signs of compulsive behavior, continuously sorting
through their belongings, counting, stalling for time by asking the GM useless questions
about each item in their possession. Still others will insist that control can be had by
planning. Some will resist such planning, sparking inter-party fights that both release
and build different flavors of tension.
Eventually, the GM is simply watching. Little effort is required of him at this point.
This is no longer role-playing, but simply a kind of phobic theatre. Life has taught each
player well how to fear the unknown, and they are unwinding like released springs, the
coils of their arduously wound anxieties popping out in every direction--generally at each
other. Suddenly, the monster is upon them, the one that they constructed piece by piece,
from fall to hunger, from blindness to burn. They are fleeing, and fighting, and becoming
monsters against each other, utilizing every technique that they have learned over time.
And the GM smiles, not consciously, but simply because he is both fighting and becoming
his own monster, and he instinctively knows that it takes very little effort from him to
push the players even further into their frenzy. At this point, the action is in their
hands, for after all, his realm is only the game itself, and this is not entirely a game
anymore. He needs only to nudge to keep the gruesome top spinning its course into and out
of darkness. The players are too busy to even notice.
Finally, at some point, there comes a great purge, a frenzy wherein speech ceases and
role-playing has been forgotten, and the player characters--mastered from the
monsters about the table--rush forward to destroy the threat, the unknown, the fear, and
thus tear away the curtain for their masters. Finally, you see, the fear has become so
great that it can grow no further. It has spawned an age-old exchange, and no matter what
lies beyond that curtain, it is nothing. The monster has already been birthed and been
ritually slain before anyone noticed what happened.
There will be a bit of talk later, but no celebration. The players and GM (do not think
for a moment that the GM is not part of this all) will sort through the details of the
game, neaten them like a bed after night's lovemaking, and they will feel good. They will
leave with smiles on their faces, because all that lay beyond the curtain--or the game
rather--was sunlight and birdsong.
I'm tired now."
I saw myself out of that place, and was glad. I do not know why, but I detest the Baron
when he gets like this.