Increasingly sci-fi RPGs are leaving behind space heroics in favour of something much more unsettling. We speak to the writers behind three of our favourite, recent games, Mothership, The Wretched and ALIEN, to find out what this dark age of space exploration means to them.
The dark, gloomy forests of the wilderness are filled with dreadful terrors, dilapidated mansions haunted by revenants and subterranean dungeons are dark, claustrophobic places, but space... Space is truly terrifying. Space doesn’t want to kill you, it just does, without thought or malice. It will boil your blood, make your eyeballs explode and you don’t even want to know what it’ll do to your lungs.
And that’s just our space, the regular old, heavily irradiated vacuum that lurks at the edge of the thin, oh so thin, strip of air that barely blankets our planet. Start to throw in acid blooded aliens, reality warping monoliths and the like into the mix and yes, if you want to experience true horror then space is indeed the place.
Whilst fantasy has traditionally ruled the roost as far as RPGs are concerned, science fiction’s history in gaming is nearly as storied. Considering the role basements have played in the history of our games it’s no surprise that so many of the first RPGs were centred on cthonic spaces but still it wasn’t long before game designers looked to the stars for inspiration.
As early as 1976, James M. Ward’s Metamorphosis Alpha, saw us swapping cave systems for a vast mutant filled generation starship, 1977’s Traveller introduced us to the joys of owning our own Beowulf Class Free Trader, and by the mid 80s the likes of Star Frontiers, Star Trek and Star Wars were just some of the games available for those wishing to explore the universe.
Still, for much of sci-fi roleplaying’s history the emphasis has been more on space heroics than emulating sweaty claustrophobic fear. In recent years though, as perhaps our own hopes for a golden future amongst the stars have receded, space bound RPGs have taken on a much darker, certainly less optimistic feel.
What that says about 21st century society i’ll leave up to you to decide but still the new wave of sci-fi RPGs have openly embraced the chill of horror. To investigate further we spoke to the people behind three of our favourite sci-fi games of recent years, Mothership, The Wretched and ALIEN to see what horror means to them and whether RPGs can indeed be a vehicle for fear.
In many ways Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic ALIEN remains the template for sci-fi horror, so it’s no surprise that Free League’s official RPG based upon the franchise, and released in 2019, has proven so popular with those who are looking to move away from fighting dragons, and indeed exploring dungeons, and experience the myriad horrors that a life amongst the stars can provide.
In Scott’s film the crew of the doomed freighter Nostromo are just the disposable tools of an amoral corporation, the Nostromo itself a claustrophobic warren that was designed to more resemble the cramped conditions of a WW2 submarine than the well lit and airy likes of the Starship Enterprise. In the RPG players take on similar roles, often playing blue collar scrubs, operating far from home under and with their worst nightmares just a distress beacon away.
But what is horror? And if it’s so terrible why do we enjoy immersing ourselves in it? And how should we get the most out of our games?
For Andrew E.C. Gaska, setting writer for the ALIEN RPG, horror is ‘an assault on the body and mind. It’s a manipulation of memory and a mutilation of form. A horror story is more than what’s presented to us on film or page or told to us around the campfire—its what we infer is there but isn't. It’s the filled-in blanks we create in our mind.’
With their tight corridors, narrow access tubes and distinct lack of lighting, the cramped conditions that ALIEN players generally find themselves in then provide the perfect setting for horror stories. ‘There's a shadow and strange noises coming from around the corner,’ Gaska explains. ‘What it might be could turn out to be far scarier than what it actually is, and we won't know until we get there and put ourselves at risk. But finding out what's there is almost a relief, even if it is what we feared from the beginning. Even if it is our end.’
That feeling of catharsis that horror can provide is one explanation for why we like to scare ourselves but for Chris Bissette, author of The Wretched, horror stories can also be a dark mirror of self-discovery.
‘To me, a horror story is something that tells us something about ourselves - either personally, as a society, or as a species,’ they explain. ‘By peeling back the skin and showing us the truth of what's inside us, making us face the things about ourselves that we either don't understand or don't want to acknowledge, effective horror leaves us with a new perspective on things, and makes us question ourselves on a deep and personal level.’
