Wednesday, April 17, 2013

If I Were Writing Evil Ernie

Loneliness is a horrible thing.

Loneliness isn't a question of physical proximity to other people. Ask anyone who has ever lived in a big city or grew up significantly different in a small-minded little town. You can be surrounded by people, even people who know your name, and wind up feeling like the last person left on earth.

That kind of isolation can twist a person. I have a hard time believing that there is a lot of pure sociopathic evil in the world. Instead, I believe that the worst people in the world are the product of curdled bitterness. People get despondent or mean, start seeing life in a twisted way, and look for structures that support their newly-warped perspective. It seems like living damnation to me. 

So. Pretend you're a sixteen year old kid. You're terrified of your violent father, whom all the adults in your town seem love and admire. Nobody in school likes you, you're too timid to stand up for yourself, and you have no chance of ever getting laid.

Worse, you're psychic. Most people with no self-esteem simply imagine the terrible things people think about them. You get to actually hear it. You know that everyone around you can't stand being near you. Something about who you repulses them. 

Sounds pretty hopeless, doesn't it?

Now imagine that a magical woman visits you in your dreams. She's alabaster white, she says that she loves you, and that she can make you the most important person in the world. She will give you the sex that you've always dreamed about and she will give you the power to return to the world all the pain it has ever given you. And, once it's all done, you will be king of everything. You aren't the worthless weakling everyone said you were. You were different. You were powerful.

Evil Ernie is the patron saint of violent revenge fantasies.

Image by OtisFrampton

Revenge fantasies are nice. They're about the powerless regaining power, the underdog working toward the kind of fairness real life seldom offers. We tend to romanticize vengeance stories and ignore the innocent people trampled underneath. 

The hook behind Evil Ernie is that he has to kill everyone in the world in order for his lover to be reborn. In the meantime, everyone he kills becomes one of his army. The newly-dead members of his revolting crusade revere Ernie as something between a rock star and a god. It's a zombie apocalypse where the zombies are as intelligent as they are malicious.

The universe of Evil Ernie is somewhere between superhero comic, pro-wrestling jamboree, and slasher film. Ernie wages an endless war against humanity and everything he takes over turns into a twisted parody of itself. The baseball teams still play games, albeit with severed heads as balls, young lovers go on romantic massacres, and sitcom families argue about how best to carve the thanksgiving victim. 

There's so much ripe material to cultivate in the Evil Ernie mythology. His origin story is steeped in very human themes of isolation and madness, his armies create a morbid carnival in its wake, and his world is full of muscle-bound psychopaths and deranged soldiers and slinky vampire angels. It never quite came together as a story under original creator Brian Pulido's reign, as his reach often exceeded his abilities, but the potential is there to refresh the zombie apocalypse subgenre. Or, at least, turn it into a delightful Looney Tunes cartoon.

Unfortunately, all that good stuff has been jettisoned in the recent remake. Most of the story seems to center around "Evil" Ernie (who's actually a fairly nice emo boy) fighting his way though the prison his white trash father is incarcerated in. Lots of family drama and emotional vacillating, not a lot of  gleeful over-the-top chaos. Original Halloween vs. Rob Zombie's Halloween

If I were writing Evil Ernie, I'd stick close to the original ideas that shaped the character. I like the idea that he's a weak, bullied kid tormented by his peers and elevated by a twisted version of love. There's always been a sense of ambivalence as to whether or not Lady Death actually cares about him or if she's just using him to escape her hellish prison. I would like to see that built on and expanded further. Their relationship is operatic and high drama but they're both insane supernatural psychopaths. People fall in love for all sorts of reasons and some of them are very bad indeed.  

I'd also keep the trappings of the heavy metal universe Evil Ernie operates in. Monster movie iconography, grinning skeletons, comically gory abattoirs, blood, chrome, and viking bullshit. Brian Pulido definitely drew on 80s metal icons. Evil Ernie looks like a cross between Pulido himself and Iron Maiden's Eddie the Head icon. It's cool, but I like the way the remake made him younger and smoothed out his hair. The curly-haired metal guy look might be a little too 80s and making him younger makes him more vulnerable and more likely to be suckered by Lady Death's manipulations.
The big mistake the remake made is trying to make Ernie too conventionally sympathetic. He's a character of the id. We want to see him rampage and cause destruction so long as it's safely confined to the page. It's fun watching apocalyptic carnage from the monster's perspective. We sympathize with him because we can understand the feelings that lead him to become a monster. He's an outlet for us and he looks like he's having a good time doing it.

