Lessons from the Isle of Joy: The Uncanny in RPGs

I’m back, and once again trying to entice you to check out my latest RPG project, the Isle of Joy over on Kickstarter right now. However, since I’m not used to selling my stuff, I am going wrap the sales pitch in bacon some short essays on actionable ideas related to RPGs. Maybe they’ll be things most GMs have figured out for themselves, maybe not, but I’d like to share what I gotten out of the experience of designing and playtesting the book. 

Today, I’m going to address RPGs, meta-rules, and the uncanny.  Hopefully the flu I’m battling at the moment doesn’t prevent me from making sense!

Most people I know seem to agree that it’s difficult to scare your players in an RPG. I would agree: ironic distance means that even if a character is in a terrifying situation, players aren’t. This is a barrier to frightening PCs. There’s also the fact that player characters are routinely placed in dreadful situations, some of them much scarier than a ghost haunting the inn where your PCs are trying to sleep. (For a player who feels at all attached to their character, fighting a dragon or lich is much scarier than confronting a mere ghost, right?)

Well, usually. Honestly, I’ve occasionally managed to creep out players with both horror games and old-school D&D-like RPGs—to the point that they told me they were haunted by some moment in-game, or struggled to fall asleep after a session. I’ve heard fear in the voices of players… occasionally. However, you cannot count on this reaction. It’s great when it happens, but it’s not something most GMs can reliably evoke, and of course it requires a tremendous amount of buy-in from players. One stray joke at the wrong moment and poof, your built-up potential creepiness can evaporate in an instant. 

Of course, I think there’s a better target for GMs to aim for anyway: a sense of the uncanny. 

When I say uncanny, I’m leaning on the word that most scholars use to translate the German word unheimlich. “Un-home-like” is a literal transliteration of the word. It’s a word we know in English mainly because Freud used it in a famous essay on gothic literature. You can read it for yourself, if you like, but the gist of it is that when things are heimlich—home-like—they’re comfortable and homey in a familiar way (think the shire), whereas when they’re unheimlich, they’re places that should be be suffused with an air of the comfortable and the familiar, except somehow they aren’t. 

Taken literally, the uncanny is a sensation through which the familiar becomes unsettlingly unfamiliar, while still retaining most or all of elements that made it familiar and “home-like.” A house may be a home, until the moment it is haunted; at that point, it may in all concrete respects be the same house, the sense of familiarity is broken. It’s usually broken because a rule fundamental to the place being home-like is broken. For example, having an intruder in your house, whether it’s a ghost or a hostile armed person, is profoundly alienating: narratives about home invasions can be just as haunting as ghost stories for that reason.   

How does this relate to RPGs? Well, of course we can include uncanny trappings: a haunted house, say, or another classic, the living doll, as in one of the best-remembered episodes of The Twilight Zone:

Except not really. Practically every dungeon is haunted in one way or another (because undead are part of a balanced tomb-crawl), and in an traditional RPG setting, dolls that talk and walk and murder aren’t creepy violations of reality: they’re golems, or animated objects, or some new kind of surely-explicable monster.

But what about a doll that doesn’t move or act, that doesn’t radiate magic and expressly isn’t enchanted, but which suddenly appears in places where it shouldn’t be, that reincorporates itself after being destroyed, that implacably exists and seems to mean something, but which simultaneously doesn’t communicate that meaning to players?  

I think this gives us a hint about how the uncanny can work in RPGs. Games have explicable rules, which the players usually know. When a doll reconstitutes itself after being incinerated, they think, “magic item!” When it appears on their path repeatedly, they think “golem!” But what if everything they do to confirm these suspicions turns up negative, and the doll is neither a golem nor a magical item… and yet it keeps turning up on their path? That’s a subtle violation of the agreed-upon rules of the world. I think those kinds of subtle violations can add up to an aggregate sense of uncanniness for players, if you do it right. 

My point here is that what makes a mysterious object like this “uncanny” is that it violates the rules of the game as players understand it. Of course, there are limits to how far a GM can go with this, and how much players will accept of it. Unlike in gothic fiction, games have by default a meta-level, and it’s on that level that I think a GM can fruitfully generate a sense of the uncanny. I think set dressing matters, of course… and the overall tone of the game, too.