In recent years few games have done as much to raise the profile of sci-fi RPGs, and put horror at the heart of them, as Mothership which introduced itself as a game where players must try to “survive in the most inhospitable environment in the universe: outer space!”
For Sean McCoy, Mothership’s lead writer and creator, horror picks up ‘where agency ends. With Mothership we say the players can either survive the ordeal, solve the mystery, or save the day. But they can’t do all three. Survive, solve, or save, pick two, or one in most cases. So when your back is up against the wall, when you’re out of options, where do you find yourself? Are you out there trying to escort victims to safety? Or are you buried in tomes, trying to untangle the riddle that’s been plaguing you? Or are you just trying your best to stay alive? That’s the direction we take: in a situation with only bad choices, what do you choose?’
Bad choices make good drama, especially so in Mothership which takes many of its cues from old school roleplaying. These are games where character creation is quick, games are deadlier and death often an opportunity for good roleplaying rather a cause for despair. ‘Even when you are doomed your actions matter,’ explains McCoy. ‘I think that’s the kernel of hope that lies at the bottom of great horror stories. It’s not just doom for doom’s sake. It’s what do you do when all hope is lost?’
Mechanically representing the effect that all this has on a character has always been one of the harder aspects of horror RPGs and trying to gamify mental health is something that many designers are increasingly wary of. How then can you represent the effect on a person of facing their greatest fears, of being pushed beyond endurance, especially when reducing player agency, what most agree is a key component of horror, is more and more frowned upon.
For Mothership this means replacing sanity with stress as McCoy explains. ‘In Mothership failure means you’ll gain stress, or take damage. Whittling away at your two precious resources, your mental stability and your health. Injuries and panic can further the spiral into terror, pushing your characters to the break. And that’s where the game gets good: we’re asking how you would operate on the worst day of your life? And it’s up to you to answer.”
“WE’RE ASKING HOW YOU WOULD OPERATE ON THE WORST DAY OF YOUR LIFE? AND IT’S UP TO YOU TO ANSWER” - SEAN MCCOY
Like Mothership, ALIEN too replaces sanity loss with a stress mechanic to represent the experience of pushing yourself through what is inevitably a highly abnormal situation. In ALIEN players accrue stress dice as they’re under attack or facing unexpected situations, those stress dice actually make your character perform better, but they also come with the increased chance of suffering Panic, at which point things will start to go wrong, very quickly.
‘The biggest threat in the ALIEN RPG is the stress mechanic,’ explains Gaska, which considering the presence of Xenomorphs says something. ‘The more bad things happen, the more stress you accumulate, the more stress you accumulate, the more bad things happen, the more likely it is you will panic and do something really stupid that could get you and your teammates killed. You know, just like real life.’
In Bissette’s solo RPG The Wretched killing your team mates is at least one thing you don’t need to worry about, seeing as they’re already dead. Here you play the last surviving crew member of the titular spaceship that has already ravaged by some kind of alien terror. Now you’re alone and, whatever it is, it’s hunting you through the ship all whilst you try to restore power and somehow escape. It’s a captivating, at times bleak, game which uses a Jenga tower to simulate both the increasing tension and the diminishing chance of survival as the game develops.
As games go playing The Wretched can be an incredibly nerve jangling experience, as you record your final audio log and try to prise free one last block from the teetering tower it can be a visceral experience. Still, Bissette is less sure if any game mechanics can really capture the essence of horror and its effects. ‘Even in a game like The Wretched, which uses the Jenga tower to create rising tension, the horror comes from the player and their own personal responses to the prompts. Jenga in itself isn't inherently scary.’
Indeed, whether any of this can, or even should, translate to fear amongst the players rather than characters is even harder to pin down.
‘Fear in games - especially tabletop games - is a tricky thing to convey, because there's a wall between what makes my character afraid and what makes me afraid,’ says Bissette. ‘Lots of horror is about loss of agency and that's hard, though not impossible, to do safely in games. I think the most effective horror games are the ones with few mechanisms and rules, where you're more easily able to blur that line between character and player.’
‘In The Wretched, you're destined to fail,’ they go on. ‘The game is all about trying to survive against overwhelming odds, and the horror that comes from the slow realisation that you weren't ever going to succeed.’
