Horror Gaming

Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game) - Wikipedia

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?

Save Against Fear 2019


Once again, I’m headed to Save Against Fear, The Bodhana Group‘s annual convention. As I’ve said before, if I can only make it to one convention in a year, it will be this one.

I’m going to be busy there, but hopefully not too busy. I’ll be running two demos of games I’ve designed and helping with two panels during the event.

First Game: Reckoning

Reckoning is a diceless horror game that my friend Aric and I have been working on for…years now. Maybe 10 years? What happened was that Aric runs awesome horror games for Halloween. He found that there just wasn’t an existing horror RPG that suited him well. We tried All Flesh Must Be Eaten and other D20 systems, as well as others I can’t remember at the moment. But nothing seemed to fit quite right. One problem we ran into was that dice gave players a way out – it meant that every moment was potentially hopeful, and allowed some goofy possibilities.

The core of Reckoning is in character creation, though, more than the resolution system, which is a pretty standard number comparison with cards to modify. But our thinking, or focus in design, was how could we simply portray psychologically plausible characters on the one hand, and how could we represent the things that enable characters to survive horror stories.

Second Game: Iron Pax

Iron Pax is my OSR hack that is honestly just a OSR version tuned for the Midnight setting, or a similar setting. It is a colonialist dystopia as written, and the published version is more of an OSR rules-set engine with a chassis made of random tables for setting design. Players roll dice for all tests, similar to how Dungeon World does it, and the basic system is a roll-under D20 system. One original element is Heat, a combination of the effect of spellcasting being exothermic and also ‘heat’ in terms of negative attention from the authorities.

So far I only have one player signed up, and she’s a friend of mine, and I’m wondering if I maybe have the wrong title or description for the game, or maybe there just isn’t much of an audience for OSR. No worries. If I only have the one player, I’ll let her level up her pregenerated character a bit and see how she does rescuing this halfling from the Iron Pax.

First Panel: Game Designers

This year, we have a total of at least nine game designers who are special guests, and they are going to be part of a few game design panels over the course of the con. In the past I’ve helped facilitate the discussion on behalf of Bodhana, but honestly I don’t think that’ll be needed this time around, as these folks have been on more panels than I’ve run.

Second Panel: Spirituality in Games

At GenCon, I met this cool Rabbi named Menachem Cohen who uses games in spiritual direction as part of his practice. We came up with an idea to run a panel/workshop on spirituality in games, but without necessarily using the word “spirituality”, as that word can give people a wide variety of impressions that might not be correct. I think the way we talk about it is that we will look at how you can use games, design games, and hack games to access deeper elements of life. I’ve never done this kind of thing with Rabbi Cohen before, but I’m looking forward to it because he seems like a really interesting person who is knowledgeable about games.

You Should Join Me


Reckoning Playtest and Our Audience

This past week we got to run another Reckoning playtest while we were at Unco11.  The playtest was drifting the system a bit, outside the settings (modern) for which it is designed.  The situation was that the players would be in the midst of the Fourth Crusade, either Latins or Greeks.  If they had chosen to be the Greeks, they would be inside the city, centered on one of the monasteries in Constantinople, and their horror would be the impending doom coming down on them from the west.

The players chose to be Latins – their horror would be the horror of moral culpability as they sack and destroy cities of their brethren (Zara and then Constantinople itself).

The playtest went really well – the system works.  It does what we want it to do.  People have fun.  Every group tells us that character creation is the best part of the system, and it led to a lot of interconnection and buy-in among the players.

The players were basically a group of five who normally play D&D (one has called every character Ham Samich since he started playing in middle school) and one player deep-friend in the simmering vat of story games, someone with an entirely different gaming background, different expectations at the table.

What I suspected, what was reinforced, is that not only is Reckoning not a story game, it is potentially not fun for story gamers, unless they are interested in playing something like a hybrid.

It was interesting to see this person’s discomfort.  We spent three hours after the session discussing the game, and it seemed like our story gamer enjoyed parts of it, but felt a lot of anxiety around the idea of a GM having lots of control over what was happening.

The thing is, the game is solid.  We know a little better about our target audience – basically, people who play D&D or other similar games will have a lot of fun with Reckoning and be introduced to a few ideas that don’t exist in D&D.

We did what we set out to do.  We wanted to create an excellent horror rpg that we would want to play more than any other horror rpg.  That’s what we have.  As a wonderful bonus, most other people who have played the game in the past have a great time with the game – all but one, actually, though I don’t want to imply it was something wrong with this player.  It’s just – well, not everyone is going to enjoy a given game.

This thing is sharp, man.  It does what it’s supposed to do from a design standpoint.  We got some good advice from the one less-satisfied player that we need more time to consider, but what we really need is a rough draft to start having readers look at.