(I also suspect that this kind of thing can, with different set dressing, be a tool of comedy in games—that other elusively difficult mode of play that I’ve been exploring lately. But that’s beyond the scope of this post.) 

Going back to the idea of creeping out players, take the example of how a spirit might influence a PC. One of the fundamental assumptions of OSR (and, as far as I know, NSR) games is that players generally are in control of their characters, and that monsters generally act upon them in martial terms: they attack, cast spells, and so on which cause them tangible harm. Player character actions are under control of the player, and they might fail or succeed depending on a roll of the dice, but PCs don’t—they never—get hijacked in the manner of, say, a trance possession. Now, we can all think of in-game conditions that skirt the edges of hijacking characters: a fear response that makes a character flee for a set amount of time, or a magical effect that prevents a character from certain kinds of actions when their turn comes around. However, these are well within the in-game norm, and in some ways the exceptions that reinforce the rule of player character autonomy. Because of this, players might find them momentarily frustrating, but they typically accept them without hesitation. 

On the other end of the spectrum, there are infringements on player character autonomy that players would typically tend to reject outright. Imagine a spirit possessing a player character such that complete control of the character falls to the GM. No player is going to accept that for long, and for good reason: one of the fundamental rules of the game is that the GM doesn’t control player characters—the players do, and enemy attacks that infringe are limited both in time and scope. It’s also not fun or interesting.  

But I think one possible key to evoking the uncanny lies between these two points: the murky zone where you’re breaking the meta-rules of the game in a way that goes beyond the normal, accepted violations, but falls short of the game-breaking ones. Going back to the example of a character being affected by a spirit, the spirit might possess the mind of a character and cause them to see their allies as monsters. Alternately, the character might see not their allies, but the faces of “innocents” who have died along the way during past adventures, and whose accusatory looks and words—and apparent desire to atack the player character—might  lead the player to reflect on whether their character is the real monster. 

Or what about a spirit who simply cannot be harmed by weapons at all—not even magical ones? As long as it’s also unable (or disinclined) to inflict damage on PCs, this is an acceptable form of rules-breaking: the creature violates the rules of the meta-game (the rules that tell us what the game is about, and what the stakes are in encounters), but in a way that doesn’t amount to player abuse. 

The thing about all these examples is that the player is still free to play the character, but constrained by the perceptions or limitations that the spirit imposes upon them. That seems like fair play (as long as you’re not doing it all the time, of course).

One element I’ve sort of mentioned a few times is this elusive sense of meaning. Things seem like they should signify something, but they stubbornly refuse to disclose their significance. Again, this violates a meta-rule in RPGs: that things PCs run across that feel like hints should help resolve mysteries. That’s fine for explicable mysteries, of course, but what about inexplicable ones? They key here is a mix between the explicable and the inexplicable: if every mystery is completely inexplicable, your players will be frustrated and annoyed. On the other hand, if there’s one big mystery that’s partly explicable—but incompletely so—players will tend to accept that. 

The longer this post gets, the more I wonder whether I’m getting my point across, or belabouring something that everyone already knows. For all I know, this has been completely explored on some RPG blog out there. But for me, this insight crystallized as I worked on Isle of Joy, and suddenly I could see it in a lot of the adventures I’ve written and run in the past. 

If you like the sound of that, please check out the Isle of Joy Kickstarter. With 13 days to go, we’re well past being fully funded and currently closing in on another stretch goal—a large format, double-sided fold-up map of the Isle! 

2 thoughts on “Lessons from the Isle of Joy: The Uncanny in RPGs

  1. I hadn’t gotten that far in my musings regarding horror. It’s true that horror doesn’t work all that well with players but your ideas on the uncanny are intriguing. I’ll be trying some of them out for sure.

    1. I’d love to hear how well they do or don’t work out for you at the table!

      I have to admit, I stumbled onto some of this while playtesting, and that helped me to retroactively figure out stuff that had happened in past games. I think gothic/horror trappings are the key to how groups interpret the kinds of weirdness I’m talking about: with different trappings, I think things can end up feeling more like comedy or satire or absurdism.

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