Fear of the Unknown

I’m setting up to run some Delta Green this weekend and while pulling some books off the shelf noticed the Trail of Cthulhu, Fear Itself, Night’s Black Agents and The Esoterrorist sitting next to my Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green and thought briefly why even though I have the books (and love a lot of the scenarios that have been written for them) I’ve never been tempted to run one of them instead of Call or Delta. Then I realized that it has to do with Fear, and its relatives Uncertainty and Doubt.

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown — H. P. Lovecraft – Supernatural Horror in Literature

Trail and its sister games are all based on the Gumshoe system, the central premise of which is “the players always get the clues they need to proceed”. The rules were actually created in response to a problem in other games where the players could fail their rolls, miss important clues and not know how to proceed. For example, all the players in a Call of Cthulhu scenario could fail their Spot Hidden roll, preventing them from finding the essential clue and thus progressing with the scenario.

The Gumshoe system avoids that by insuring the players always get the clue. If the characters have the proper skills (and the character design rules are set up so that the players work together to make sure the party has all skills covered) then they automatically get the clues. They can spend points to get more detailed information but all pertinent information is always given to them.

I argue that this works fine in a “pulp” adventure where the emphasis is not so much on the actual investigation part as it is on what follows. The adventure is about punching nazis off the top of zeppelins, not figuring out where the zeppelin hanger is.

Horror games are different though. Knowing everything about what you are facing removes the horror from it.

Consider The Dunwich Horror, the Lovecraft story that most matches the Gumshoe model. The first part of the story sets up the situation. This is all background. If it was an adventure the players would not get involved until Wilbur Whately arrives at Miskatonic University. Now the confrontation with Whately could be part of a scenario, but he is killed by a dog “off-screen”.

Henry Armitage and his colleagues then research Whately and Dunwich and get all the information they need. This is the “automatically get all the clues” part from the Gumshoe rules. Armitage and his colleagues then go to Dunwich and defeat the Spawn of Yog-Sothoth pretty much off camera. We watch from a distance as they go up the hill, cast their spells and defeat it.

The story is strangely devoid of tension. By finding out everything they need to know up front they know exactly what to do and go do it. Imagine this in a game…

“A strange man has tried to get access to the Necronomicon.
“We do research to find out what he is.”
“He’s a spawn of Yog-Sothoth. And there’s a more dangerous one still alive in Dunwich.”
“OK, how do we get rid of it?”
“You need this powder and this spell.”
“OK, we learn it.”
“OK, let’s go to Dunwich.”
“You’re in Dunwich”
“We go to the right spot and cast the spell.”
“OK, you defeat the Spawn of Yog-Sothoth.”

The only way to provide tension in this situation is to throw enemies at them to fight, but fighting enemies is again a Pulp attitude. The only way to avoid this is withhold information from the players to force them to improvise, but withholding information is the antithesis of the Gumshoe system.

In an investigative game information is a currency and it should not be given away just because a player is in the right place. Gumshoe directly states that if a character with the right skill is in the right place then they automatically get the clue. No input from the player beyond stating what skills they have. At the very least the players should be asking questions instead of having information just given to them.

And that is what I think the key is. In a role-playing game when dealing with a mystery you want the players to solve it, not the characters. A character shouldn’t get the information just by showing up, they should get it when the player running them asks the right questions. You shouldn’t bring the plot to a halt just because no one makes the right die roll, but you shouldn’t run the plot for them by giving them all the answers for free either.

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