Gaming Lessons From the Fiction of Stephen King

I first discovered Stephen King’s fiction in high school in the late 1980s. My mother read his works when he first began gaining popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. And my youngest daughter has discovered his fiction as well. In Freshman English at UConn I felt the need to apologize for liking his works—it was as if reading his works “didn’t count”. In a conversation with my mother recently we were discussing whether he was a genius or mass-produced popular fiction. We decided he was both…

While this blog definitely has a lot of Lovecraftian horror discussed on it, King brings his own ideas to the table. I recently attended a seminar on the influence of Lovecraft on King and the conclusion was there’s definitely some—especially when King deliberately channels Lovecraft, such as in The Mist and Revival.

The differences between King and Lovecraft make for another great source of inspiration for those playing in or running horror campaigns.

King’s greatest strength, in my opinion, is in his characterizations. In his post-apocalyptic novel The Stand, after the virus has wiped out most of humanity, he has an interlude detailing the deaths of random people from various accidents—”the emergency room blues” as one character would refer to it. Each character is briefly introduced and then dies. And you get to know each of the characters and feel for them; from the preschooler who dies after falling in a well to the father of a huge family who runs like a maniac to try and forget all of his kids. ‘Salem’s Lot introduces us to tons of characters who we get to know quite well—loving some of them, despising others, but knowing them nonetheless.

Related to his strength of characterization is his ability to bring places to life. The fictional communities of Castle Rock, Derry, and ‘Salem’s Lot all feel real. Before he unleashes horror on people and places, King really lets you get to know them.

King also isn’t afraid to let his characters win, albeit often at a horrible cost. Anyone who is a King fan can rattle off the beloved characters who died. But victories are possible. I’ve said before that I often feel some people run Call of Cthulhu with the expectation that no character should be allowed to survive an adventure. King mentioned that he felt the protagonists of ‘Salem’s Lot would all die. But in the act of writing, they refused to go out quietly, and while many did die, some were allowed to overcome their flaws—and in so doing achieve a victory in the face of overwhelming odds.

One other characteristic that often appears in King’s writings is the power that a group has over a mere collection of individuals. In The Dark Tower Series, he refers to this as “ka-tet”—”one from many”. The kids in It triumph over an eldritch abomination and when they have to face It again as adults, their number has been reduced—can they somehow overcome It again. In The Dark Tower, Roland of Gilead, the last Gunslinger, is a killing machine – but as a loner, he is little more than a machine. It is only when he forms a new ka-tet and allows himself to love again—does he regain his humanity.

One final source of inspiration is in the plots themselves. The Shining deals with a hotel haunted by a lot of bad psychic residue. Its sequel, Doctor Sleep, features a traveling band of psychic vampires. The secret government project of Firestarter would be quite at home in a Delta Green game.

~ Dan Stack

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