Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Anatomy of a Horror Setting #19: Dead Men Tell All

The old saw that dead men tell no tales takes on a sense of irony in a world with ghosts, mediums, and necromancers. For people that can communicate with those beyond the grave there is almost nothing that cannot be learned. The only catch is in finding a source of information, and convincing it to help. The type of information needed from the dead can be anything from book-style knowledge to more know-how knowledge depending upon at least three factors. The first question the author needs to ask is how much the setting and mood is going to allow. The second is about the scope, especially in the sense of how far back can information be gained, how old are the oldest ghosts? The third is a little more mechanical, how can the information be passed on to the living?

From the standpoint of being just another source of information spirits and those no longer amongst the living can negatively impact the horrific mood. Unlike other sources though they can also keep or strengthen the mood in other ways. For starters the knowledge can come at a price. It can even be a high price. There are a number of examples. A spirit may need to be found in a place that is guarded or otherwise patrolled. The timing of the visit can be an added difficulty. Ghostly manifestations can be harrowing and escalate up to violent even without interference from a psychic. A medium may have to turn over some control of their body to an otherworldly entity even just to have it speak. Such an endeavour has its own inherent dangers.

Finding the keeper of a required bit of information can run the gamut from tracking down a name and asking around in the spiritual or astral realm, to finding a resting place, to dealing with forces best not meddled with. That is if there is someone or something left to know it. How long can a spirit hang around? How long does a ghostly echo last for? Some things may be lost to antiquity no matter how powerful the seeker. That is unless the dictated setting allows otherwise. That begs a few questions. How do the non-living sustain themselves? Do they change and grow, becoming more powerful, frightening, and dangerous? Is there a point where they no longer truck with mortals or just give up on the living and refuse to speak to them?

Then there are the mechanical concerns of such beings from beyond imparting their knowledge. Some ghosts may be able to speak to anyone. Some may not be able to speak but can intimate things by repeating a scene over and over or by psychic means such as empathic transmission. Others yet may be able to speak through a medium, or control such a psychic like a puppet due to the link they create. Those with that ability may be able to pass on more than words. They could complete tasks to which the host is unaccustomed. Even more than moving up to training they could enhance the host, or otherwise act symbiotically. Then there are those things that can take control of anyone they wish unchecked by anything but an exorcism.

Mood: verbose.
Music: Stay With Me Tonight by Quiet Riot and Borley Rectory by Llewellyn.

Quiet Riot: Quiet Riot
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Llewellyn: Ghosts

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Anatomy of a Horror Setting #18: Not Alone

Another factor in the creation of a psychic setting lies beyond the confrontations of psychic versus normal person and psychic versus psychic. It's almost cheating to neglect this facet. Without it, a key psychic ability if not a whole type of psychic character is forfeit. What is it? In two words, spirit world. The power? In one word, Mediumship. There is less to be considered with respect to the ability of the Medium than there is to be defined for a setting's spirit world. It starts with even asking if there is a spirit world, and more importantly are spirits allowed to roam about and interact with the non-psychic living. There need not be spirits to have ghosts and hauntings. There need only be phenomena with a scientific basis even if they are thus far not understood phenomena.

As far as hauntings and ghosts go the reasoning behind them can be anything from echoes of the past, to lingering personalised energies, to spirits, to entities that are not human derived. Moving past the assumption that the cause of a haunting is intelligent there are a few questions to be asked. Does the ghost recall everything that it knew in life, or the life of the person it is emulating? Even if it is an emulation it may not be for a nefarious purpose per se. It could be the only way in which the being or entity can interact with the physical world. The emulation of a previous--or even currently living--person could be unintentional or forced upon it. This is not to say that the purpose of impersonating some other being cannot be intentional and malicious.

The next question is does the ghost know a lot of other things? It need not be psychic to know enough to seem to actually be psychic in different fashions. This is of course dependent on a few factors, notably speed of movement. Another factor is the ghostly community, if such a thing exists. Also, while a spirit isn't limited by the time constraints of the living such as jobs and relationships it may be limited by energy constraints. That so, it may still have lots of time to investigate what it needs to know to impart to others. It may aid a loved one, a stranger--especially helping to solve its murder--or a medium or other psychic. Then there is the consideration of ghosts with abilities similar to that of psychics. Only some ghosts may have such insights or it could be all of them.

