Designing Horror in RPGs #01

I’m gonna talk about horror in rpgs. People often say "horror" with very different meanings in mind. In this article I'm specifically talking about horror as in something capable of inducing fear. Games like My Life With Master, Carry, Gang Rape or some very intense moments in Apocalypse World and Monsterhears might qualify as "horror" in a general sense, because they horrify the Player. They have the characters face terrible choices or horrible emotions. This is an awesome kind of game which I deeply love, but it is not the kind of horror I want to talk about here.

So, horror rpgs.
Maybe it's the after-Halloween vibe, but every year around this time of the year I end up reading a lot of discussions, articles and comments about how horror rpgs fail to be frightening. Which in turn prompts the question: how can players achieve fear at the table?

The answer, usually, is a long series of theatrical tricks:
- ambient lighting
- evocative music
- weird handouts
- all sorts of acting/storytelling techniques that the GM is supposed to use
- various approaches on how to prepare a story/quest in the "right" way
- etc

It all sums up to a well known conclusion: the game has failed us, let's employ our personal energy and skill in order to get what we want out of the play session.
Which is fine.
It gets the job done.
High maintenance fun.
The scariest game session I ever had was with Unknown Armies, and it was 100% thanks to theatrics. It’s one of my most awesome rpg memories, and I regret nothing about it.
But personally I can't help but ask myself: how can a game achieve fear at the table?

I want to express my personal experience and viewpoint on this subject. First I’ll introduce you to the sources that most influenced me and then, in future articles, I’ll use them to analyze the design of my horror rpg: Touched by Evil

So hey, here are my two pennies...

Nightmares of Mine

On the quest to achieve fear at the table, I remember reading a very interesting book by Kenneth Hite: Nightmares of Mine. Most of it was about how to implement the aforementioned theatrical tricks in very traditional and GM-centric games, but it also offered interesting insights into horror rpgs that I found to be useful. What I took away from this book are mainly two things:

One. True fear is next to impossible to achieve at the table for, oh, lots of reasons. But it is possible to summon similar feelings, and this is what we’re trying to achieve through rules design.

Two. The book described three main elements that can contribute to "frighten" a group of Players.

> Shock
This is about inducing an emotional reaction through the description of "horrible" things. The nature of the horror can be physical, expressed as monsters, deformities, gore and graphic violence; or it can be emotional, showing immorality, injustice, terrible revelations and various forms of psychological violence.

In general this is a cheap way to influence the Players. Throwing “horrible things” at the PCs if fairly easy, but it also gets very old very fast and, depending on the audience, it can do very little to rise the tension, fail to impress or even backfire spectacularly, producing comical or distasteful outcomes that kill the mood.

A virtuous example of shock-centered design, if you ask me, is Murderous Ghosts. Its mechanics allow the MC to extract from the Player exactly the images and ideas that the Player finds personally disturbing and horrifying.

> Terror
This one is about summoning a nervous kind of tension and inducing instinctive reactions, usually identified as jump scares. Harder to achieve than shock but also less “slapstick” and fairly more universally effective ... if not abused. Most horror rpgs are unable to deliver this effect by their own virtue, so (try to) instruct the GM on how to use theatrical tricks.

Virtuous examples are games like Dread and Hell For Leather that do achieve a feeling of tension and release pretty close to that of a jump scare. Thanks to their (different) tower mechanics Players are genuinely kept on their toes both by the fragility of the physical item set on the table, and by the in-fiction consequences for their PCs in case of collapse.


> Dread
My personal favourite is that lingering sense of unease, of being not safe, of perceiving something wrong without being able to understand exactly what it is. It is a delicate and subtle feeling compared to Shock or Terror, but it’s also the one going deeper under the skin, lingering there, building up to something that closely resembles fear, rather than growing duller with every new repetition.

In my personal experience no game manages to achieve this. Resorting to theatrics is the only way, and even then this effect requires a sapient mix of mood, pacing, the establishment of a normality and its gradual undermining. It is just plainly hard to produce: a lot of work that only bears fruit if the audience is both receptive and cooperating.

