[generic] RPG a day lockdown #65 - what makes horror special?

#2
It’s a nice change of pace from games where the player characters stand a fair chance of winning through force of arms, superior skills or tactical superiority.
 
#4
I think what makes horror special among roleplaying genre is the quality of the players and GM it attracts. GMs face tougher challenges in terms of setting atmosphere and pacing than in most other genre, players may have to find ways to make their characters unique without special abilites or exotic gear. As a result I think you get groups that are unusually committed.

So, hot tip, if you ever join a new gaming club where know nobody there, join the horror game.

That said I don't particularly like horror games. I feel too often the focus of the scenario isn't what the players do, but discovering the backstory the written by the author. If there is a haunted house, I should be able to go there, do my excorcism or blow stuff up with dynamite without having to care why the sprits were restless in the first place. In practice, these types of scenario tend to make me jump a bunch of hoops in order to learn the full story behind the haunting, and only then am I allowed to do my exorcism or blow up stuff with dynamite, and often what I learned along the way makes no difference to final resolution. Call of Cthulhu makes is worse because learning the backstory often costs you Sanity loss.

Yeah, I know, most scenario for all sort of genre involve a goal and bunch of obstacles between you and it, I just the horror scenario makes this more artificial.
 
#5
What makes horror special is that you know something bad is going to happen, so there’s already an underlying tension ready to be exploited by the GM.

It’s also quite reasonable to imagine that your horror character will die, go insane, or otherwise check out of reality sometime soon - so you don’t have the same attachment to your character as you would in, say, a fantasy or superheroes game.

A game like D&D is about building your character over time; accumulating wealth, spells, and kewl powers (going from zero-to-hero in other words). But in horror, the trajectory is more like hero-to-zero, where the things that make your character good and human are gradually stripped away.

These traits suit one-shots really well, because it doesn’t really matter if things go to shit over a single session - people are more free to try things they otherwise wouldn’t do. I can definitely see why this would give the impression that horror fosters better role playing. It certainly fosters less careful roleplaying and more risk taking. I think that’s very freeing.
 
#6
I like horror, and horror tones in other things. It brings a feeling of vulnerability and the cathartic sadness of a downbeat ending. And some of my favourite RPG experiences have been in horror - playing Albion's Ransom in Esoterrorists, Dracula Dossier in Night's Black Agents (surely a horror/spy action hybrid), and running The Final Revelation, which was pure theatrical bleakness and creeping dread.

On Monday I finished running Cthulhu Apocalypse, which was more utter bleakness, though I'm still processing it as a whole. I'm not sure about the ending, but it still stands out, and it saw such immense character development.

The genre does have something special to it, which has made for some absolutely stand out moments. I've also seen it badly handled, and it's made for some of my worst moments in gaming. It caters to specific tastes. It's not universal, and it's not something I trust everyone with. I don't really do it at conventions for instance.
 
#7
Side note: there's also bleed-through (!) to other genres. When I run Albion, which is not framed by anyone else's setting vision, I tend to put slightly horrific stuff in without thinking about it.

Which leads to what I value in horror: the jar, of things not being how they're supposed to be. I like MR James; I have no time for gorefests. Comes of living too much in my head, perhaps...

Horror rpgs are often not about that, but are actually investigation rpgs. Which, again, I'm inclined to like.
 

Ezio

Administrator
Staff member
#8
Horror is interesting in a number of ways. It's interesting that the most popular game in the genre - Call of Cthulhu - has produced some of the worst parodies of the genre. Some of the "classic" Chaosium scenarios rapidly descend into farce, and there is almost no genuine horror in any of them. Then there are the games that equate horror with gore, which I think often just bring out the worst in GMs and players alike. It's not something I like in films any more than in games. For me, one of the best Lovecraft stories is The Music of Erich Zann, which creates a real sense of genuine menace and mounting fear without ever revealing the creature which inspires it.

I don't personally subscribe to the view that horror games by definition end in defeat. It's another cliche of horror role-playing that everyone has to die or go insane by the end. You can have a sense of horror and genuine peril and still emerge at the end with a sense of achievement. It's one of the reasons I like the Laundry - it avoids a lot of the cliches and creates an environment in which players can battle strange occult horrors and achieve at least a temporary victory, the threat of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN not withstanding.

