Since it’s Halloween week, we’ll be focused on the scary, spooky and horrific every day until the Festival of Samhain has been celebrated to its sanguine (or sacchariferous) conclusion. If you want to run a horror RPG that truly creeps your players out and makes them shiver in fear, you’d do well to follow some of these time-honored principles of horror.
One of my favorite topics is how to apply good writing practices to writing and running RPGs. Horror is no different. I’ve collected these tips from various horror RPGs, articles about writing, talks given by writers, and my own voluminous research (I read and watch a lot of horror). As a point of reference, one of the best treatises on horror I’ve ever read appeared in the GM’s section of Mayfair’s Chill RPG (which we’ll be discussing in greater detail later this week). Now, on to the principles of horror.
1. Isolation. It is possible to do “horror in a crowd” (Cloverfield really nailed that one), but it is the exceptional horror story that manages it. Things are simply less scary when there are other people around. Countless horror films rely on stranding protagonists in dark, scary woods (The Blair Witch Project), in remote deserts (The Hills Have Eyes), out at sea (Jaws), in a dark house with cut phone lines (Night of the Living Dead), or even on a space ship millions of miles from Earth (Alien(s)). They can’t easily run or call for help, there’s no easy escape, and more importantly, there’s no one else around to confirm that what’s happening is really happening.
Pulling this off in an RPG is pretty easy, frankly. Dungeons are naturally very isolated, and those abandoned wizards’ towers are never right down the street.
2. Mystery. This can be tough to pull off in your typical fantasy RPG, where the characters fight monsters and face death twice per gaming session, and every creature is fully explained in an encyclopedic manual. It’s easy enough to terrorize your players with increasingly violent and difficult monsters, but to really horrify them, you need something that hides in the shadows. A hidden antagonist pulling strings from behind the scenes is one way to approach this, but you could also have a horrible monster that is always literally shrouded in shadow, no matter how much darkvision the characters have – it lurks at the edges of combat but never participates; blots out the stars as the characters make camp, but fades away when they try to attack it; remains underground but attacks with tendrils and tentacles, never revealing its true extent. A good example is The Mist. While the movie version hints at the monsters’ origins, they lurk within the mist and are almost never fully shown (and those vague discussions about military experiments and dimensional portals actually add to the creepiness).
3. Realism. This is an often overlooked element of horror. I recently watched Paranormal Activity for the second time, and I still found it scary as hell. Again. One of the reasons is that, apart from the demon, everything is so mundane. The characters act like regular people. The interior of their home could stand in for most of the apartments and houses I’ve lived in. It’s very easy to put yourself in the character’s place when you’re watching. If the movie had been set in a dream realm and they lived in a crystal palace? Not so much.
There’s another important aspect to realism in horror: well-developed characters. In your typical RPG, NPCs get mowed down at an alarming rate, and most of them never even get a name. If you want your players to feel something when the town’s night guards are slaughtered by the shadowy Beast of the Moors, have them talk to the guards for a while. Maybe when the PCs first arrive, the Inn is closed for repairs. Then Stonn, a gregarious guard with a goofy looking overbite, offers to let them all stay with his family for the evening. The PCs meet Stonn’s wife, she makes them dinner, the kids go to bed, they all tell stories around the hearth. The next night, when Stonn is found gutted but with his sword still valiantly clutched in his hand, it will have far greater emotional impact.
4. Otherness. You can construct an effective horror story out of a rogue tiger that stalks villagers and eats them. But far, far better is a story about a misshapen beast that only appears in the thickest fog, has legs with impossible joints, and makes an unspeakable chittering sound as it approaches victims, which it often leaves uneaten. No one knows what it is, where it comes from, or what it wants. It is “other.” It’s alien and weird and that makes it so much more creepy.
You can do otherness subtly, like a psychological thriller. The town apothecary seems perfectly normal, except since the death of his young daughter he’s been shrinking people down and keeping them as living dolls. You could even do a straight-up serial killer tale, perhaps a thief with amazing stealth and a homicidal streak. But RPGs handle equally well the alien monster, the thing from beyond, the aberration, the experiment gone wrong. My favorites are things which are intelligent, yet so utterly incomprehensible that we could never begin to fathom their motivations. The Weaver from Perdido Street Station is an excellent example, as is the Mothman from The Mothman Prophecies. The name Indrid Cold still sends a chill down my spine.
5. The Dark Mirror. This is sort of a corollary of Otherness, in which the horror story holds up a mirror and reveals that the Otherness lies within the protagonist. The literal interpretation of this, which you can find in The Machinist, Secret Window and Fight Club, is difficult to pull off in an RPG. Maybe you’ve got a wizard PC who finds herself waking up each morning with only about half of her spells memorized. Meanwhile, a series of nighttime murders plagues the town. The clues eventually all point to the wizard, but the player has no idea that her character’s been doing these things. Is she possessed, is it a frame job, does she have an evil twin? Up to the DM.
There are excellent tales to be told within the less direct version of the Dark Mirror. The classic version is Luke Skywalker and his father, Darth Vader. In Vader, Luke sees what he could be like if he chose another way to use his power. If your PCs are good or even vaguely neutral or mercenary, pitting them against another party of downright evil bastards who have many of the same abilities could be entertaining and enlightening. As the players gradually discover that the heinous acts they’re investigating are being perpetrated by a group very similar to themselves, there will be a few chilling moments of dread (before the big fight finale, of course).
Addendum: I also want to point out a key advantage that RPGs give you in terms of horror. Mainly, the players don’t necessarily know they’re in a horror scenario. This is a problem with horror movies. They set up the characters and start showing how nice they are, or how much fun they’re having, our how pleasant life is as a camp counselor, but the whole time you’re thinking, “Well, terrible things are going to happen to these people.” But any given RPG adventure could be any kind of story. If you’re sneaky, you can turn the horror on a little bit at a time, and they won’t realize it until they go to visit that clever fortune teller they’ve come to like and find a pair of ghouls eating her intestines like Lady and the Tramp.