Don’t Fear the Smartphone

Today’s post is written by Rob Wieland. Rob is an author, blogger, pop culture writer and game designer that writes about pirates, gangsters, Jedi, dragons, zombies and whatever else pays. He is most well-known for his work on Firefly RPGStar Wars Saga EditionShadowrun and CAMELOT Trigger. Other projects include work on Honor and IntrigueEdge of MidnightHillfolkOur Last Best Hope7th Sea/Swashbuckling AdventuresNight’s Black Agents and 13th Age.  His online presence includes multiple game blogs, interviews and articles for Milwaukee Record. He lives in scenic Milwaukee, Wisconsin with his wife, who has many more skills useful for the zombie apocalypse.

A common complaint I see as a designer of horror games is how modern technology ruins horror. How can players feel isolated when the cops are a cell phone call away? How is there any mystery when the bulk of human knowledge is available through any Internet-capable device? How is the supernatural hidden when anyone can upload a video of a werewolf attack to social media as absolute proof that monsters are real?

The easy answer to these questions is baked into the token system of Chill 3rd Edition. Flip a token light, and the cell phone runs out of battery suddenly. The light of the laptop lures the creature to the unsuspecting researcher. Someone decides to kill the monster they saw on YouTube and heads toward the isolated cabin with lots of guns and little training.

Technology, whether a sharp stick or a wireless tablet, is a tool. Humanity has made tools for thousands of years. The Unknown has adapted. Often times, creatures have immunity to technology. Guns don’t hurt the monster. The ghost is invisible to cameras. It’s very tempting for a Chill Master to take away technology to reinforce the feeling of being alone in the dark with the Unknown. But sometimes, good horror comes from these tools working exactly as planned…and the creatures being able to overcome the advantages we expect out of them.

Let’s take a look at calling the cops. Most phones have access to emergency dial options even if the phone is out of network. The common Chill Master response might be to turn a token to have the cell phone not work or the cops to laugh off any 911 call involving monsters. Instead, police response could happen…but now you have armed officers that are completely unprepared for dealing with a creature of the Unknown. Sounds like perfect fodder for NPCs to do something rash.

The best part about searching for something on the internet is all the information that’s available. The worst thing for something on the internet is all the information that’s available.  Chill already takes this into account with the option of false leads that pop up with bad research rolls. Specialized knowledge, like occult research and mythology, can be hard to find via modern systems. Universities and private collectors might not have the full text of their manuscripts online. A quick search might get part of the story but lead the envoys to consult with the owner of these ancient texts, which requires an interview at the least, and possibly protecting the expert from the Unknown once they are on-site.

Revealing the presence of the Unknown to the general public is a bad idea. Getting over the public’s sense of cynicism and irony is hard work. The public is inundated with special effects, marketing ploys and links to “TOTALLY REAL VIRAL VIDEOS” on a daily basis. Showing someone footage of a werewolf attack is just as likely to get people to ask when the rest of the movie is coming out as it is to convince the world monsters truly exist. A darker option, however, is that people who see the Unknown in action, unlike the envoys, wish to seek it out and use it for their own ends. An envoy’s vampire video might only have a few hundred views, but there could be a dozen people who want to become a vampire now.

Beyond these common questions of what seem to be sensible actions in the face of impossible creatures, a good Chill Master can make technology their ally. Films like The Ring and Unfriended take the elements of classic horror stories and mix in technology. What if a cameraphone is the only way to see the monster? What if an envoy starts getting text messages from a dead colleague? What if a playlist appear out of nowhere trying to pass on a message from the Unknown in the titles of the songs? What if a smartphone starts vibrating in a certain way when the Unknown draws near, Silent Hill-style? That ubiquitous device sends and receives messages. The Unknown knows that, too, and should turn technology’s usefulness on the envoys when presented the opportunity.

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