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SF Horror Part 1 -- Hard Questions


The onset of the Millennium seems to have caused a resurgence of interest in the SF / futuristic role-playing genre. This is an unusual genre for horror role-playing which, from a GMs perspective, makes it an ideal setting to aid in provoking that frisson of fear in jaded players. There are a number of approaches that the GM can use.

Most people when confronted with idea of SF horror immediately think of the movie "Alien". This is an understandable reaction since the movie contains many basic horror elements; unknown enemy, claustrophobic spaces, internecine rivalries, a time limit to work to and a fate worse than death if the protagonists fail. However it is worth remembering that Ridley Scott famously sold the movie concept to studio executives in a single phrase, "Jaws in space". The SF setting was essentially a backdrop for the story of desperate people pursued by an unknown foe, a basic plot that has been used repeatedly in horror stories from "Dracula" to "Scream".

Whilst Alien-style plots work for one-off scenarios, they do not make the most appropriate use of the diverse SF setting. It becomes difficult to distinguish one monster hunt from the next, be it on a futuristic spaceship, in a disused subway or in a medieval castle. As one character in "Aliens" declared, "It"s another bug hunt!". This is a message that Hollywood would do well to hear

It should be noted that classic SF plots often include elements of horror. A famous SF writer (who shall remain nameless given his propensity for filing lawsuits when misquoted) once described the genre as "telling stories about science going wrong, alerting us to the potential for disaster". That seems to be good ground upon which to build a horror mini-campaign. For the purposes of this column it is convenient to break SF into sub-categories in order to distinguish elements of interest to the horror GM; hard SF, post-apocalyptic SF, paranoid SF (including space operas) and urban SF.

Hard SF

Hard SF (as exemplified by authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven et al) is perhaps the most difficult sub-category to adapt to horror role-playing. This type of SF often contains themes of exploration, first contact or warfare, allowing the GM to present players with unknowns to be dealt with. Hard SF also introduces the most fundamental question which a GM has to deal with before setting up any science horror campaign, namely the existence (or not) of magic and the supernatural. Usually it allows no room for unexplained forces to work; every happening has a rational scientific explanation, usually via perversions of the accepted laws of physics, which leaves a few important questions for the traditional horror GM to answer. Will the proposed scenario include magic? How is magic rationalised, if at all? Do universal good and evil exist as fundamental concepts?

One possible rationale for the appearance of "magic" in such a campaign is advanced psionic ability. Telepathy, astral projection, psychokinesis, clairvoyance and similar powers can all be used to create the classic horror elements of unusual methods of death, hallucinations, machines with a life of their own. Psionic humans are often portrayed as being superior to normal humans (c.f. Babylon 5) and may be used to introduce elements of paranoid SF into a longer-term campaign. Characters with the advantage of psionics should really be balanced by limiting factors e.g. increased susceptibility to those horrific psionic aliens who plan to use mankind as hosts for their young in this particular universe.

From the perspective of a horror GM it is intriguing to note that H. P. Lovecraft wrote many of his Cthulhu Mythos horror stories based around the premise that magic and the supernatural did not exist and were actually meaningless human labels for natural scientific principles. His Mythos creatures were alien beings rather than demons, many of whom lived in dimensions other than our own and were subject to different physical laws. Naturally his 1920"s knowledge of science was not as advanced as ours in the 1990"s but the principle remains sound. Whilst this may seem like an exercise in splitting hairs, multidimensional physics provides the GM with a convenient rationale for the appearance (or not) of aliens who can apparently defy the laws of physics, or "spells" which neurolinguistically unlock the powers of the mind (requiring dangerous, lengthy training of course).

A particular downside of the SF genre is the role-players" tendency to deal with problems by looking for a scientific solution first or, if that fails, the use of high-tech weaponry to force a solution. Scientific scrutiny removes the element of the unknown, and advanced weaponry leads to overconfidence, both of which are detrimental to a classic horror atmosphere. The GM cannot indefinitely conceal knowledge from player-characters so the horror aspect of a long-term campaign is liable to be diminished as the campaign progresses. A shorter science-horror campaign would perhaps be a better option where the conventions of hard SF hold sway.

Another problem for the GM is characters" ready access to technologies such as FTL travel, psionic devices, artificial intelligence, robots, implants etc. However these problems can all become advantages with a little sideways thought e.g. nobody expected the robot to be the killer"s accomplice in the classic Asimov novel "The Naked Sun". The actual SF timeline, and circumstances, will also determine the availability of these high-tech advantages. And, when all else fails, it is easy enough to deny access to those advantages for the purpose of a scenario (see below).

