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Science-Horror Part 2: Everything Is Not As It Seems


Having previously looked at few issues relevant to the juxtaposition of horror and hard SF, let's take a look at other SF sub-genres. First, a rather topical theme.

Paranoid SF

This SF sub-genre may be identified by the main elements of fear, deceit, conspiracy, internecine relationships and deep plots played out against a scientific (but not necessarily futurist) background. Any SF (or other) genre where the element of paranoia takes a central part may rightly be classified in this manner, particularly when we use the definition of SF as 91telling stories about science going wrong, alerting us to the potential for disaster. A classic film example of the genre, made during the 50's and 60's period of Communist fears in America, is 'Invasion of the Bodysnatchers'. In recent years the genre has resurfaced in the popular form of detailed, extended-plot TV series such as 'V', 'The X Files' and 'Babylon 5'.

Paranoid SF offers perhaps the greatest opportunity for the GM to combine SF and horror genres. The sub-genre demands gradual unfolding of the plot and The Truth(tm), and offers strong possibilities for a long-term campaign. Horror roleplayers are naturally familiar with the premise of the search for the truth behind unexplained events. The chosen era provides the SF aspect of the game and determines available technology, particularly communications and weaponry as discussed previously. PCs may have access to the products of advanced science but character motivations for a forensic scientist in 2049 are much the same as those of a contemporary from 1999.

The conventions of this sub-genre almost demand that PCs be drawn in to a series of events which suggest an evil, secretive foe manipulating events from behind the scenes. The nature of the campaign will essentially be defined by the choice of antagonist. In an SF context the antagonist is most likely to be extra-terrestrial but does not necessarily have to be vastly superior in all aspects unless the tone of the campaign is to be a downbeat one of 'struggling against the inevitable'. If the campaign is intended to be long term then PCs should have the opportunity to understand something of the nature of their enemy, always remembering that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Some thought must be given to communications with the enemy. An atmosphere of 'no communication' preserves fear of the unknown. Easy communication and understanding can remove the frisson of horror. Somewhere in between these extremes, a balance can be reached e.g. a central question which should be examined by GM and player alike is 'What does the antagonist intend for the human race?'

The exploitation of Mankind for pleasure / medicine / food / energy / incubators / fill_in_the_blank is an SF staple. This concept is most suited to extraterrestrial adversaries but can also apply to supernatural enemies e.g. vampires. It is a concept which plays on the search for the meaning of life and the belief that Man is in some way special. The underlying psychological horror comes from the discovery that there is no such meaning, that we are just another natural resource, as insignificant cosmically as ants or cows. The visceral horror comes from the way in which Man is exploited, usually brutally and/or unknowingly. Perhaps the most alien of motivations result from this concept taken to extremes, namely that Mankind is seen as a nuisance or a pest, if in fact the antagonist takes any notice of Man at all! This last nihilistic idea was central to much of the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.

Nebulous alien motivations are a staple of hard SF. Metaphors are often used to reinforce the horror atmosphere with awe and mystery. Alien artifacts, or the beings themselves, are sized on such a huge scale that Mankind and his achievements seem small by comparison. If a sustained horror element is to prevail then those motivations must be brought home in a more personal manner cynical players will quickly grow used to awe-inspiring moments. For this reason such events are best kept for the grand finale of a campaign, when the true nature and scope of the conspiracy finally becomes clear.

Human adversaries should have more recognizably human motives but they need not necessarily be sane. Substitute supernatural elements in near future SF are readily available via technology and mental powers as discussed previously. An evolutionary jump toward psionic humans, development of powerful artificial intelligences or the exploitation of new laws of physics are three potential concepts upon which conspiracies may be built. Fans of the anarchic 'Illuminati' card game are familiar with the simple motives of the Gnomes of Zurich (money) and Great Cthulhu (world destruction). Treated properly, however, paranoid conspiracies can involve much more than lust for money and power. Perhaps the most chilling horror is that which highly (but wrongly) motivated man inflicts upon his fellow man in the name of an ideology and/or a so-called greater cause. Ethnic cleansing, racial purity and similar concepts are topical, fertile and disturbing motivations for human antagonists. GMs need look no further than the daily news for potential plotlines to adapt to a futuristic setting, preferably whilst wearing dark glasses.

One good way to end a Paranoid SF campaign is with PCs exposing the secret behind the conspiracy in time to ensure a new, brighter future. But what if players do not ultimately succeed in their stand against the conspiracy by the forces of darkness?

Post-Apocalypse SF

This SF sub-genre is usually distinguished by a major apocalyptic event in recent history which has adversely affected mankind. This may have been a global nuclear war, pandemic fatal disease, alien invasion, global economic collapse, ecological disaster or, topically, a meteor strike. Often mankind has partially regressed to barbarism, technology has been forgotten and the main protagonists (i.e. player characters) wander the planet seeking to rebuild civilization against all odds.

In the 1960's and 1970's this sub-genre attracted many well known authors and film directors, its popularity fueled by the latent public fear of nuclear or ecological disaster. Although mankind presently survives, it is easy to understand the morbid attraction of a shattered world as a backdrop for horror gaming. As with hard SF the troublesome topic of the supernatural must first be dealt with, although in this case it is easier to mix both science and the supernatural as the scientific establishment is logically one of the first casualties in an apocalypse; knowledge is either lost or removed from everyday life.

