Friday, October 14, 2011

Open Friday: Fear and Horror

It being October, my thoughts naturally turn to horror and fear. Mind you, I'm a big fan of horror and suspense movies, so it's not unusual for me to be thinking about such things. Of course, I'm also (obviously) a fan of roleplaying games. What I've concluded is that, unfortunately, RPGs aren't a very good -- or, at least, very reliable -- medium through which evoke feelings of horror and fear (or, indeed, any particular emotion). That's not to say that it's impossible to have a creepy or edge-of-your-seat gaming session, but there's no way to ensure this.

In truth, that doesn't bother me at all. I'm increasingly of the opinion that the quest for genre emulation is one of the great banes of our hobby, so the fact that no RPG can guarantee an emotional response of any type isn't a cause of concern. But there have been times when I have played or refereed RPG sessions that did elicit feelings of horror or fear from the participants. Such times are easily replicable; they can't be reduced to a formula, let alone a set of mechanics.

So, for today's question: have you ever had a game session that was memorably frightening or horrific and, if so, was there anything you or your fellow players did that contributed to this feeling? Or was it just one of those things that happened without any real explanation?


  1. Arranging things so a character had to stick his hand in a dark hole worked pretty well for me. The gaming world is a dangerous place, and players have a healthy and justified fear of the unknown.

  2. Your hand into a dark hole? I thought that is what sticks were made for.

  3. The most memorable involved "cheating" in the sense that I, as GM, threw out most of the rules and made the players feel more helpless than they might ordinarily.

    The party was pursued through an isolated forest by an unknown entity who's hit and run tactics were nearly impossible for them to defend. The attacks only did enough damage to weaken the party as the villain was really trying to drive them into it's layer deeper in the woods (it worked).

    After the session was over, my players raved about how spooky and unnerving it was. But I think they were in the mood for such a different scenario so they didn't quibble over my limiting their ability to counter.

    For this to work, all parties have to be open to it. If the players had been rule whores (which usually one of them was but not in this case) then all the atmosphere would have been lost.

  4. The coolest horror game I played in was set in the city we were all living in (Portland, Oregon), using a map of the city, and playing in the attic of the GMs shitty-ass apartment. It was awesome and felt like everything hit real close to home.

  5. There was once when my girlfriend screamed and jumped in her chair-- just as if she were watching a movie and something had suddenly popped out.

    It was the classic scenario of staying in a creepy house with a creepy host and snooping around in the basement trying to figure out how creepy he is. And then having him come up behind you as you're sifting through evidence.

    There were a lot of factors, but what I think made the difference was saying, "You feel someone's hand on your shoulder," instead of, "Roll a perception check."

    Praetorius refers to GM-cheating and unfortunately, I think there's an element of that-- or railroading. Horror requires a feeling of helplessness, and each time a GM self-interrupts to ask, "what do you do now?" the players are reminded that they can do something. Ironically, therefore, I think you can only "do horror" when the characters are going to escape it- without serious harm- even if it's from frying pan to fire.

  6. Horror requires a feeling of helplessness, and each time a GM self-interrupts to ask, "what do you do now?" the players are reminded that they can do something.

    Interesting observation. I imagine you'd have to have a distinct GMing style to evoke horror.

    It's worth noting that many players feel genuine fear when the GM starts rolling a bunch of dice bhind his screen without saying what they're for. This is the sort of dynamic that you'd probably want to heighten to make a game scary.

  7. I don't know about horror, but I think creepiness and dread (which are often componnents of horror) can be evoked by description and pacing. Obviously, it's not going to work for everyone at the table necessarily. But yeah, I agree that rpgs are perhaps not the best medium for evoking that particular mood.

  8. Whether an encounter is creepy comes down to flavour. Attempts to build storybook-like atmosphere will usually fail, since players tend to just file that stuff under "useless information", so this usually up to the monsters. Anything that is actively or potentially trying to kill the players, they will pay attention to, so make that stuff creepy and they will be creeped out (absence and anticipation are part of this).

