Wednesday 28 March 2007

Horror is not a monster

Today I woke to the distant cries of terrified men and women. The killer the news sheets have named Heartless Jochen has struck again. Now his morbid collection of human hearts number six; three men and three women have fallen to his blade. All have been killed in the Friedwang Bezirk, and all within the month of Nachexen of this year of Chaos. Why does he crave the hearts of other men and women? What is he doing with his trophies? And who is he, this cold blooded murderer? A mutant? A follower of Kaine? Or the Blood God? I hope and pray that the City Watch will find this man ... before someone else loses his heart to Heartless Jochen.

Adolphus Altdorfer
Nachexen 18, 2522 IC

On the BI forums, Whymme asked for input for a horror adventure he is putting together. You can read the thread here. There are many great ideas in the thread, so it's well worth a read. Basically the question was; what could possess someone to commit six gruesome murders, and harvest the victims' hearts in order to perform a ritual of some kind? I posted to the thread, but then decided to post my answer here as well, and expand somewhat on it.

Lets look at little bit at the horror element. One of my favourite roleplaying games is Call of Cthulhu. The structure of the game as well as the rules seems to be a perfect fit for my style of writing adventures and my style of game mastering. I'm probably a better game master for Cthulhu than for WFRP. So I try to carry much of that style over into my WFRP campaigns, which means an extensive use of common and ordinary NPCs with trivial and even petty motivations.

It is when these motivations lead to actions that are disproportional to the severity of any events experienced by the NPC that a potential for close and personal horror is created. For example, if an NPC's motive is to get drunk, and he is refused a tankard of beer at his local pub because he looks like he's already had enough, and this in turn leads to him kidnapping and torturing the pub owner and his family, that is inexplicable horror in its purest essence.

It can't be easily explained and it can't simply be blamed on Chaos, demons or monsters that come from the sewers. Sure, there are monsters in WFRP and in Call of Cthulhu, horrible and evil monsters ... but we already know that they do horrible and evil things. So the horror of their actions is less effective at creating a sense of dread than similar actions committed by a perfectly normal person, for trivial reasons.

So for the hypothetical situation mentioned in the beginning, I'd base the motive behind the murders and the harvesting of the hearts on an unfortunate sequence of trivialities. The motive is revenge, and this craving for revenge comes from a number of slights against the murderers pride and honour. Most of the offenses are imagined but some are real, and have been going on for many years. Finally, the imagined humiliation has become too much, and now only bloody revenge will wipe the slate clean.

For this, our villain needs the hearts of seven people; three men and three women who has affronted him and one innocent child to close the deal, and all under a dying moon. So all killings must occur under the span of a waxing and waning moon. If the last killing is done under specific circumstances, the ritual will be fulfilled and a plague of demons will descend on the town. Under one night the murderer will be given free command of the horde to wreak his revenge ... and then he will be given to the lord of slaughter. The killer is aware of the price he has to pay, and will gladly lay down his life for bloody revenge.

So what could have offended a person enough to hatch a scheme like this?

Just about anything trivial. Getting short changed at the market, buying a pig that turned ill and died the next day, being refused a tankard of beer at the local tavern, even just getting an odd look or a taunt from a child, or a request for a romantic meeting declined ... there are thousands of trivial things that might be eternally important for a person like our murderer. And which might be enough to push him over the edge.

For the plot like this to work I think it would have to be set in a fairly large city, like Altdorf, Middenheim or Nuln. The reason for this is that there should be a logical possibility for the murderer to aquire texts on demon summonings from a university, bookshop or a library without getting too much exposure. At the same time this will serve as a path of clues for the characters to find the villain as well as a logical explanation as to where his knowledge of the occult came from. Of course, you can always use demonic influence to explain his new found knowledge, but I prefer his actions to be an active choice, rather than an outside corrupting influence. This makes the crimes more horrible, in my mind.

As I mentioned earlier I think that having lots of NPCs for the characters to interact with is important. For a scenario like this it becomes even more important, since basically the only way the characters can find the murderer is by talking to lots of people, each giving them a small piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Paradoxically this means that the plot should be set in an easily defined area of a town or city, such as a district in Altdorf or Middenheim, to give the characters a sporting chance of encountering all these people. It’s only through painstaking investigation that the truth about Heartless Jochen can be known, and the horror of the dance macabre be averted.


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