Supernatural Horror in Roleplaying Games

I don’t claim to be the grandmaster of horror roleplaying. (That would probably be Reuben.) But I think I’ve picked up enough skills along the way to know a few things about horror in gaming. To be honest: putting horror in an RPG isn’t an easy task. It’s demanding of the GM, doesn’t always work for the players, and is hard to pull off… but when it’s done well, it’s a satisfying experience. People like to be scared. And adding that excess tension and emotion into a roleplaying game is nothing but a good thing.

This post starts us off on the merry road, and later posts will start going into more detail on the inner workings of horror; I figured it’d be good to start while we’re counting down to Halloween with movie marathons on TV and all.

This series is meant to give a deeper look at using horror and terror in roleplaying games. Ghost stories and horror tales have been enthusing people for time immemorial; people like to feel a constructed sense of emotional fear. Things work different in a roleplaying game, but horror is still enjoyable, it’s still an ancient and established trope. Obviously, as a GM, you must want to incorporate horror, and your players won’t necessarily want the horror included. But for those who do…

An Overview on Horror

The textbook definition of horror is “an emotional state, combing shock, terror, revulsion, and most importantly, fright.” Similarly, the textbook definition of terror describes “an emotional response to feelings of dread and anticipation.”

The problem comes in with gaming in the application of that emotional state. Games in general create some distance between players and their characters, especially through subconscious metagaming; in simplest form, what happens to the character has no real impact on what happens to the player. No matter how “scary” things get in the game, a player will never be as scared as they can be in real-life situations. Living in a Lovecraft story would scare the crap out of most people (those who didn’t go insane), while meeting those same tropes in a game isn’t going to raise anybody’s heartbeat. And a lot of players simply can’t get “scared” in a game; there’s just too much distance there.

On top of that, characters in most games have options players don’t have in real life—superpowers, spellcasting, advanced technology, mecha, super-human abilities, hands-on experience doing the world’s dirty work, and balls of steel. Characters are usually heroic, and heroes usually don’t get scared. In a world where the dead can be resurrected, doesn’t the fear death lose some of its power? When a someone can whisk out a divination spell or computerized sensors to track the unknown, fear of the unknown is mollified a bit.

TL;DR: players realize they’re just playing in a game, and have all sorts of powerful assets to counter fear, so it’s damn hard to insert real horror into RPGs.

Now, it may be hard, but it is possible. And when it works right, it works right: a real accomplishment for a GM. It takes work, technique, and skill to craft a good horror game; you don’t learn it overnight, but through practice horror can work just like it’s supposed to.

Integrating Horror

Because horror is based around an emotional state, horror itself isn’t a genre, but is instead a kind of template which is applied to genres. We can have horror in science fiction (Alien), westerns (Deadlands), eighteenth-century comedies of manners (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) … even Cold War spy thrillers (Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series). The trappings of horror are applicable to anything, in any genre.

Let’s be clear about some things. Slapping zombies or buckets of blood around doesn’t make things “horror,” nor does going into intricate detail of torture or dismemberment or what have you; it makes things gross or verbose (depending on how your group feels about it). Your average D&D game will feature all kinds of things that normally would count as horror: undead, death and killings, aliens and aberrations, the supernatural, mutants, demons and extraplanar lifeforms with grand designs on the universe. Yet most of these don’t evoke the feelings of horror in your players, either because they’re an established part of the world, or because they’re an established part of the game. (That isn’t to say you can’t make them horror, but that’s part of this series’ point.)

The real trappings of horror are predominantly psychological in nature: dread, fear, tension, suspense, revulsion, disgust, etc. Horror is a creeping, methodical process, with ichorous tendrils which slowly become noticeable as time progresses. Horror—good, true horror—is about using mood and atmosphere to create fear. Gross-out gore descriptions and frequent “surprise!” moments when things jump through a nearby window, the slasher and survival horror tropes, lack fear. That’s not to say those can’t be used, but should be used sparingly; the point is to create a mood and an emotional response, not to throw “THIS IS HORROR!” into your players’ faces.

That, in a nutshell, is the first rule of horror: don’t be heavy-handed. It might work for some films, but in a game, it’s akin to railroading. Horror works best when it’s creeping and cumulative; telling someone their character is afraid never works well and creates more distance. Getting that player to be afraid for their character is the goal.

Horror is easiest to implement in a longer-running game, especially one with developed characters. Since horror works best when presented slowly, give the characters time to develop in-game, as well as grow a backstory. One of Reuben’s techniques that I (and several other of his players) absorbed was the twenty-question background, asking everything from family members to religious preferences to belief in the supernatural, in order to flesh out a PC from day one. At the very least, it gives the GM something to work with for nasty situations: a belief, a fear, a defining moment, a relative/significant other to weave into the plot.