    Whether an encounter is scary comes down to the players feeling genuinely threatened. Not just thinking they're overmatched and they'd better retreat, but actually thinking there's a real possibility they are all going to die. This works best if it's legitimate; a railroad is less scary because a) you can just follow the rails to lead you out and b) if the DM railroads you to death, that's not scary, that's just the DM being a dick. So you know you have a certain amount of protection. If it's up to you to save your own arse, then you've got nothing to rely on but yourself and no guarantee of getting out alive.

    Horror happens when both things come together at the table at the same time. You can't really force this without diluting the effect. In my opinion, the best way to get it is to put together a creepy, dangerous situation, and then let things unfold as they will. Sometimes it'll be horrific, and sometimes it won't, but either way you'll still have fun, and when it does turn out scary it'll probably be a lot more so than you could have achieved otherwise.

  9. The adventurers were in a particularly creepy dungeon and I added to their paranoia by speaking to each player privately, asking them at some point to play a doppelganger of themselves to see if the rest of the players could tell them apart. I promised them a role-plying bonus depending on how long they could keep the ruse going. Each player didn't know I had asked all of them to do this. Occasionally, I passed notes to each of the players from time to time. Things like:

    Something in your head tells you, 'the wizard wants to kill you'
    A thought says to you, 'the thief is trying to steal from you'

    Paranoia developed. They split up in a maze and discovered doppelgangers of each other (which each player played). They all claimed to be the real PC, sometimes the players forgot which one they were playing. Some zombies of themselves showed up and blamed each other for abandoning them, whispering of them all already being dead and asking the others when they would stop trying to act alive.

    Doppelgangers! Best. Freak. Ever.

  10. It happened only twice to me in 30+ years of gaming. I am an avid CoC GM/player but only once did I manage to instill a sense of fear into the players. It was in high school with an adventure from a gaming zine.
    The second time was a mere 6 months ago, as a player in a Gloranthified Death Frost Doom.

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  12. I'm increasingly of the opinion that the quest for genre emulation is one of the great banes of our hobby

    This, a hundred times. Roleplaying games produce their own kind of stories, I am still baffled by people who want RPGs to ape other medias (books, movies, comics...), in my opinion it just goes against everything playing/running a rpg is about.

  13. Had this happen in my game not too long ago and it was completely random and unexpected. I was running Stonehell, and the party magic-user got separated from the rest of the group and (foolishly) decided to explore on his own. I ran a special separate session for him in which he ran afoul of some evil pixies. I use a critical chart that has two axes: location and severity, and the killing blow managed to land face for location, and severed for severity. At the next session the rest of the group was not informed of what had happened to the magic-user, and they went looking for him.

    There they are, creeping down the hall, which is already in a somewhat 'spooky' area, and they're all playing it up trying to scare each other. I decide that the evil pixies are going to try and lure the party into a trap by wearing the severed face of the magic-user. He appears in a doorway silently beckoning the group towards him, as he has no way of emulating the magic-user's voice.

    The tension was palpable and I could tell the entire group was pretty freaked out. They eventually overcame it, tripped the trap, and ended up killing the evil pixies. Still, there was a definite moment there where there was some palpable fear at the table.

    And all that from an odd combination generated from a random table. :)

  14. Horror is a two way street and I think many GMs forget that.

    AS a GM you can do all the prep with mood, description, and rule alterations you want, but if the players are not willing to participate then it will become a farce.

    You need to have players willing to be scared to take the horror on face value and work.

  15. True "horror" is hard to evoke in the game because the PCs are -- by definition -- Heroes!

    They do what the "common man" cannot. In real life we are all just "common men," and movies can "touch" that spot in us.

    But as has been said before, in the game, there's always that "awareness" that it isn't "real."

    Hard to do.

  16. I don't think *sustained* player horror is a worthwhile goal in the RPG's I play - and I'm a huge fan of horror! Sitting down to run a premeditated horror session for D&D is a bit like planning a rail road game. I do think horror encounters and horror themes are totally achievable.

