Ghosts in Horror Games

Last night, was my bi-weekly group’s game of Vampire: The Masquerade. Sometimes these games can be fairly introspective, but this week there was a lot going on. Two of the players had masterfully set a ball rolling that seemed to have caught the Prince’s childe (who had previously been a thorn in their side) in it’s path, the politics amongst the elders seemed to be reaching some kind of crescendo, the Tremere were being overly territorial condescending arseholes, and the Brujah were doing a grand job of fighting amongst each other. All of this was against a backdrop of some supernatural-seeming influence that appeared to be affecting most people – mortal and Kindred alike – in the city, and was doing nothing to help keep tempers under control.

This latter fact had featured in the past couple of games, and one victim of it was one of our group’s vampires. Or rather, she was the victim of a difficult dice roll – the true victim of her temper was one of the mortals in our game. Once the red mist cleared, our PC had to contend with the limp corpse of an old man. An old man with a family and friends who he would never be able to see again…

Now, I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I like ghosts, and I especially like White Wolf’s take on ghosts – Wraith being my first White Wolf game. In particular, I love their potential as antagonists. In most games – especially ones like Vampire where most characters are pretty powerful from the get go – players are never really that phased by physical confrontation. Sure, there might be a couple of hairy moments here and there if the dice don’t go in your favour, but, on the whole, a group of PCs working together are usually a match for most foes that a GM chucks at them.

Likewise, even if a threat is not one of face to face confrontation, most foes in the physical realm are fairly straightforward for players to plan against. They exist as something that the characters can touch and interact with, so ultimately, they are able to confront them on the same terms.

Not so much with ghosts.

How do you deal with a foe you cannot see?

How do you match your wits against someone who might be invisibly watching you at all times, and therefore probably knows your secrets?

How do you fight something that you cannot even lay a finger on?

I’ve used ghosts as antagonists in Vampire before, and the level of paranoia they can drive in players is insane (no pun intended). One player so haunted seemed to devote his entire waking time to finding a new haven to stay in every night, because he was so convinced the ghost of the guy he had murdered was going to set fire to him when he slept, or pull the curtains open and douse the place in sunlight!

Naturally, ghosts are not omniscient, but this almost maddening level of paranoia that they can cause in players because of what they might be able to do is very reminiscent of classic ghost stories everywhere.

However, while the “vengeful wraith with a score to settle” is a fun antagonist to explore – after all, wraiths are single-minded creatures of passion – there are other things you do with them that can really add to the game. Ghosts are incredibly atmospheric; they really conjure up that sense of other that a lot of supernatural games miss. Vampire, for all its claim of being a game of personal horror – exemplified by much “beast I am lest beast I become” handwringing – can often lose that focus. After all, vampires are pretending to be human, they move around human society, and they are being played by human beings. To be honest, this often works to the game’s advantage – when the PCs have spent a couple of sessions acting like normal people investigating something and then one of their number just loses their shit and rips some poor mortal’s throat out, that’s pretty horrific. However, if not handled correctly, the horror can take a long hiatus to the backseat, and Vampire can quickly become a game of politics, or investigation or (horror of horrors!) superheroes with fangs!

Ghosts, in their less aggressive forms, can help bring a disquieting sense of dread back into what is meant to be a horror game. In my particular example, I could have easily taken the ghost of the man whom my Vampire player killed, and turned him into some angry poltergeist, and while that might have initially been shocking, the sense of horror would quickly evaporate and the ghost would become just another protagonist. A difficult one to deal with, for sure, but just another one to add to the list (and believe me, they’ve got enough on their plate already).

Instead, I went down the road of the “lost and confused” ghost. This poor old man, who died violently in his bed, has no idea what has happened to him. He can’t communicate with the living, he can’t touch anything, he’s in this dark, cold reflection of the world he knew, and the only one who seems to be able to see or hear him is the monster that killed him in the first place.

Oddly enough, a few plaintive cries for help, along with some regret over what our ghost had lost had a much deeper impact on the game, than any amount of blood running down the walls, and windows violently smashing could.

I’m cautious about posting too much here – after all, we’re still in the middle of a game – but the tl;DR of this article is that ghosts can make excellent additions to a game. They don’t have to be vengeful spirits, or pure, angelic creatures taken before their time – a simple lost soul who is confused and needs help can add bucketfuls of genuine atmosphere as well as bring back a sense of horror that might sometimes be sidelined from your horror game.

Images nicked from various places over the internet. Used without permission. No copyright challenge intended. If you own the copyright and wanting them removing let me know!

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