A Few Thoughts on Horror

Virgil Finlay, folks

I’m not an expert on horror. I like some old flicks, but I’ve never been into the buckets-of-blood stuff and human fear and misery aren’t high on my list of things I find entertaining. Nevertheless, I was pondering a few ideas this Halloween about making horror work in games, and thought they might be of use, especially to folks who haven’t run too many games. None of these items are mechanics-based, just things to use while narrating/refereeing a game.

1. Be Descriptive

Game mechanics are usually pretty cut-and-dry. Roll d20, if it’s above X you hit for damage. If not, you miss. For most games, and most combats, it works well enough to leave it at that. For a horror game, you probably want to embellish. For a game to be scary, you have to make it visceral and to some extent personal for the players, and you don’t have the same tricks that are available to authors (i.e. complete control of the action and tempo) and filmmakers (i.e. mood lighting, quick cuts, etc.). Language is one way to do this.

Here’s an example, in this case from a non-horror game I’m running on G+. Just some adventurers, plodding across the desert, who run into some weird spires sticking up from the sand. They decide to camp, and find themselves nearly surrounded by weird columns of moving sand – sand things as I called them (I never use actual monster names unless it’s pretty obvious or just doesn’t matter). The group decides to make a run for it, and I roll some dice and determine that they escape successfully. I could have just written:

“You escape them. What do you want to do now?”

Instead, I wrote:

“You take off across the sands, between the advancing sand things, and feel them crash behind you, as they attempt to close the gaps. They fail, though you can feel the sand on your necks.

As you run, you can feel the sand shifting beneath your feet, as though somebody was trying to pull a carpet from under them, and you can almost sense the swell of golden sands behind you, like a wave preparing to crest and then bash you into the dust.

Luckily, you are swift enough, and after ten solid minutes of adrenaline-fueled running you finally collapse on the sand. All is quite, and you believe that, whatever they were, they are no longer behind you. You no longer see the spires behind you.”

Hopefully, that made the game more fun for the players, and leaves them wondering if the encounter is really over (and if you’re one of those players … it might not be).

You can do something similar with horror games – narrate things, especially minor things that aren’t really important, for frightening effect. Describe the way things feel, sound and smell, especially if they are robbed of their sight. Linger on the faces of the people with whom they deal – provide clues to what is happening in their minds that can be read in multiple ways.

2. Make It Count

Most role playing games are about conflict, fighting monsters (of some sort) and exploring the unknown. The good news – these are all elements of horror. The bad news – you use these elements every dang time you play. If you walked into a dark alley and run into a beholder, you would be traumatized. For your players, it just means it’s game night. Big deal.

So – you need to find a way to make it count. The loss for the characters has to be more than a loss of gold or experience points. All those undead monsters that do level drain are one way to scare players, but you can also put other things in the pot that mean something to the characters, and I mean you need to put them in the pot, not the players themselves. Threaten something that is important to the character because it is important to the player playing the character. A player who gets off on combat but doesn’t give a rip about his character’s fictional family is not going to react to his fictional parents being threatened by something horrible. Losing a hand, however, might really bug him.

Know your players, figure out what will bother them, what will cause their stomachs to knot, and then use it against them. At least one player and character, maybe more but possibly not all, must be threatened with a loss that will drive them through the game.

3. Hold Things Back

I just told you a minute ago to be descriptive. Not I’m going to tell you to keep silent. Silence in a pen & paper game is the equivalence of darkness in a movie. The players should be groping about, certain that something terrible is happening, but uncertain as to exactly why or how or when. I use the word “or” advisedly. Don’t keep them in the dark about everything. Keep one thing – why, how, or when – completely secret. They’ll never know until it’s too late. Have one of those things obscured but discover-able. The third thing should be evident early in the game.

For example – at midnight, the village of Vark will cease to be. How? It will be swallowed into Hell due to the actions of one person, the local butcher. Why? They’ll never know … but you know it is because of an otherwise innocent act he will perform for an aggrieved widow. All the players will know is that he is the key, and they’ll have to keep on guard to stop terrible things from happening.

4. Tension vs. Surprise

This is a tip from Alfred Hitchcock, as regards to making thrillers. I think it is applicable to games, and it requires you to do something you normally do not do.

In his interviews with Truffaut, Hitchcock describes the difference between building tension and using surprise. He uses the example of two people sitting at a table talking. A time bomb is beneath the table.

If you want surprise and shock, you don’t let the audience know about the bomb. All of a sudden, there is an explosion. The audience is surprised for a moment, and that is all.

If you want tension, you must let them know the bomb is under the table, and is about the go off. They’re now sweating it out, waiting to discover if the characters will find the bomb, or otherwise escape the danger. With this technique, you can keep the audience tensed up for a few minutes rather than for just a split second.

You can find a good example of this in his film Rope, as well as in a sequence in the movie Sabotage.

In a game, you might pull this off by allowing the players, through their characters, witness a dangerous scene without being able to do anything about it. This can get old, though, and takes way a crucial element of the fun of these games, which is that players have a hand in the action.

Another way is to let the players peek into the mechanics of the game. Let them know how much time they have to stop something, and then take them through the process of stopping it. For example – to defuse the bomb that’s about to go off requires three rolls of the dice. With each roll, the players get closer to success or death.

To make it even more tense, let them know that they dice they must roll are hidden around the room. They have one minute to find them and roll them. Or present them with three dice of different colors. One grants a +5 bonus to the roll, one a -5 penalty and one no bonus or penalty. Give them a minute in which to decide and roll a dice.

