Here's a Topic Preview from my Upcoming Horror in Gaming Class

How to Use Summaries as a Design Tool

Dear reader,

Hello and welcome to my first newsletter using Substack. I wanted to try something different and more personal, since I’m not a corporation or *barfs* a micro-celebrity—I’m just a storyteller. To that end, I wanted to let you know I’m teaching a class on Saturday, October 24th called “Horror in Gaming.” I am sharing the class description, sign-up link, and a short preview (in essay form no doubt!) with you today.

Here’s the description:

Class: Horror in Games

Class Date: Saturday, October 24, 2020, 9:30-11:30 AM Pacific Time.

In gaming, the answer to “Is horror a mood or a genre?” is “YES!” In this workshop, gaming veteran Monica Valentinelli addresses how to include horror in your non-horror games, how to write horror game material without leaning on problematic tropes, and how safety tools can enhance your horror game’s experience. You’ll also learn a few off-page techniques that help facilitate that feeling of dread from start to finish.

Classes are taught online and require a reliable Internet connection, although in the past participants have logged on from coffee shops, cafes, and even an airplane; a webcam is suggested but not required.

This class will have downloadable slides. It will be appropriate for game writers and for DMs, too! Scholarships are available.

To sign up, visit: Horror in Games at the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers. You will be signing up for the class with our fearless administer Cat Rambo!

Narrative Design Techniques in Horror

The One-Paragraph Summary

Fear is a challenging emotion to invoke in narrative design, because the best experiences in horror are often personal. Feelings of dread*, however, are an effect of a well-written horror story and not its cause. So, how do you ensure that your story invokes fear for your players? One technique I recommend is a one-paragraph summary to test your scenario by identifying where the story is taking place and what the players will do in that setting. I’m intentionally avoiding the antagonist for reasons I’ll get to later in this sample.

Here’s an example of a one-paragraph summary:

Just yesterday, Pine Grove was a vibrant mining town and filled with people. Now, the windows are shattered or boarded up and everyone’s either left town or has gone into hiding. The players, who’ve just arrived to visit family for the winter holidays, are shocked to discover a spooky ghost town. Unfortunately, after a few hours searching their familiar haunts, they can't find anyone. Then, the power goes out and their phone’s service is disrupted. The longer they stay in town, the more they feel like they're being watched. As soon as the sun sets, they hear high-pitched screams in the distance—that may or may not be human—and they’re getting closer. Can the players survive until morning? What happens when they try to leave? Can they find out what happened to the missing townspeople before it’s too late?

In this scenario, there’s a lot of information the players don’t have. Though they've visited Pine Grove before, the players have to figure out what happened to the town, where their loved ones and missing townspeople are, if there’s any survivors/resistance, who’s watching them, when/if/how to restore power, what’s hunting them, etc. These questions create an opportunity for the players to prioritize which mystery they want to solve first and gives them agency. Their choices determine where they’ll go next, but it also gives them a direction they’re emotionally vested in—while being pursued by an unknown antagonist. This additional threat adds another layer of fear; If the players wait or try to escape, which are both valid options, the unknown antagonist that’s hunting them could confront them first.

By encapsulating this scenario in one paragraph, I created a summary that shaped the world and plot without ever introducing the antagonist. This technique keeps the scenario focused on the players, but is also flexible enough to be adjusted. Here, the opportunities for dread exist because I removed what the group needs to feel safe and secure. Though they might be familiar with the town’s layout on their previous visits, which is information that can help them survive now, Pine Grove has changed for some unknown reason. The players don’t have the comfort of their loved ones and they’re missing. They don’t have shelter, they may not have warmth, food, or drink, either, and they won’t be able to sleep. They might seek protection, build traps, or look for weapons, but without knowing what’s out there—how do they choose?

By removing what the player needs, I’m also building in the possibility for small wins when they recover what they’ve lost. To put it bluntly, these small wins are reasons to keep playing. (Unless, of course, you’re in a fatalistic horror game and that’s a whole ’nother can of tentacles.) Players can rescue a missing loved one, find a friendly dog, discover a stocked refrigerator or trove of camping supplies, stumble on a marked up map, etc. In this case, clues are included in those accomplishments.

For my last steps, I’ll decide who the antagonist is. This step clarifies and informs what mysteries the players will solve while reinforcing the story’s theme and mood. A story about aliens attacking Pine Grove for its coal would have a different feel than one about cultists or vampires, for example, even if the worldbuilding was exactly the same. Depending upon the length of my scenario, I could also add more than one antagonist—angels and demons—who are battling one another. Or, there could be no antagonist at all; someone accidentally set fire in the coal mine and sulfuric fumes are making people hallucinate. Or lastly, there could be a mastermind antagonist directing lesser monsters to test the players before the big reveal.

Remember: the heart of any good horror game is not a cool antagonist, but the story of how your players navigate the nightmare you’re creating. By removing the antagonist, your summary emphasizes their roles to keep them emotionally vested in your plot. A lot of DMs build scenarios around a super cool villain. While this is “an” approach, this technique can introduce issues. Great characters are awesome, but you still a plot and a setting the players are active in.

Once the players figure out who’s attacking them their needs and expectations will begin to crystallize. This specificity then, in turn, shapes the players’ actions and informs your worldbuilding. If aliens are hunting them, the players might search for their ship in the woods nearby. If vampires are pursuing them, they might find holy water in a church or break off part of a fence to make a stake. Notice: neither approach changes my plot summary. The same questions the players need to answer are still present in both scenarios. Once I decide who’s pursuing them, I shape what clues they find and how the mystery unravels.

I hope you enjoyed this topic preview of my upcoming Horror in Games class. If you’d like to sign up, please follow the instructions on this link: Horror in Games at the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers.

* Please note: many horror games are designed for group participation. In cases where players have agency to affect the story (e.g. hobby games and live-action roleplaying games), I strongly recommend the use of a consent form to help provide a safe and enjoyable experience for all involved.