Friday, January 20, 2012

Points of Darkness for Horror Gaming

Last year I spent some time thinking about how I'd run a historical D&D game in a "weird horror" mode, and I called it the 'Wide Area Sandbox'.  Points of Darkness is a simpler and more evocative term for horror gaming; I saw it over at Brendan's blog (points of darkness) and it stuck with me.

The idea behind the Points of Light trope is the fantasy world is essentially a dangerous place, and the DM can structure it as civilized settlement (a point of light) surrounded by a vast swaths of wilderness that are unfriendly or hostile (the darkness).  It's a great approach for starting a standard D&D campaign, which typically involves a fallen civilization and lots of ruins.

Lovecraft Country: not for hex crawling
Horror gaming often takes place in the regular world - it could be 17th century Europe, the Victorian age, 1920's America, or the modern day.  Day to day life may be different than our world, but it's still fairly mundane; whatever supernatural threats or horrors exist, they do so on the fringes of society - the remote mountain fastnesses of Transylvania, untouched tombs of Egypt, sleepy New England coastal towns where the forefathers made a pact with aquatic horrors.  The points of darkness where eldritch horror lurk are few and far between, and they keep themselves secret and hidden.  This is a problem for putting players in touch with the horror!

The traditional 50 miles of hex crawl centered around a medieval manor or barony doesn't work as an organization structure for a globe-spanning horror game set in the mundane world.  The characters aren't going to hex crawl through New England before discovering the weird events surrounding the lonely Akeley Farmhouse (from The Whisperer in Darkness).

The plot hook becomes the primary method for ferreting out the existence of a Point of Darkness, and so the horror game is defined by its approach to plot hooks.  I haven't always appreciated the plot hook; it's very easy for a DM enamored with their own ideas of "story" to slide from presenting plot hooks as information into plot hook as rail road.

There are two basic approaches I've seen to using plot hooks in horror games; the first approach emulates the literary genre by associating the plot hook with character back story, the second approach functions more like a police procedural.

In genre emulation, the protagonists often have a close, preexisting connection to the plot hook and the Point of Darkness; they’re already in the wrong place at the wrong time when the story starts.  Henry Armitage gets involved with The Dunwich Horror because he happened to be the Professor at Arkham University; Francis Thurston of The Call of Cthulhu (story) was the nephew that inherited the papers of his dead uncle, and pieced together the fragmented tale of the Cthulhu Cult; Walter Gilman in The Dreams in the Witch House happens to be the student that chooses to stay in the Witch House and has those bizarre experiences.  The protagonist's initial involvement is almost passive.

You see a similar approach in game materials that try to emulate horror source literature; everyone has to play pre-generated characters that come loaded with a back story that places them in nexus with the upcoming horror.  Many Trail of Cthulhu adventures use this approach.  Alternatively, everyone makes a character, but they're required to have an appropriate background before the first session - "The adventure involves Mayan ruins, so you need to be an archaeologist, or someone associated with a dig site, at the start of the game".

That approach is fine for one-shots and limited engagements, but doesn't work so well in a campaign where the players want to use their own characters.  The "police procedural" approach puts the players in some kind of narrative framework that provides access to plot hooks over time, and the group chooses to conduct investigations that could ultimately lead back to a Point of Darkness.  A good example from television was The X-Files; the main characters were FBI agents who often investigated murders and abductions that put them in contact with supernatural or alien forces.  Most TV shows that have a recurring horror element have a narrative framework that puts the protagonist in touch with frequent plot hooks - one per episode, right?

The nice thing about the procedural approach is that it gives the players quite a bit of agency in how they actually carry out their investigations.  They still need to buy-in to the basic premise of the game, first; "I know we said we'd be occult investigators working for a rich philanthropist, but that sounds kind of dangerous.  How about we all become bankers instead?"  Short game.

So what's the point about this analysis?  Really two-fold.  When taking a look at published scenarios, you should be able to ferret out fairly quickly the approach the writer is expecting.  Most early Call of Cthulhu materials used back story or connections to a friend or benefactor to get the characters engaged; thus, it was often a struggle having a rationale for introducing replacement characters as the body count rose; be warned.  Later publishers in the space have offered various forms of narrative frameworks supporting the procedural approach, obviating the problem and supporting ongoing campaigns that feature degrees of mortality.

As a scenario builder, you'll likely start with a horrible situation in mind, and have to work backwards to getting the players involved (starting at the center of the onion and adding layers).  It'll be helpful to know which approach you mean to use - will the players encounter the plot hooks passively or actively?  In an upcoming post, I'll discuss common narrative frameworks for games like Call of Cthulhu, and then pivot to discuss different ways writers have presented investigations and adventure sites.  After all, what we want are free form sandboxes that maximize player agency!  I've got a review of Trail of Cthulhu almost done as well.


  1. I'm enjoying this series as I once attempted a Call of Cthulhu sandbox and it didn't go well. I hope that these posts will help me figure out where I went wrong.

  2. I'm a big fan of "points of darkness" design. The thing to remember is that prior to the introduction of the automobile, something that is just six miles up the road is actually about two hours away. I can travel to some very remote and isolated places in two hours. Two hours from civilization is a long way away!

    Here's my post on Points of Darnkess:

    I like your "passive/active" analysis.

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  4. Cool idea. I think that's why private investigator teams work so well in games like Call of Cthulhu. An easy connection to just about anything. It's not "your uncle" that disappeared, it's your clients!