Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler

Bored with Slime

by Allen Varney

The idea of evil in most horror role-playing adventures bores me. Skulking,crawling, leprous nasties with insect legs and wormy faces and pustulentbodies, amalgams of schoolyard gross-out jokes, shamble out of the shadowsin many horror RPGs. They try valiantly to terrify us; if that fails, tostartle us; if nothing else, to make us retch. All these bugaboos, the designershope, come across as really eeevil.

Games such as GDW's Dark Conspiracy, Mayfair's Chill, andFASA's Earthdawn (a fantasy game with a cast of "Horrors" as itsprimary menaces) have introduced whole bugaboo pantheons to torment playercharacters. Each game faced a fundamental question: Why do its evil monsterswant to scare people? In what has become an instant cliche, the creaturesin all these games feed on human pain and anguish. Psychic monsters thattest toward the lower end of the Stanford-Binet intelligence scale merelygrab people and chew on them or gouge out body parts. Smarter psychic monstersoften lurk in people's minds and drive them to madness or suicide. (Thatsure helps improve the industry's image.) Other smart monsters, workingon a grander scale, start cults and have a shy at blowing up the campaigncity.

Over the years I've read or played many horror scenarios like these.Once I wrote one, for a super-hero RPG. I had fun with it, but now I wishI'd done something more original. (My monsters ate people. That motive tooklong hard milliseconds to dream up.) I've tired of those plot elements Iswiped, just as I've tired of all the implausible schemes these recent gamesdevise for their eeevil bad guys.

Think about it. You, Super-smart Alien Monster---can I call you SAM?---feedon human suffering. Whereas other nasties just ooze forth, munch people,and get slaughtered by heroes, you seek a safer and more reliable food source.Do you, as these horror RPGs would have it, blow up the city? Steal a soulhere and there? Gross out heroes with your slimy body?

No, Sam, think insidious. Start a munitions industry, arm the citizens,and spread violence across the land. Create a thriving textile industrythat spawns slave plantations and nightmarish workhouses. Corrupt churches.Use your magic to make six-year-old girls irresistibly attractive to adultmen. (Brrr.) In the longer term, shapeshift into a brilliantly attractiveleader, take over the kingdom or nation, and under a cloak of patriotismlead it to war. In other words, reshape society to pervert noble feelingsand reward the rottenest impulses of human nature. Then, Sam, you'll feedwell.

This thought experiment shows why many horror adventures fail to scareus. However slimy their villains, however many legs they scuttle on, howevermuch they look like the Elephant Man, these things don't much disturb us,the players. A genuinely creepy monster would create plans that wriggleright down into the foundations of our beliefs and mix their awful costswith superficial benefits. And the monster would look like, I don't know,John F. Kennedy. (Congratulations to Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz for creating exactly this kind of figure in the Elektra Assassin graphic novel. Why don't game designers take more cues from comics?)

Some excellent RPGs take a more insightful attitude toward evil. Adventuresfor Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu, honored forefather of all horror RPGs, reliablyoffer many scary motifs. For example, see the scenario book The StarsAre Right for a snuff-film sequence that will curl your toenails. WhiteWolf's Storyteller games fabricate many of their effective``Gothic-punk'' perils from actual problems that beset the world. Genuinelyhorrific ideas appear in less likely games, as well. Without giving toomuch away, I would call The Universal Brotherhood for FASA's Shadowrun an ideal example.

These fine adventures base their fantastic plots on a foundation ofimportant cultural trends and plausible behaviors. By doing so, they achievecredibility, and in horror, credibility wins all. Insightful treatment oftheir subjects has won these games a large audience that yawns over dimwittedpsychic slime monsters. Also, designers must certainly find more satisfactionin writing such adventures, for they show off design skills better thanthe 150th iteration of ``I shall blow up your city, hissss!'' I've writtenplenty of blow-up-city scenarios. Trust me, it does wear you down.

Great horror, like all great storytelling, offers a world-view. By threateningtheir characters' fundamental values of decency, compassion, and integrity,good horror stories make these values precious. These stories also illustrate,for a society increasingly confused and directionless, the dangers thatlie in compromising those values. Of course, the stories chew up their charactersin the process, but don't think for a moment that gore alone accounts forhorror's popularity.

Role-playing games can draw players deeply into that compelling world-view.They can give us creepier dreams than any amount of slime could offer. Better,they can point the way to resolute action in the face of danger. When moregame publishers and designers come to believe this, I expect to see theslime get a lot more interesting.

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Copyright (C) 1995 Allen Varney.