    A big reason why horror often fails in RPGs is the narrative distance between the players and the characters; a character could have just gotten dumped into a cistern full of leeches via a nasty pit trap, everyone at the table is having a momentary freak-out and a bad case of the heebie jeebies, and then Louis the Mooch reminds everyone he's waiting for Bob the Programmer to quit hogging the Doritos. And everyone laughs about it.

    Zak of the Pornstars laid out this concept of narrative distance in table top RPGs beautifully:

    Like Playing Monopoly with Squatters

    So its important to temper your expectations unless your group is just too serious (for my tastes). That being said, spikes of momentary horror are achievable in just about any D&D session, and creating a sense of paranoia and fear of the unknown is de rigeur for the genre, and also not hard to achieve.

    The most successful games I've run, that have sustained horror across sessions, have been with Trail of Cthulhu; we've run one-shots with pre-gen characters in highly stylized settings that create more immersion, particularly when it comes to making awful ethical choices. Usually everyone dies by the end of the scenario.

    For D&D purposes, I did list off quite a few micro-techniques and horror themes for use in D&D at one point on the Lich House:

    Horror in D&D

  17. I've had some genuinely scary moments in games but horror rpgs have always tended to be a let-down.

    I think part of the problem is that a lot of horror works by making you care about the characters and then putting them in peril, or killing them. So for me, I don't really see horror working as a long term campaign -- it would either turn into The Perils of Pauline with constant peril/cliffhangers that would 'get old' pretty fast or else you'd just have to keep killing tons of PCs and NPCs ... neither of which make for believable continuity IMO.

    But I love horror for one-off sessions, either in one-shot games or as changes in mood for an otherwise non-horror campaign. My own D&D campaign had a few sessions that were heavier on horror but I don't think I could or should make horror a constant.

  18. Scary is meeting a mountain lion in the woods. Horror is a rat in your bedroom.

    Scary is easy to do in an RPG. Lots of monsters. And a deep pit. But horror relies on the irrational, on being more afraid of something than you should be. On the contrary, isn't every D&D character less afraid than they should be? It's not Drawing Rooms & Drgaonflies.
    Heroes or no, and beyond any special abilities, they are people who have chosen to seek out danger rather than avoid it.

    But on the note of horrific scenes or horrific elements, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the secret room on the top floor of the Cursed Chateu. There’s something about the juxtaposition of the familiar and the totally wrong that makes a demon more horrific in a library than in a dungeon. And the fact that he just sits there, rather than attacking.

  19. Twice, and both in Call of Cthulhu, albeit about fifteen years apart.

    The first time a friend of ours was running a scenario he'd written about a local legend. It was set in the village in which he lived, so all the places were real, and we played it at his house. It wasn't very well lit out there in the country, so we sat there surrounded by darkness, investigating a real local legend -- the ghost of the witch Nan Tuck for those interested -- in the real location. It all came together for a very creepy atmosphere, and it didn't hurt that the session ended in the entire party being picked off one by one by Nan Tuck herself, aside from my character who'd been hospitalised earlier after being shot and so missed the climax.

    The other time was a couple of years ago and I was the GM. I didn't consider the scenario -- again a homebrew -- to be that frightening, but the players were thrown into a panic. No atmospherics this time however; the fear all arose from the sudden shock of a suuden attack from an axe-wielding maniac. After they survived that, they were shaken and nervous when continuing their investigations.

    So my friend went for a nice bit of atmospheric, psychological horror, while I went for lowest common denominator shock tactics. ;)

  20. Horror used to be my forte as a young DM.

    The key element is getting players as heavily involved in the roleplay as possible. The physical atmosphere helps a lot as well. The amount of description you give is also important.

