I think that the hardest kind of RPG experience to create at the table is horror – by a significant margin. I’ve been alarmed, worried, disgusted, and so on at the table, but very rarely frightened. The most frightened I remember being was in an Old World of Darkness game using Kult’s setting. The game that is always recommended is Dread, which is a great use of Jenga to create tension at a table whether you want it or not. It still requires more elements to approach horror.
I wonder – it’s pretty easy for a movie to scare the crap out of me. Why is it so much harder at a table?
Players Must Buy In/Session Zero
I’m pretty funny – I can coax someone into participating in a funny game. I can coax someone into participating in a heroic adventure game. I even know how to design specifically for either goal, among a few others. Horror, though – I don’t know how to coax someone into a horror game, and I can see ways that horror more than other genres would press against players’ lines and veils.
For this reason, a Session Zero for a horror game is necessary. The discussion of what you want kept out of the story needs to be had, because it will likely be the job of the GM in a horror game to suddenly introduce disturbing imagery and themes. It also occurs to me that a tool like the X-Card should be available, but in the context of a horror game, I can see that using it would potentially take people out of the moment – like pausing a horror DVD to answer the phone. And of course we shouldn’t harm each other for the sake of playing pretend, but if we can figure things out ahead of time, that is especially good in the context of a horror game.
Hope Must be Limited
The reason we sat down and designed Reckoning, a dice-less horror RPG, was because of the problem of dice. As long as you can roll dice to have a chance to triumph, horror is almost impossible. Our players would grin their way through horrific scenarios, or so we thought them, rolling dice all the way. My friend Jason says that a horror game can therefore never use dice, but I wouldn’t go that far. It’s just that dice can’t be an option for triumphing. Stakes have to be set carefully, perhaps.
Reckoning limits hope by having a scene count-down which will end with something horrific happening. Each time a card gets turned, you know something else bad is going to happen, all getting closer to the worst thing happening. I think that some kind of countdown, some kind of visibly growing threat, could be necessary. The proverbial ticking time-bomb that the players know about, even if the characters do not.
Doom Must be Foreshadowed
Continuing on with the previous thought – when you go to a horror movie, or pick up a horror novel, you know what kind of story it is. This has to be clear from the start with a horror game as well. Even if not from the literal beginning, there should be a big reveal at some point, early. Ideally, all of the players should think, “Oh crap, this is going to be deliciously bad.”
If possible there should be foreshadowing both in the fiction and outside of it – in the room where the game takes place. On the character sheet. On the pages of rules you reference during the game. On the art you use to represent what the characters see. In the music you have playing while you game.
A Strong GM Seems to be Necessary
I asked Twitter to let me know about any APs tweeps are aware of that represent a horror game that seemed to really foster fear and horror on the parts of the players. I enjoy APs, but they are generally what I end up doing when I run horror – some moments of squick and then dark humor the rest of the time, bordering on outright zaniness. Even for AP groups that focus on horror gaming, this seems to be where they max out as well. When done well, the squick is very squick-y and the dark humor is dark and funny, but would I call it horror? I’m not sure.
One thing I’ve noticed is that horror gaming, even the squick/dark humor kind, seems to demand a strong GM. I would love to see an attempt at a GM-less (or GM-full) game that does horror consistently well. My guess would be that if it does, it is simply a game (like many GM-less/full games) that attracts a bunch of GMs as players. I think horror gaming will simply depend on GM skill + player buy-in, full stop. I don’t see a way around that, and I don’t see any game that gets around that, though I’d be happy to be proven wrong by some genius game design. As I sit here, that game design is beyond me as a designer.
It’s Cthulhu and Footnotes
The last thought I have about horror gaming is that Call of Cthulhu dominates horror gaming the way D&D dominates fantasy adventure gaming. Clearly, there are other popular horror games, like All Flesh Must Be Eaten back in the day, or Bluebeard’s Bride; various Worlds of Darkness, or of course the often-mentioned Dread. There is also Monsters and Other Childish things, perhaps, or Clockwork: Dominion. But Call of Cthulhu looms over all of these, and when horror gaming comes up, CoC will almost invariably come up as well.
What is the difference here? What makes Call of Cthulhu stand out, despite being temporarily supplanted by Vampire the Masquerade for example? I think one difference is that many of those other games are also about adventure and the chance to triumph. Not Bluebeard’s Bride, and mostly not Dread perhaps, but otherwise, those games listed above can be played as adventure or comedy pretty easily. Really, the one that would be hard to play that way would be Bluebeard’s Bride – I think one could easily hack Dread to tell a Fiasco-style story, as an example.
I think that the key appeal of Call of Cthulhu for horror gaming might be that it is common knowledge that CoC is not about triumphing, or even in many cases surviving, a horror story. It is about going insane and/or dying horribly. The worst things you’ll encounter you cannot possibly overcome no matter what you do. So the game is about progressively learning what those awful things are, and then having a good time on the way down after that. This, even more than the Mythos, is what keeps Call of Cthulhu in that top slot, I think. At least, when I look at horror APs and talk to people about horror gaming.
What Did I Miss?
These are just my thoughts, neither exhaustive nor meant to be so. What did I miss? What has been your experience of horror gaming?