“THE GAME IS ALL ABOUT TRYING TO SURVIVE AGAINST OVERWHELMING ODDS, AND THE HORROR THAT COMES FROM THE SLOW REALISATION THAT YOU WEREN'T EVER GOING TO SUCCEED” - CHRIS BISSETTE
For Gaska, ‘Fear is where rules come into play,’ and like Bissette sees that, ‘many players find themselves divorced from their characters. They are unable to get into their shoes and experience the fear they would feel when confronted with a xenomorph. Rules for fear, like the Stress mechanic, can help players find that focus that they need to keep their character in sync with the universe they inhabit.’
‘As for maintaining that, well, that's when tone comes in,' says Gaska. ‘That's where its up to the GM to set the mood, using light, sounds, music, whispered oration… It’s also about subverting expectations—if everyone is expecting the alien to be around the corner, give them the cat instead. Then when their defences are down, have the alien spring on them from the ceiling.’
Safety tools are an increasingly important part of RPGs, and this is especially the case with horror games, but as much as they offer us an opportunity to excise subjects from a game that may make us uncomfortable, Bissette also views pre-game dialogue as providing an opportunity for us to explore areas that may make us uncomfortable in a safe space.
‘It's helpful to ask the players to do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of the fiction of the game, letting them fill in the blanks about what this specific horror embodies itself as,’ they explain. ‘It's hard to do effective horror in a dungeon crawling adventure game where monsters are defined by numbers and abilities and can be killed by the swords that all characters wield. It's much easier in a game like Trophy Dark or Quietus, where you ask the players to tell you what their own personal horror looks like and then use that to drive the fiction in a really organic, natural way.’
‘The best horror games look a lot like a group of people telling stories around the campfire, tapping in to a shared storytelling tradition that dates back millennia,’ Bissette adds. ‘Often you find the real horror happens after the game, or story, or movie, or whatever, is over, when the player is on their own with their thoughts, digesting what just happened.’
“OFTEN THE REAL HORROR HAPPENS AFTER THE GAME IS OVER, WHEN THE PLAYER IS ON THEIR OWN WITH THEIR THOUGHTS DIGESTING WHAT JUST HAPPENED” - CHRIS BISETTE
Still, much as Mothership bills itself as a ‘Sci-Fi Horror RPG’ McCoy doesn’t believe that actual fear is necessarily something we need to focus on. ‘The amount of immersion and dedication and safety tools required to really take people to a place where they’re afraid, it’s just not something most groups can do week in and week out,’ he says.
‘Horror can also be a setting, a backdrop. The players themselves don’t need to be actively afraid in order to play a horror game, that’s too high a standard. In terms of heart rate rising, sweat palms, that kind of reaction, I think it’s nice to have but it’s not something we aim at,’ he adds. ‘We aim for building that tension, but I think part of the amazing thing about roleplaying games is the distance you can have.
‘If you want to enjoy a night cracking jokes with your friends as your group gets slaughtered by an invisible creature like in The Haunting of Ypsilon-14, that’s great! That’s the game working. If you want to put on some music, only talk in character, banish screens from the table, and really steer into the curve, I think that can work too. But Mothership is all about finding out what works for your table specifically.’
And, of course, for all the darkness, horror also comes with the chance of salvation, McCoy’s ‘kernel of hope’ and the greater the horror the greater the feeling of victory when, or of course if, you do make it through the night, reach the escape pod, take off and nuke the site from orbit.
‘There is always a chance of survival, no matter how small,’ concludes Gaska. ‘The mouse isn't going to run through the maze if there's no cheese at the far end. Watching play-throughs on the internet, it seems that one or two PCs always make it out of each cinematic adventure I’ve written.
'Sometimes they are the most clever, sometimes it's just dumb luck on their side. Sometimes they even make it just because they betrayed everyone else, but there's usually someone who makes it. Playing the game, you know that most of you aren't getting out of there alive, and that's ok. That’s the cheese that drives you through the maze.’
The new ALIEN RPG campaign Building Better Worlds is out soon, pre-order now from frialigan.se
The Mothership 1st Edition Boxed Set is out later this year, pre-order from mothershiprpg.com
The Wretched is out now published by Loot The Room loottheroom.uk
This feature originally appeared in Wyrd Science Vol.1 Issue 3 - The Horror Issue