Surrealism and the King In Yellow

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Upon the shores, the cloud-waves break
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This article is a contribution to the RPG Blog Carnival, hosted this month by Illusory Sensorium, on the topic of Illusions & Delusions.

Last week, my players wrapped up a half-year long investigation into the surreal landscape that is The King in Yellow. What started as Delta Green agents investigating a suicide under strange circumstances, became something far greater. Today, I’d like to explore some ways that helped me bring the surreal horror of Carcosa to life – and ways in which I failed to do so.

This campaign was chiefly inspired by John Tynes’s essay Road to Hali in Delta Green: Countdown, which I’ve found a much more compelling narrative structure than the one offered in Delta Green’s flagship campaign about the King in Yellow, Impossible Landscapes. Nevertheless, Road to Hali offers a very high-level structure, and leaves it to the GM to fill in all the details. As a consequence, I frequently consulted Impossible Landscapes and took various ideas from it. Sometimes only taking a name, at other times I took a concept and made it my own (the Hotel Broadalbin), and other times still I ran a part largely as described in the book (the Night Floors, the journey through Carcosa). Road to Hali provided the overall structure, and Impossible Landscapes sometimes filled in the gaps.

The King In Yellow, and especially its interpretation in the Delta Green RPG – both in Tynes’ Road to Hali and Detwiller’s Impossible Landscape – is one of surreal horror. It seeks to portray a horror that is “not just nightmare-inducing; it’s nightmarish in a literal way, by being, well, surreal, disjointed, dreamlike, and filled with bizarre imagery” (TVTropes: Surreal Horror). Two of the aspects I’ve found key in running this type of horror is the Impossible and the Personal.

For a horror to be surreal, it must be Impossible, not just improbable. The existence of aliens, of flesh-eating ghouls or of a fishpeople living off the coast of Massachusetts is highly unlikely, yes, given what we know about the world around us. But none of those things are – at least hypothetically – impossible. But when a building burns to the ground, and yet exists 80 years later; or when it appears throughout time – even before it was built; or when a building vanishes and seemingly takes all evidence of it ever existing with it – that is Impossible.

To create a true Impossible horror, one must break one of the core assumptions of the players, not just those of the player characters. Fishpeople are unexpected, yes, but we expect the unexpected in roleplaying games. But to imply that the laws of causality, or linear time, or structural integrity are false assumptions, is to shatter an assumption the players didn’t even know they had.

Second, the horror must be Personal. Just like nightmares always concern ourselves or our loved ones, so must the horror for it to feel truly surreal. As Detwiller writes: “It’s horrific when an unnatural tome reveals the secrets of the universe. It’s surreal horror when that book, written in 1611, contains a description of you down to the smallest detail, including the fact that you’re reading that book right now.” (Impossible Landscapes, pg. 13). Delta Green is great for this, because ‘the ways in which the horrors we confront impact our daily lives’ is already a central theme of that game. The horror must, completely and absolutely, consume the lives of the characters.

To that effect, I worked with buildings a lot. The cursed Hotel Broadalbin – appearing throughout time and space, before it was built and after it burnt down. The Night Floors, stretching ever onwards, seemingly infinitely, and rearranging itself when you look away. The old office block in Lakeview, which seemingly erased the very evidence of its existence when it was finally absorbed by Carcosa. And of course the Palace, where the masquerade is held, forever. Why this obsession?

Buildings are great at evoking a surreal atmosphere. When a person is caught in the grasp of the King, well, they might just do anything. But we know that people are capable of doing just about anything. Buildings, on the other hand, are for the most part static. They might change, be refurbished, collapse and crumble, or be demolished entirely, yes. But all of those follow coherent, comprehensible cause and effect. They are, in our minds, unchanging, unless somehow acted upon. When a building grows additional floors, or when its corridors stretch endlessly, that is far more Impossible than a person that acts with incomprehensible motivations. If those same corridors now shift to accommodate your personal nightmares, if they seem intent on causing you, personally, as much agony as possible – that is Surreal Horror.

I’d be remiss to not leave you with some examples. The first time the players learned about the Hotel Broadalbin was through a letter that one of the character received. It was a letter from his mother (the Personal), and appeared to describe events that hadn’t occurred yet (the Impossible), though implying that his mother was somehow trapped inside this hotel. In particular, the letter described the player had warned his mother not to visit the hotel, and the mother expresses regret at not listening to him. In a delightful moment, four months worth of sessions later, the player would indeed end up warning his mother not to visit the hotel. As a final agonizing twist, once the players had entered the Broadalbin – and consequently being unable to leave – it was revealed that all of it had been fake, a setup to lure the players to the hotel.

Another time, a player had a conversation with himself, from the future. I, as GM, played the version of himself from the future, already stuck in the Hotel Broadalbin. The player was just himself, in the past, still investigating the Night Floors. Obviously, having a conversation with yourself from the future is both Impossible and Personal. It was also an excellent way of delivering some important exposition. Once the players had reached the Broadalbin, they knew what to do – portray the other end of the conversation. Next to the ham radio they had used to communicate was a script – containing the exact lines that had made up the conversation between the two timelines. The player himself now had to deliver the exposition, and I could respond as the version of the player from the past. After all, I already knew exactly what he was going to say.

We see here how I shattered not just some assumptions of the characters, but also those of the players. I had to write that letter months before the conversation it referenced even took place, and by that time the players had certainly forgotten the exact details of the letter. The second example was a bit less spectacular in how I pulled it off, but it was a compelling pair of scenes regardless. This type of horror thrives on these kinds of impossibilities.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a word of caution. The reason I was able to pull these kinds of stunts on my players was because I knew them very well, and knew how they’d react. Surrealist themes, and surreal horror, are not for everyone. They can quickly turn curiosity into frustration. The surreal requires deception – and deception requires trust.

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