5. The Joys of Paranoia

Here’s something I’ve used in my games. It helps if you have a group of friends playing who want the game to be fun and successful, but with strangers you might be able to bribe them to make it work.

I’ll pass a note to a player. It says something like, “Look worried and then make eye contact with me and nod in agreement.” If a bribe was necessary, I might add: “You get 500 XP for doing this.”

The others now suspect their pal knows something they don’t, and they suspect that something is happening beneath their very noses that is dangerous and THEY CANNOT SEE IT! Even worse, their so-called buddy knows and isn’t saying anything. Isn’t doing anything. WHY ISN’T HE DOING SOMETHING TO WARN US?!

You get the idea. It’s a cheap trick and only effective when used sparingly. It helps with creating that “darkness” I mentioned earlier.

6. Provide Enough Rope

Not the “50 feet of” variety, but allow the players to make choices that get them deeper into the horror. With each choice, they are presented with new choices, but those new choices need to get incrementally worse. Since this is a horror game, there doesn’t ever need to be a perfectly pure, good choice to make.

These choices, by the way, also help bring about the recriminations among the characters/players that fuel many horror movies. The team has to stick together to survive, but it gets harder and harder to do when those other idiots keep making you do things you didn’t want to do and which keep making things worse. You don’t want to end friendships, of course, but a little intra-party tension can help make the game work.

7. Oversell It

Here’s something I learned from the good old days of comic book covers. I’m talking about the pre-pinup covers – things like this:

Found at Diversions of the Groovy Kind, natch!

You know Ka-Zar is not actually going to die, of course (though Doom might get punched in the face by a mummy) … but you don’t know how things will actually play out in the comic book. I still dig those covers, and they still make me want to read the book to see how the cover is lying to me.

In our case, you start the game by casually mentioning that one of the characters is going to die in this session, you’re sure of it. This puts everyone on edge. It might also be a complete lie, but the point is to get them worried.

Of course, sometimes those cover blurbs actually come true …

… until she returns  as a clone, Spider-Gwen and whatever else Marvel comes up with in the next few years …

8. The Old Switcheroo

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again. If you want to run a Lovecraftian horror game, your worst move is probably pulling Call of Cthulhu out and openly running a session of it for the players. This isn’t a dig against the game, but rather a commentary on how Lovecraft (and Poe, and many other horror writers) wrote their books. Those authors wrote stories about how unsuspecting, normal people suddenly found their way into supernatural situations they could not escape without giving something up (sanity, parts of their body, a loved one, etc.).

If you’re playing CoC, the one thing the players know (or think they know) is that they’re going to run into a Lovecraftian monstrosity. Thus, the game defeats the genre. I’ve suggested that pulling out the old James Bond RPG would be a great way to run a Lovecraft scenario. Everyone is primed for espionage, and then something odd happens and before they know, it’s all spiraling out of control.

Let’s use another example from Hitchcock on how to sucker people in. When people went to see Psycho for the first time (and my daughter and her friend recently did this, with no foreknowledge of the movie, so it still works), they saw a movie about a woman stealing money and driving to a hotel to allude the authorities. The woman was the main character. She’s on the posters. The movie, obviously, is about what happens to this woman.

And then, a few minutes in, she’s brutally murdered and never heard from again.

The old switcheroo. Now the audience doesn’t know what the hell is happening, which is exactly the frame of mind Hitchcock wanted them in to sit through the rest of the movie. Take away that which is normal and safe and expected … and in the case of fantasy games, the routine of the dungeon crawl, as weird and abnormal as it would be in real life, is normal and safe and expected.

The best way to inflict horror upon the players is to make sure they don’t know what they’re in for. Give them what appears to be a normal dungeon crawl, and let it morph, slowly at first, and then more rapidly, into a horror film. Or, how about capping off a dungeon crawl with a visit to town to buy supplies which turns into something horrible. The game seems to be bog standard. The players are expecting that the real game is the dungeon they’re going to delve back into after a quick jaunt to boring old town … and then everything goes horribly wrong.

If you have some ideas yourself about pulling off a good horror game – especially you referees who have experience with Chill and CoC and other such games – please let me know in the comments, and …

2 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on Horror

  1. I don't think the games defeat the genre, at least no more then the genre itself ever does. If you read a story by Lovecraft or Poe, you generally know what you're getting into. But if you're in the mindset for reading such a story, then you can let go and let it unfold and sometimes even be surprised by how it all turns out.

    I think player buy-in in more important for making horror work than any other genre. If they're not in the right frame of mind, it's not going to work and they'll fall back on dungeon-crawling behaviours rather than running their PCs like the doomed protagonists of a Weird Tale. CoC and Chill have the Sanity/Fear rules to try to encourage this, but without player investment it's no different than rolling a d20 to hit. I always knew adventures were going well when a player announced that there was no way their character could stand the sight of the horror with which they had just been presented, and asked how much SAN they lost without even rolling dice to try resisting.

    That said, #8 can be very effective. I once ran a d20 Star Wars one-shot without telling the players we were actually playing d20 Call of Cthulhu — a book I didn't even own. They thought the Shining Trapezohedron was some sort of dark side force crystal, and didn't quite figure out what I had done until I was forced to get the d20 CoC rulebook off my friend's shelf to look up Byakhee stats.

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  2. What often seems to work on me, as a Player, is my PC being separated from the group. It amps up feelings of being vulnerable. It's also one of the reasons I think horror is easier to pull off with smaller groups, because there's less of that sense of 'safety in numbers' going on.

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