Last week, I experimented with using Arkham Horror as a chaos engine to help outline a horror story, just to see what kind of crazy results we could come up with. Those of you who’ve read that post might remember that our (perhaps ill-advised) story of Anna and Inspector Yi had actually managed to flesh itself out pretty well just in the setup of the game. While this was super fun, I didn’t actually get to address the thesis of the experiment, which was about using the game itself to plot a story, rather than just using the chaos of game setup as a free brainstorming session. And so, this week, we’re diving back into Tabletop Simulator to see where this story is going to take us.
The Story So Far
When you watch a film, what watches you back?
Annabelle Darrel thought getting out of her hodunk Alabama hometown would be all sunshine and rainbows. Instead, she was greeted with frigid weather, sunless days, and predatory student housing skimming more than a little off the top. With tuition payments coming up, she’s short on cash and shorter on time. But when she finds a strange reel of film in a care package from her family, she takes her artist friend Clarice’s advice and sells it to an underground arthouse cinema for a pretty penny. She thought that would be the end of it.
Now, people have started disappearing. With police searches hitting only dead ends, the case finds its way to the desk of Inspector Yi, a hard-boiled private investigator with a storied career intersecting with the dark and the paranormal. But his investigation into the disappearances soon reveals a horrifying truth: there’s something inhuman walking the streets of Tolfax, and their numbers are multiplying. With Inspector Yi on a collision course with Annabelle and Clarice, will the truth be revealed before an unseen enemy overtakes them? Or will the world fall under the control of forces unthinkable?
That’s what we came up with last time during setup. So let’s put our pieces on the board and see where it leads from here.
Really, we’ve already got the first act of the story from our blurb; Anna has sold the mysterious film to a dubious art-house cinema, and people have started disappearing, bringing Yi into the picture. So now we can start using the game “properly” to plot out our story, starting from just after game setup.
Joe Diamond (Yi) and Rita Young (Anna) both start at the police station, incidentally. We could figure out a reason why, or we could use our author’s fiat to start Rita someplace else. College students don’t usually hang out at police stations, after all. Since we’re picking up after the film has been sold and the strange disappearances begin, we could go either way.
I could pretty easily imagine a scenario where hardboiled Yi tracks down people who have visited the cinema in the near past (assuming he’s connected the victims to the cinema, which is easy enough to glance over for outlining purposes), and Anna just happens to be caught up and brought in for questioning. I could also see a scenario where Anna is off doing her own thing as Yi combs through police records or something of the sort.
Since we have two potential paths, I’m going to hold off on this choice until after I draw the first Mythos card of the game.
And we draw Blood Magic. There’s a lot of information going on here. The first thing that is relevant to us is a portal opening in Independence Square. Portals are one of the main game mechanics in Arkham Horror, and are not necessarily going to translate well into our story. I think the important bit is that we get our first glimpse of a monster at this point, since portals disgorge monsters and represent sites of charged paranormal activity. Let’s see what we draw from the good ol’ monster cup.
Oh no, a rat-thing! Hm, that’s interesting. I was kind of feeling before that this was more like an alien horror story, but maybe the invaders are really coming from the inner earth. A non-campy reboot of the classic mole-people trope? Not sure yet, but throw it on the idea pile. We established before when we drew Y’golonac as our Ancient One that the monsters of the story were going to be wearing human guise. And honestly, I’m kind of digging the idea that the people who vanished became the hosts for a race of parasitic rat creatures, where the rat-things are wearing their victims like a suit in order to blend into society and spread their cinematic mind-disease.
The Mythos card also instructs us to place a clue token on the Unnamable, which is a haunted house in Lovecraft’s lore. I’m not really feeling “haunted house”, but maybe a house in a run-down neighborhood, which the subterranean rat-alien-things are using as a base or staging area of some sort. I’ll put the token there and we’ll see what happens.
