Thursday, August 20, 2015

Why Horror is Hard

So true confession time: I have completed most of my RPGaDay blog posts in advance and just schedule them to come out each day.

So when I wrote a few days ago for today's RPGaDay question

At some point I should write a blog post about me and horror RPG's and how they never, ever seem to work out.
Well that day can be today, the day that the first answer comes out.

So why is running a horror-themed RPG so difficult?  Let's break it down in no particular order.

1. I game with children.  Specifically my daughter, a sensitive pre-teen for whom I do not wish to create a collaborative story featuring gore or brutal violence for shock value.   While my RPG's do feature violence, and even death, it's the "Hollywood violence" of D&D or superhero stories or whatnot.

2. I tend to make jokes.  I won't even put this on my gaming group, but they are also guilty.  You know how this works.  Something happens and you make a pop culture reference or a Monty Python quote or something.  Honestly I end up laughing about something at practically every gaming session, like when someone summoned eight panthers in the last gaming session.  Both the group and I tend to have a fun, light-heartedness when we game, and trying to sustain the atmosphere would be a huge change from the norm.

3. I'm usually only engaging one sense: hearing.  The horror medium seems to have flourished the most in two categories: movies and novels.  Why is that?  Because both lend themselves to immersion, even over television.  In a darkened theater your senses are consumed by the visual and auditory elements of the movie.  In your home watching TV, the passing cat is as large as the zombie.  Books, well written ones at least, have a similar immersive quality because you are engaging the entirety of your thought process in the reading of the book.
But when you're gaming, at best you are hearing the narrative spoken aloud in a well-lit room full of other sensory stimuli, including the other players.  The "mind's eye" is crowded in the moment, and actually evoking dread or terror or shock (three elements of the horror concept) is more challenging in that situation.

4. PC's kill monsters, they don't run from them.  Yes, a few initial PC deaths will cure them of this belief, but until them deeply ingrained the subconsciousness of the RPG gamer is the notion that the ugly thing is supposed to be stabbed, set on fire, and then pilfered of its personal possessions.  Even if you do kill off a few PC's to show how outclassed they are, they will still see conquering the antagonist to be the goal, not just surviving it.  Add to that the fact that PC's tend to operate in groups, so they are rarely experiencing the isolation emblematic in horror tropes.

5. It's just a PC.  There's a classic Knights of the Dinner Table where Brian creates a computer game that erases files from your documents folder when you take damage as a way to instill horror in the player.  It's difficult to get the emotional buy-in from the player so that they genuinely care what happens (movies do this by creating a sympathetic character in the story, usually an innocent female or child, and then killing off the unsympathetic characters first to let you know what could happen to the one you like).  It's why I think my buddy Blacksteel is right when he suggests that level draining monsters are the scariest thing in gaming, but I think it is not because they are affecting the PC per se but because the monster is directly affecting the player because it is stealing the time and effort the player put into building up the character.

"On second thought, I'll just toss a grenade down there first."

6. Self-determination and player agency.  You know the old joke about the person screaming at the movie screen telling the character not to open that door?  The terror in the moment is the helplessness the viewer experiences in watching the movie. But hey, guess what?  In an RPG you don't have to!  Yes, in the movie you might go down into the basement with the baseball bat and the stub of a candle but in an RPG you could drive to Wal-Mart and buy a gun and a high-powered halogen flashlight, not to mention a gas can you can fill up on the way home, dump all over the house, and light it on fire.  Not only does player agency often work against creating the terrifying situation, but players will be pissed when you take it away.  So the onus is on the GM to create situations where the PC's are put into compromising, vulnerable situations without seeming too heavy-handed.

So there are six reasons off the top of my head why horror games don't work, at least for me.  I'm sure there are very talented GM's out there who make it work, and God bless you for that.  But for my trouble I would just stick to what works for me.


  1. I recommend checking out my latest, and following some of the links. It might help.

    I almost want to write a point / counterpoint post to this entitled Why Horror Isn't Hard - But It Is Really Tricky.