Referee’s Bookshelf: Nightmares of Mine

This book was originally published by ICE ostensibly as a supplement for the Rolemaster Standard System – perhaps the most complex iteration of Rolemaster due to its aspirations towards shifting from being a fantasy-based game to becoming a generic system (an experiment which arguably was reflected in the development of D20/D&D 3rd Edition). In retrospect this is a bit of a shame, because aside from having the Rolemaster trade dress applied to it it’s actually an almost completely generic product, with a tiny, miniscule smidgen of Rolemaster system stuff pitched in terms which could be easily translated to other systems.

What Nightmares of Mine actually boils down to is an expansive book-length essay by Ken Hite (with contributions – I suspect the Rolemaster system stuff – by John Curtis) on horror RPGs. Over the course of the book, Hite breaks down horror as a genre to see what makes it tick, considers how horror RPGs differ from those of other genres, and provides extensive advice on running both horror-oriented games and the occasional scary scenario in an otherwise less fright-focused campaign.

Hite is writing here at the height of the horror roleplaying boom of the 1990s, and whilst he wasn’t quite as crucial to it as, say, Mark Rein*Hagen, he was definitely part of the in-crowd at the time; he made contributions to a range of White Wolf product lines as well as Chaosium’s English-language version of Nephilim – a Basic Roleplaying-based game originally designed by one of Chaosium’s French licensees, which Chaosium decided to translate into English as part of an attempt to cash in on the World of Darkness-inspired fad for “the PCs are the monsters among us” games. On top of that, he was responsible for the Suppressed Transmission column in Pyramid magazine – basically a big source of plot ideas for conspiracy-based games – and seems to have been in John Tynes and Greg Stolze’s confidences during the development of Unknown Armies, since the bibliography of horror based games lists UA under its working title of The New Inquisition. In fact, the bibliography reveals a nigh-encyclopedic knowledge of horror RPGs on the part of Hite, who offers a nigh-complete rundown of horror RPGs available (it’s notable just how many have publishing dates in the 1990s), as well as a very broad and deep knowledge of the genre itself.

What makes Nightmares of Mine a good read even today is that Hite manages to make a number of statements about what he considers to be best practice whilst at the same time acknowledging that roleplaying is a broad church which encompasses a lot of different motivations. The use of terms like “simulationist” suggests that he’d been reading’s version of the Threefold (The Forge wasn’t really much of a presence in gaming discourse in 1999, and Hite specifically acknowledges in the bibliography) and he takes his brief of producing an “in-depth examination of horror suitable for any role playing game” seriously enough to try to produce something for all approaches to refereeing, from sandbox exploration to linear storytelling.

Thankfully, that doesn’t mean he shies away from making more audacious proposals, though he does have a solid grasp of where the danger areas are. For instance, he acknowledges that the idea of a “bait and switch” campaign which turns out to be about something rather different from what was advertised can be very tempting, and in a horror context can pay big dividends because you get to genuinely surprise the players and you get to have dread slowly creep its way into the proceedings (if the players know they are playing a horror game, conversely, they will be both looking for and expecting scary shit from session 1), but he also, as he usually does when discussing risky techniques, underscores the downsides of the prospect and why you need to think carefully and make sure you really believe your players will dig this before rolling with such a thing. (“Of course, the gamemaster runs the very real risk of angry, sullen, uncooperative players with a legitimate gripe. Some players don’t enjoy horror gaming and will resent having bought a pig in a poke. Other players, who might not have minded playing in an openly announced horror game, may resent being misled.”)

When it comes to his version of what “best practice” is for horror RPGs, Hite emphasises the importance of player buy-in. A certain extent of buy-in is crucial for any game, of course, but Hite makes a good case that horror requires a very specific type of buy-in – the players need to agree that they want to be scared during a game, and they also need to agree to play their characters in such a way that they become embroiled in the horrors. Ultimately, as much as you yell at the main characters in a horror movie that they’re being idiots for not calling the cops or getting out of the house or going to the haunted forest in the first place, ultimately they have to do it or you don’t have a game. The parameters of the scenario and the referee can nudge the players away from turtling up or ignoring the scenario to a certain extent –  cell phone coverage will, of course, fail within the boundaries of the scenario – but the more the referee has to do this, the more resentment gets generated. In my experience this is mostly a problem of modern-day scenarios, particularly in games like street-level Unknown Armies where you start off playing normal, average people. Hite recognises that it ultimately comes down to players being willing to make a compromise between playing their characters as average joes and taking risks which the average joe might balk at for the sake of the scenario.

However, for the most part Hite’s writing is oriented towards addressing referees. As an artifact of the pre-storygame era it’s assumed that it is the GM who will be defining the scenario (or indeed the storyline, in more linear games), and Hite pitches his advice accordingly. I think you can make an argument that the traditional RPG format caters to horror somewhat better than shared-narrative storygame stuff – or at least, it’s better at delivering a certain kind of horror. If everyone has a shared extent of control over the narrative and people are constantly stepping OOC to make OOC decisions, that’s both going to give the participants more of a sense of control over proceedings and less of a sense of immersion in and identification with a single PC, whereas for horror you will often want the players to feel a strong sense of identification with the imperiled characters, and to also feel a sense of lack of control over the circumstances the character faces. I suppose this is partly why the horror genre and 1990s style linear storytelling scenarios or campaigns work so well together. The book supports this style of campaign quite well, but equally other considerations it presents (such as level of supernaturalism and level of unreality) are genuinely universal. Although having run a number of horror games I now find some of the advice here a little obvious, I still think it’s worth a read for experienced horror referees, and I think it’d be exceptionally useful for someone who wanted to run a horror game but wasn’t sure how to do that. (It also has some very sensible advice on how to manage controversial and discomforting content.)

10 thoughts on “Referee’s Bookshelf: Nightmares of Mine

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  8. luisdantas

    I just want to point out that the link to the article about player buy-in isn’t functional for the general public at the current time. Apparently the whole blog is now in an invitation-only basis.

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