Selling the Horror Game

Quite simply, not everyone likes a horror game; some people don’t like to be afraid, while others just don’t feel the emotional responses horror tries to evoke. In probably the worst case, some of my players grew hostile and antagonistic (e.g., bitchy) because he was playing another horror game. Another worst-case would is a player losing the sense of mortality about their character, like when they’ve realized your Call of Cthulhu module is about killing everyone off or making them insane, which impacts their decisions. (Heck, the second time I played through one CoC adventure, we spent most of the game investigating the rooms we’d missed the first time around.)

First off, that’s where the background comes in; if the characters are fairly detailed from the get-go, the players won’t want to lose them. It also goes back to the slow, creeping horror. In some cases, it’s best not to let your players know they’re in a horror game until it’s too late; it increases the tension if a developed character is on the line, and cuts out a lot of metagaming. In short, get the player attached to the character before the bad things happening.

Some games are pretty blatant about their horror content: if you’re playing Deadlands, Call of Cthulhu, or Ravenloft, you should expect horrible things to happen, to the world, and to the players. Nobody likes losing a character, but in these style games, a player needs to be on their toes and not make mistakes or bad decisions. Again, not all players find this fun; many do, but not all.

The real sell for a horror game is the atmosphere and mystique of horror. Regardless of how much of the game is horror, having the emotion and atmosphere can really enhance the game, upping the ante, raising the stakes, and making it more personal. If the players seem to be enjoying it, or at least bring up the game and its horror elements constantly, you’re on the right track. If you’re getting bored players, a lot of table-talk, and people skipping the game, roll it back down until you figure out what’s not working and fix it. Horror is an easy thing to mishandle; if you burn your players on it, you’re not helping yourself or your game. And if it’s not working, it’s not working; either you need some more practice (with another group) or your players are not interested in horror.

Sources of Horror – Fiction and Films

Everyone has their own list of horror stories and films; most likely you’ve already seen most of them or you wouldn’t be interested in horror.

There are dozens of great horror novels out there, so this is a tough list. H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Edgar Allan Poe are great sources to start with, if you can get past the archaic language. If you’re up for a challenge, try William Hope Hodgson’s work; The Night Land is grandiose but almost impenetrable, House on the Borderland is a bit better. They’re amazing books that don’t deserve to be in the dustbin of history. M.R. James was a top-notch teller of ghost stories for the first half of the 20th Century.

For more recent writers, Dan Simmons, Dean Koontz, and Stephan King are staples of the genre, but YMMV, especially with King and Koontz. Read the Silence of the Lambs book which the film was based on. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson is a recent classic; continuing the vampire tread we have Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin and the early works of Anne Rice. Daphne du Maurier wrote a ton of great macabre stories, including three which Hitchcock would pick up: Jamaica Inn, The Birds, and Don’t Look Now. Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is a great horror yarn to read during the fall. The aforementioned Necroscope series is good, as is anything else Lumley did, like his post-Lovecraft work on the Cthulhu Mythos. And while it’s not strictly horror, the Nightwatch series by Sergei Lukyanenko is always a good bet. And while we’re on the subject, Charles de Lint wrote some great dark fantasies under a pseudonym; I’ve only read the second one, From A Whisper to a Scream, but it was a great blend of urban fantasy and horror.

For films… this list was a good place to start. Psycho, Alien, The Shining, Night of the Living Dead, Silence of the Lambs. Cloverfield and Blair Witch Project were decently spooky on the big-screen, if you can get past the hand-held camera mechanic. Almost anything from Hitchcock is good, especially The Birds and Rear Window. Wes Craven comes to mind, with a number of slick movies, starting with Nightmare on Elm Street. John Carpenter managed to make one of the best non-Lovecraft Lovecraftian movies, In The Mouth of Madness. His The Thing ranks as my favorite horror movie ever, and was a much better adaptation of sf writer John W. Campbell’s tale than the cheesy ’50s Thing. Its gross-out special effects which fall into an odd niche in the Uncanny Valley, but the film’s atmosphere, isolation, and paranoia is top-notch. Watch it at least three times. Try to figure out which character is a thing, and when, and see how that would alter their actions (or meaning of their dialogue). Ponder the end dialogue, and if it changes meaning if it’s between two things, between two humans, or a mixed group.  And most of all, watch the damn keys.

Sources of Horror – RPGs

These would be the games which already have strong horror elements, and which horror applies to the easiest. Pathfinder/D&D looks like an odd man out here; horror is easily applied to it, and it has a long history in the game via things like Ravenloft, but it’s not naturally run as a horror game. (Then again, the few times I played Vampire, it wasn’t really a horror game either.)

All Flesh Must Be Eaten: The game’s easy to add pure horror to. In a world post-zombie apocalypse, everything taken for granted is suddenly gone. Humans struggle to survive a world where they are food, isolated, low on supplies, in the most hostile of environments.

Call of Cthulhu: The granddaddy of all horror games. Implementing horror isn’t the hard part, as CoC is filled with rules for horror. The characters are closer to normal people than in most games, with limited options. There are few, if any, good places to hide, and fewer ways to defend or shelter themselves. True to the stories, protagonists are small and insignificant non-entities adrift in a universe of hostile beings willing and able to squish them like ants. The real trouble with CoC is getting characters to connect with the game in ways other than “how do we kill/escape from this mess?” or “when do we get to go insane/kill each other?”