I've always felt that horror audiences secretly cheer the monster. They get to cut loose in a way that we aren't allowed to. But the bizarre paradox is that we demand the monster's destruction. We cannot allow evil to remain free for long and we celebrate its demise. Ernie lives in a world where the monsters win. Every evil thing that he does reshapes the world in his own image. He creates a place where people love him, where he doesn't have to be tormented or alone anymore.

A lot of horror stories answer the nature vs. nurture question of evil squarely on nature. Monsters do monstrous things because they are monsters. End of story. Evil Ernie is an example of Nurture evil. He is the product of cruelty. Obviously there's a limit to how much you can sympathize with a mass murderer, but Evil Ernie is fascinating examination of the dark side of giving power to the powerless. 

(Note to all y'all: This is part of a series I write on my tumblr where I discuss how I'd write major comic book characters. If you'd like to read more, check out Cable, Dr. Strange, and Green Arrow.) 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How to Run a Horror Role-Playing Scenario

I learned how to tell stories by running role-playing games.

I've run Call of Cthulhu for fifteen years. A friend of mine bought me the book at some point in high school (thanks, Jeremy) and I fell completely under it's spell. I played with a group all through college, I've done six years of convention horror events and I got really, really good at this stuff. I've never met anyone who runs horror games better than I do.

This is how you do it.

1: Most of the ideas a lot of GMs have for increasing player tension (taking their gear, taking their character) aren't so much scary as GM Fiat. Yes, most role-players, especially people who favor combat games like Dungeons and Dragons, rely too much on weaponry. This shouldn't be a huge issue for games like Call of Cthulhu as most of the monsters are barely effected by human weaponry, but plenty of groups run under the philosophy that anything dies if given enough rounds. This is a problem for most horror fiction in general. When you look at stuff like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it's really an action show with people beating up monsters instead of criminals or soldiers or whatever. Most RPG characters are at least competent in combat.

The shortcut to good character conflict is to put your PCs in situations that your characters AREN'T already equipped to deal with. There's a reason so many great stories involve meek characters who rise to challenges or strong characters learning compassion from being forced to interact with softer counterparts. Figure out who your characters are and then create situations that take them out of their comfort zones.

2: A lot of GMs believe that horror role-playing is primarily about off a bunch of player characters. Horror role-playing isn't about amassing a body count but it's about creeping out the people at your table. A dead character is at best a distraction. It's not that hard for a GM to get a body count. It's a lot harder to get people emotionally invested enough to scare them.

In that vein, don't get too in love with descriptions of gore. Good gore can be evocative, but too much gets fappy.

3: (the big one): You HAVE to control the environment you play in. You cannot scare people in a brightly lit room with music playing and cell phones going off. You can maybe evoke the trappings of the horror genre in your game but without the proper physical environment you're just playing an action game dressed in fangs and a taffeta cape.

You have to play in the darkness. Because I favor the simplicity of Call of Cthulhu's rule system, I play in a small circle, either by candle light or by a single very dim light. My character's most important scores are written very large on index cards so they can be seen in dim light.Have your players use their cell phones so they have just enough illumination to read the cards for their skills. Have dice corrals so they don't hop all over the place in the dark. Distractions are kept to a minimum and I take a ten minute break every hour so people can pee and fiddle with their phone. If you're doing your job right, people will need breaks in tension.

 4: You have to cultivate a ghost story voice. I tend to view horror role-playing as an interactive campfire ghost story, which is why I take such effort to control the environment. Keep descriptions very short, but with strong central imagery for the players to work off of. For scenes of high tension, where I have my characters creeping through an old house, I drop my voice low and make it soft and feminine. When my players encounter a scene of awful violence, I break up my descriptions and raise my voice in hysterics. When I come to a point of obvious danger, I stop speaking abruptly and force the characters to make their choices from a point of imbalance.

And, yes, I occasionally slam my hand on the table. I used to scream, but that shit was corny. A heavy book slammed down gives you the jump scare you occasionally need without being comical.