    My shining moment was on a camping trip with two players. All three of us were in a tent and it was the middle of the night way out in the BFE. Their characters traveled to a haunted castle that was also out in the middle of no where.
    I had filled the castle, literally, with every type of ghost in the monstrous manual. It was the players job to retrieve a sword? or maybe they just had to get through the castle, I don't recall. Before the adventure was over, the players were literally jumping at every shadow and becoming increasingly paranoid.
    I've never been a super-descriptive DM in that I don't ever go into excruciating detail. This allows me room to improvise and allows players to fill in the details with their imaginations, something essential for horror.
    I don't remember much about the castle, but I remember that it was scary enough for my players, there was zero loot and zero combat and everyone had a blast.

  21. Even within the world of an RPG, there are rules that exist, defining how things "should" be. Throwing out those rules, or even just bending them slightly, can have a horrifying effect on PCs. Send them in circles a few times, no matter which way they turn in the dungeon, have NPCs wander up to the PCs and speak cryptic phrases before collapsing unconscious, have them wake up from a rest with signs of a fight (scratches, bleeding wounds, bruises,etc) but no memory of engaging in battle - give them a small amount of XP just to really mess with them.

    Basically, take the things your PCs take for granted about role playing and use them against them.

    In order to really sell it though, you've got to go a bit purple with your prose. No "five by ten rooms", but rather "a room dimly lit by the feeble flickering of your torch, draped in heavy shadows that conceal the chittering of little feet as they escape back into the darkness that lurks ahead."

    That sort of thing.

  22. An old friend of mine would run Call of Cthulu by candle light. Such a simple tricked worked wonders for setting the mood for the game. We had many genuinely frightening moments in his games.

  23. When I've had moments of being scared, as a player, the one ingredient that's ALWAYS in the recipe is that I WANT to be scared... I'm willing to go with the mood, let it wash over me, let my own imagination go there and beyond.
    Without that... nothing in an RPG is going to scare me, EVER.
    Luckily, I like being scared...
    Unfortunately I'm the only one in our group who does, the only horror movie fan... the only one who reads that stuff. The other players are all the sort who sit in the 3rd row and shout jokes at the screen... which can deflate any scenario.
    I think it's important to keep your inner Eddie Murphy on hold if the goal really is to have a creepy good time.

  24. Come to think of it, I had more horror and suspense than I intended in Midlands. Then again, how can a realsitic depiction of a war be less than horrible and grotesque?

    The one intended moment was, when the players explored an abandoned Necromancers laborotory, They were loking at books, then they were trying to fifure out what the table with straps on the corners was (vivisection table), then they Shock and awe happened when they figured out that the thing in a formaldehyde jar was once a human being and right after the Magic User figured out that the remains of an ape left in alow cage in the corner with straw onthe floow were actually skeletal remains of a human child wrapped in a night gown. The guy choked back a sob! There was a long silence. The player charaters lef the room quietly, and forgot the surgical instruments in the draws of the vivisection table. Had they collected those, they would have sold them for a small fortune in gold pieces. I love placing treasure, which the players will overlook.

    The other type of horror was unintentional. Players had to cross an opening, through which half a dozen goblin archers were shooting at anthing that moved. One player, who ever played before, and didn't really understand hit points and dmaage shouted out - This is too dangerous. I am not sending my men (NPC's) across it! It was 35 minutes while the players were trying to figure out how to bypass it. Same player, same dungeon. Unfinished stronghold. a twenty foot diameter shaft cu through to the bottom level of the limestone cave complex that was intended to be a lift fr wagons and mounted riders. Same player decides that it is a hole for the dragon! He convinces all the other players that there is a dragon at the bottom of the Dungeon. And all the other players believed him! This was supposed to be the easy way to cut to the chase and have a superior attack from above enemy from above (no dragon), instead players went off on a tangent looking for another way to get to the lower levels, which was there, but I never intended to be used and it extended the adventure by a good amount of time.