Reckoning RPG Comes to Unco11

In a couple days I will be packing up, picking up a stranger, and driving nine hours to New York for UnCo11 (UnConference 2011).  While there I will get to hang out with cool people – among others, I will meet my semi-twin Mick Bradley at long last.  I say semi-twin because we apparently share a great number of interests, a birthday, and a denomination.  We seem similar enough on paper that he thought I was a spam-bot when I first contacted him.  I’m pretty sure I’m not a spam bot.

At least as far as I know.

One thing that we are hoping to do (we being me and Aric) is to run a session of Reckoning at UnCo11 for some people who are gamers and some who have never gamed before.  It occurred to me that I have not really run a playtest for more than two years, and oddly, I’m nervous.  There’s always the nervousness of showing your creative thoughts and work to others – the very real chance that they will be thinking “what a load of crap” while smiling politely and trying to play through.  Maybe that’s the reason I haven’t worked very hard to find a writing group, I dunno.

With any luck, the game will happen and will go well.  Given the mixed group, as well as doubtless mixed sensibilities, and the fact that we’re running a horror game, we had to be careful.  To stay with a religious theme, we’re going to run this session set in and around the fall of Constantinople to the Fourth Crusade.  Hopefully we can build up enough moral horror at what was perhaps the greatest crime against humanity in medieval times since I’m not sure how comfortable anyone might be with other kinds of more immediate horror.

It’s the kind of dicey balancing act that could go really well or could just as easily go off the rails and offend someone we don’t want to offend.

I think I’ll bring Mouse Guard just in case.

On Sunday It Begins

Sunday is the beginning of November which, as everyone knows is National Novel Writing Month. This year I don’t plan on writing a novel because I have too much other work to do, but I am going to try to set a NaNoWriMo pace, which is about 1,667 words a day for 30 days.

The first project I have before me is to finish the playtest document and rough draft for Horror!. I’ve made some progress already, but it isn’t ready to be sent out to playtesters yet.
The second project I have in front of me is working on a full draft and playtest document for Heroes of Karia. I’ve run 3 playtests of Karia so far and it is going well, but I need to have something that is more put-together to send out.
The third project is in case I finish the first two (which is plausible with that kind of writing pace – game books take more work but contain fewer words than comparable novels). Right now I’m calling this project Succubus: A Love Story. The idea I have is for a genre-buster that is about 2/3 sexy high school love story and 1/3 existential horror. I think I can get it out in a short story form, and the idea has been with me for a while. I can tell it’s the kind of thing I need to use NaNoWriMo to get out of my system (and find out if it is worth putting real work into aside from a rough draft.
Anyone else working on something for NaNoWriMo?

Horror RPG Module Challenge!

What we have at the core of Horror! is a really, really simple system of comparing numbers. The higher number wins. The lower number loses, and then the character with that number gets some kind of penalty for losing – Fear, Pain, a setback, or just lost time against the ever-looming Countdown.

This is why I think it is easy to make modules for Horror!, even when they will require a lot of improvisation and quick thinking, and even when what you’re mostly interested in is coming up with background and fluff and story.

Attributes range from 1 to 5, and Traits, on average, will add +1 or +2 in rarer cases to that number. Y ou can assume that a given character, after the beginning of the game, will have at least a little Fear and Pain, meaning the penalties from those (-1 or -2) will often cancel out the Trait bonus the player might be able to come up with, leaving the 1-5 range again.

Basically, just create a flow-chart of how hard you want the session to be based on that range. So…

Don’t do anything that is a target of 1

A target of 2 is a throwaway, should be the minimum you’d ever set for anything that’s worth calling a test

A target of 3 should be standard for someone doing what they do for a living, but still isn’t much of a challenge

A target of 4 is a bit of a challenge

A target of 5 will require that most characters go looking for help, either in the environment or from another character

A target of 6 is a way of saying “don’t do this” – any character will need to call on help, Adrenaline or Virtue, a Trait, something to even the score, especially if they have already gotten some Fear and/or Pain. The 6 is “big bad” territory, because on average, characters will go down unless very well prepared.

A target of 7 is a good maximum. That’s what a healthy character using their Attribute of 5 and doubling a Feat or Influence with an Adrenaline or Virtue respectively can hit

As always, feel free to just say “you can’t do that, try something else”. Horror! is not a game about “say yes or roll the dice” – and not just because there are no dice.

So what did I do?
I used the target numbers as a pacing mechanic. Like the countdown, they should escalate as the game progresses, so things become harder and more threatening as time goes on.

The scenario I’d sketched out in my mind placed the PCs in a secret installation beneath Tibet, a huge particle accelerator built by the Chinese government, designed to crack open quantum theory and prove or disprove string theory. What happens is that the first experiment is a success – and the PCs are part of a group splintered off into an alternate mini-dimension, forever disconnected from the “real” world – set adrift.

