Miscellaneous Musings: On Horror Part II
First things first: In case you missed part I, here’s the link!
The TL;DR-version of Part I is: The Castle of Otranto and Wieland exemplify early horror, focusing on anxieties; internalized and externalized, with loss of control and a feeling of helplessness as a leitmotif, in one case internalized, in the other externalized.
Okay, so last time we took a look at the basic mechanics of horror. This time around, let us take a look and consider how we can achieve horror in our games.
First things first: The table must be on board for it. Just throwing a horror scenario at an unreceptive audience will do nothing and just generate frustration. There are folks out there that don’t like horror, that shirk even away from darker fantasy. There are players who very much want to be heroes , they want to be Captain America, Superman, etc., players that enjoy the clear-cut distinction between good and evil. Horror, much like any genre, is not for everyone.
Since horror is based in a significant part on immersion, make sure that phones are turned off, that the players know their rules and that you’re not playing in a place where the Saturday morning’s kid’s cartoon show’s on the TV. Your gaming location doesn’t have to be “spooky” (though it helps), but neither should it actively subvert the expectations.
Then, make sure you have a consensus for Rule I: Make sure that everybody is comfortable with the themes you’ll employ. People have widely different tolerances for certain things and while it’s okay to make people feel uncomfortable, you want that feeling of creeping dread – not wholesale disgust, which, as mentioned before in Part I, has nothing to do with horror per se. Similarly, particularly violence against children NPCs and the fictional depiction of sexual transgressions can result in unwanted complications. Make sure that GM and players all know their limits – think of this as the SSC (safe, sane, consensual)-code of BDSM applied to gaming: You don’t cross lines unless everyone’s okay and talking about such lines beforehand is important. Don’t ask “I’ll kill off kid-NPCs in this module, everyone okay with that?”, but rather ask, sans SPOILERS or implying anything, what the limits of people are.
And then accept them.
I am serious.
Other players and GMs are different, but you’re all there to play a game, so respect them and don’t discuss or argue. Horror often gets a bad rep due to not respecting people’s borders – it’s transgressive, yes. It should make you feel slightly uncomfortable. But it should remain within acceptable boundaries for everyone.
Okay, that out of the way, establish whether you want to play a “purist” horror-game or a “heroic” one. In a “purist” game, the struggle of the PCs, ultimately, is a doomed one – if you choose that route, you probably will be thinking about games like CoC first. However, a note here: If you don’t leave the illusion of hope and thwart everything, it loses its impact, its raison d’être: The impact of such stories lies in the final scene, in the utter realization of total helplessness and despair. It is a playstyle that requires mature audiences and is not for everyone; it is, however, arguably also incredibly satisfying when pulled off right.
If you’re playing the “heroic” horror game, the central theme focuses on the struggle of the characters with their flaws, failures, etc. – and overcoming them. There should be a chance for survival, for triumph, but in order to have meaning, it must be a significant struggle with a very real chance of failure. This can result in happy feel-good endings, but also in truly amazing and extremely rewarding “reap what you have sown” depictions of anti-heroes, of story-arcs where the PC is potentially unmade by his or her own choices.
These distinctions are fluid, mind you, but they are handy to bear in mind.
Both have in common that they require a mature and fair GM and similarly, mature and fair players. If you’re a GM that tends towards railroads and power-trips, you may need to rethink your role: You are there as the facilitator and negotiator of the story – and yes, in horror, that means taking control away from players in certain circumstances, but you need to be careful with it and don’t overexert this aspect of your duties. And remain FAIR.
Similarly, and this is often overlooked in my book, players don’t realize their own responsibilities in a horror game. I have seen many a player, often justifiably, complain about a GM abusing power in horror games…but remain wholly ignorant of the actions that “forced” the GM’s hand: So let me spell a couple of things out for you – it sometimes helps to see them written down:
Unlike in a fantasy game, horror does not work in conjunction with one-dimensional characters. You can’t just play a flawless paragon of virtue…and neither can you play a disgusting psycho-monster. If you’re the source of horror while in control, by definition you won’t experience the game as intended, you will never dread losing control. It’s the player-equivalent of a GM’s power trip, a subversion of basic premises, as though you put Bugs Bunny in a heart-wrenching drama.
Much of horror’s fascination stems from the struggle, from the Fallhöhe (height of the fall), potential or actual, of a character from a moral standpoint. The best horror characters are flawed – they can be powerful, yes. But as a player, you need to contemplate how actions influence your world-view, what would and would not compromise your character’s principles and communicate that with the GM. Then, when the like happens, play accordingly.
If you just want to bash creepy crawlies, then you want to play fantasy with a horror coating, perhaps dark fantasy, but not horror – know in advance what you’re getting into.
