Making Horror out of the Supernatural

By | October 5, 2013

Hello and welcome! We’re at the Escapist Expo in Durham this weekend attending panels and running Infinite Earths, so come by to visit if you are in the area.

Since it is October, I thought I would share some of my ideas about horror in gaming for a few weeks. This is not a definitive treatise, just some musings I hope will help with your games in the future.

There are many ways to run a scary game. I usually work from the notion that a horror scenario can be defined by a lack of something – be it knowledge, self-awareness or the tools needed to deal with conflicts.

Let’s consider two different stories with the same antagonist and setting to explain what I mean.

A monster is killing people in and around a vacation community in the mountains. The police are investigating the crimes while vacationers are trying to decide if they will cut their trips short.

If the players are the law-enforcement agents in this example, the scenario is likely going to be a supernatural thriller. There is danger and suspense, but the players are expected to be equipped mentally and physically to handle deadly situations. This should allow them to survive long enough to figure out the truth and find a way to succeed.

Running that same scenario with the players taking on the roles of teenagers using the old family cabin for a weekend getaway is going to be a very different story. They likely don’t know any details about the murders, plus they have little to no combat training or offensive equipment. There is no expectation that all the characters will survive the scenario.

The presence of supernatural elements alone doesn’t automatically turn a session into a horror scenario.

My rule of thumb is simple. If the Player Characters can reasonably expect to physically defeat an unknown monster that ambushes them in the first scene, then it’s probably not a horror game.

Horror stories are defined by situations that prompt fear and dread. Horror games try to make players uncomfortable to help make a situation feel scary.

Some of the most common things you can use in a game to increase the scare factor include:

  • The Unknown: Orcs are a known quantity. A mysterious force that can drive people insane just from being seen is not. A lack of information means that players and characters don’t know how to prepare for what is ahead. That’s why many horror stories, movies and games include information gathering so the characters have a chance of understanding what is going on.
  • Limited resources: A major difference between the video games Doom 3 and Limbo is firepower. The more influence, weapons, items and money the players can bring to bear on a problem, the less likely they are to be afraid. Players who have to ration a few rounds of ammunition for the whole night will be under more stress. Players with no weapons might try to avoid confrontations altogether, worried about what happens when they can no longer run.
  • Lack of control: The players find evidence of the unnatural, but no one seems to believe them because it is too far-fetched. Characters run away only to find the creature chasing them is now blocking the way out. Some threats might even change what the characters see and feel, leaving them unable to escape the clutches of an unreliable narrator.

All of these elements reinforce how helpless characters can be in the face of horrific circumstances. This doesn’t mean that survival or success is impossible, just much more difficult for those who don’t work to overcome their limits.

Not everyone enjoys this kind of game, so make sure your players want to play a horror session before you begin. This isn’t necessarily about being squeamish, though it can be. If one of your players thinks horror movies are silly, you don’t want his snickering to ruin things for the other players.

Mood can be a tricky thing. You might already take steps to minimize distractions at the table, such as setting all cellphones to vibrate. The key to establishing and maintaining a mood for a macabre session is focus. You don’t have to run a game by candlelight, but closing the blinds and turning off the TV and computers are a good place to start.

You also want to make sure everything you need is close at hand. Time spent looking up rules or making a run to the corner store for soda is time for the real world to intrude. Maintaining tension once things start to go badly for the characters is important to keeping the players in the right frame of mind.

Starting players with something familiar can make it much more obvious and intense when things go horribly wrong. But overuse of stock trappings can rob a session of energy and potentially spoil the entire game (Look! An old house! I bet it’s haunted!)

That leads into my next tip – be careful when using horror tropes. These are the story beats, plots and details that have become familiar through repetition: the black-and-red cape on a vampire, the hunchback servant and the flat tire, for example. These tools can be great for setting the scene, but unreliable when it comes to increasing tension.

Consider the empty tomb. This is a location that might be unnerving to the characters. But for the players, who have spent many hours exploring old crypts in other games, the tomb is just another day at the office. That familiarity offers players a sense of security since they have past experiences to guide them.

You can take that security away by doing something unexpected. Let’s say the old dark tomb actually has something that feeds on light buried deep inside. Once the players find this horror, they must choose between keeping the light sources needed to speed their escape or stumbling in the dark while their foe creeps up after them.

These sorts of choices for players are important, even more so in a horror game. Scary movies are known in part for the many ways writers remove options from characters – a car that won’t start or the phone that doesn’t work are common examples.

The Guide should not confuse limiting character options with limiting player choices. The standard options that horror writers remove are meant to prevent the characters from calling in the cavalry. This is not an excuse to force the Players to ride the Guide’s railroad.

What does this mean for those who run horror games? It means that just because the Players lack resources and knowledge at the beginning, the Guide should not frustrate all efforts to change that.

One example of how this can happen can be seen with monster vulnerabilities. There is a difference between players not knowing how a monster works and the Guide not knowing how the monster works.

When the Guide introduces uncertainly, the players will try to test the boundaries of their knowledge through trial and error. This is great, but the Guide needs to make sure he knows how the mystery works to better handle odd lines of inquiry. Making random things up about how a creature works just to “surprise” the players is another kind of railroad, forcing the players to guess until they burn enough time for the “plot” to advance.

Don’t forget that mysteries can extend to creatures and situations that even “normal” people assume they know. Let’s say the players are hunting a vampire in the modern day. The classic stories all say vampires cast no reflection, but how does that work with cameras and motion sensors? There is no right or wrong answer, but players will feel railroaded if things are not consistent.

Let’s say that vampires don’t cast reflections in mirrors that include a high silver content because of the cleansing power associated with silver. That would mean most cheap mirrors will reflect a vampire just fine and digital cameras will not have a problem taking photos. But perhaps old film cameras use enough silver nitrate to be a problem, which could explain why the eccentric film buff has an incriminating photo but the modern shutterbug does not.

Finding out what is true and what is superstition can add tension when players have to resort to trial and error during a confrontation.

One final thing to consider – the choice of threat decides what types of fears the players are exposed to during the scenario. A good example of this is the difference between some types of undead.

Zombies are relentless, difficult to kill, attack in groups, cannot be reasoned with and their victims become just like them.

A vampire is undead and can choose to force its victims to be like him or her, but also can try to persuade or compel players to switch sides willingly.

The zombie focuses on the obliteration of the victim while the vampire raises the threat of being turned into a corrupted version of yourself.

Both of those contrast with the mummy, a type of undead that exemplifies the crushing weight of time. Vampires and mummies are good for reincarnation stories. Alternately, a mummy can just be a puppet for another force or a killing machine like a zombie. Each decision about the hows and the whys can make a big difference.

Finding ways to highlight these specific fears and tie them in with the characters can make a scenario even more engaging. Alternately, monsters can be things so far removed from the players that the horror comes from the sheer meaninglessness of the players to the threat.

Next week I’ll go over some thoughts about how game rules can impact horror games. Until then, keep gaming with the lights on.