This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.
A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Almost all popular RPGs are adventure games – escapist, wish-fulfilling power fantasies. We play heroes evincing varying degrees of ass-kickitude, overcoming villains and other obstacles, saving the day and otherwise demonstrating their reverberant mastery. The fantasy genre is adventure in pseudo-medieval armor. SF? Adventure with blasters. Superheroes? Adventure in spandex.
Unlike their cousins on the movie screens or the paperback bookshelves, adventure game scenarios hold out at least the possibility of failure. A wandering monster’s surprise instant-kill power can wipe out your entire 12th-level party. A missed roll can prevent you from firing your photon torpedo into the Xurnabi space station as it obliterates the planet.
By and large, though, the rules and conventions of the adventure are skewed to massage the desire for the control and triumph our workaday lives deny us. We encounter only the monsters our party is buff enough to slay – or are copiously warned when we mistakenly venture into tougher areas of the dungeon. Clue trails are kept cleaner than real-life mysteries allow. The death and dying rules allow our PCs to recover in hours from hundred meter falls, stabbings in the heart, and the occasional touch of leprosy.
Games truly set in the horror genre turn these assumptions on their head. The secret of successfully scaring your players is to remember and ceaselessly exploit this dynamic. Horror stories are fantasies of powerlessness. Rip away all of the cozy assumptions instilled in players by other roleplaying experiences, and you’ll scare the bejeepers out of them.
(First of all, though, you need to be sure the game you’ve picked up is really a horror game, or an adventure game in genre drag. The great success of the Vampire line and its many spawn can be traced to the way it grafts horror iconography onto a traditional escapist power-fantasy.)
Another quibble must be dispatched before we move on. Surely there’s a difference between scaring the players, and scaring the PCs? Not in a horror game there isn’t. In a traditional adventure game, you might want to subject the heroes to fear-effects which their players need not suffer. In that instance, you can tell a player that his character is terrified, or gibbering insanely and wielding a garlic press, and expect him to play out that behavior, without wanting him to method-act it.
A horror game should be just as scary to the participants as a horror movie is to its audience. If only the imaginary people are unnerved, you’ve failed – just as you’ve failed if your adventure game doesn’t create a sense of excitement, tension, and, at the end of it all, reward.
Icky images that make the flesh crawl are all well and good. But mere imagery can be co-opted. It’s tough now to run a Lovecraft-based game because his creatures and tropes have entered into fannish lore and become the font of a zillion jokes. Plush Cthulhus are old hat, and now you can add stuffed shoggoths and byahkees to your collection, too.
Horror images are powerful when they tie into a loss of control for the player. For example, we fear disease and death because they remove our control over our very selves. No matter how familiar they become, we’ll always recoil at depictions of injury, bodily malfunction, and decay.
When creating a horror scenario, think up as many ways as you can to strip the PCs, and thus the players who experience the scenario through them, of their usual sense of control. Then create a ladder of control loss, beginning with minor incidents and building up to major ones, so that the vise is steadily tightened throughout the course of the evening.
The scariest game I ever ran was a playtest for a Cthulhu scenario written for Chaosium. (Given their vast stock of commissioned but unpublished material, this may surface just before the big guy himself rises from R’lyeh.) The PCs are children, a choice that immediately makes them vulnerable and powerless. An entire horror game, Little Fears, derives its potency from this idea.
On the other hand, you can allow your PCs to equip themselves with all the accoutrements of power, then take them away or make them useless. The big tough guy with the machine gun and the sinewy muscles suffers an even greater fall from grace when his bullets are stolen, and a freaky parasite starts eating his biceps from the inside.
Isolation also breeds vulnerability. Most roleplayers are lucky enough to live in relative safety from predators, human or otherwise. When trouble does loom, we know we can rely on the authorities for help. Situate your scenarios as far away from help as possible. Then, as the action gets hairy, find a creative way to cut the few lifelines that remain.
Foster direct identification between player and PC. Games set in the 1920s are safe and quaint. Scenarios taking place on exotic planets couldn’t possibly happen to us. Place the action in your own neighborhood. Reinforce the bizarre with the mundane: have that phallic, toothy eel slither out from the business end of a Coke machine.
Adjust your GMing style to squelch the jollier mood typical of standard adventure play. Announce off the top that you’ll step more harshly than usual on digressions and other out-of-character discussion. Again, the idea is to intensify the sense of identification.
You might think, then, that you should ruthlessly stomp out all jokes and laughter. Not so – laughter is an anxiety release, and therefore a sign of tension. Grim jokes are a sign of success. If you think they’re working too well as an anxiety reliever, though, keep an eye on the group’s collective complacency level. After they think they’ve laughed their fears away, blindside them with some exceptional bit of nastiness. You want the emotional vibe to ebb and flow throughout the evening. The ideal horror moment is one where the players let their guards down, even though they know they shouldn’t, leaving themselves wide open for you to bring the hammer down.
For those who like power, the only safe seat in a horror game is that of the GM. Perhaps that’s why many of the most talented GMs are drawn to the genre – your players essentially volunteer to be messed with.
Now that’s a power fantasy.