    The third way, was when the mechnaics of the combat system and the narrative rolled seamlessly into one. Player party made a tactical mistake and walked out into a wide open field, where they were attacked by goblin wolf riders mounted on dire wolves. Player party formed the shield wall and received the charge. Goblins rolled two Crit Hits. I only use the hit location table to help in the story telling and to see if the locatio is protected by metal plate, which might avert the crit hit. In any case, a PC and NPC were killed outright when the goblin lances struck. To the Druid's left a female NPC fighter collapsed with a broken lance in her chest. She died in the Druid's hands as he was trying to help her, and then a Paladin PC to his right fell, bleeding all over the place, his throat torn out by the dire wolve's fangs. While the Paladin was thrashing going through death throes in Druid's arms, the Druid saw a goblin wolf rider turning towards him. Druid grabs for the weapon and tries to get on his feet, but slips in the blood and falls. Druid has the presence of mind to cast the entangle spell, but it fails, he tries again, and this time succeeds with the wolf rider almost on top of him. The Druid was crawling away on all fours, sans shield and his weapon, while the two thieves were shooting at the goblin and the wolf from their bows...

  25. I did get the players good and spooked once: I think it happened because of a combination of factors. Here's the situation: the characters were exploring a burial ground consisting of a whole bunch of gravemounds (most about 12' tall). They'd been warned that this was not someplace they wanted to be once night fell, and they'd already had some skirmishes with undead that led them to think all Hell would break loose after sundown. What they didn't know was that the place generated a confusion effect: the longer you stayed there, the more likely you'd wander deeper in instead of being able to get out. So the evening was fast approaching when they realized something was wrong and they couldn't leave as easily as they expected. At that point, I had crows start showing up. Just a few at first, sitting on the mounds, then more, and more, and more... The players didn't know what that meant, but they were sure it wasn't good; not knowing made them even more panicky. (The crows never did anything; they were just meant to be creepy, and it worked beautifully.)

    I think this worked for several reasons. First, the players abruptly realized that they weren't in control of the situation; they wanted to leave, but couldn't. Second, there was a mysteriously creepy element present: the crows. (Here, I was playing on players' tendency to assume that anything the DM mentions a lot is significant; that made them assign unpleasant meanings to the crows, probably more unpleasant than anything I could have thought of). Third, they were expecting to get killed by a massive wave of undead after dark.

    The astute reader may notice that I was shamelessly ripping things off here: getting lost in a bunch of gravemounds is straight out of "Fog on the Barrow-Downs" (Chapter 8 of The Fellowship of the Ring)and the crows are out of Hitchcock's The Birds. if you want to give your players the creeps, it never hurts to put old horrors in a new guise.

  26. Dread does it with Jenga, of all things.

    Shockingly, it works every time.

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  28. Well, this is interesting! I've been working on this for awhile now. I've achieved actually scarring the players three times, tried more often, but only scared them three times. Each time was the same atmosphere, dark.

    The first time it was a one shot of Ravenloft: Masque of the Red Death with a haunted ocean liner.

    The other two times were in a long running campaign. I think it only worked because I was upfront about what I was trying to do, and my usual no random death rule was suspended. They really had no idea if their characters would die, and I ramped up the creepy factor. I think that since they had an attachment to their characters, it really helped. A single session or two out of a long running campaign is a tad easier.

  29. I tried playing a horror themed couple of sessions a while ago. My players knew it was supposed to be horror-ish. There were zombies and woods at night and missing children.

    When I was really trying to creep the characters out it didn't work- one morning a NPC woke up with the fingers on one hand chopped off, and another NPC had a stomach ache. Later in the day NPC number 2 vomited up the missing fingers. The players were mostly unfazed.

    The next night though they decided to stay in an abandoned farm house. They meticulously checked the house and found nothing strange, except a horrible smell in the basement that kept getting worse. The smell was just a afterthought and never explained, but it seriously freaked my players out.

  30. I think it is difficult to do horror in an RPG. There's a book out there called "Nightmares of Mine" that tackles the subject and points out the difficulties in doing horror in this venue. For one thing, most players treat monsters as targets, not as things to run away from, and will feel more frustrated than horrified when they can not engage them immediately. As many have said, a lot of it comes down to the willingness of the players to play along. We ended up doing a CoC session that looked more like a Hope/Crosby comedy than a horror movie.

