Guest blogger: Miguel Ribeiro
So you want to write or run a giallo scenario? Great, there’s never enough edgy and stylish role-playing material and, in this particular case, the scarcity is even more obvious. Apart from Postmortem Studio’s editions, there’s Profondo Giallo, a sourcebook for the Spanish horror RPG Fragmentos, but it lacks an English translation. And nothing else, at least not evidently marketed as such.
The first thing to think about when trying to run an Italian horror scenario is, obviously, choosing an adequate group of players. The themes are mature, and some descriptions may be unsettling for oversensitive people. If you want to avoid trouble, choosing the right players and the right place is the first and most important step.
Giallo movies are usually led by female protagonists, but it doesn’t have to be necessarily so in a role-playing game. Unless you are planning a one-shot and continuity isn’t an issue, having female non-player characters as victims of gruesome murders or savage attacks is the best course of action. I’ve set The Sisters of the Seven Sins in a convent, allowing for the players to take the roles of nuns, but there are other options, such as Vatican authorities investigating reports of demoniacal manifestations and reporters exploring the mysterious narrative unrolling in the convent. A mixed group will allow for the use of typical tropes from both female and male led gialli, thus easing the game master’s work.
The player characters, male or female, can be either investigators or witnesses to crimes. The accidental investigator trope is recurrent in giallo movies, and it adequately fits the transition to role-playing games. Orpheum Lofts, the first giallo scenario I wrote, takes advantage of that theme. The players are supposed to be all residents of the same building and there are already connections presented among the personas, which account for the interference in investigations when something unusual happens. Of course those prepared links between characters are entirely optional. The voyeur/ witness trope can justify implicating any character in a murder mystery.
The alienation and mental illness theme, another trope which punctuates the genre, was in my mind while writing The Memorial, which takes place in a rundown hospital where bizarre things are bound to happen. While there are several doctors and nurses available to choose from, the psychiatric ward was given greater detail than elsewhere in that medical facility. Impersonating medical professionals or patients, the players encounter situations where doubts will arise about if it is a supernatural manifestation or just delusions they are facing. The alienation trope, in which the witnesses’ testimony is considered unreliable by the authorities, comes into play in such cases.
You probably noticed that I’ve chosen enclosed spaces to set myscenarios: a residential building, a hospital and a convent. That’s partly a personal preference, but it is also related to the genre’s characteristics. Unless the characters are professional investigators, being close to the plot’s mysterious occurrences is the only way to maintain their interest while keeping up suspension of disbelief. Fear and suspicion are always solid motivations.
Another of my personal preferences, one that makes perfect sense in a giallo – most likely the reason I gravitated towards that kind of horror – is having an extensive cast of non-player characters. You don’t need to detail them all, but at least put a name tag to them. As the story unfolds you’ll need victims, suspects, hypothetical witnesses and other investigators. Nosy neighbours, work colleagues, close friends or members of the family, reporters, police detectives, doctors, these are all archetypal characters from horror stories who have their placehere. The spaghetti thriller has a defining whodunit narrative structure, with some plot twists that point suspicions to different characters along the plot. The identity of the killer is only discovered at the ending, and it is never the one who was expected to be the guilty party. The trench coats, sunglasses and leather gloves have become such usual clichés for killers, but they were not just an aesthetical formula, they were also the answer to conceal the murderer’s real identity, when they had already appeared onscreen. When I run giallo scenarios, sometimes I use a trick: I don’t decide who the killer is at the beginning. I select a few suspects and the player character’s actions determine which of those the real assassin is.
Even though the social commentary doesn’t need to be transposed from film to role-playing, it’s an interesting perspective, especially if you intend to set the game in the past. Gender roles, sexuality and mental illness were the most frequent controversial themes. I’ve touched on those subjects in my own scenarios, Orpheum Lofts and The Memorial, which feature homosexual, drug addicted and paraphiliac characters. Also women of ill-repute, rapists and other abusers, paedophiles… Quite an assortment of unsavoury characters. The Sisters of the Seven Sins has an added political layer, as it is set in post-revolutionary Portugal of the mid-1970s. And before you assume I’m a right-wing Incel, stewing over my own misogynistic rage in my parent’s basement, let me assure you that’s not the case: I’m a 45 year old southern-European leftist, and a few of the most insensitive ideas in my scenarios were suggest by the unofficial first editor, my “companion” (or whatever is the politically correct way to call them). Anyway, though these subjects are dangerous to pick up right now, they could pay off if your players react in a mature way. Since I’m not a specialist in handling “sensitivity issues”, there’s an academic thesis that expands on those and other themes in a way I certainly cannot. You can find it here: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/4730.
For obvious reasons, a contemporary role-playing game is the ideal for you to use in conjunction with a genre that takes place right now, or in the recent past. Since spaghetti thriller feels a bit dated, for my own scenarios I’ve opted for the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, but that’s not a rule. Setting things in the past surely avoids the ubiquitous smartphones, laptops and tablets, which can easily ruin a horror story, but no one is stopping you from setting gialli in current days. Dario Argento revisited it in Giallo (2009), starring Adrien Brody and Emmanuelle Seigner. In spite of the name, the movie isn’t the perfect showcase, but the time period had nothing to do with that.
And while we’re addressing setting, let’s go into the game choice itself. Lovecraftian cosmic horror RPGs are probably the most common, but they aren’t really good at accommodating spaghetti thrillers. A rules-light, psychological horror game is the ideal, since the menaces are usually human in nature. Supernatural can and does appear in gialli, but it’s always discreet in nature. A psychological horror game with emphasis in drama is most likely the best option. Personally, I don’t like narrative story games, but I suppose they are a good match. For my scenarios I used Actual Fucking Monsters, since the editor and publisher, James Desborough, is also that game’s author. AFM would have been an excellent fit anyway, being rules-light and rather flexible.
Having a soundtrack playing in the background is not everybody’s cup of tea; but if it doesn’t disturb you gaming sessions you should definitely try it. The musical score and sound effects are quite relevant and they will be handy to create the right atmosphere. If you decide to play a soundtrack you may want to pick something by Goblin, an Italian progressive rock band – which has frequently collaborated with Dario Argento – or any of Ennio Morricone’s horror soundtracks. There are very interesting and complete playlists for giallo and other Italian horror subgenres in Spotify and YouTube.
Something that should be remembered is that while there are similarities to slasher movies, these films are much more stylish. The vivid colours and lush décors that are a trademark of gialli aren’t easily translated to something that plays entirely inside the theatre of the mind. Since you can’t have a cinematographer helping you do your job as “director”, you must use your own words to describe them. There’s no need to go into very gory and graphical descriptions, but you should try to set the scenes with an added level of detail. And I don’t mean only the violent sequences, but also the aftermath of crime. When the characters find defiled corpses in macabre murder scenes, take some time to describe the locations and all the elements. Dario Argento would probably do the same.