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No Signal – Limitations in Modern Horror Gaming

One of the most compelling and scary components about Lovecraft’s horror is its remoteness. There’s a reason why he set Whisperer in the Darkness in the remote White Mountains – removing yourself from civilization and all its protections is not easy for most people, and certainly must have been unnerving 100 years ago, when still so much of the United States was unexplored.

But finding that level of isolation to use in a modern horror game is a bit challenging. Sure, you can set your game in some actual remote location (mountains or jungle far away from civilization), but not all horror stories take place far removed from people and power lines. And not every critical moment can be born from the device that your character can’t reach someone else, that they don’t have a signal (one of the worst parts of the entire Mission Impossible movie franchise is in MI:III when Tom Cruise is driving around Shanghai trying to get a signal on his phone to make a call – this does not make for good drama).

In fact, I think the more a GM can give PCs access to their everyday technology, the more normal the scenario will feel, at least at the outset. Verisimilitude is a great place to start for modern horror. So what else, besides isolation, can we use to make things scary in modern horror?

Well, a lot of it comes back to all the crazy stuff Philip K Dick wrote about in some of his later works, especially Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and A Scanner Darkly. Well, and pretty much anything he wrote (which is a lot) about identity. One of Dick’s favorite themes is that our reality is not as it seems, that we are not who we think we are. The idea that (SPOILERS HA!) that Deckard and Rachael don’t know that they’re androids, or that Bob’s drug use creates two separate personalities unaware of each other strike at the heart of what identity means. And with identity theft continually rising, and online privacy becoming a larger concern for everyone, we seek more and more to verify that no one is watching, that we are who we think we are, and that our fundamental understanding of who we are has not been compromised. As that gets harder and harder to do identity “theft” (in whatever broad terms) becomes scarier and scarier.

Good art needs limitations, but a good modern horror scenario needs different limitations than our traditional 1920s-30s Lovecraftian story. In today’s world, it’s very difficult to remove all communications and information from people and how they use technology. So one of the things we can do is play with player characters’ identities, and twist their understanding of their world. If you aren’t sure who you are, then suddenly all of your perceptions and perspectives have limitations. This is good gaming material.

One of the main components in He Who Laughs Last is that a PC is not who he seems to be, which is slowly revealed over the course of the scenario. From my playtesting, this sort of twist of identity really freaks people out, which is pretty much the point. But identity can’t be the only component for good horror gaming. What else is there?