Everything begins to become unhinged – mechanical and digital systems, the characters’ memory and sanity, even gravity near the end, as this splinter dimension ‘forgets’ how it is supposed to function and spins down rapidly to entropy. Others on the station have figured this out and are overcome with despair and begin killing each other and themselves. Each of the PCs comes to, suddenly having a moment of clarity in the midst of either committing suicide or killing someone else. They briefly ‘reset’, forgetting some of what has happened but also being able to think clearly. So each of the characters start in the midst of something awful and then go on to figure out what is going on from there, while the clock is ticking and everything is going apeshit around them.

In the beginning the targets are around 2. One PC comes to locked in mortal combat with a crazed old man trying to drive a syringe into his eye; another in the midst of hanging himself, a third locked in her room being suffocated in her bed. They get out pretty easily, begin to get a handle on the system, etc. This is kind of like the Prelude.

Act One has mostly target numbers of 3 or 4. This includes seeing the first dead bodies, or people dying, in horrible but relatively ‘mundane’ ways, as well as changing locks and that kind of thing. Stuff that a skilled professional can do, or someone with a strong stomach can tolerate (humorously, two player characters had Conviction as their dump-stat of 1 and got Fear from everything).

Act Two, in my mind, starts involving the really messed up shit that is at the heart of everything – they find out much more about the awful situation they’re all in, they see the piles of bodies, etc. This is where targets of 5 and even 6 come into play, where everything starts to hit the fan. The Countdown should be low at this point, and ideally everyone is sweating bullets.

Act Three is when the Ace of Spades comes off the table and things escalate before the inevitable end. These target 5 and 6 tests come at you one after another, and even a 7 here and there to push people in the right direction and let them know that even if they work together and have some Traits, they can still fail.

For each of the Acts, I had what I called a Pressure Menu (yeah, I know, I need a better name). On this menu, I just listed bad things that I can have happen to push things forward. A guy jumps out of a doorway screaming and leaps on one of the PCs. They find out X scary information. They find a trail of blood leading to a person who is in the last moments of suicide – someone they know, care about. Etc. Then, if I feel myself getting bored, or antsy, I have one of these things happen and slap a couple of numbers on it appropriate to the approximate “Act” I’m in .

What if the players skip ahead in my story?
Take off a card and escalate things to the next Act. Do the exact things you’d already planned, but increase the target number by 1 or 2. Presto! Drama and fear ensue.

What if it takes too long?
Same answer as above. When in doubt, escalate.

What if I set the Countdown wrong?
It only has to be as regular as you want it to be.

What if they go off the rails entirely?
Take a moment to look at the obstacles you’ve set up to put in their path. Which ones can just be moved to the new location? Zombies and security doors and so on can come up whenever, frankly.

Then find the things that won’t fit and change the fluff, leaving the obstacle there and about as bad as it was. If it was one named NPC, make it another named NPC. If it was a physical threat, make it another kind of physical threat.

Plan everything so that the PCs die horribly.
Put enough tests in there to wear them down entirely. Balance things against them. Make the Countdown account for about 1/2 to 2/3 of the expected length of the session. Escalate things early and capriciously.

The players are signing up to see their characters die and go insane in delicious ways. That’s what this is all about. It is not about triumph (though sometimes the PCs may do just that). It is about doing terrible things to each other’s characters and enjoying every minute of it. By the time the last card comes up off the Countdown and the game ends, the players should be on the verge of getting out alive, or have some hope still glimmering, and then you stifle it forever.

That’s horror.

Fear Rating
Most psychological tests, involving Conviction, will occur when a PC encounters something awful. Just set a number for these tests like you would any other – and make sure to include some 5s and 6s to that everyone can enjoy the fun…
2 Seeing something very frightening but within your normal experience – like watching a car accident
3 Something possibly a little traumatizing, like seeing a car accident when someone is thrown through their windshield
4 This is bad, bad stuff, like seeing someone killed and their severed head falls in your lap, staring up at you, and blinks at you before all of the blood drains out
5 Heinous crimes at the limits of what you can imagine a person doing – like being caught in the The Cell or seeing the Wolf Creek guy at work on a loved one or two
6 You really are a sick fuck. Nice job.

Horror RPG Feedback

As I mentioned before, I recently ran a playtest of our Horror! rpg, and I wanted to go through the feedback I got from the players and then talk a bit about what I’m going to do with it. Hopefully my previous post about the basics of the system will help a reader follow along, but this is also just a chance for me to put my thoughts out there (and maybe get some discussion if there are interested readers).

I’m focusing on negative and critical feedback here. The vast majority of what I heard was “this game is awesome!”, but the critical stuff is what will be most helpful going forward, as anyone could expect.