5: As much as you need to cultivate the right physical environment, you also have to cultivate the right group.

There are a bunch of people I play with in other genres who I'd NEVER put in a horror game. They like goofing around, they undermine mood, and they don't engage with the in-game world in a serious way. They're basically playing Grand Theft Auto in any game they're put in. That's totally fine and they're a lot of fun when I run superhero games, but I need someone who's willing to buy in to the mood. A lot of people simply can't.

 6: Combat is the hardest thing to pull off in horror gaming. Most RPG combats are either tactical by nature, where you have to problem-solve as much as fight, or they're like a football game where two groups of bruisers whale on each other. Combat takes the GM's role from active to reactive, where the players and their decisions are in charge and you are bouncing off what they do. It turns atmosphere and storytelling into a series of numbers.

Horror is about powerlessness. Most gamers don't like that feeling. If you want to get that feeling across, have your player's goal be less about killing or subduing the monster and more about escape.

Example. Most character-to-character fights are like Jason Bourne vs. some other Treadstone assassin. They're both highly competent and evenly matched and it's a skill-vs-skill thing until the hero triumphs. A horror fight should be like Leatherface trying to capture a frightened teenager. She crawls into someplace small to hide, he's reaching for her, she's kicking his hand away and hitting his arm with a wrench she grabs off the ground. He's stronger than she is, she can't do much damage to her, but she might be able to fend him off.

7: As an example, I ran a CoC event every year at a gaming convention. I requested a private room so I could control mood and set the scene for the players before starting. You have to create fairly conservative scenarios when you're running convention games and I ran a nice simple story involving Cthulhu.

The hook of the story involves the ghost of a little girl. The girl's father was a well-known and successful artist who started having dreams about R'lyeh. As his visions became more apocalyptic, he drowned his daughter in his bathtub to spare her from the second coming of Cthulhu before hanging himself. The players all knew these facts before entering the family's abandoned house in search of some Evidence.

When they got to the house I turned ALL the lights in the room off except for my tiny central one. I described the house in very simple terms, basically that it looked like a normal for-sale property but knowing the sad history of the place gave it an ominous feel.

When they said they approached, I paused. Without saying anything like "are you sure", I made it clear by slowing down the way I spoke and pausing at points that they were entering hostile territory.

After screwing around and searching a couple of rooms, I had them make listen checks. One made it and I whispered in their ear that they heard splashing and the sounds of struggle from the rear of the home. The player passed the information onto the others (it works better than a general address to the group, which prevents the game players feeling like a hive mind and casting doubt on the bearer of the information)

They find the bathroom that the artist drowned his daughter in. I make it a point to describe it as antiseptically white and clean but that the tub is full and there are lots of strands of jet black hair (my ghost child had long black hair.) As they're standing in the doorway, I dropped a heavy book on the table to symbolize the bathroom door slamming shut. As the players freak out I describe, in fast breathless panic tones, the sound of the father drowning the daughter from behind the door.

At this point I ask the person who has the lowest current sanity score to make a POW x3 check. He/She does and I make a note of that. I tell that player that their character has wandered off. The other players have been distracted by the sounds and they believe that it's possible one of their number could have slipped off.

At this point, I have the others making a listen check. While they're doing so, I tell the POW x3 player that he/she is in the master bedroom and he's looking at the ghost of the artist who hung himself. The hanging didn't go well. I have him/her make a sanity check and, whatever the results, I ask him/her to freak out when the other players find them.

The players return with their listen results. They hear the sound of a rope creaking and realize their friend is missing. The sound leads them to the master bedroom, they see the ligature mark on the beam, and the other player is freaking out. In the bedroom is the clue they needed. That's it. No guns fired, no players wound up dead, but that scene works EVERY DAMN TIME.

Running horror games has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It taught me a lot about creating and sustaining atmosphere, helped me perfect my public speaking skills, and given me the tools to tell a story. Over the last few years I've shifted to writing both prose and scriptwriting, but I've also come to miss the immediate thrill of running scary games. You have to think on your feet, your audience constantly challenges you, and you learn how to read your players and develop new ideas on the fly. All of these skills are essential for all types of storytelling and I am deeply grateful to the games that help me develop as a writer.