I don't know of any tabletop rpg that can mechanically facilitate Dread. If you do, please open a discussion about it somewhere and tag me in it, I’m very interested!
Predictably, this is the kind of horror I’m going after in Touched by Evil.


Stealing Cthulhu
When I think about the emotion of dread I usually think about H. P. Lovecraft’s novels. For this reason it was only natural that I would find a gold mine of ideas in the pages of Graham Walmsley essay about how to take Lovecraft’s novels and turn them into effective rpg scenarios: Stealing Cthulhu.

This book is fundamentally a big roll of suggestions for a GM to properly prepare a lovecraftian scenario; this is very valuable but in itself is only partly useful at achieving fear during a game session. Its default game system, Cthulhu Dark, reflects this approach by using rules whose main aim is to not get in the way of story and mood, cutting away the ever present and highly inappropriate challenge oriented rules that so many other rpgs use. But then it does next to nothing to induce emotional responses in the Players; again, theatrics and personal storytelling skills are what “makes the game”.

For me what is truly invaluable in the essay is the fact that, in order to give good prep guidelines, it dissects and analyses Lovecraft’s narrative style, pacing, evocative elements and unique perks in a clear and functional way.

A remarkable example of a game born out of this essay’s influence is Lovecraftesque. If you ask me I would describe it as “a much better Call of Cthulhu”. I discovered its existence when my own game was approaching the “its testable” phase with a mix of hope and dread (no pun intended): on one hand it might have made my idea redundant and obsolete, while on the other hand it would have been the horror game I was looking for.
Turns out I got lucky and enjoyed the best of both options. Lovecraftesque is a very good horror game of a kind that is right up my alley, but it doesn’t quite deliver the kind of experience I am looking for.


Extra Credits
Last but not least is the horror-themed series of (video)game design vlogs by Extra Credits: the Spooky Specials.

Although these vlogs don’t specifically talk about tabletop rpgs, I found that 90% of what they say can effectively be translated in our medium of choice. This series of videos in particular was invaluable to me in pinpointing exactly WHAT to do with my game, and HOW to do it so that it would have an emotional impact on the Players.

In Where did Survival Horror Go? the matter of what exactly is horror? is splendidly discussed and, unintentionally, explains why a tabletop rpg should have all the right tools to emotionally affect its audience but usually fails, instead delivering some variation of action adventure that happens to have monsters in it.
And while on this subject, I felt a sort of “eureka!” kind of feeling watching Why Games do Cthulhu Wrong.
First, by enumerating all the reasons why Cthulhu-themed video games fail at lovecraftian/cthulhoid horror, it nails down all the reasons why in my personal experience the rules of the classic Call of Cthulhu rpg fail in the same way; incidentally these are pretty much the same arguments found in the Stealing Cthulhu essay.
Later, well, the vlog explicitly mentions the CoC rpg as the perfect example of how to handle the Cthulhu horror right! Which made me grin to no end as to me it shows how, once more, nobody ever really uses the rules of that game, leveraging instead GM skill and theatrics to achieve all the marvellous things the vlog talks about. Reading through some of the comments makes this especially clear: lots of Good GM Wisdom there!

In Symbolism 101 the concept of the uncanny is presented for the first time as the most effective source of dread... the sense of wrongness I described at the beginning of this article. Later, in Horror that Lingers, this element is specifically analysed (along with a brief review of other types of horror that, by now, you may find familiar).

In Horror Protagonists there are tons of invaluable informations on how PC could be structured and how such characters should relate to the horrible situation around them. And the complementary vlog to this one is The Beast Macabre, talking about creatures and monsters in horror games and how they might be portrayed.

Truly, most episodes of Extra Credits would be incredibly useful and inspiring to many tabletop rpg designers; I can’t recommend them enough.

And then...

This is what I had to say about the sources that guided and inspired my design for Touched by Evil. In future article I’ll walk through the game rules, section by section, in order to show how they work together in order to summon a genuine sense of dread in the Players.