The process of creating a horror atmosphere in a hard SF environment is really no different from creating one in a standard 1920"s or 1990"s environment. The concept of horror merely shifts from walking dead, demons and sorcerers to something a little more in keeping with the era; corpses animated by mutant space virus, transdimensional predators, insane psionic masterminds.

Consider an SF universe (based on the original "Traveller" Imperium) where there are many distant worlds at different levels of technology and civilisation, where FTL travel is possible (but expensive), there are no FTL communication devices, and psionics are quite rare. In such a universe, the standard plot of marooning a space-liner full of innocent tourists on the off-limits radioactive world of Horriblis-9 could be a good opening to a mini-campaign:

Session/Scene 1: Disaster and aftermath. NPC extras die horribly (or disappear mysteriously) at the tentacles / hands / claws of the mysterious alien inhabitants (call them Species A) who come and go without trace. Using only the resources of the life-rafts, PCs would have to organise shelter, defences, and nourishment. A few odd diseases ravage the remaining population, thinning down the survivors even further and depleting the store of medicines. And still no sign of rescue.

Scene 2: Rationalisation. The PCs realise that one of their fellows (a xenophilologist or xenobiologist) has deserted and sabotaged their distress beacons. They have no choice other than to try to communicate with their enemies to try and find the scientist. But Species A is not a communist species, they have freewill and internal rivalries just like humans, and some of them think that the humans would be convenient for other more sinister purposes. Once these enmies are befriended (or at least not stalking human victims) the PCs realise that something else is preying upon them, something much more frightening than the belligerent members of Species A. And they are still unable to find that missing scientist. Add to this the fact that Species A are preparing to go into hibernation en masse in freezing cold (or boiling hot, or gaseous) caves in which no human can survive; a lengthy but regular solar eclipse is due to occur, during which the other aliens (Species B) come to dominance on the planet. In fact, Species B worships a strange god-like being to whom they offer living sacrifices, ideally from another race, which explains Species A developing hibernation as a survival mechanism.

Scene 3: Exploration. On an exploratory mission the PCs discover the missing scientist, who knew all along about Species B from the texts / language / sealed data files he studied earlier. He has made a deal with Species B and been genetically altered to a dangerous, hybrid form, a priest-cum-telepathically-linked-avatar of the dark god who waits deep within the planet. Cue a classic mastermind-revealing-plot vignette where he tells PCs that the god and its followers want to get off Horriblis-9, planning to use humans as temporary hosts to do so. Early spacefarers suffered a similar fate to the PCs but escaped, hence the planet was declared off-limits. The god is due to spawn and needs a sizeable food source for its young - planet Earth should be about right. He then re-introduces those deceased tourists who have been re-animated by the parasitic / psionic Species B.

Scene 4: Denouement. Escape from the madman, steal back the missing items, get rescued at the last minute, and spend a long time in physical- and psycho- therapy. Easy when you know how...

Scene 5: Epilogue. Relaxing at home there is a knock on the door. A government official would like an expert opinion on graffiti?! The graffiti in question bears a marked resemblance to Species B paintings photographed on Horriblis-9 by one of the survivors of the crashed liner...

Obviously this is a quick and dirty example, but it easily could be fleshed out with odd socio-religious practises and strange powers of both alien species, double-dealing fellow survivors, perhaps a disease which induces psychotic hallucinations and then amnesia in humans (c.f. ergot), parasitically infected friends speaking of the ecstasy of hosting Species 2, etc, etc. One of the advantages of horror in an SF is that the entire universe really does become the plaything of the GM.

As for good, evil, God, Jahweh, Allah et al? That is really a question for philosophers, although I"d be intrigued to receive comments on those topics in the SF genre. The next article will focus on those other juicy sub-genres of SF.

Suggested reading:

  • "Stranger In A Strange Land" by Robert Heinlein
  • "Hyperion" by Dan Simmons
  • "Involution Ocean" by Bruce Sterling
  • "The Martian Chronicles" by Ray Bradbury
  • "The Ophiuchi Hotline" by John Varley
  • "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison
  • "The Atlantic Abomination" by John Brunner
  • "Target" by Janet Morris and David Drake
  • "Big C" by Brian Lumley
  • "The Web Between The Worlds" by Charles Sheffield

Suggested viewing:

  • "Alien" (directed by Ridley Scott)
  • "Event Horizon"
  • "2001: A Space Odyssey" (directed by Stanley Kubrick)
  • "Babylon 5" (TV series)
  • "Lifeboat" (director unknown, based on the original Alfred Hitchcock film)

Peter Devlin

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