I’ve never met Chuck McGrew, and I didn’t even converse with him until recently. Still, I’ve felt as if I’ve known him for years all because I played one session of his game, Don’t Look Back.
While editing magazines at TSR, I lost interest in playing Dungeons & Dragons after hours, since I spent those long workdays living and breathing D&D. Fortunately, there were frequent opportunities to try other games, often when Lester Smith had a new game to playtest for review.
One of the many good things about Lester is that he actually plays a game before reviewing it, so he arranged an evening with four of us—David Wise, Ted Stark, Thomas Reid, and Yours Truly—and walked us through character creation verbally. As he listed skills and archetypes, we sketched out our characters. Despite the many options, we ended up with two bullies and two nerds, not exactly the classic fighter-wizard-rogue-cleric combo, but a great mix for exploring a haunted house.
While there were a lot of laughs and inter-party banter, there were some genuine scares, too. In the end, that session of Don’t Look Back turned out to be the most memorable of those one-night playtest sessions, and I was sorry when I though the game had gone forever out of print.
Yet like the zombie you thought defeated, it has risen again, this time through a Kickstarter campaign you still have time to join. Lester put me in touch with Chuck, and I asked him some of the usual horror/RPG nerd questions. Here’s how it went.
Some of the most popular horror roleplaying games, like Call of Cthulhu, The Whispering Vault, or the World of Darkness games, have very distinct identities. What’s Don’t Look Back‘s specific character?
I deliberately wrote Don’t Look Back to cover a broad spectrum of paranormal and supernatural horror themes. I pushed it more toward the paranormal side with corrupted technology—like a zombie virus or a flesh-eating amoeba or things from another world creeping into our own, as opposed to the supernatural—but the underlying conspiracies are probably the one thing that sets it apart from the others. I think the fact that your characters never know who they can trust—even each other—adds to the sense of horror.
You mention embracing a sense of paranoia. Can you list 10 books and/or films you think are great at capturing that feeling? While designing the game, were you conscious of any of them being an influence?
The original inspirations for Don’t Look Back were my fond memories of Kolchak: The Night Stalker mixed with a sense of paranoia from a movie called Race with the Devil, where two couples are traveling and stumble into a witchcraft ceremony in a rural area then later find out that it’s really everywhere. A few years later I read Orwell’s 1984, and the pieces started coming together.
During the creation of DLB and several of the first playtest sessions, players found their characters on the run from an establishment much more corrupt than anyone could have imagined. When I was a kid, my uncle used to take me to every slasher and horror movie that came out. Scanners still sticks with me today. It had secret government programs, conspiracies, and people with insane paranormal abilities. Firestarter from Stephen King added to those ideas about people on the run as well as the original Escape from Witch Mountain (don’t judge me).
Since writing the last edition of DLB, I can see inspiration forming from ideas sparked by The Matrix and Enemy of the State in terms of the technological challenges for people who want to stay off the grid. Day of the Triffids and the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as John Carpenter’s The Thing are excellent at creating a sense of paranoia as the protagonist finds himself becoming part of a rapidly shrinking group who can be trusted. No discussion of paranoia could be complete without a shout out to Jacob’s Ladder and Shutter Island. Not knowing if you can even trust your own mind may be the darkest form of paranoia.
How have the mechanics for DLB changed? And how do you marry game rules to a horror setting?
It’s hard to maintain a sense of suspense in a game when your players have to flip through rulebooks, cross-reference tables, and make lots of dice rolls. Doing things like that basically pulls you out of the game, and that just isn’t what I wanted. I wanted mechanics that were easy to learn, intuitive, fast-paced, and as transparent as possible to help maintain the mood.
As much as I love the original DLB mechanics system, I am changing it in the new edition to something that I think works even better. The new DLB will be the first full-size RPG to utilize Lester Smith’s D6xD6 game mechanics. It uses regular six-sided dice like DLB and includes many of the same features as the original rules, like doing away with lots of complex scores and resolving actions with a single roll, but they are implemented in a way that makes gameplay even faster. You can learn the system in a matter of minutes.
The DLB version will include some tweaks to D6xD6, such as allowing characters to have advantages and disadvantages. I am also working on some new rules that will bring the effects of fear into the game. The nice thing about being part of a game ecosystem is that other D6xD6 settings may be able to take advantage of these tweaks, plus it will provide people who play DLB with access to other compatible settings and scenarios.
Tell us about a time you actually got scared during an RPG, or a time when you actually scared players.
To really scare players, I think you have to create a sense of immersion, a true sense of the unknown, and you need to make sure they understand that their characters are always vulnerable.
I like to use “feelies” like maps, old newspaper articles, and hand-written clues to give things a sense of reality. The adventures in the new edition of DLB include a lot of handout items. I also like to play in a quiet room and preferably at night. Passing notes to players and having PCs with different agendas helps to create an environment of distrust and paranoia. In Don’t Look Back, where you never know who you can trust and nothing is what it appears to be, that should extend to the PCs as well.
You don’t have to kill a lot of the PCs, but it really helps to have rules that make it possible for any one good shot to take them out. Many RPGs are about building up these super-powered invincible heroes of mythic proportions. That’s awesome if that’s your goal. It just doesn’t work for horror.
We were playing late one night, and after the game ended a player called me about 2:00 am to tell me he was certain he was being followed home. He said he changed his route multiple times to throw them off. He didn’t realize until he got home and was getting his game stuff out of the car that it was all just in his head.
What music and sound effects do you like to use to set the atmosphere for a horror RPG?
It’s hard to beat actual soundtracks from horror movies when it comes to setting the mood, and more recently the same goes for computer games. It’s hard to go wrong with either. Here’s my list of personal favorites:
John Carpenter’s original theme for Halloween is one of the scariest pieces of music out there. I’m a fan of his in part because he was a master of storytelling and did a great job with his own soundtracks but also because he’s from my home state and uses lots of town and street names from places I’ve been.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have done an amazing Carpenter-endorsed new version of the Halloween theme, and it’s really good. They had Karen O do the vocals on a remake of Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack that is pretty haunting.
Alex Otterlei has produced some creepy, mood-setting pieces of music over the years. I bought his Dark Themes From Beyond a couple decades ago at a gaming convention, and it still holds up. I tend to just play all the tracks. He has several more recent titles to sample on YouTube and has some done some cool video game soundtracks too.
Depending on the mood of the game, I really like the original Friday the 13th soundtrack. Everybody knows what that “che che che che” sound means. It provides a good undercurrent to something that’s more maniacal than diabolical.
I can’t leave this list in good faith without mentioning the soundtrack to The Exorcist. If you’re looking for dark mood setting. It’s a sure thing.
Check out the Don’t Look Back campaign on Kickstarter.