Hearing the Alien…

Before getting to the characters and how they will contribute to my preparation for improvisation in this Alien campaign, this series will be taking a short detour in this post to look at two elements pertaining to description for horror games that have a good probability of involving the imagination of physical violence. The first concerns how the language of description is directed, and the second concerns the contents of that description.

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What does alien acidic ichor sound like when you swallow it?

Hello, are you being served?

One thing that is often taught to children as they grow up is to control how they speak to people. From basic politeness up through the various social and professional registers of human communication, this instruction helps people navigate through the simple and complex human interactions that will be a part of much of their waking lives. What this shows us is that is both possible and practical to control how you speak to people. You may have to learn to patiently explain things in stages to a very young person. You may have to learn to couch things in the form of requests in a business situation, or as demands in a cut-throat negotiation. You might have to learn to enunciate clearly and at volume in order to break someone out of a deluded and convoluted state of self-deception. Sometimes, you just have to grin and bear it.

In horror games, this basic premise still applies. It applies in other games as well, but this post is not about them.

Let’s consider a moment of violence in a game: How can we describe it to our group? Which of these ways will we choose? Why?

I find all of these questions to be valuable. Let’s start with the first one first and address them in order.

In general terms, we can describe things in increasing levels of graphic detail. We could choose to use no detail at all and simply state something composed of the bare essentials that player needs to know like, ‘The Alien attacks and does 2 damage’. From this minimum base we can layer on more detail – if we choose. We have two areas in which that detail can be increased. The first is in description of how the Alien attacks, and the second is in what happens to the character as a result.

One of the things I enjoy in RPGs very much is giving and receiving enjoyable description. As language is the flesh and bones of the activity, how that language is prepared for consumption is a big deal.

In horror, however, there may be a few in the group who have differing tolerances for types or degrees of description that impinge on their enjoyment, which in turn affects the overall enjoyment of the group. Some might be fine with the concept of their character being torn apart but have trouble with the concept of the facehugger implanting something in their throat. Some might be fine with the idea of violence of whatever type, but don’t want to hear about it or don’t want to hear it in gory detail. Some might thrill to the description of how the Xenomorph looks and moves, but find they don’t want to hear about the grisly effect of an attack on their character while some might be the opposite. Some of these may realize that they should bow out of this particular game if the group has a lot of games going, but in other cases – or in cases where it is not some of the group but most of the group – adjustments will need to be made to description or the game will have to be shelved.

This is all a part of the natural process of finding and playing the right games for the people that you are playing with. If you are playing with the wrong people – there might be no right game.

LISTEN to this on the Casting Shadows Podcast instead

How is your meal?

As an example of an easy adjustment to make, we have the choice of how we frame the descriptions from the outset through the choice of voice. For example:

The chill and oozing carapace of the glistening creature’s face slides smoothly along the side of _________head as it shifts the cold grip that has pinned _________arms to ________sweating torso to turn _______ about to face it. It’s jaws spit wide and a translucent and dripping second set of jaws begins to extrude slickly, as thick gel-like saliva drips thickly across ________face, eyes, and into __________mouth. The creature’s body spasms as that second set of jaws spears into the base of ___________neck. Eyes widening as _________head topples, they try to find a point of stability but there is none – not even when the top of __________head hits the grating of the deck and _________dimming awareness rolls down the corridor.

It’s time to talk pronouns~

The impact of this mild description, somewhere between the bland and essential and the gory and performative, can change with the choice of voice. The pronouns, tone of voice, and body language we use all form some degree of connection between the speaker and the listener(s).

If we are using the 2nd Person, a standard tool for unplanned interactions (2nd Person undefined) or for planned interactions (2nd Person Defined) for facilitating immersive In-Character As Player or In-Character As Character play (IC-AP, IC-AC; curious about these voices and terms? Ask me!) then as the GM we will be saying “You” and as the character, players will respond as “I”. This response as ‘I’, a natural one to a prompt of ‘you,’ often seems to be 1st person undefined (an unthinking usage of I in response to you) but can include a fairly safe distancing from a fictional character – if approached performatively like an actor through the use of the 1st person defined. Of course, for some, the 1st person defined can be very, very personal and an easy conduit for emotional or experiential transference.

If we replace the blanks above with you, as this description is a death and beheading description from the GM to the player of the dying character, then we have a personal interaction on a level which will help to fuel conceptual imagination or might feed experiential imagination and/or IC-AP or IC-AC immersion. The description of action is direct and directed at the character via the player or the player via the character – depending on that player’s perspective on and practice of characterization in play

If we instead approach this description by using the 3rd person defined, we remove the component of direct interaction via You/I and enter a new palette of options via indirect interaction on an appropriate level of shared GM and PC knowledge. Some groups might choose to shift toward near or total omniscience where everyone at the table is privy to the thoughts and feelings of the characters, while others will stick to only what can be sensed. As this voice creates more distance it increases the chance of shifting from a more directly experiential interaction for the player toward one of a more conceptual or visually-imaginative nature.

One use of this 3rd person voice and one use of the 1st person defined that gets talked about less often is to shift when the speaker will be the player of the character rather than the GM. This is the sort of technique which allows a lot of fun interaction and collaboration in games with topic areas that are difficult for the players while improving the odds of avoiding situations where there is an accidental feeling of powerlessness and victimization of the player rather than the character.

