Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Halloween Tips for Running a Horror RPG



Michael Wolgemut's "The Dance of Death," depicting 4 reveling skeletons, 3 dancing and one playing a horn, as another of their number rises from an open grave, the horn blower using their death shroud as a garment.
Nuremberg Chronicle

A notion I see thrown around a lot is that roleplaying games just can't be scary. I used to think that myself. The logic is similar to the one applied to Co-op video games: it's too hard to be scared when you're goofing off with your friends. In hindsight, I think that spoke more to the games I was running and the systems I was playing.

Not only are there a host of RPG systems designed with horror specifically in mind, most notably Call of Cthulhu, I've found that this medium is in a unique position to embrace horror. After all, no other art form gives the audience the level of agency a roleplaying game does. Even video games are constrained by code and technical limitations, whereas the only limits of an RPG are those imposed by the table.

And that can allow for a damn scary story.

The Right Tools for the Job

Contrary to what you might expect, I don't think you necessarily need a horror system to run a good horror game. It certainly helps and that's where you should look first. But other systems can be used to bring the genre to your table, if you keep in mind what makes dedicated horror rulesets tick. My most successful horror game (which managed to give one of my players nightmares) was run in Star Wars: Age of Rebellion of all things. 
Drawing from the undmade Yuuzhan Vong Clone Wars episode and an enduring obsession with The X-Files, I had two Rebel PCs uncover an apparent conspiracy between the Rebel Alliance and an otherworldly, truly alien threat.

Or maybe it was all a plot by Imperial Intelligence to trick them into revealing military secrets. The players never learned the truth and that agitated them even more than the alien body horror and half-glimpsed monsters.
You can explore horror with some unexpected systems but as a general rule, characters shouldn't be invulnerable or too powerful. If the players don't feel like their pursuer poses a real threat or they have plenty of tools to call on, it'll be hard for them to get truly frightened.

However, even "strong" characters can still function in a horror setting. Players used to their characters overcoming any odds can be caught off guard by something that finally poses a challenge. Or perhaps something they can't even attack. Fear is more than just a mechanic attached to a big monster; psychological horror has enduring popularity for a reason and there are plenty of fears that refuse to be dispelled by a few successful dice rolls.

Even so, the more vulnerable the characters, the better. Certain popular systems aren't the best, since the players end up stuck figuring out spell damage totals when they're supposed to be focused on getting past the living embodiment of their fears.

Under Pressure

Arguably, the key to horror is tension. Building dread in the audience as they await the inevitable scare is almost more important than the scare itself. That's why building a sense of atmosphere is vital. In some ways, the monster is only as scary as their setting: a big spider in a wide open, brightly lit room is a standard Dungeons & Dragons encounter. A big spider pursuing a character crawling through an unlit tunnel barely wide enough to fit them, that's horror.

There's more to it than just building strong set pieces, as valuable as those might be. The players should feel like the threat could appear anywhere, not just restricted to easily identified set ups. The best scares are the most jarring or unexpected. In film, this manifests the laziest way through the common jump scare. A better example would be Jurassic Park: after restoring power to the park, Laura Dern's victory is cut short by a velociraptor bursting through some nearby pipes.

That scene works better than a standard jumpscare for a few reasons. Tonally, we've been set up to expect a celebration. Power has been restored -unknowingly at a cost- but restored nonetheless. The big picture situation has improved but now the heroes find themselves in further peril. This also just isn't a raptor popping up off-screen. It makes sense for her to emerge from that hiding spot, but it's easy to overlook those pipes in such a crowded environment.

As you create your horror settings, danger should loom around every corner. Even the most mundane activities could invite disaster. Give the players plenty of false starts (but not too many, moderation is key) and force them to realize there are just too many angles to cover for any defense to be foolproof.

A lot of this comes down to pacing as well. Don't just start with a rampaging monster. And even if you do, give them plenty of downtime to mull over what they face and let the horror build. Even total meat grinder scenarios like Aliens and Evil Dead give characters room in between the slaughter, though it never feels like a respite but rather a stay of execution.

