The Rules of Horror

By | October 12, 2013

Welcome! I’d like to say thank you to all the people who stopped by to play and talk at the Escapist Expo this year. We had a great time and look forward to doing it all again next year.

Today I’d like to continue our look at horror in gaming by going over a few of the ways rules shape a scary scenario.

One of the more well-known horror rules is the sanity mechanic – made famous by Call of Cthulhu. Sanity often acts as another kind of hit points – extreme or unsettling circumstances reduce character sanity much the same way successful attacks reduce HP.

This mechanic is meant to give players an idea of just how much their unusual lives have affected the character’s grip on reality. Sanity loss helps model how ordinary people deal with things “Man Was Not Meant To Know.” Some joke that such systems can make games unplayable, but the opposite is often true.

The monsters in games such as Call of Cthulhu would kill a character in one round of combat. Facing off with such threats directly is something the system punishes. Since clever players are encouraged to avoid dangerous situations, threats to health pools aren’t the best way to racket up tension in such games.

That’s where Sanity points come in. These can be worn down slowly over time, increasing worries about a character’s ability to survive intact without making players feel invulnerable thanks to the large health pools that would be needed to fight hand to hand with space monsters.

The fact that using magic often makes Sanity points decrease faster supports this idea since spellcasters often have less “health” than other characters in many games. The quick drop in Sanity score makes the party mystic feel more vulnerable without having to change their health score.

As I wrote last week, rising tensions in a game come from scarcity. Sanity points are something to be rationed. Learning a new spell might help with the scenario, but can your character handle the strain it puts on his mind? Limits on a character’s ability to restore Sanity points help keep up the pressure.

Just be careful when adding a sanity mechanic to a system that relies on health pools and resistances to determine how much a character can handle. The addition can feel arbitrary and does not always have the desired results. The extra mechanic can encourage players to “game” the system if heath pools are big enough for their character to survive a fight with bizarre creatures. A fighter in third edition D&D plays much differently than a 1920s socialite in Call of Cthulhu for this reason.

Another way games try to mimic the strains of fright is through derangements – psychological problems and illnesses that result from stressful encounters. The problems can either be related to the situation (a fear of the dark after being assaulted by something unseen at night) or they can be totally random to model a universe where cause and effect don’t always match up.

When a ruleset forces derangements on players, the results can slow down play. This is especially true in systems that emphasize character optimization. Derangements often come with penalties to die rolls, which means players in crunchier systems will look for more bonuses to overcome the limit. Such workarounds defeat the entire purpose of using derangements while also slowing down play.

More narrative systems don’t have this flaw, since playing out new complications is expected. But requiring a player to accurately mimic a real-world mental illness for numerous sessions risks descending into caricature. And since many people’s understanding of mental illness comes from movies and books, the results can become rote, comical or even offensive.

I tend to avoid derangements as a mechanic in favor of more broad guidelines on behavior. For example, let’s say a player was bitten by an unknown creature. The guide knows the creature was rabid and the character is infected. The guide could tell the player he is becoming rabid and ask him to play that up. It’s likely the player would describe his character as increasingly violent with a foaming mouth because that is the media “shorthand” for rabies.

The alternative can be potentially more interesting for all the players. The guide could take the player aside and say this: “You feel energetic and warm, like you just finished a long run. You seem to have trouble swallowing, but no matter what you don’t want water to drink. In fact, the idea of even being near water bothers you and you want to avoid it.”

These are some symptoms of rabies in a simple-to-follow guide. Any delirium can be handled by the guide giving the infected player different details about his surroundings than the others. So instead of acting “crazy” the player will behave normally with this new set of behavior as an overlay. Then all of the characters, including the infected one, can try to figure out what is going on.

There’s another biological reaction that game systems often try to mechanize: the fight or flight response. In short, people tend to run or fight when confronted with danger. Some games emulate the flight response to danger with fear checks, guts rolls and resistance throws.

But that’s just one way players can lose control during a stressful situation. Guides may want to consider modeling the other side of the equation by having players make a check to see if their character fights regardless of the situation.

Rather than being forced to describe how they are cowering in the corner every turn, those who roll poorly could try figuring out just what hurts the monster while engaging in a frenzied fight. This presents a choice for the other players: help fight, try to drag that character away or take advantage of the temporary decoy to flee.

Sometimes the changes that come up in a horror scenario are part of the ruleset. Ravenloft, a Dungeons & Dragons product, came with a list of alterations for any campaigns run in that setting. Spells were changed or outright banned. The new conditions and effects were part of Ravenloft games to emphasis certain themes and prevent the players from avoiding consequences using magic.

Changing the rules can be another way of enforcing scarcity, but this method can backfire. New restrictions remind players of a game’s structure, and a focus on what is different from normal in a game’s interface can distract from what’s actually happening in the game itself.

A different way of handling such things would be to have items on the restricted list behave oddly at random. Scrying spells might force the caster to see things through the monster’s eyes when it is doing something horrible. A cellphone might work in the middle of the woods, but it only seems to be able to call the distant past.

Of course, sometimes these tools work just fine so players must decide if they are willing to risk a horrible encounter by using their extraordinary tools. This is another way to raise tension and introduce story cues without arbitrarily removing abilities from characters. That last part is more of a concern in games that use classes that strictly define what a character can and cannot do.

Good descriptions also help build a tense atmosphere. But reading box text aloud isn’t enough to make a good horror game, regardless of the author’s skill at writing (or the reader’s skill at reading). Tension is built through interaction and, in my personal experience, a gradual build-up tends to have better results.

The way perception skills are used in some systems can interfere with any mood the Guide and Players are working toward. A binary success system where the character either sees everything or sees nothing does little to build tension in a horror game. So I recommend giving the players glimpses of what is surrounding them without calling for a roll.

I’m not suggesting anyone change how much information players receive from die rolls. Instead, I am suggesting that the existence of a perception mechanic doesn’t mean it must be used every time the characters look around.

These initial glimpses allow the players a chance to interact more and slows down the flow of information in a way that does not arbitrarily restrict Players. Also, there can be a tendency to tune out during box text or other longwinded descriptions. Asking for someone to repeat information can ruin any attempt to create a mood.

Other systems, such as Dungeon World, offer truthful information when using perception (called Discern Realities there) but only for specific questions. This is much better than a binary mechanic because questions include things like what players should be on the lookout for in the area. This encourages interaction, as does the requirement that players interact with an area before using the ability. All of these factors help build immersion and mood.

Ultimately, horror games are a balancing act between rules and story for both players and guides. Next week I’ll go over some methods I’ve used in my own games to handle these concerns. Until then, have fun and keep playing.