Mood: creepy.
Music: Tier by Rammstein and I Got A Line On You by Kim Mitchell.

Rammstein: Sehnsucht
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Kim Mitchell: Ain't Life Amazing

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Anatomy of a Horror Setting #17: Like an Open Book

People put on airs, hide behind facades and are a mix of layers that have varying amounts of transparency, even when "viewed" from the inside. What happens when all of the obfuscation is ripped away? What happens when a complete stranger knows more about a person than the person knows about themselves? There's a quintessential quote that says roughly if we knew what everyone around us was thinking would we go crazy or would we be driven to kill each other. Sort of sounds like go crazy or go crazy. Of course such a simplification doesn't indicate when this obviously involuntary sharing of thoughts occurs and seems to be predicated on this situation's sudden appearance. Even then it's hard to justify the results suggested.

There is fertile horror fodder here to be sure though. Looking back to the previous two articles about breaking the horror with too great a body of evidence and too much information there is something of an inverse situation that is possible without harming the mood and theme of the "story" being told. This inversion does though hinge on its own kind of limitation despite that it is breaking out of the mould of the previous limitations. Not just any character can be allowed the wealth of details. This free reign of facts is best left to a singular antagonist in the setting, a sole villain. Horror beyond the obvious frightening images and the moods of unease, gloom, and darkness is about being overwhelmed, outpaced, desperate, and being on the losing side of the odds.

Enter the villain that knows more about the hero than what the hero will ever know about the villain. The element of surprise is the best weapon in any encounter, but is even more pivotal for turning the tide of an uneven encounter. Beyond knowing the hero's past, what kind of person they are, whom they associate with, and other details of the present, what happens when the villain knows the hero's future, what they will do, when they will do it, and even a hint of the result? This must have a limit too, but it can be pretty open ended. The future is always fluid and no sense of it could ever be infallible. Subtlety is an absolute requirement here, but such a scenario could be plenty horrific. It's another possible important if limited proposition in a psychic versus psychic tale.

Mood: level.
Music: The Reckoning by Iced Earth and Archetype by Fear Factory.

Iced Earth: The Glorious Burden (Ltd Ed)
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Fear Factory: Archetype

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Anatomy of a Horror Setting #16: Too Much Information

One of the big deal breakers for the mood of a psychic horror setting is having too much of the right kind of information. It is especially contentious in the arena of role-playing games. It puts a great onus on the game master to, not only develop the information to be gleaned by psychic methods as is the case with authors or scriptwriters, but also to deal in a more hands on way with balancing how much information to pass on and when, notably without the safety net of re-writes. This manner of information handling is directly a result of abilities such as precognition, post-cognition, to a lesser degree remote viewing, and the like. Limitations placed on these powers and the additions of the vagaries of chance are thankfully in keeping with reports of such abilities in the real world.

There is a connection between this idea of too much information and the topic of evidence as discussed previously. A story's psychic who can see the influence of another psychic on a person has a certain amount of comfort that extends not only to the character, but also the audience. The ability as it serves the purpose of pushing the story in a particular direction mitigates its effect on the mood somewhat. In contrast if such an ability were able to identify the psychic responsible then things change drastically. At the level where this power is akin to reading a psychic fingerprint there is too much comfort afforded and the horror is lost. There is some suspense when the fingerprint isn't recognised by the psychic but beyond that it quickly reaches a point of diminishing horrific returns.

Another ability that effects comfort level is the sixth sense that warns a psychic of danger. Again, it has its uses, but can also quickly deflate the horror. The danger sense works best when it is vague. It is also most effective at the far ends of the timescale, but less so in the middle. When the sense comes on quickly with little, to practically no time, to act on it then the urgency and immediacy drives the horror through suspense. Likewise, if the warning arrives well ahead of the trigger event then tension builds and dread mounts until it is resolved. Of course that ratcheting tension and the swell of foreboding needs to be cultivated with a certain amount of finesse. All of this simply highlights two old adages; knowledge is power, and all good things in moderation.

Mood: lustre.
Music: F.I.N.E. by Aerosmith and Pump by Quiet Riot.

Aerosmith: Pump
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Quiet Riot: QR III

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