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Author Topic: DM/GM 101: The Science and Magic of Horror Gaming  (Read 668 times)

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Offline Lord Palatine

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DM/GM 101: The Science and Magic of Horror Gaming
« on: May 16, 2013, 08:12:28 PM »
Monsters and creatures play to our deepest fears and superstitions, at first they were explained by magic but then over the years writers looked to science for investigations.  We can look to Mary Shelley for the origin of science and monsters.  Frankenstein's monster (Frankenstein was the one who made the monster, not the creature itself) used the budding science of electricity to explain the ancient myth of the Golem.

Golems, according to ancient Jewish myth, were animated clay and had a somewhat holy status.  They existed in myth as recently as the 16th century.  Shelley updated the myth to Frankenstein's dabbling with a corpse jig-sawed together from pieces of other bodies, and if you're an aficionado of Mel Brooks, a brain from Abby Normal.  This transformed the golem from a being of inanimate clay and other substances to organic flesh, stolen from graves to become an animated creature.  Animated clay is interesting, corpses sewn together, corpses that could be friends and family and now wandering free with dim intelligence and inhuman strength take interesting to creepy and scary.  Science was starting to take large leaps, and those scared people.

Every advance in science brings an advance in creatures, where before magic explained them now science was edging in to take its piece of the pie.  Viruses and DNA are gaining more understanding to the scientists, but to john and Jane Joe there's still some hocus-pocus to the science.  So tales of vampires and werewolves, for example, instead of spreading a curse of either lycanthropy or undeath they spread a virus, and in many cases not just a disease but microorganisms that rewrite the DNA of the victim.

The ability to explain these creatures through both magic and science opens up whole new realms of possibility for these creatures.  Zombies can now be either the animated dead (through magic, a curse, or a really nasty virus) or they can be like the Reavers of Serenity, their brains chemically burned out until only a murderous thing with no inhibitions or taboos left.  The point I'm making is this, you can increase the creep factor of any game set in any time period quite simply.  All you need to do is decide how much magic or science or both need to be mixed in their creation.

  • Zombies, animated dead or a disease that kills the life force of the host and turns the body the disease now controls as a vector to spread the virus farther, because that's what viruses do, they spread and infect others, its how they reproduce, the difference is that they have no other biological needs, reproduce by spreading.  There is a certain desperation to their cycle because they are working with bodies that begin to degrade as soon as they infect their host.  This works for all sorts of zombie types, from Night of the Living Dead, to Dawn of the Dead (the remake) to 28 Days Later, to I am Legend.  Each has zombies, but each handles then just a little differently.
  • Reavers are an interesting and more modern take on zombies, people who's brains went through a process similar to chemical lobotomy, their minds were stripped of control mechanisms that retrain behavior, it turned them into something similar a zombie, they are living but they have a very disturbing form of insanity that leaves them something quite different than human.  Unfortunately they didn't really expand upon them enough before the series ended to tell us if this could be spread.  They implied it, but never really narrowed it down, which gives you lots of possibilities to work with.
  • Mummies are also a form of 'living dead,' you can explain them as specially prepared corpses, or, if they are only desiccated bodies they could have been sealed up or entombed to prevent them from spreading their disease further.  Curse or germs the effects can be the same.
  • Vampires, undead creatures, genetically modified people, or a separate species?  Then again with vampires you have to sort them by type, some need blood, some rob the life force of the person, some feed on sexual energy and in Star Trek one fed on the salt of its victims.  Being an undead creature explains some, adding science to it can explain even more, but you can mix the science and magic and even a touch of mysticism to explain them all, that's where the fun of being a world-builder comes into play, you get to decide how to mix the brew.  Do your vampires hide from sunshine or can they walk in the day?  Can they shape shift, and if so can they transform into a creature smaller of larger than themselves?  And if they can transform is it magic or a natural physiological ability of what they have turned into or is it a form of magic?
  • You run into more problems with lycanthropes and science, but that doesn't have to be the case.  The ‘curse' of lycanthropy, much like vampirism, may just be a virus that completely rewrites the DNA of the host, it alters their physical body to do things that no human was meant to do, transform into a creature or hybrid of a creature and the host's species.  One thing that its important to remember, just because we don't know how a person could scientifically alter their physical appearance, yet, doesn't mean that science never will.
Don't over-think things, in the end the average Joes and Janes on the street can't explain how the virus that gave them the flu works, they just know it does.  Don't try and solve the mystery, if its solved then what's the mystery?  If somebody knows everything then they can come up with ways to block the 'disease,' or even cure it entirely.  Think it through as much as you want to, but no matter how far you think it through, don't give it all away, and make the players work themselves into a frazzle for each speck of information they do glean.

Horror needs mystery and the unknown or it just becomes routine, same-old-same-old.  Jason has been in about 15 Friday the 13th movies, and we still don't know what makes him tick.  Once you have something figured out there's a lot less to be afraid of, and that takes a lot of the spooky factor out of your horror game.

Oh, and Happy Halloween!

 

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