This week I came to a decision: Saturdays are for horror things. As an avid reader, viewer and GM of horror books, movies (and TV) and games (respectively), I decided that I want a weekly "column" of horror stuff. This week, I'm gonna write about Isolation in games.
On the Power of Isolation
There's a reason that most horror books, movies and TV series take place in isolated areas: The horror is much more powerful when there's no one to help you, when there's no familiar face to look for, or familiar place to search for. Isolated places, like a cabin in the woods, or an exotic hotel during winter are far from society or people, and those who are there are exotic, thus were seen as barbaric and deranged people, connotations that still can be utilized today.
Much more terrifying than that, is of course being in the barbaric city yourself. Lovecraft utilized this fear in "The Shadow over Insmouth", where the protagonist is there by himself, surrounded by all of the inhabitants, not to mention the monsters. The loneliness is much stronger, when there are people to talk to, but they work for the other side. To that there are two reasons: First is the believability of the situation- the chance for a really deserted place is really low, and as such, places with people are more believable. The second is that it enhances the Paranoia of the players ("Did they hear us? Are they following us?"), thus powering another fear, and making them wish for the first option.
This is the trickier part. After the feel of isolation has been created, using it is really simple, but how can we create this feeling? Especially since the characters usually work alone, in deserted places already?
To this question I found a couple of solutions:
- The easiest thing is of course making all the happenings in the deserted places. The tomb is deep in the forest, the shrine is on the top of the mountain, etc... Take into account that the deserted place can be in the far end of the city, or even in the middle of it.
- There is no proof to what they are saying. Without proof, the scientific world won't believe them, not to mention the police, the army or even the federal agencies. Always make any proof disappear, or of questionable believability and use. The footprints aren't there any more; the creature doesn't appear on the picture...
- No one believes to the characters. As a continuation for the last trick, make sure that no one believes them, or even better, make them work for the other side. The policemen they gave the proof to disappear; the news reporters say its rubbish... Put in mind, that whatever the characters say, it will probably make them sound like lunatics. Make the policemen suggest a "more suitable place" for them, so as to make things really nasty...
- Ordinary people are suspicious near them. PCs usually act differently from ordinary people. The common folk don't want to deal with such strange persons, and thus try to be as far from the PCs as they can, both physically and mentally, and if they are caught in a conversation with one of the characters, they'll probably want to finish it as fast as they can.
- The people talk in a different language. Outsiders and people from abroad are always in their own groups. It's much easier to communicate with your own kind, and it may even be impossible to communicate with the natives.
- When the group split up, I usually split the players to different rooms according to the groups they made. That way there are no suggestions from other players, and always the fear that the other group failed, or even died.
So after we went through how to create it, how should we use it? Well, the answer is quiet simple: we let the players feel the isolation, we make them more and more isolated from society as the campaign unfolds, and when breaking the isolation, making a great deal out of it, thus making it a strange, alien feeling.
One thing to take in mind, when playing in the modern or future eras, is the famous cell phone problem. Although the easiest trick is of course to take the cell phone or the ability to use it, making it a device for the enemies to get info from about the characters is much more terrifying. More than that, fabricating calls and calls that state ultimatums are other ways to use the phone effectively, thus making the cell phone a tool of horror, of great necessity only.