    That having been said, here's my story. I was running a New Year's Eve Rifts one-shot with some friends many years ago. I was describing a scene while simultaneously stuffing my face with tortilla chips when I suddenly choked, gagged, and then vomited into the chip bowl. The players looked at me with horror on their faces and one of them said, "was that part of the story, because if it wasn't it will be scarier than anything you'll come up with tonight."

  31. Yeah, we had a pretty scary session last year. We started D&D in the winter of 2010. More or less little adventures so that everyone (myself included), could figure it out. Started with 3ed, but by late summer had moved to 1ed. Early on it was pretty much go into dungeon, find orc, kill orc, take treasure, repeat.

    Then in late September, I noticed that the game world calendar was in mid-October. So I threw together a little side adventure if they wanted it, revolving around 'help village find why graves are being disturbed.' I heaped plenty of Halloween cliches and icons: black cats on fence posts, abandoned chapels, graveyards near cornfields complete with corn stalks and scarecrows, bats in woods, old mausoleums, dark crypts, the works. Enough that they figured out the atmosphere, and assumed something 'Halloween-like' would be coming at them. Their biggest fear was that I had a ghost waiting for them (they feared the 1st ed ghost as much as anything).

    Eventually they made their way to an old abandoned manor house in the middle of some woods. I had nothing in it except a few poltergeists and a locked and sealed room with a demonic force to provide some ESP scares (they couldn't get to it, they can later if they want to come back). Once in the house, I had only a few little signs - drops of blood, plenty of cobwebs, strange noises (I would give notes to one or the other with things like 'you here so-and-so's name in a hoarse whisper') and that was it. They eventually found what they were looking for and beat a hasty retreat out of the place. I told them they hadn't examined the whole place, and they said they knew they hadn't. They just wanted out of there. They were actually scared for their PCs. Toward the end they actually argued over who had to open the next door.

    I doubt I could do that again. Setting up the obvious atmosphere and context, building on their own assumption that a ghost was the logical monster of the day (even if that was obviously way to tough for their level), and breaking pace from combat/treasure to really nothing at all, worked that time. Next time they would probably expect it. But at least that time, it worked like a charm.

  32. Thanks for this post, James. I too am a horror fan, and have always been cognizant of the difficulty in instilling genuine terror in D&D players. But it's not an insurmountable problem. The DM has to be a decent role-player. (Do you just tell players that 4 chasme demons are in the room, or do you give life to them and enact them?) Then too, visual aids can be helpful. (Ever see those from, say, Return to the Tomb of Horrors?) More generally, the game has to transcend dice-rolling and decision making, and tap into players' real-life fears.

    In the next few weeks I hope to post on my blog a module I've been working on for years: The Blinding Claw of Torremor. Someone in this thread alluded to Tolkien's Barrow-Downs, advising that "if you want to give your players the creeps, it never hurts to put old horrors in a new guise", and that's true. My adventure leans heavily on The Exorcist. In essence, it's a three-stage campaign: (1) a horrifying ritual in a village setting (I'm using Hommlet), (2) a dungeon layered with suffocating evil, and finally (3) a showdown on the Abyss where the stakes are as high as they get. Whether or not it plays out genuinely frightening, I must leave others to judge; I still haven't run the thing.

  33. @Pierce: I think that's a good example of what does and doesn't work in an RPG. The PCs were unfazed by the fingers thing because they identified it as set dressing. If it had happened to PCs rather than NPCs, it might have worked a little better, but probably not because it's still identifiable as a special effect, something that happened because the DM (or a random table) decided it happened, and therefore not a threat. (I'm making assumptions here, tell me if I'm wrong.) It's creepy, but it's not scary.

    The bad smell was scary because the players couldn't dismiss it that way. Sure, in reality it was a special effect too, but it could have been something horrible creeping up on them. It's atmospherically creepy, but it's also scary because it's an unknown potential threat, something they have to deal with on their own terms.

