Five Key Elements of Horror for Your RPG

October 26th, 2010 by Ed Grabianowski

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.

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8 Responses to “Five Key Elements of Horror for Your RPG”

  1. Comment by Megido

    I’ve often wondered how D&D could be scary save for playing in a dimly lit room while on a “spooky” mission. The mood is often just too jovial to entertain frightening thoughts. I think it would be great to play a tabletop rpg that was capable of scaring me like a video game can.

    Speaking of which, there’s some serious use of all five of these factors in Silent Hill 2. One that is used really heavily is the “Dark Mirror.” Quite a well done game. Off topic, but well done. I see no reason why these elements wouldn’t translate to pen and paper games. Lack of visuals can, and should be easily supplemented by an active imagination.

    Have you ever played a tabletop game that actually gave you the creeps?

  2. Comment by Billy Gibbs

    No, but I set up a haunted house that had my players more than a little off-put. I pulled this off through passing notes in creative ways, and pacing. I’ve found pacing to be very disconcerting, and it’s something I tend to do anyway. The creepy haunting bits and the cryptic and contradictory whispers they got on their notes actually caused them to not take the item planted in the house that could have solved all their haunting problems. Simply because there was a mirror in the room.

    Ok, maybe I’d better back up. They got sent to this mansion by a dragon in order to kill this guy who had been claiming to be the bastard son of the dragon’s dead brother. The door to the mansion only opens at night. When they walk in there’s one huge set of locked double doors and a pair of Glasses of Invisible Seeing on an end table. The PC with the glasses starts seeing shadows moving, corner of the eye, in the mirror sort of things. The PCs immediately assume that the mirrors are going to be the cause of the problem and start turning every mirror they find to face the wall. The shadows are still moving. Every once in a while one would attack them, and then vanish after some fighting. I’ve started passing the notes by dropping them on or near folks as I pace. Most of them are cryptic “You’ll never make it out of here alive” type threats, with a note telling the player to “act naturally.” Paranoia grew around the table as no one knew how to react to their notes, and didn’t know what the other folks had. The Rogue got a note saying to keep to the shadows, while the Cleric was the only one I was giving good advice because, Divine Intervention, I figure the gods probably like him better. His notes referred to light, and guiding light and all sorts of light references. When the party found a candle, the only candle in the whole house, on a bedside table with a mirror, they Stealthed into the room, flipped the mirror, and ditched the candle after overpowering the Cleric and his sudden realization that the shadows didn’t like light.

    It was a Candle Of Daylight, the whole haunted house had been set up by the crazy sorcerer who liked to make a game of his killing. Hence the glasses, the maze-like interior and the ridiculously contrived key hunt through said interior. The mirrors were only there because they made sense in a bedroom, and were a convenient way to allow players to catch glimpses of behind them. I like to create an environment where the subjects scare themselves.

  3. Comment by Ed Grabianowski

    That’s epically awesome, Billy.

  4. Comment by mordicai

    Some of my most memorable horror sessions (both as a Player & as a Narrator) have focused on sound. Static & horrible voices breaking into cell phone calls, sinister wind chimes marking places where the world is thin, metal in a fantasy setting picking up radio signals…

  5. Comment by Megido

    Billy, props on that whole set up. One’s imagination is always worse than anything you can be shown.

    mordicai, for me the scariest sound is an air raid siren, due entirely to Silent Hill. I can’t seem to stop bringing that up. I apologize to everyone.

    Addendum: Great, now I can’t stop picturing two ghouls meeting lip to lip in the middle of the small intestine.

  6. Comment by bob_d

    Speaking of Mystery, I think that’s something that Chill set up some good mechanics for. Even though the original game only had about ten monsters, you never knew what you were up against. There were so many ways in which any of the beings could attack and harass the characters indirectly without revealing itself, or disguising or obscuring itself even during direct encounters. So although players might know exactly how to dispatch a particular type of monster (which would never be easy), they still had to figure out what they were facing, which added to the anxiety.

    @Megido: Mood, strategy and setting, etc. aside, I think one can simply use the mechanics of the game to make things scary. The simplest way is to have the threat be something that can’t be defeated in a stand-up fight. The threat has to be so intangible and/or powerful that the players know they simply can’t “hit it until it runs out of hit points.” Something as simple as siccing a much higher level monster on the PCs can become frightening if it stalks and toys with them, the players fully aware that they don’t have the ability to stop it. This is actually a case where a total lack of mystery can also create fear. (Of course, the GM eventually has to allow some means of stopping it, some previously unknown weakness or artifact that has to be discovered, some trap that can be constructed, or perhaps simply some means of escaping the threat, such as an exit to a dungeon they’re trapped in, leaving the beast behind.)

    @mordicai: Friends of mine raved about a GM who would put together custom music and sound effects specifically for particular horror-game sessions, played at just the right moments in the game. They were all pretty simple, but thoughtfully arranged.

  7. Comment by Megido

    Guess there’s a lot of ways to make a game scary. Just gotta use them the right way. I hope to give a scary campaign a go sometime in the near future just so I can see if one will actually give me the creeps.
    My only problem with fights you aren’t supposed to be able to win is that I never realize it until it’s either too late, or I’ve used up all my ammo/spells/healing items/etc.

  8. Comment by Billy Gibbs

    The one time I tried to give my players a fight they couldn’t beat, I forgot The Gunslinger had an adamantine bullet. Bye Bye large golem with over under crossbows and a lumbering gait.