Alien Geometry?

The phrase ‘alien geometry’ conjures up a lot of bizarre images when given time and space in our fragile, human, thought continuities… even after we graduate from school. To some of us, standard geometry can get pretty alien. In Korea, particularly older parts of Seoul, even those with a firm grasp of angles and armed with a good sense of direction can find that not only are they not headed where they thought they were, they likely didn’t start from where they thought they did. Right angles are somehow wrong. 

Yes, bright-eyed reader, that is my point.

Into the Out of

The advice of  ‘show, don’t tell’ covers this area of scene setting, but I find that this particular aspect of it needs some extra attention – mainly because it is so alien. A Keeper has to consider using this effect deeply before unleashing it, and then when it does get used, must consider even more deeply just how to relate concepts of ‘alien geometry’ without saying ‘alien geometry.’  Afterall, the characters involved are not writing a report of a tale, they are experiencing a traumatic and disorienting moment in their lives.

I think if one of my companions during an investigation of R’lyeh were to spout the line, “This alien geometry is making me uncomfortable,” I just might be tempted to crush them with a ship.

It is weak and uninteresting to state, ‘the terrain and architecture is disorienting,’ or really any words to that effect. If we are to show this disorientation, we must somehow interrupt character movement and perception without making the player feel like they are being cut-off from vital information they need to portray their character. In many cases, this can mean a gradual building of the effect which enables the player to become accustomed to the idea that things are not what they may or may not look like,  enables them to back away from the area if they choose, and lets them experiment a bit with attempts to discover a way to navigate through it.

Things in horror may be larger than they appear

I am a firm believer that perception defines reality, and in games like Call of Cthulhu, that can have ramifications beyond what we might readily accept in our own staid world. When the characters cannot trust their eyes to properly relate the lay of the land, their relationship to it, nor their movements upon it, fear will be created in equal measure with distrust. Turning this to the Keeper’s advantage for atmosphere requires more than just messing with the players.

It is good to keep players off-balance and guessing, but unless you have a plan for how things in your ‘alienly geometrical’ vacation spot actually relate in time and space, you are better off just going with dull pronouncements of, “You are really disoriented… like… lost… ‘n stuff.” I am not much of a mapper nor artist, so I find I can’ t get much alien mileage out of using maps to plot how weird everything is. This pushed me in the direction of writing mind maps or linking properties of time and space together in unusual or unnatural ways, rather than making a grid and key.  Instead of having players always have effect x in grid reference y, I think having the recognition of an effect be more related to other senses, such as the smell of temporal movement, the sound of dislocated space, or the temperature of transition from one state of molecular excitation to another to be more fun of a puzzle for players to crack, and for Keepers to implement with that thick and satisfying sauce of insanity.  I am very fond of the idea that part of what makes these places so difficult for the human mind to grasp is that they do not necessarily exist at the same rate of progress in time, and that even within the borders of the effect, not everything occupies the same connections in time and space.

In other words a person walking through a door might suddenly find themselves moving differently in time than a person who has yet to cross the threshold, and that might provide the illusion of disappearing, or paralysis. Starting a climb a flight of stairs might begin at noon and end days later, or moments before you start – giving a glimpse of shadowy figures below that you cannot find trace of when you once again descend the stairs. Creatures hunting the characters might sound near, but appear to be far away… which is true? Pursuit might require taking a course completely unrelated (to the human mind) to what visually seems to be the shortest route. An entity racing after the characters might break off in a new direction as though letting them go, only to suddenly come into view ahead of them. That same entity might close with the group only to have them be lost to it through a whorl of time and space they could not see.

Nothing has to appear to make sense, but it all has to actually make sense on some level for the Keeper. Consistency will be sought by the players, and it can certainly be there, but in the spirit of driving the sane mad, there should be layers of complexity that simple observation cannot unravel. If they escape peril because the universe saved them you have kicked copies of Reader’s Digest in Lovecraft’s face. If they save themselves from peril by interpreting and intuiting paths through the alien geometry…. well, what does that say, really? If the sane mind can make no sense of such madness…

Perspective. Duration. Direction in space. Direction in time. Angles. Straight lines. Curves. Nothing is set. All is up for interpretation, reinterpretation, and misrepresentation.

