Personal note: Before writing this blog, I thought I'd try and Google the word "horror" to see if I could come up with a suitable graphic for this post.
The search engine just gave me a bunch of faces, close up, staring full screen at the viewer, leering, gurning, screaming, gaping open-mouthed like simpletons faced with their first conjuring trick.
That's not scary. That's just marketing people capitalising on the Uncanny Valley, and presenting the world with a bunch of actors in heavy makeup to make their faces look disfigured - because the fear of disabled people and ugliness is the last refuge of plain old bigotry left in the world.
Creating Scary Stories
So this is about creating gaming scenarios intended to terrify the Players. Note - not the Adventurers.
It is as hard to create a horror scenario as it is to create a mystery. How can you create a terrifying scenario to a party of Adventurers who go in to the haunted house fully armoured top to toe, and carrying huge, unwieldy, devastating weapons of war? When the Players' first impulse is to yell "I roll initiative and ready my weapons" when they meet a zombie in a room; when their reaction to confronting a shifting werewolf is to dig through their bags for silver weapons because the Players know that silver is deadly to them; how can you get through a jaded, blasé mindset and scare them?
Safety tools are probably more important in the horror genre than in any other genre of gaming. The themes of horror roleplaying include topics which cause discomfort, and while players might know exactly what they are getting into, still some events and topics might crop up which could cause distress to individuals. A player might agree to play in a story where spiders feature strongly because they have no fear of spiders - but they may draw the line at the depiction of fire, for instance. Or they might have no problem with investigating a haunted house and have no fear of ghosts, but vampires could terrify them.
Safety tools include safety cards - the "O" card for "okay" (it's the player acting in character, for instance, rather than being terrified for real), the "pause" card to allow the player to take a breather, and the "X" card to signal that the player doesn't want to explore the scene any further. Gestures such as "cut" (hands in an X across the chest, palms down) and "brake" (hands in front of chest, palms out) serve the same function as the "pause" and "X" cards.
Games Masters can exercise options such as veils, which draw a veil over the scene and close it down so the characters can move on, and script changes which can rewind a scene to an earlier point or even go to a previous scene.
And with that now said, let's look deep into the nature of fear.
The Nature Of Fear
People watch horror movies and read horror stories to feel an enjoyable frisson of fear. Humans must be the only species that indulges in risky activities in this way. Human couples often watch horror movies together because it deepens emotional bonds. Around the gaming table, Players enjoy horror scenarios for the same reason - the sharing of the emotions of fear increases team camaraderie.
Fear is an emotional reaction to the perception of a threat. Fear only arises where there is a threat, either real or implied. In a horror game, the threat can come from the predations of a monster or monsters.
Fear comes in four main flavours.
Unease - Your gut instinct is telling you that something is wrong. You can't see anything wrong, and everything feels normal, but all the same ...
Dread - Your gut instinct is correct. Something is wrong. You know when something feels normal, and things are definitely not normal, though you don't know the cause.
Terror - You know something is wrong, and you know what it is - but you've not encountered it yet.
Horror - You encounter the cause of whatever is wrong.
Genres and Subgenres
Horror categories include:-
- body horror, where the character is facing a terrible fate as they physically transform into something monstrous IThe Fly);
- monster horror, where the characters are the prey of some terrifying monster (vampire / werewolf / demon / zombies);
- psychological horror, where the protagonists begin to doubt their own sanity, or have to face their own fears (Vertigo, Marnie);
- gothic horror, where the protagonists are plunged into a macabre world of dark symbolism (Masque of The Red Death, The Fall of The House of Usher);
- cosmic horror, where the protagonists confront the realisation that the world of normality and sanity is a fragile shell over an infinite abyss of darkness (The Shadow Out Of Time);
- and folk horror, where the protagonists face fear and terror in some isolated part of the world (The Wicker Man, Candyman).
Intrusion Of The Other
In every element of horror, the protagonists must face the intrusion of The Other - the antagonistic element whose presence in the story is intended to threaten the protagonist, and thereby generate fear. As the Games Master, you are the person in charge of this Other, whether it be a vampire, a mutant giant crocodile inhabiting a lake, a village full of ritualistic cannibals, a global zombie outbreak, or an alien invasion.
In a game of cosmic horror, you get to play Cthulhu. Let that sink in.
How do you generate these feelings of horror, terror, dread, and unease among the Players?
Start With Normality
Always begin with the everyday; the routine; the ordinary. The protagonists are on their way to a remote village to start new lives, or they are heading for some old mansion to spend the night there before claiming an inheritance. Life should revolve around such petty pursuits as looking for work, or going to a party, or a similar event.
Something out of place happens not long into the adventure. Dead birds fall from the sky; a local comes up to the protagonists and says "This place is not for you. Get out now, while you still can!"; the pub that the characters wander into suddenly falls silent, and the landlord and every single patron stop what they're doing and stare at them.
Build Things Up Slowly
In order to build things up slowly, you need to set the scene and show the protagonists what the normal environment looks like. Then, once they get used to it, not long after the inciting incident, add layers of unease and dread. This is done in three ways.
Additions - Something new and unfamiliar appears. Strange writing on the wall; an odd shadow; strange lights in the sky at night.
Deletions - Something the protagonists take for granted disappear. A friendly face vanishes; the sounds of barking dogs at night cease, and there is no sign of any dogs around.
Changes - Something looks, sounds, or feels different: more menacing. The wind's nightly howl sounds almost bestial; the trees around the village seem to be closer, somehow.