Okay, so, we started this turn trying to figure out if Anna was at the police station, and now we’ve got a whole heap of things to play with. When we were writing our blurb, we noted that people were disappearing. But, I’ve also fixated to this idea that the rats (or whatever they are; I might come back later and make them something less directly inspired by the rat-thing I drew) are inhabiting the corpses of the victims, which means they haven’t necessarily disappeared. A basic flow of events is starting to come together in my mind:
- Anna and Clarice are out investigating the rumors that have sprung up about this whole film situation; I feel that the classic horror thing to do would be to have one of Clarice’s artist friends go missing. Anna and Clarice put their heads together to try to figure out what’s going on once the police fail to turn up any leads. Unseen to them, this is also where Yi gets brought into the picture.
- Somehow they end up on the trail of this missing friend of theirs. As they search, they actually manage to find them in a rundown section of town (maybe they’re following rumors, or intuition, or psychic visions, who knows at this point).
- However, they quickly realize that their missing friend is not normal, and that something else is controlling them. They find themselves assailed by a few of these “missing” persons, and in a panic they escape.
- This feels like a good opportunity for a little fight. Anna’s character started with a knife, and it makes sense that she’d be carrying some manner of weapon if they were out investigating what could be a serial killer. So I’ll make a note here that a fight happens.
- Hmm, actually, if a fight happens, then does Clarice get away? Maybe Anna’s athleticism allows her to get away while Clarice is overwhelmed by the “missing” persons. That feels pretty horror to me.
- Yeah, let’s go with that. A fight happens, Clarice fails to get away, Anna runs to the police station in a wild panic and tries to report what happened. Perhaps she is even detained, as she’s covered in blood with a knife in her hands.
- Meanwhile, Yi is there, turning over every potential lead in the police records, when Anna barges in screaming that the missing people are in a rundown part of town and have taken her friend.
Aaaaaand, huh, this actually feels pretty good for a second act. Sure, it’s a little sparse, and we’re missing tons of details and character development, but everything actually fits together disconcertingly well. So let’s press on, shall we?
So you know the part in the horror movie where everyone refuses to believe that there’s zombies or demons or whatever? That feels appropriate to have here. Anna gets locked up, screams that the missing people are all monsters or aliens or something. But Yi overhears and believes her. Maybe he asks for an interrogation, and we learn some more of his backstory here, how he got involved with paranormal research or something. Details come later, this is a fast and furious outline!
Anywho, by the end of this scene, the two are allies, and Yi agrees to bust her out of there, or walks out with her, or who the hell knows. They leave. That’s what I will write in the outline: They leave.
Okay, so, back to the game. Technically we still haven’t even taken our first turn. Which is all the better because clearly we are not playing this game correctly anymore. Here’s what the board looks like now:
In order to get to the house in the slums that the rat people are using as a base, our heroes would normally need to make a Sneak check. But Sneak checks are for gamers, we’re writers, god dammit! So they magically roll a perfect score on their Sneak checks and get to the rat house. Our chaos engine demands that we draw an event card to see what happens. I’m going to draw one for each character and see if anything strikes me.
Not too inspiring, but not too bad, either. I’m going to skip the event that causing the buckling beam, because I don’t like it. I’ll take the one that gives a Unique Item as I narrate in my head the lead-up.
So Anna and Yi take Yi’s military motorcycle to the alleged house. They arrive, and my horror-gut tells me that there’s nobody there this time. So they creepily make their way inside, amid all kinds of brooding, atmospheric tension. Inside it’s a mess, but not a regular human mess. It’s weird, there’s scratch marks made with bloody nails, and there’s probably something decidedly unnatural about the scent. As they poke around and investigate, they find no signs of Clarice, but they do find…
The King in Yellow? Hot damn, sign me up! So remember back in the very beginning, when we decided tomes were actually going to be films? I think they find canister upon canister of copies of the forbidden film that Anna sold. They start breaking them open, holding the cells up to the light to see what’s on it. So, what do they see? My mind goes immediately to that classic and clearly hoaxed alien autopsy footage. Not sure why, but I think the idea of folding in real-world conspiracy lore stuck with me from last time. We don’t really need to decide what it is at this moment, but I’ll make a note to think of something suitably creepy.
But just to make this a little weirder, I very much enjoy the idea that each reel of film is a little different. Maybe during one part, the respective disappeared person can be seen in frame. Or maybe the footage actually shows the victim watching the original film. Hmm, lots of ideas to mull over, none of which really matter for the outline, I don’t think. The point is, they find a bunch of film.