Notes from looking at the character sheets

One thing I was sure to do was save the character sheets, and to look at what parts the players used most, what they wrote on them as notes to themselves, that kind of thing.

Overall, the character sheets, though basic, were used the way I intended. The Traits section wasn’t used very much or very well detailed out, but that I connect with the fact that we’re not so clear on it either. One player drew arrows between the descriptions of Adrenaline and Virtue connecting them to Feats and Influences, respectively. So these need to be closer together (and there need to be headings on the character sheet for each section that coincide with the headings on a book). I also notice that when a lot of Traits are chosen in one category, people run out of space to write quickly.

My notes as GM

I also took notes for my own use. The first thing I did was flip over my typed up scenario notes and sketch out a mini character sheet for each of the players on the back. I realized I’d need to know their Attributes, and also added their characer names and archetypes with player names at the bottom.

Under each of these mini character sheets, I also listed NPCs connected to each character – just name and a couple of words were all I needed. At the bottom of this while page (which was what I most often looked at during the game as I recall) I wrote “needs to be a reward for awesome!” There were cool things that one player expeciall did that didn’t really fit under Adrenaline or Virtue. Maybe a random card dealt to them? But I’d like there to be some kind of reward, and what we have didn’t quite fit.

I made a note to myself that every card on the countdown should represent about 15 minutes of game-time. The way it turned out, by the way, was about 150% of that estimate, and this might be a normal thing – we’ll have to find out with more playtests.

Player feedback during character creation

One player used a Feat to resist things like intimidation, since it made sense to them…and it sort of made sense to me, since Adrenaline would help you resist being bullied. So maybe Feats should be broader than just physical…

There was confusion about the main attribute for each archetype, and I’m ok with dropping it, or just having it as a suggestion. Everyone expected it to have an in-game effect, and when it didn’t, it seemed like a wasted idea.

Player feedback during the game

The players reacted strongly every time a card was taken away from the Countdown. I think I should draw more attention to the event, though, and the phrase I saw to help escalate things, since a couple of times it was actually missed, and a player said “Wait, we lost a card when I wasn’t looking!” I want it to be a “gulp” moment, not a “huh” moment.

One player had the cool idea to give their own character a level of Fear in exchange for some kind of temporary benefit. This came up when a player was frightened and sickened and wanted their character to be frightened as well. Wow! I want to reward that kind of thinking! So maybe an Adrenaline when you give yourself a level of Fear and a Virtue when you give yourself a level of Pain. Actually…nice.

Player feedback at the end debriefing

Organized by the questions that I asked:

Were you ever scared? Anxious? Nervous? When?

FUCK YES! Player creepiness helped, th GM’s vivid descriptions of creepy things, and when there was no solution or no way out in a tight situation

Were you entertained?


What was the coolest thing a player did?

One player had his character throw down his gun when he finally found one. Another player was totally nonplussed by most of the horrors going on around her (this creeped me out a bit as well). Lastly, players physically role-played some of their characers’ actions – and this is something else I want to reward somehow.

What do you wish your character could have done?

It was hard for some to figure out how to use the Traits in-game. I hope this won’t be the case when we work them out more clearly in the future.

Where were you most bored or disinterested?

Some people got caught up in cross-talk, and missed details. They didn’t like something that is my personal style, which is getting one scene running along via player interaction and then turning to another scene to engage the other players. The vote seemed like the players in this game would prefer a clearer situation where if the group splits (and in a horror game they should) and some of the players become the audience, and then the focus returns to them. That way, no one misses anything.

What was your favorite aspect of the system?

Everyone loved the Countdown mechanic and the cards for character creation. They also liked the open-ended definition for Traits and having physical cards on the table and in their hands representing their Adrenaline and Virtue.

What on your character did you never use?

Feats, Contacts and NPCs that they were connected to in character creation (my fault, honestly), and Hopes – which guided the players’ idea of their character and how to play them, but didn’t come directly into the game system-wise.

Anything else?

Some of the players said that this game needs a good GM to go well, that it relies too much on improvisation and wouldn’t be possible to run from a module. (This led to the challenge I took on that I’ll sketch out in a future post)

The players also felt there wasn’t enough use of Virtue – the idea came up to have rules written in small print on the character sheet, which really helped when I ran Mouse Guard (thanks Luke Crane for creating a game that can almost fit on two pages!) so I think it is definitely worth a try.

Lastly, the players wanted it to be clear whether they would be basically collaborative or basically antagonistic. It wasn’t clear at the beginning, and it led to some confusion with some players assume they should be suspicious of the others and other players trying to work together to get out alive. This might need to be something that is laid o ut clearly at the beginning of the session, since Horror! can definitely handle PvP.