CthulhuTech: Implementing horror for this one can look hard at first glance, but is relatively easy. The characters have a grandiose action hero/anime-esque feel to them, fighting off eldritch forces in their twenty-ton mecha. But the creeping horror of Lovecraft still applies, and combats the characters in ways they usually can’t defend against. Heroic characters can slide from grace, or become tainted, the strain from their constant war keeping madness at bay: insanities, phobias, depression, and other psychological issues are good to bring up. Psychological issues don’t destroy the heroic side, but can weaken it enough to show the insidious threats eating away at the players. Seemingly benign things can evolve to become real threats, like friend/relative NPCs unknowingly sucked into the Church of Dagon. Tagers and Engels ride the line between control and chaos, and are all but asking for breakdown plots. The PCs are part of the last line, the great white hope of humanity: they are powerful, but not immune, to the horrors they protect against, and while PCs are heroic paragons, they’re still frail humans in body and mind. I’ve been meaning to apply CthulhuTech with Eclipse Phase for a long time.

Deadlands: One of the best horror games out there, featuring all the major features of horror. The characters exist in a dark and hostile world, filled with death and uncertainty. Power comes at a price, such as a huckster’s betting with demons to power their spells, or the fact that the ghost rock powering the mad scientists’ devices could go up at any time. Playres are largely isolated from help; even when they’re not, such as in a big city, they’re still surrounded by uncertainly and evil. Quite simply, the world itself is excellent horror; the books have some great rules and flavor for it, including one of the most feared “fear and phobias” tables for players who fail their Guts checks.

Don’t Rest Your Head: This game is less about horror and more about taking the Cthulhu focus on madness and sanity to a new level. Still, it has strong horror elements, and it’s easy to add more. You play an insomniac, someone who can’t sleep because some overwhelming issue keeps you awake. Now, after staying awake too long, the denizens of the nightmare world hound you, with only your dark insomiac-based powers to guard them.

Little Fears: A very underrated game, and a highly original one at that. Players take the role of young children, who are hunted by the monsters who live in their closets: incarnations of the seven deadly sins, supernatural things like vampires and werewolves, and more. There’s just something about children that amplifies fear, and this game plays up those vulnerabilities as well as their imagination: the main asset to PCs is “belief,” which makes the impossible real, in order to defend themselves from the monsters. Of course, it still has its downside—stepping on a crack breaks your mother’s back—but so goes balance.

Pathfinder/D&D: One of the hardest systems to introduce horror into… and yet, the one that gets horror most of the time. Ravenloft is the major selling point here, an entire demiplane devoted to gothic horror. It follows all the rules of horror down to a T, so while the players are slowly being corrupted by the forces of evil, they don’t even realize it until it’s too late. The original Ravenloft box set is mandatory reading for putting horror in roleplaying games. Pathfinder has numerous modules which incorporate the Cthulhu style game in a compact D&D form: Carrion Hill and From Sea to Shore, and parts of the adventure paths. In general, Pathfinder is still a heroic setting, but has a much darker and grittier edge than D&D, making it all that easier to incorporate horror elements. Tome of Horror is highly recommended, as are the 3.5 Ravenloft books.

Twilight 2000: The classic GDW post-apocalypse game may not be horror to anyone else, but to me, the “last communication” sent to the survivors of a NATO/Warsaw Pact world war is downright chilling: “Good luck, you’re on your own.” Players must navigate a broken Europe, radiation, dwindling supplies, shifting boundaries, roving gangs of ex-soldiers turned bandits, and numerous language barriers in order to return home… only to find a divided United States in the midst of civil war and near collapse. Certainly a game which can become a lot grittier and grimmer than originally presented.

Warhammer 40k/Dark Heresy/Rogue Trader: Another game which horror elements are relatively easy to apply, even though they’re not a strong point of the original game. In the far flung future, there is none but war. Abandoned spacefaring vessels and deserted worlds ravaged by war dot the galaxy. Ancient evils of chaos and other powerful threats keep the warring factions on their toes. Most importantly, the characters are frail, too underpowered to combat many of the world’s menaces, and death is an expected part of the gritty Warhammer universe.

White Wolf (namely OWoD): When you are supernatural horror incarnate, it’s hard for horror to work. The answer? Make everything else more horrific. Old WoD was my favorite because of this. Look at Werewolf: The Apocalypse, for example: the horrific atrocities of Pentex and its subsidiaries, the sickening corruption of the Wyrm and the Black Spiral Dancers, the subtle and unnoticed grip of the Weaver. The werewolf is a guardian of earth against the tendrils of corruption, and while it’s still a horror concept, what the werewolves are fighting gets truly abominable. The game’s essentially saying, “Yeah, you’re a wolf-man, but you’re pretty dull compared to your antagonists.” White Wolf usually has good rules for making things “horror,” especially in its core NWoD line (Innocents, Urban Legends, Antagonists). Take everything the books suggest, and make it bigger, badder, and scarier.

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