This brings me on to the other challenge with horror games, which is the depiction of insanity. Again, CoC really trampled all over this with its rather cartoonish approach, where seeing a ghoul devour your friend somehow gives you a morbid phobia of lettuce, or some such. Yet the most obvious reaction - running away in blind panic - never seems to appear. I actually did some perfunctory research into brief reactive psychosis - the psychological condition that most closely equates to the temporary insanity of CoC - and it produces a number of effects which are perfectly gameworthy, yet a million miles away from Chaosium's sanity loss mechanism.

I ran a game at a Garrison con a while back which attempted to do some genuinely suspenseful, slow burn horror. I wouldn't say it was an unqualified success, but it did broadly achieve the objectives I had in mind, and made me think it was possible to run a game like that. It's definitely a challenge to write, and inspiration doesn't necessarily come easily, but it was rewarding to create it and it's something I'll definitely try again.
 
#9
I don't like all manifestations of the horror genre, but the ones I do love share these aspects in common:
  • The setting is the modern world (where 'modern' includes the early 20th Century) or a science fiction future, so the horror is the main focus of the weirdness and 'otherness' of the game. That is to say, the characters are average joes dealing with Things Mankind Was Not Meant to Know. They are truck drivers, English literature professors or policemen, not gnome illusionists, half-orc druids or centaur paladins. The colonial marines will deal with wave after wave of xenomorphs/reavers/rage zombies with wits, firepower and sacrifice, not with supernatural stuff like Fear spells and the ability to Turn Undead. (However, finding the supernatural McGuffin which turns all zombies in the world into dust at the adventure climax, is fine).
  • The other settings I like are where the PCs are the monsters - they used to be truck drivers, English literature professors or policemen, but all got turned into werewolves, and now have to cope with the horror of their lives being turned upside down and the fact they accidentally ate the Chief Constable.
  • The PCs can make a difference. You can stop the wave after wave of xenomorphs/reavers/rage zombies. You can catch the serial killer who is the ghost of Jack the Ripper. You can seal the rift that leads to Hell. CoC scenarios where the PCs just flail around ineffectually for 3 hours and then go insane and die need not apply.
  • Your PC may be mentally scarred by what they've seen, or had to do, but that makes them more interesting to play, not turns the character into an unplayable mess or someone who is not fun to play. Preferably the player gets some options to choose from on how their mental trauma manifests. With GM common sense sprinkled over the top: if 90% of the adventure is in cramped sewer tunnels, warn the player than taking claustrophobia will cripple their character's ability to ever make a skill roll ever again. And I'm fully on side with @Ezio here - no morbid fear of lettuce or other such unrelated nonsense.
t’s also quite reasonable to imagine that your horror character will die, go insane, or otherwise check out of reality sometime soon - so you don’t have the same attachment to your character as you would in, say, a fantasy or superheroes game.
I guess this depends on the death rate in the other genres? If your fantasy game has regular TPKs, then you're not really going to be attached.

I want to be attached to my character, even for a horror one-shot. Obviously it won't be as deep an attachment as someone I've played for weeks, but I still need it to be there. For me, I'm not sure that knowledge I might die detracts from that? If I'm really in the mood to play Vasquez and not Ripley in an Aliens one-shot, I'll be a much happier bunny if I play Vasquez and die horribly, than if I play Ripley, survive and achieve wealth, fame and glory.

I'm now wondering if character archetypes/stereotypes have a part to play in that attitude of mine? Sir Gawain is the type of person who would sacrifice himself for the common good, so dying while playing Sir Gawain is okay*. Dying while playing the cowardly Arnold J. Rimmer would be much less satisfying.

*Unless its a stupid death, like the one the GM described he'd once seen in a game of Mothership: a scientist PC died of a heart attack because of a failed dice roll when putting up a tent!
 
#10
I don't personally subscribe to the view that horror games by definition end in defeat. It's another cliche of horror role-playing that everyone has to die or go insane by the end. You can have a sense of horror and genuine peril and still emerge at the end with a sense of achievement. It's one of the reasons I like the Laundry - it avoids a lot of the cliches and creates an environment in which players can battle strange occult horrors and achieve at least a temporary victory, the threat of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN not withstanding.
Oh yeah. The ongoing horror thread in the Laundry novels is that the characters have to keep going, knowing what the world is like and what's coming. In fact one of the bleakest things is...
...the two protagonists get married but decide not to have children because they would probably end up living in a nightmare Cthulhu apocalypse. Presented very prosaically, but hitting home.
 