Keep adding and layering these changes, until the protagonists look around and wonder where they are.
Mystery is a situation which has taken place in the past. Suspense is anticipation of a future event. The protagonists should be aware that something is happening; something is coming, some event or the arrival of the presence with which they must struggle. As much as all the weirdness is building up slowly, the protagonists must become aware that these additions, deletions, and edits are building up towards something horrendous - and they can neither escape it, nor can they turn away or find a safe place to hide.
Long before the confrontation, you can shock and terrify the protagonists with surprises and moments of terror. A demon manifests as strange clouds of light and hideous odours, advancing along a road towards the character in the dead of night; or the evil occultist sends vile dreams into the sleeping protagonists' minds.
Nobody Is Safe
The antagonist, the Horror, now takes away non-player characters who have become close to the protagonists. For example, a friendly priest and police officer who'd expressed sympathy for the protagonists and an interest in joining them in the hunt suddenly go quiet - only to turn up where the protagonists least expect them, dead, to show the protagonists that they are now on their own.
With permission from individual Players, worked out in advance before the game begins, the Horror can even take away one or more of the protagonists to show the rest that it means business.
Give Them Hope
Fear is unsustainable. There have to be moments of respite to allow the Players time to breathe and rally around, before reintroducing the fear. Give the protagonists some element which can drive away the dark forces of the antagonist. A shelter; an amulet; a weapon. Whatever that element is, it drives away the antagonist for a little while, allowing the protagonists to settle down and feel a momentary sense of relief.
Then Take It Away
Don't let them enjoy that momentary sense of relief for too long. Jumpscares are your best weapon. Remember that jumpscare moments are supposed to be unexpected. The best time to scare the protagonists is to combine the jumpscare moment with the sense that Nobody Is Safe, above. Have the protagonist take away a non-player character in mid-sentence. Punctuate the moment by randomly dropping a heavy book on the table, for example. Then, when the collaborating Player starts to say something, slam that book down again.
Just because you and the Player have agreed that the antagonist can take their character away, it doesn't mean that the Player should not be scared too. You can both agree to have their character killed off by the end of Scene 3, but nothing says you have to honour that - you can take them off the table midway through Scene 2, for example.
When To Escalate From Terror To Horror
Terror and horror are peak emotions. Neither is sustainable. In the 2000 AD strip The Out, protagonist Cyd Finlea is a human exploring distant space; virtually the only human. The worlds she visits are full of strangeness and wonders, but there is also a dread force known as The Tankinar, which is a kind of technological disease which springs up now and then, every few millennia. Sadly for Cyd, she gets to meet them twice in her lifetime. The first time around, she is ground up into mincemeat, but advanced alien science gives her new life in a clone body. But the second encounter is a textbook exercise in horror.
Cyd hears that the Tankinar are on the loose again, and boards a ship heading for some alien world, only to find that the Tankinar have beaten her to it. With their last avenue of escape (a spaceship) destroyed, Cyd and the stranded aliens are chased down by hyperfast Tankinar, or cut down by the planet's natural predators, before Cyd finds herself alone on a barren planet, watching the last city in flames.
Consumed by terror, Cyd finds herself believing that there is nothing worse to come ... until she hears the lightest of sounds, like a gentle footstep, right behind her.
And that's when she comes face to face with the Tankinar.
ALL of the Tankinar.
But they do not kill her. In a truly masterful twist, Cyd Finlea experiences the greatest horror of all: the realisation that her body itself has already been contaminated by a seed of the Tankinar ... which becomes active, consuming her from within and transforming her into one of them, body and soul.
The best time to introduce the horror is at the moment of peak terror. This requires mastery of suspense and timing, and as Games Master you must wait until the Players' attention is as fully focused as possible on the game before dropping the hammer of horror on them.
Yes. I went there.
The Final Girl Is A Myth
In many hororr movies of the slasher genre, there is usually some sole survivor - typically a blonde cheerleader or similar. The concept of the Final Girl comes from these slasher movies. As Games Master, you are not beholden to keep any of the protagonists alive to see the end of the scenario.
This isn't a matter of giving the characters the consequences of critical successes or fumbles at the wrong moment. Protagonists who do risky things such as leaping between buildings can be allowed to succeed in their Athletics rolls, even if everything indicates that by rights, they should be plummeting to their deaths. Their fate to die at the hands of the antagonist should as clear as crystal to the Players. the only way they are going to exit is at the hands of the bad guys, and even if the Players deliberately sit their protagonists down in the middle of a blazing house fire in an attempt to let the flames taken them, it won't be the fire that does them in - it will be the antagonist, pouncing on them from behind when the they least expect it.
One Last Twist
Many horror stories leave one final revelation to drive the protagonists to insanity (lo and behold, they too are becoming Deep Ones), or straight into the arms of the monster they thought they had killed. The best twist is always withheld until the last possible minute of the session, when the survivors think that they got away from the horrors, and they are back home, supposedly safe and sound, returning slowly to their lives of normality and sanity.
Until their dread enemy appears in a crowd for a fleeting moment, or takes over a monitor at work, or the Players hear a tune which had played during the scenario ("We've Only Just Begun" by The Carpenters still evokes shudders among diehard horror fans who ever watched In The Mouth of Madness, to the point where they can't even stand hearing it being played as an advertising jingle) ... or they visit a friend's grave, only to have a hand thrust up out of the dirt and grab theirs in an unbreakable grip ... or they board a taxi, and the driver leans over to look at the passengers - and it's their antagonist!
Edited by Alex Greene