In this day and age, there’s a sizable chunk of gaming systems for a horror game to choose from, covering all the major genres and styles. But how do they deal with horror? Any game can be an awesome horror game through a good GM: description, atmosphere, working those horror tropes and playing your cards right. But what separates one horror system from another?
Generally, they fall into three big categories; there’s no real downside to any of them, and they’re just my quick observations on the subject.
Games with Horror Elements Attached
Most game systems (and settings) aren’t built to cater solely to horror; instead, what horror mechanics they have are attached to the rules, and amplified by their detailed setting and atmosphere. Maybe the game doesn’t go into as much depth with their horror, or perhaps it splits its focus between horror and another mindset. Not being designed around horror means that the GM will have to do a lot more legwork, but mastering atmosphere will go a long way to making any game a horror game, and any good horror game comes with plenty of great atmosphere.
Ravenloft is a great example of this; Dungeons & Dragons is not a game with a horror mindset, and AD&D was no exception, yet Ravenloft managed to pull it off. The mechanical changes were minimum, and largely to create an air of the unknown—many spells and powers didn’t work as-written in the Player’s Handbook—topped off with corruption features for the GM to “taint” the players through bribes of power. The biggest thing going for Ravenloft wasn’t the tacked-on mechanics, which were slick; instead, it was the setting, atmosphere, and some of the best horror advice for the GM ever penned in a RPG supplement.
This style of game combines form and function by making its horror elements a major part of the core system. Instead of being a normal game that can cope with horror, this would be a horror game that can run without its horror elements.
Deadlands is the game that comes to my mind first. It won a stack of awards in the late ’90s, and for good reason: it is one of the best combinations of form and function in gaming. I’m not just talking about the horror elements, but also the western elements: the Tombstone Epitaph tabloid sections, how the character sheets had little bullets on the sides for the player to track ammo using a paperclip, the text’s vernacular. The supernatural horror elements were highly engrained with the western ones: hexslingers cast spells by making a poker draw against manitou demons; Guts checks (fear checks) and phobias were a major part of the system; characters could, would, and did die in shootouts, only to get back up as an undead Harrowed. And there were the titular deadlands. The game had a fantastic setting, filled with plenty of atmosphere and isolation, carefully tweaking the Old West into the darker, sinister, grittier Weird West.
Games which Create Horror by Character-Threat Disparity
The smallest chunk of horror games are those which create an atmosphere of tense, visceral horror from the vast difference in power level between players and monsters. Players are more powerless and weak, while the monsters are true supernatural entities, vastly more powerful than human comprehension allows. Most authority figures don’t believe the PCs, or just don’t care, or are in league with the evil; thus the players have limited resources and no backup.
I’m actually thinking less Call of Cthulhu and more Little Fears. At least, how I’d run Little Fears. The game is based around children who are terrified by the bogeymen who live under their beds and in their closets (in actuality, doorways to Closetland); this is a game where you play terrified children fighting back against the darkness. The idea takes one of the most vulnerable archetype, children, and sets them against the nightmare realm of soulless children and terrifying monsters. Your parents don’t believe you, of course, and as a child it’s not like you have access to weaponry or magic or anything. You do have your power of believe, but even that can work against you. There’s a huge disparity between a child and a monster, and Little Fears does a great job with it.
So, Where Do Other Games Fit In?
Don’t Rest Your Head: While not entirely horror, it is built around the horrific Nightmare City; madness and horror are close enough to be linked easily. The system is tight yet simple: you roll a dice pool, made up of your Madness, your Discipline, and your Exhaustion; whichever one rolls the highest determines your fate. Rolling too much Madness causes the world to take a step further into Nightmareville; rolling your Exhaustion can cause you to crash, breaking your insomniac connection with the world… but not the connection of the nightmares to you. As an indie game with its own new system, DRYH falls into the second category, as its mechanics are specifically built to fit with the setting and mindset.
CthulhuTech: This is a hard one to place, if only because the game design is balanced between cinematic anime-esque mecha action, and traditional Lovecraftian horror. It has most of the traditional horror mechanics, such as fear and phobia tables, and a variety of Lovecraftian monsters, and a gritty nigh-apocalyptic ending. But CthulhuTech is a lot more of a epic action game with horror elements, where characters have many options to put down these foes at their disposal: characters can be psychics or mecha jockeys or use Mythos symbiotes or spells to fight Mythos creatures. I’d put it in the first category. The game never felt as oppressively horrific as CoC or Deadlands, even though its horror elements are on the surface.
World of Darkness: WoD certainly is a horror setting, but is it a horror game? The characters are notably more powerful than the vast armies of “average joes,” and while there are plenty of threats to put PCs in their place on the feeding order, having supernatural powers gives players a major advantage. I’d file it in the first category, though it could squeeze into the second category: it was first billed as “a game of personal horror,” after all, and most of that was supposed to come out via roleplaying.
Weird Wars: Are we talking d20 or Savage Worlds? In either case, the first category; both Weird Wars are excellent examples of horror setting and atmosphere, but the mechanics aren’t based around horror. Instead, characters exist within a horror world, but aren’t as influenced by the horrors. Weird War II always felt like it wanted to be a serious historical game in its ratio of horror elements to timelines and overviews.
Call of Cthulhu: Probably the only other game to fall into the third category; also, the biggest and most popular. Characters are specks of dust in the eyes of the Great Old Ones, and are treated accordingly.