    For the finger example, if you had an actual creature that snuck up on PCs in the night and painlessly gnawed off fingers, and you ran it as a creature rather than as a DM fiat or a plot point, that has at least the potential to be scary in a way that creepy window dressing can never be, because it's threatening and it's unsettling and it's something the players have to deal with themselves, as players.

    Dread's Jenga tower works well because the chance of horrible consequences revolves entirely around the players' own actions - pulling out that jenga block - not on the DM or the story or anything else. If the player manages it, they're okay for now. If not, they're fucked. It provides the element of tension that's often missing. You can get the same effect in a diced game, if the conditions are right.

  34. Nope. Nobody in our groups, players or gamemasters, dug being "scared for reals" during a game session. Too many of us had vivid imaginations that would replay game sessions into nightmares ... so we kept the nightmare fuel to limited and strategic deployments.

    (Oh, and look! I found a way to post. Lucky me.

  35. I don't understand the idea that it's hard to do horror in rpgs. In rpgs you're involved, your character can die. That seems a lot easier then trying to horrify in print or on screen.

    And I'm trying to scare my players every session. They are going down into holes in the ground where the dead dwell and things want to eat them. If exploration isn't at least a little unnerving, why play?

  36. I think it can be hard for an RPG to achieve real time horror, as the distance between the character and the player is too far. It's similar to watching a horror movie when everyone is being silly.

    But RPGs are an excellent medium for achieving Lovecraftian "cumulative horror". I have many times had players report that they have had nightmares about things that happened in game, or that they got spooked later, on reflection, of the in-game events.

    The guy with the doritos gets forgotten, but the horror lingers.

  37. Some thoughts on horror RPGs.

    As others have said or alluded to here, by its nature, RPGs are a shared experience. It takes the players and the GM to create the mood to make a horror game work.

    It's important to understand that you can describe weird, messed up stuff all you want...the tension in a horror game comes not only from your narrative, but mostly from the tangible sense of danger your characters are in...that tangible sense that one more hit, or one more blown sanity check and your character won't be coming back alive or intact.

    To me, system is paramount to getting the feel of horror right. Put the d20, Savage Worlds, and Hero away...all of them are way too heroic for it to work. I've never seen, run, or played in a D&D game that freaked out players as much as some of the other systems I've run. My one experience with Tomb of Horrors wasn't so much a horror game as getting pissed off at what was pretty much a horribly unbalanced dungeon.

    Most players of D&D treat encounters with all the dispassion of a mechanic rebuilding an engine. "Ah, it's an Umber Hulk. You do this, Fred do this, Sara do this, and I'll bring a fireball into the fray."

    The grittier the system, and the more lethal the combat mechanics, the better the chance of building tension, in my opinion.

    Obviously story, mood, etc. make a huge difference, but alone, they won't get you there, particularly if the players aren't buying. I'm a big fan of Call of Cthulhu/BRP for system, but really, any system that has a robust mechanic for fear effects, and leaves the characters with a very tangible sense of one wrong move and they're dead will do it. I've not played Dread, but the Jenga Tower mechanic seems a likely candidate to create that sense of tension. Call of Cthulhu's combination of Sanity checks, squishy characters that can be killed with a couple of shots or melee attacks, and nearly invulnerable monsters also works well. I've seen a few indie games that do it pretty well.

  38. I won't gamemaster straight Call of Cthulhu because I've played with some very good gamemasters.

    One time, after a session at one of these people's places, in what is effectively the country, we were waiting for a train back to the city proper. Imagine the scene. We are on the platform. The wind is rustling the trees. And we were huddled under the single isolated light (well within each other's personal space). That was the residue from the game session. We laughed about it when we realised that was what we were doing, but the laughter had a slight tinge to it and we never really relaxed until the train had reached the safety of the city.

    I'm just glad at that time I hadn't read Kult. The Metropolis edition is one of the few games where reading the rules made me uncomfortable. In a brightly lit room. The sheer poetry and alienation inherent in the game was so well done, and extrapolating that into what it would be like to play let it seduce me. [I really wanted to run one of the published scenarios for a friend because it would have hit ever one of his (the player's) buttons, and he would have reacted exactly how the characters would have. I didn't, because the player's psychological disadvantages are never fair game.]