Tired Eyes, Slowly Burning, the Crippled Mind Divide (with apologies to the Tear Garden)

Another factor that we can use to ice this cruel cake is mental fatigue. Echoes, eye strain, dizziness and vertigo, as well as physical fatigue from constant adjustment of posture and course correction, will all work together to hammer the hapless investigators into a creamy paste of exhaustion and stress. As the Keeper, describe the conditions, and let the reasons fill themselves in. The players, not being told that the road is not obeying the laws of spatial relationships that they understand, will be able to take the level of weirdness far beyond what our words can shape… but are pushed there by what our words imply and suggest.

Give hard facts, such as the road is 15 meters wide, and 5 blocks long. An hour later when they are still less than 10 meters from their starting point, but it is now earlier in the day than when they started although their hair and beards have grown out, they may begin to suspect that something is not right. Lie with the facts, but be straight with the effects. Let the players define and deduce the reasons for themselves, while you build reinforcement of the sad truth that from now on, they can never be sure if they have gone mad, or if all of this is actually happening.

5 Responses to “Alien Geometry?”
  1. BF Wolfe says:

    I think your ‘map’ idea is doomed to fail in these situations anyway since they are firmly based in the concept of cartesian space. If this world is not cartesian space, then the cncept of a map would not exist, or be very, very different. Our perception of space has defined what we use as maps and vice versa. That being said, if you could imagine a non-cartesian map-visualization it would be an excellent tool for showing how odd things really are. Perhaps just adding a time component to the map? It would be like learning a new ‘language’ of space. Initially, players would try to translate these into their own cartesian coordinates, but of course wil only truly understand when they ‘think’ in terms of this new language.
    Another option would be metaphor. Don’t describe the layout in cartesian units since that implies a relation that just isn’t there. Compare it to things the players don’t usually associate with space. Maybe the metaphors can get more clear as time goes on to reflect the player’s understanding of the system. Douglas Adams was a master of this, and I’ll use his classic example of ‘a sensation of drinking a glass of water…, from the perspective of the water’. China Meiville is another Author that I just started reading. One of the best I’ve read for describing alien landscape.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Adams was no doubt a subconscious reference for me when I started wondering how I wanted to have this sort of effect in a game. Turning all sensations and sources of information around and inside out, and re-associating them with completely different senses is a strength of his, and a much-needed skill in this sort of weirdification~

  2. anarkeith says:

    Cool ideas! I love tossing my players into episodes of alien geometry, as you say. In almost all cases I’ve provided clues to suggest the flow of time is different. Providing evidence of past events, and then having the players experience those events “later” is something they’ve been particularly boggled by.

    I particularly like your idea of mixing sensory input. Like synaesthesia (if I have the right term), mixing color and sound senses.

    In the tabletop realm where players depend on descriptions and GM clues to base their actions on, do you find that players weary of such alien environs?

    • Runeslinger says:

      I have found that to endure the peculiarities of such places, players and characters must be strongly motivated, and/or have a dark sense of humour.

      I think it is important to watch for signs of character frustration spreading to the players, and to minimize that frustration by being willing to compress the passage of non-productive time once the scene has been set, or use that time to explore the effects on character and character relationships if the group is able. Because you can’t always (ever) have a play group of fully-matching outlook, I find it is best to give an indication of how mind-rending entering the area will be before the group has to commit, and not to just drop it on them. If they choose to enter, great. Maybe some will choose to “stay with the boat” and we can cut to them to heighten tension elsewhere and explore the sanity-eating effects of guilt, nightmares, and cultist drumming in the distance….

      If there is no choice but to go there, I think it should be short, awful for the characters, and offer a chance to do, find, or learn something worthwhile to make the suffering of equal value to the players as the characters.

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  1. […] And if you want some interesting ways to mess with your players in horror RPGs, why not use alien geometry to mess with their heads? Runeslinger @ Casting Shadows has some tips and techniques to explore to do just that. […]

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