If we replace the blanks in the GM description quoted above with my/me and make the speaker the player, the typical audience/performance roles are reversed. This lets the person who is struggling with topics that are difficult for them have a feeling of control over the parts which bother them without having to worry about what someone will say, interrupt others, or make themselves feel guilty for being “a problem.” Not only this, it allows those people who enjoy horror to have a moment to enjoy it as listeners when they might (GM) normally be trying to think of what to say, or (fellow player) as encouragement to up their own descriptive game.

The use of the third person allows for a lot of interesting descriptive tools, perspectives, and layers of knowledge that are closed to the first and second person if there is an intention to use those two voices to help facilitate IC-AC play. The trade off that is considered, however, is just that. Do we as a group want to go for that sort of play, or do we wish to engage with the game and its descriptions as or more intensely on another layer?

Immersion, of whatever degree in whatever layer of play you like, is not an article of faith, it’s the result of outlook, ability to focus, and most importantly – useful practice. Can you attain it? Can you retain it? Can you sustain it? Can you regain it? Most importantly, can you switch from state to state as the flow of the game requires? Despite what some claim, and what what others claim about many others, immersion in some aspect of play is not a necessary state to reach for good gaming. It is important to a lot of people, however, is definitely a strong preference among roleplayers, and is often associated with memorable sessions. If people are stressed about simply being a part of the game, all of these higher questions of skilled play don’t even make it to the table and the game experience might be the lesser for it. The choice of a useful voice for your group to reduce such intervening concerns is worth the slight effort of learning how to speak purposefully in a new situation.

Listen… do you smell something?

A lot of GM advice and oft-given tips for horror games go into the use of the senses in description. If we do a survey of actual play videos on a resource like YouTube we can hear description average out to relying primarily on visual description and the use of the 2nd Person undefined from the GM, shifting vaguely between You the player and You the character. From the players, we can note the same reliance on primarily visual description of what something looks like or comparison to what something might look like or has already looked like on a film screen, with a broad mix of 2nd person undefined and both defined and undefined third person. Control of how we interact when we are describing and how that intersects with the sense we cite and try to invoke are an area that doesn’t see much attention in actual actual plays, but is noticeably present in RPG performances. Part of what makes those performances easier and more engaging to watch can transfer to our real games around our real or virtual tables with our real friends, and it is the conscious decision outside of play to speak with purpose when we describe. That includes trying to involve the 5 classic senses as a given, and goes further – into non-standard uses of the senses, and delivery of sensory information or impressions via other means.

I find it is helpful to recognize that senses are important when they are triggered, such as when a room is both cool and damp, but also when they are not. The room should be cool and damp, but it is neither. The response to this (Why not!?) is one where the character and the player will experience the same thought at the same time and the practiced player can use this as a sort of cue or stepping stone to ease or jump into focus on the IC-AC layer of play. They can shift in their heads conceptually away from ‘I as me running me character’ through ‘I as my character’ toward ‘I, the character.’ How far they go is up to them and their interests, with the caveat that how far they can go is limited by the sort of information they get via description and how it is delivered.

I also find it is helpful to recognize good pairings of senses, but not always in equal amounts. One example is a focus on smell and the suggestion of a possible taste in the air. Another is the description of a texture with the intimation of what that touch sounds like.

Senses other than the classic five that are useful in horror in presence, absence, or in deviance from expectation, are the sense of time, the sense of place and of a place, the sense of order, and that very potent sense of being alone or its opposite – of being watched. Our instincts make our flesh feel chill, makes our hair stand on end, gives us the sensation of our skin crawling, amplifies the awareness of the back of the neck. All of these autonomic reactions are fair game in description and in their upsetting ambiguity, can – if we are subtle and work on timing – augment the enjoyment or experience of a moment where the pleasantly unpleasant anticipation for something awful has begun to build.

When describing a room, is it as it was left? How sure are they that this is so? Has someone or something been there? How could we tell? Is there a faint scent in the air, a scuff on the floor, a dampness on the door frame soaking through a uniformed sleeve….? The searing crackle of acid a moment before the pain drowns our vision in red and orange sheets of agony…?

Non-standard approaches to the senses can be quite broad in application depending on the context of a given scene, and the farther away from our normal approach to their description and use the farther away from sanity we can feel. This can contribute to a sense of losing it and it can set up a feeling of confusion or anxiety in the player as a result of the challenge of understanding the information in the description which a player can use to heighten their own connection to the experience of the character if they choose. However, we don’t have to see sounds and hear the drunken songs of walls to employ or enjoy atypical sense uses.

Examples of this include putting the emphasis on other aspects of a sense than might be expected, so that a song playing on a radio could be described in terms of its artistry or its emotional impact rather than identifying the song or the musical genre first. An empty kitchen with food abandoned on the stoves and in the preparation areas could be described in terms of unfinished scents and agitated rattling of pot lids before moving on to evidence of a struggle or traces of violence. Instead of starting with the major and inescapable details of an area first we start small and off-center describing around the edges and working our way toward the thing that a person actually in the room would detect first and desperately wish they had not – averting their attention elsewhere in self-defense, at least for a moment.

See the source image
Shakespeare ghost-wrote the Xenomorph dialogue

Ready for more?

With these two elements of description out there for your review and discussion, Clever Reader, I hope to return tomorrow or within the next few days with examples of some of the characters we have created to explore how who they are, what they do, where there have done it, how that went can all combine with what the universe of Alien – as we are imagining it – to create a foundation suitable for preparation for improvisation in Campaign Mode.

I hope you will join me~

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