    [I should add the disclaimer that there are games that people won't play with me because they think I'm too good at the seductive sweet reason of darkness and despair. Such as being of noble of Hell in Nobilis.]

    Like good horror on visual media, horror in an RPG is best imagined off-screen. As soon as a monster is actually presented, it is hard to cultivate a sense of fear. [I'm reminded of my house rule for D&D is that undead cause fear (or at least a morale check), becausem even if it's just a skeleton, it's still the walking dead.

    Although if you have a player (it never works when done by the gamemaster), who is good at projecting panic and hysteria, and you can play to it, then you can discover that panic is indeed contagious.

    Oh, and for good mechanics for simulating a horror story, I always thought the Orrorsh sourcebook for Torg managed to capture the horror movie genre quite well, with the need to gain Perserverance to overcome the Horror (and without which the Horror could pull all sorts of nasty tricks on the adventurers). It even had a good game mechanic for encouraging players to split up whilst exploring that big old house up on the hill...

  39. Oh, and I almost forgot. Grey Ranks. An indie storytelling game about being a teenage resistance fighter in the doomed 1945 Warsaw Uprising. The game I played of it (with excellent role-players) really emphasised the horrors of war and the hopelessness of the whole situation by the end. It's a game where winning (aka staying alive and reasonably sane) is extremely unlikely. Which goes to show that not all horrors are monsters.

  40. @Desert Rat: I agree, except that I think D&D at low levels is a very good vehicle for fantasy horror. The low hit point totals mean death is always a threat, but the hit point system itself builds tension quite nicely. Every setback you survive decreases your hit points and increases your risk of sudden death. No complicated injury mechanics or fear effects, just an ever-higher chance that your next mistake will be your last.

    If the players meet something as terrifying as an umber hulk, a hideous monster that gnaws at the lightless roots of the world, that can tear apart an armoured man in seconds and which they can't look in the (creepily human) eyes without going mad, and they treat it with the passion of rebuilding an engine, then the DM is doing something wrong.

  41. I love "Kult" because an opresive atmosphere... but I think that horror, humor or sadness are only possible if your GM is a good one.

  42. Desert Rat wrote:

    To me, system is paramount to getting the feel of horror right. Put the d20, Savage Worlds, and Hero away...all of them are way too heroic for it to work. I've never seen, run, or played in a D&D game that freaked out players as much as some of the other systems I've run.

    I never gave much thought in those terms (probably because D&D is the only game I play), but I think you make a good point about heroics. Characters essentially sign on for mayhem and horror, which can ironically diminish its effect. It puts me in mind of the difference between Alien and Aliens, the latter of which is basically Alien on steroids, involving ten times the horror, but it's ultimately less scary because the protagonists – the marines – sign on to fight and die as part of their jobs. Even Ripley, in Cameron's sequel, goes in knowing what she's in for. The first Alien may have involved only one creature, but it was picking off helpless crew members who were anything but "heroes".

    My one experience with Tomb of Horrors wasn't so much a horror game as getting pissed off at what was pretty much a horribly unbalanced dungeon.

    Hmmm... that's part of it, but if the DM knows what he's doing, Tomb of Horrors (and the sequel) can be very scary.

  43. Not an entire "session" no. Our sessions go for 7 or 8 hours so there are many different emotions experienced. Much like any horror movie where only certain scenes are actually "horrible", not the whole movie. Based on this, yes, we have certainly had frightening or horrific encounters and other moments in our sessions. It happens kind of often actually.

  44. Once ran a campaign where the characters were investigating rumors of a lake monster. Instead, a flying horror appeared out of a ruined castle on the shore. As it flew slowly toward them, they panicked, convinced that jumping in the lake was suicide. The creature flew in, snagged one of them, and flew away. The players were so freaked they forgot they had guns. Oh... and as a bonus... there was no monster in the lake. That was just a rumor. ;)