#11
I'm reminded of a quote from the great Marshall Law comic - "I'm a Hero Hunter. I hunt heroes. Haven't found any yet."

That's me. I love the idea of horror games, I want to do a great horror game. I haven't found one. I know why - because I find it amazingly, incredibly hard to suspend disbelief so much that I can actually react like I am stalking through a serial killer's basement rather than sitting in a cramped cell at the Garrison wondering whether Morrisons still do Cheese and Jalepeno bread. I don't scare easily in real life, so in TTRPG its almost impossible.

So why are they special? Because for the people who can make that connection it gives them a safe place to experience a bad feeling. Even my beloved Monsterhearts can get a visceral reaction from people if they have to make a truly horrible decision. Is it 'horror'? Are they feeling fear'? Or is it just excess empathy? I dunno?
 
#12
What makes horror special to me and makes it the best genre for gaming ever is the fact that it's not really a genre at all. Horror is simply a style of play implemented in any genre you want, and is especially effective when you employ bait-and-switch (with consenting adults, of course).

My most successful horror game started out as an apparently straightforward fantasy game where the players each started with several characters, all siblings. The upbeat nautical adventure eventually descended into chaos and despair as all those "extra" characters started dropping in various disturbing ways, though not until the players had grown used to and developed a fondness for them. I was actually running a Lovecraft-inspired game behind a GURPS fantasy screen, which only slowly dawned on the players. I was glad I'd switched to GURPS in the planning stage, as the RQ rules I'd intended to use would have tempted me to veer too close to Call of Cthulhu which would have given the game away too early.
 

Guvnor

The Guvnor
Staff member
#13
@Vile and @Vodkashok
I feel that horror may be better viewed as an element best delivered in another genre, rather than a genre, where it seems more likely to be best seen as 'occult'.. and then horror might or might occur as part of the uncovering of the hidden.

Our ASOIF had deep creepy horrific and horrific memes flowing thru it, and truly horrific moments.
Ditto Symbaroum. Alien is a SF game like Coriolis but with some nice rules about stress and panic.
Corruption or SANITY systems are more attritional systems to balance doing too much research!
 
#14
I am poor at running Horror games. When I do, I prefer Horror to Terror. To play rather than to watch. Dracula is Terror, the Wicker Man is horror. BUT if I’m running it right it should make some players queasy.

Call out for Paul Baldowski’s “Tainted Meat” in the “Three Trails of the Wendigo“. You can create some terror there is you want but it is ALWAYS Horrific.
 
#15
I find it amazingly, incredibly hard to suspend disbelief so much that I can actually react like I am stalking through a serial killer's basement rather than sitting in a cramped cell at the Garrison wondering whether Morrisons still do Cheese and Jalepeno bread. I don't scare easily in real life, so in TTRPG its almost impossible.
I'm pretty sure I've never been scared in a horror game. I can only recall one (non-horror) game where the tense and desperate situation the PCs were in actually translated to me feeling tense and desperate. So I'm not playing Horror RPGs to be scared.

I'm also not running them to scare people. So it took me completely by surprise when I ran a Maschine Zeit game at Stabcon and there was an audible gasp from several people at the table when I described the scuttling centipede monster made of severed human hands. I'd run the game a couple of times before that, and once after that, and none of those other groups batted an eyelid at the description of exactly the same monster.

But then I thought the Blair Witch Project was one of the most tedious cinema experiences of my life, yet I have friends it scared the pants off. YMMV.
 
#16
I don't think in RPG horror there's fear as such, at least not for me. There's unsettlement, dread, and bleakness, which are other "horror" emotions, and which I find somewhat cathartic when felt through fiction and play. But the adrenaline shock of fear doesn't really feature, though there can be a certain intensity. That of course isn't necessarily part of horror, but horror is one "easy" way to get there.
 
#17
?... it took me completely by surprise when I ran a Maschine Zeit game at Stabcon and there was an audible gasp from several people at the table when I described the scuttling centipede monster made of severed human hands. I'd run the game a couple of times before that, and once after that, and none of those other groups batted an eyelid at the description of exactly the same monster.
Ah, Stabcon! I am pretty much contractually obliged to run a horror game every Saturday night at Stabcon. And I had a similarly strong reaction when running the aforementioned "Tainted Meat" by Paul B.

upon finding a hidden graveyard a woman shoving both hands in her mouth and gasping "The Children!" In actual shock.

Is there something special about that convention?
 
Top