Creating Nightmares: A Dash of Madness — I said a DASH!

Jack Nicholson in the famous “Here’s Johnny” scene

One of Fandible’s listeners, 3rik, brought this point up after listening to Buried Memories. In this game, the characters were dealing with a psychological break down. With a lack of sleep plaguing them along with their own guilt, the monster at the end of the book was actually themselves. 3rik made a fair point:

“Throwing such a series of hallucinations at your players does run the risk of turning the game into a somewhat railroady experience. Not always a bad thing but moderation is probably key.”

Moderation when it comes to hallucinations or visions is absolutely key – that is if your story doesn’t deal with the breaking down of sanity. However, the storyteller does run the risk of a “railroady” experience if they don’t plan. While I am proud of the story I constructed while we played Buried Memories, I don’t think such a psychological-horror scenario was a solid fit for what I was doing.

When you plan your story and you know such hallucinations are going to happen, it all needs to come together in a nice little bow by the end. And while I was able to explain what each hallucination meant to my players at the end and they understood it, it left far too many “whys” for my taste.

Leaving mystery is fine. Look at The Shining. At the end of the movie, when Shelley Duvall runs up the stairs, she finds herself staring at a man in a dog costume performing what looks to be oral sex on a man in a tuxedo. It’s a weird mystery with really no explanation. Just something weird that we accept because it has really no meaning to the story other than ‘shit is hitting the fan and getting weird.’ The vision isn’t a personal hallucination. It merely is the house screwing with her. In contrast, the hallucinations in Buried Memories were of a personal nature, brought on by the characters themselves, and thus needed to be tightly bound with a clear and easy path to understanding them.

You live and you learn, I suppose?

When the madness begins, that’s when you need to begin using it carefully. Imagine the story is a cake and the madness if the frosting. If you clump it together in one spot, it’s too rich. Yes, it might be tasty to children but those with a better palette will not be impressed. The madness in a story must be evenly distributed for a while and carefully measured.

What it is really all about is knowing the story you want to tell. Imagine in Shattered Memories if I ended the game with me saying ‘Welp, you snap out of it. You come to find it was all a gas leak. Nothing is amiss – Oh, you’re late for class!’. It technically works but it’s not a very compelling tale. This is the same idea with madness. You need to be careful when you begin having the characters see dancing frogs in tuxedos because its at this point that your characters will either be drawn in deeper to the story or pulled out entirely.

The children of Founder’s Falls faced off against the Ink Monster. The students of His Holy Light University found themselves face-to-face with the Glass and thus themselves. A douchebag and his two friends found terror in the Plant of Honey Branch. We witnessed the horrors of the Meat Doctor as he tortured our poor inmates at a mental asylum, and we got to meet up with a group of despicable ghosts stuck in a cycle of revenge. Creating Nightmares is a series of articles sharing some of my tips and tricks for crafting the psychological horror New World of Darkness games featured on the Fandible podcast.

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About the Author
Billy started out his roots like many roleplayers - D&D. Playing it and then Vampire all through highschool and college, Billy picked it all up again when he made the move from Michigan to New York. Now working in publishing, Billy does what he can to view roleplaying games through a narrative's lens. Does that sound classy as balls? It should.

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