Horror is a genre that’s very easy to do poorly. Whether we’re talking literature, cinema, or games it’s really easy to screw up being scary because fear is a difficult emotion to effectively manipulate, particularly in an observer. It can be really difficult, for example, to take advantage of certain primal fears in the mind of the viewer, things like the fear of heights or isolation. Some of this will retread my previous article “Stories vs. Games: Horror,” but this article is more of a sequel than a reboot.
How Games are Different
I’m primarily thinking of tabletop games here, but most of the stuff I’m going to describe applies to video games as well. When we took horror from books to film, everything changed. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all, but story tellers also learned that what is missing from the picture is as important as what is shown. The inclusion of the picture opened up a new array of options for how to tell the story, but it also made certain options less desirable. The interactive nature of games works the same way.
Once your audience is no longer simply an observer but is rather in control of a story’s protagonist, things have to be handled differently. Characters cannot be counted on to wander into the haunted house at the slightest provocation, especially since they are being controlled by someone who expects that it’s haunted. You still can’t rely too heavily on certain primal fears (fear of heights being the one that springs to mind), and while jump scares are still a viable solution in video games and visual media you would be hard pressed to pull them off effectively at an RPG table. However, that extra element of audience control opens new doors for the story teller. So let’s look now at…
What Doesn’t Work
Alright, so here’s the biggest mistake a lot of story tellers make when running horror games, particularly Call of Cthulhu: they are entirely too quick to kill their players, or drive them mad. Yes, Call of Cthulhu and many other horror games have high mortality rates and the protagonists are notoriously squishy, But the more frequently characters die the less the players care about it. The atmosphere set needs to imply risk, but not utter hopelessness.
You also have to be careful to not make your horror feel cheap. If a character in a movie turns around and walks right into the killer, then it’s a good jump scare and establishes the killer’s ability to sneak up on the hero undetected. In a game, though, that can feel cheap. It will also feel cheap if you just force them into an encounter with something out of their depth. If you think of the Friday the 13th series as RPG campaigns, imagine being the player for Julius in Jason Take Manhattan and realizing that because you put points in brawl (or Punch/Fist, from sixth edition) your GM is going to force you into fisticuffs with Jason.
Any time a situation is plainly hopeless, your players are likely to lose interest. You’re also going to lose a players interest if they feel like their fate was not primarily the result of their (preferably informed) decisions.
What Does Work
So many things. There are a LOT of ways to really engage that fear reaction from your players. Obviously good description, props, that sort of thing, but what I really want to talk about are story telling techniques and ways you can structure your adventure. Let’s start with something fundamental: power. Your players need to feel like they have it, so that when it goes away it means something.
Take the video game Darkest Dungeon. It’s an adventure that’s taking place in a horror setting, and there’s a lot of grimness and hopelessness inherent in the setting, but your adventurers are legitimate badasses and when you send them into the dungeon you have every expectation that you will triumph, and every success builds your faith and investment in them, which makes your heart race even more when an enemy crit puts one of them at death’s door. It should be handled the same way in your RPGs. When your players go into any given situation, they should feel confident that they can succeed because then they will make the decision to enter a situation rather than the story teller having to force them. Also, when they go into most situations, they should succeed far more often than they fail, but the consequences for failure should be dire.
The next technique that does not get enough appreciation is using player choice to create doubt and regret. A simple example of this would be the Telltale Games The Walking Dead series, where you often have to make hard choices about who to save. In a tabletop RPG, though, you can make the player’s choices have longer-lasting impacts or be more directly responsible for the risks that they face. When the player has to choose between two paths, neither of which seem safe, the increasing danger on their chosen route might make them wonder if maybe the other path would have been the better choice. Few things build anxiety more than knowing that it was their own decision that might result in their demise.
The last point I’m going to talk about are the two things that I consider to be the pillars of good horror roleplaying: atmosphere and epiphanies. These are the two primary ways that you create horror for your players. Atmosphere is obvious, but not simple: describe the area, describe the things that are happening, really make sure that the players feel like they’re in the scene. It means creating danger not just as a threat to the players hit points but as a feeling in the player’s chest.
Epiphanies are somewhat less obvious. They’re the revelations that something is not as it originally seemed and in a non-visual medium they serve a similar purpose to a jump scare in that they create a sudden punch of fear right in the player’s gut. The epiphany is when you reveal that the person sitting in the chair was actually dead, even though you could have sworn they moved around, or when they find out that the NPC that they trusted was a serial killer and then think about all of the times they were alone with them. Or it’s when they shoot the bad guy and realize that bullets don’t work on it.
A Story of it all Coming Together
Years ago I ran a Call of Cthulhu game where I managed to have a segment that combined all of this perfectly. The players were a handicapped heir to a wealthy family, his private physician, and his bodyguard Mickey. They had been welcomed into the home of a doctor who claimed he could cure the heir’s degenerative muscle disease and make him healthy again, but when they showed up and the doctor was nowhere to be found they began to suspect foul play. In their exploring, they realized someone else was in the house, watching them. The other person, when he finally showed himself, turned out to be a young man with a blank stare on his face who approached them slowly but with a zombielike singe-mindedness. Mickey stepped up and tried reasoning with him, to no avail, then tried threatening him, to no avail, then tried punching him… to no avail.
What’s relevant here is that Mickey, and his player, made a choice. Mickey was over six feet tall and had a strength and size score both over fifteen, and a high score in Fist/Punch. Mickey had used his brute strength to move things, carry things, and break things, it had been a reliable problem solver. Reliable enough that rather than back up or run, Mickey and his player decided that the best course of action for them was to throw a punch. After all, he had power, and fighting was what made Mickey feel safe. He rolled well, and he rolled decent damage, and I described his fist slamming into the young man’s cheek like he was swinging a sledge hammer. Then I described the young man slowly turning to look at Mickey, clearly unphased. That was the first part of his epiphany: this young man could take his best punch. He could have run. He could have run and maybe been safe but he chose to engage even when he wasn’t cornered, and the longer I took to describe my action the longer I had to make him regret throwing that punch. Remember what I said about atmosphere being a feeling? I wanted those six seconds of combat to last forever, so I slowly picked up my dice and rolled them. It was a relatively low roll, so I stared at it for a bit and took a deep breath as the tension on Mickey’s player’s face grew. I rolled more dice, a d6 this time. I took another deep breath as I looked at the player. “He reaches out… he picks you up… and he throws you into a nearby cabinet.” This drove home the epiphany from before: this was not a person, it was a monster, and they didn’t have any way to destroy it. There was a new threat, and they had a very limited understanding of it but were able to make choices moving forward about how to engage, but its presence was sufficient to menace them.
In that scene, there are all of the major elements. The players felt powerful, having had a reliable problem solving method in Mickey’s brute strength, and when they relied on it in the wrong situation it was shocking and felt important. They had the sudden striking realization that striking their enemy would do them no good, but at no point was their agency taken away or did they feel like they had been robbed of their hard earned success.
I hope this has been an interesting read and I wish you good luck in all of your Halloween spookiness.