For GMs a particular hazard of this sub-genre is the 'survivalist' mentality which can infect roleplayers. Disappearing technology, scarce resources and lawless communities tend to lead to the development of one-dimensional characters not too dissimilar to Mad Max Rocketansky. This type of powergaming negates the horror and SF elements of any storyline. There are ways to avoid this trap:

  1. ensure that PCs are 'normal' humans rather than Rambo-style killers
  2. keep PCs on edge via the alien (rather than hostile) nature of the environment
  3. build PC-NPC relationships whenever possible to tie PCs into the world
  4. do not adopt the 'technology-as-treasure' mindset
  5. emphasize the hardships involved in day-to-day survival

Since many horror scenarios have as their central concept the defense of humanity against the supernatural, it is possible to have a supernatural disaster as the premise for a post-apocalypse SF campaign. One descriptive literary example is the classic novel 'The Night Land' by William Hope Hodgson (available online at) which is set in a far distant future when the world has been overrun by the forces of darkness; it provides one possible future for GMs interested in this idea.

It is possible to use an existing horror campaign as the starting point for a post-apocalyptic background. When PCs fail to prevent the awakening of Great Cthulhu, assume that the Earth is subject to a series of ecological disasters which cause sea-level to rise significantly, in addition to the madness which affects a sizeable portion of the population. Normal people (i.e. PCs of the future) would be ignorant of the causes of the disaster(s) and would only be aware of events which directly affected them. Over the course of a very few years the lack of fresh water, farming land, adequate sewage and medical facilities, malnutrition, changes in weather patterns, disease and the influence of water-borne entities such as the Deep Ones would produce a world very different from our own. Put simply, the more chronologically distant the disaster, the more severe the change in world view that can be achieved.

Human population would be decimated, whole ecologies wiped out, technological infrastructure would disappear almost overnight and entire libraries of knowledge would be lost. Land wars would produce isolated, territorial communities with extreme social and governmental characteristics e.g. dictatorships and barter economies. Seaside communities might evolve a socio-religious dependence on Deep Ones, seeking out non-believers for their masters. If the timeframe is post-1960 then sunken or unstable nuclear facilities may spawn unusual sea creatures. Such a world would offer many possibilities for a creative GM.

Urban SF

Perhaps the most memorable horror stories are set in everyday circumstances e.g. the urban horror of Fritz Leiber, Harlan Ellison or Ramsey Campbell. The contrast of the commonplace and the bizarre creates a dystopian, off-balance atmosphere. This atmosphere can be used in SF roleplaying, juxtaposing everyday life in a near-future utopia with bizarre or horrific events.

Since familiarity breeds contempt, roleplaying in this sub-genre is best achieved via independent short punchy scenarios which give no opportunity for players to become settled. This genre can provide a welcome change from long, serious campaigns. Some of the best examples of RPG scenarios and roleplaying are often those developed for short tournament play at conventions. Usually featuring pregenerated PCs with clear motivations and a scenario designed to test them specifically, urban SF provides a setting ideally suited to such play.

Creative work from the GM is a prerequisite for keeping the atmosphere of each scenario fresh and stimulating. However it is also liberating for the GM. He can literally run riot as the normal rules of internal campaign consistency do not apply. PC lives are open to extreme GM abuse, as are the laws of physics, the course of history and the rules of society. Dilemmas which would be unwelcome in other RPG settings may be freely examined in this one.

Have you ever wondered how time travel will affect daily life? Simply make an executive decision on the effects of causality. Then allow ethically-motivated PC scientists to discover their future selves trying to manipulate events in the PCs present in order to cover up or eliminate an accident with the time stream. How about teleportation? Security and privacy could be a thing of the past. Cloning? See how PCs react to being cloned and then pursued by emotionless killer siblings out to subsume their identity. Alien contact? They're already here. Isolation on a distant planet? It's only a rumour that the inhabitants of that ghost town on Mars vanished overnight. Isn't it?

This sub-genre is THE forum for 'telling stories about science going wrong, alerting us to the potential for disaster'. Simply distill the SF concept of your choice into a short drama and set the events in motion.


The literary genres of horror and SF have been inextricably linked since the birth of modern fiction e.g. Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, P.G. Chadwick. There is no reason why they cannot also be linked in an RPG context today. Horror roleplaying is not about demons, sorcery, and violence, it is about challenging our existing world view. Isn't that the kind of escapism we all seek when roleplaying?

Suggested reading:

  1. 'In Darkness Waiting' and 'Wetbones' by John Shirley (1)
  2. 'Steel Beach' by John Varley (1)
  3. 'The Web Between The Worlds' by Charles Sheffield (1)
  4. 'I Am Legend' by Richard Matheson (2)
  5. 'Swan Song' by Robert McCammon (2)
  6. 'Wolf in Shadow' by David Gemmell (2)
  7. 'The Day Of The Triffids' by John Wyndham (2)
  8. 'Shaft Number 247' by Basil Copper (short fiction) (3)
  9. 'Nights Dark Agents' by Fritz Leiber (3)
  10. 'The Midwich Cuckoos' by John Wyndham (3)
  11. 'Counterclockworld' by Philip K. Dick (3)

Suggested viewing:

  1. 'Matrix' (1)
  2. 'Twelve Monkeys' directed by Terry Gilliam (1)
  3. 'The Terminator' / 'T2' directed by James Cameron (1)
  4. 'Sapphire and Steel' (TV series) (1)
  5. 'Scanners' directed by David Cronenberg (1)
  6. 'The Planet Of The Apes' movie series (2)
  7. 'The Survivors' (TV series) (2)
  8. 'The Stand' (TV series) (2)
  9. 'The Stepford Wives' (3)
  10. 'The Twilight Zone' and 'The Outer Limits' (TV series) (3)
  11. 'Society' directed by Brian Yuzna (3)
Key : (1) paranoid, (2) post-apocalypse, (3) urban

Peter Devlin
The South Side

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