Don’t forget, though: whenever we draw a Tome, the game wants us to put a Doom token on Y’golonac. In game terms, this just serves as a countdown for the game’s end. But as an abstraction, I interpret this as tangible bad things happening as they discover the creepy film. In a horror movie, this might be where the strings swell and something bangs on the window. I think the rat-things have found them, and they’re surrounded.
Before we get on with the (possibly climactic battle), I’ll draw a Mythos card for the turn just to see if anything strikes me.
Alien Technology, huh? You don’t have to tell me twice! Thematically, it gives us some direction if we want it, but nothing about the mechanical effects feel too interesting this time. I’ll respectfully throw this card in the trash and make a big note here for HORROR FIGHT, which I think means Yi is fighting for his life against the rat-zombie-alien things while Anna is desperately searching for any sign of Clarice in the house. Since this is a horror story, I don’t think she find her. Although, maybe she finds what’s left over of her. Maybe during the fight for survival Yi and Anna discover some ALIEN TECHNOLOGY hiding a hidden lab underground.
Oooh, wait, spitballing here. The house was built on top of where a crashed UFO lies buried; the slum area could have once been more prosperous until a “meteor” struck the neighborhood and a fire swept the town. Could develop and allude to this idea more later, but had to jot it down while it was in my head.
ANYWAY, as they realize there’s no escape, Yi and Anna flee into this crashed UFO lab thing, where they quickly discover… something. Maybe they find vats upon vats of clones of the victims. Or maybe there’s an occult mastermind or secret about the film that gets uncovered here. I think the revelation is too exciting to decide just yet. There’s a lot of cool lore to fill in that might give us some more specific direction. And at this point I feel that Arkham Horror has exhausted its usefulness to me, and its game mechanics will no longer lend themselves to this narrative.
If we want a satisfying outcome to this mess of plot threads and question marks, we’re going to need to sit down and actually think about how we tie this up. One thing that I think is certain is that Anna is going to come face-to-face with a Clarice who is not Clarice. Maybe Yi is killed in the fight. Maybe they find a sprawling network of underground caverns underneath the lab / UFO that they try to escape through. Or maybe the police arrive to rescue them, only to reveal that the chief of police was an alien all along. Anna and Yi could be gunned down in a great, ominous betrayal that hints that it’s too late for our world.
No matter how it ends, I think it’s really cool that we were able to get this far using the chaos of Arkham Horror to aide in brainstorming. A surprising amount of threads synced up, and it was surprisingly easy to churn the random crap we were given into plot direction. And we could keep going if we wanted this to just be the first act of a larger story, but this all feels too tidy to continue just for the sake of it. And the kind of depressing thing is, this outline is far more coherent than most of the outlines I painstakingly write up myself!
We still have a lot of work to do if we want to turn this skeleton into a proper story. It needs an ending, for one thing. We still need to give Anna a chance to show up Yi in gunplay, we have lots of room for character development and other investigative angles and worldbuilding. Plus, we need to brainstorm what exactly the evil film is and how it works. We should probably also make a definitive decision on what these alien/rat things even are, and what their ultimate plan is. But hell, I think we’ve got a really solid foundation to start making cuts and incisions in the story and start to shape it out into something really neat!
So this was quite fun to continue outlining this story using Arkham. Much like last time, we didn’t do a lot of playing the game. We made it through precisely one full turn of the game before the plot kind of resolved itself. And I think that’s fine. Stories don’t follow turn order. As I mentioned, we could keep going, but I think we have enough gaps in the story to fill that it makes sense to have the rat-house be the climax. Anything else we want to add we can add to the scenes between these important beats we’ve outlined.
So would I recommend plotting using a game like Arkham Horror? As an exercise, absolutely. As long as you’re willing to flout the rules and not take anything the game gives you as gospel. The game’s outcome must serve the story, not the other way around. Every turn of a card can and should give you a dozen ideas; as soon as turning that card becomes a chore, skip it and carve your own path.
All that said, I hope to have time to try out some similar plotting adventures using other chaotically random games and solo RPG systems in the future. I’m dying to see if what comes out of them is half as promising as The Film That Watches You™.