Here’s another mind-blower: When playing horror in a rules-intense game like Pathfinder, optimizing your character to kingdom come may actually detract from your fun.
Yeah, I know. Counter-intuitive. I myself derive significant fun from creating murder machines as well. But unlike in fantasy, your goal is not to create a superhero, but a fallible, well-rounded character. A dumpstat here, a flavorful choice there that is not optimal – all these can actually increase your enjoyment of the game in a horror environment.
In a rules-intense game, you should also make sure, more so than in other games, that all players and their PCs are on the same level – wide discrepancies in optimization skills can make running a horror-game all but impossible: If the werewolf can insta-kill some characters, but is killed by others in a single round sans breaking a sweat, then the GM has an impossible task. All characters need to experience a similar level of danger.
Finally, there is what I call the “Covenant-clause” – the GM and players enter a kind of covenant in horror games: The GM has more power, but also more responsibility – and the players trust the GM to exert it with caution and fairness.
A nice way to illustrate this school of playing, a means to symbolize this covenant, would be the drawback/flaw: Going with the theme of the flawed hero, all PCs get to choose a serious drawback – madnesses, lost limbs, etc. As a player, this is your way of telling the GM “Look, here you have a means to really challenge/ undo my character. I trust you and want you to challenge me with this Achilles heel. While my PC may die due to it, I believe that you’ll be fair in the challenges posed.”
As a GM, these represent weak spots you can and should target – but not too often. If a player, out of his own volition, accepts such a drawback and the GM screws him constantly over with it instead of tailoring challenges to account for it, then we have an issue. It’s your way of saying: “I recognize and thank you for making a well-rounded character. It is in the nature of such weaknesses that they’ll negatively influence the character’s performance and I will do my best to reward your roleplaying and while I will challenge you via this Achilles heel, I will do so in a manner that is not designed to screw you over.”
Let’s take the example of a limping character: He’ll be slower to get away, so while he should *feel* that the drawback matters, while he should require help or experience a chase by werewolves through a dense forest in a more harrowing manner than a non-limping PC, the GM should not try to kill the character for the choice and instead consider this a window: This handicap means that the character and player are ready for a major adrenaline kick – you use the weaknesses of characters to make them feel special, to highlight their struggle, much like you’d highlight the use of their coolest abilities in a fantasy game. A drawback is an invitation to engage with a character’s weaknesses, not an invitation to screw the character over. (MANY, many published books violate this crucial rule…) Unlike in horror movies, your goal is not to kill everyone off – if e.g. the limping character was saved by a fellow PC, that can influence the relationship between the PCs…if the other PC died, how does the limping character react? Such weaknesses can make for amazing catalysts for nuanced and rewarding gaming.
The consequence of well-handled engagements between GMs and players of flawed characters is that the characters will engage in-game with their own flaws, interact with them – for the better or for the worse. Once you’ve almost been eaten twice by tentacled horrors, you’ll be more likely to listen to that vampire promising you a functional leg…
In short: GM and players have to establish a baseline of what’s acceptable. More so than in other genres, creating multi-faceted characters instead of cardboard-cutouts is crucial. Starting with good (or at least relatively good), but flawed characters is highly recommended. Players should cooperate to create characters that don’t outshine one another. GMs have an incredibly high responsibility…but so do players.
GMs should not abuse their position. If you have to resort to forcing players to roll to make the PCs act scared, you’re doing it wrong. If players play their characters in a manner that is befitting of the situation, if they act appropriately panicked, then don’t force rolls on them to simulate it. Use caution when taking PC control away from players and only do so sparsely and as a last resort.
Players should try to play their characters in a concise and fitting manner; more so than in fantasy games, constantly spewing out-game talk, quoting pop-culture references etc. is not acceptable behavior in a high-immersion horror game. Embrace multi-faceted, flawed characters – you can play the Superman-and Captain America-boyscouts or Mr. Hyde-villains in your regularly scheduled fantasy games.
Above all: Communicate. That goes for GMs and players alike.
Players, make sure you and the GM are on the same page regarding your character. Embrace flaws, and yes, also the death of your character. GMs, make sure you understand not only the PCs, but also the players…and while it is perfectly okay to create deadly modules and challenge the players, don’t penalize them for the weaknesses they offered you in good faith and never, ever use save or die to make a point. PC death should be a real possibility, but should never be used in a haphazard manner. Death should, as a whole, be the result of CHOICE, not just the roll of the bones.
All right, so that would be my horror gaming 101 (though these rules hold true for dark fantasy as well),…next time, we’ll talk about horror gaming in high-powered games like PFRPG and why it actually works…and we’ll go full circle and resume the reasoning on the nature of horror from Part I.
See you there!
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