Characters you Care About

All truly great horror shares one quality: characters you genuinely care about. High budget films try and cheat this through big name actors or more naturally through charismatic performances. Most RPG groups don't have the former at their disposal, so you'll have to accomplish it another way. 
If you're doing a Halloween session for a preexisting campaign, your work might already be done for you. The players probably already care about their characters. But if this is a fresh campaign or a one shot, which have less baggage to work with and give you more freedom to terrorize the characters, the table has its work cut out for it.

Horror characters can often seem simplistic and they usually are. It makes more sense for some subgenres than others. For slasher films, the gory kills are what audiences are there for. What's more, the slasher villain is closer to being the true protagonist. Even then, the best slasher films give the cast some kind of coherent, sympathetic personality or relatable aspect, no matter how straightforward. 
It's part of why despite its many flaws, found footage films were so popular for a while. These are "real people," like you and me, further sold by the conceit that this is a video unearthed from the site of its subjects' grisly demise.

However, the better the work of horror, the more developed the cast. There's a reason some of the most beloved genre entries feature fully rounded protagonists like Ripley or Laurie Strode. The more you care about a character, the less you want to see bad things happen to them. The best horror works uses their characters to explore deeply personal issues, with the "monster" itself being the physical manifestation of that quality- sometimes literally. 
Parenthood, grief, loss, anger, responsibility are all common themes in horror. If the characters can connect with the themes being explored in a meaningful, relatable way, the more believable they'll feel and more effective the story as a whole will be.

The Human Horror

That leads into an important aspect of horror: the human side of it. Horror has always explored social ills in some way, often in a very politically. Final Girl theory is the most obvious example and films can be very upfront about it. Dawn of the Dead and Candyman are some of the most obvious examples. As it would happen, the world's a horrific, monstrous place, so effective horror works draw on those real life issues.
Unjust norms and social ills are scarier than any monster and the best horror works stitch those all together. Don't be afraid to say something with your horror RPG, as even the most popular, oversaturated horror franchises have some kind of point to make. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is about the agriculture industry, Nightmare on Elm Street about vigilante justice, Friday the 13th more regressively about the immorality of premarital sex. The point is, you won't find a horror movie that doesn't have some real world connotations. 

Obviously if you're going to deal with real world issues, handle them tastefully and give the table a heads up. But the best monsters are the ones we have to deal with in real life, so don't be afraid to incorporate them if you think you can pull it off.

Making a Monster

Of course, the winning ingredient to good horror is a good monster. Or at the very least, a monstrous force to serve as the source of the fear. It can be as specific as an individual, the aforementioned Slasher and the venerable Dracula, or as abstract as a physical structure, like the timeless Haunted House. Whatever the case, the threat needs to be memorable, it needs to be menacing, and the players first reaction to an encounter should be to run in the opposite direction.
The best monsters are the least seen. Due to a technical malfunction, Jaws lacks the shark for most of the film, which instead made it an instant classic rather than just another monster flick. Tying into the previous tips, players should spend plenty of time dreading their foe and less time actually facing them directly. That'll make the few direct encounters all the more memorable.
In RPGs, you have a unique opportunity to come up with something you know will scare the players. Other mediums have to settle for tapping into common fears but a well established group should know what makes the other players tick. Now this doesn't mean you should traumatize the players but definitely keep in mind what will scare them- and what won't.

It's easy to make the monster invincible but don't discount that they should have some kind of weakness. Uncertainty is the key to horror and a foe you know can be beat and yet still triumphs through cunning and ferocity is all the more scary. Give players some level of agency and the experience will be all the more effective. It should never be easy though, even if the characters survive, they shouldn't feel like they've won.

A whole blog could be dedicated to running horror RPGs but hopefully this provides some kind of guidance for game masters looking for a seasonal session to spice things up.

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