October RPG Blog Carnival – Surfing the Surfeit of Horror

It’s October, so naturally it is time to expect Halloween episodes in prime-time on the major networks, fat pumpkins in the grocery stores and farmers markets, and line-jumping Christmas Decorations in the shopping malls. For gamers, thoughts often turn to the one-shot horror story, such as running a Call of Cthulhu scenario, or dipping into All Flesh Must be Eaten, Dead Reign, Chill, Kult, or sampling from the grittier side of the White Wolf buffet. There are truly a lot of horror options now. With any good surfeit of choice, come questions: what should be run, how to scare the players, and how to build mood, among others. In keeping with this tradition of asking questions about RPGs and Halloween, Troll in the Corner is hosting this month’s RPG Blog Carnival on the theme of Horrible Games. It struck me that it might not be out of place to offer a post on reasons and motivations for running a horror game and how to use those to make those oh-so-difficult choices.

The One-Shot, or the Showdown at Noon

The one-shot game is not unlike the gunslinger standing in the street at high noon. It’s a hit or miss proposition, and you really only have one chance to ‘get it right.’ Choosing the right vehicle for the mood you are trying to hit is pretty much the only way to stack the odds in your favor. Committing to the creation of props and other atmosphere enhancing aids can help if your performance skills are up to employing them effectively, but for my money, nothing works so well as the right game for the right job.

If your plan is to run a horror or Halloween themed game for the sake of the season with the intent to have a few laughs and achieve a Scooby-Do level of fun and spookiness, then the one-shot game is ideal. Army of Darkness, one of the many zombie survival games, or even something with a dash of action and a dash of horror like All for One: Regime Diabolique might serve you well. As a break from a regular game, or just for fun on Halloween, a little bit of horror goes a long way. Serving up some thrills, some chills, and a lot of humorous action can definitely work to recharge flagging creativity, highlight the camaraderie of the group, and reduce the pressure of ‘being on’ for a regular game. Going  for the big guns of horror for a night of spooky fun will probably not give you what you are looking for, and is likely to give the wrong impression of those ‘more serious’ games to your players. If you lack a group and are just getting together for the sake of a Halloween one-shot, than going for humor may be the best bet, as it’s what you are likely to get regardless of your plans.

If you are going for comedy, choose a setting which will work with you to evoke the feelings of absurdity and over-the-top helplessness and goofy heroics which will lead to a memorable night. Focus on the cheap scares and the long laughs. Encourage the OOC chatter, and provide amply opportunities for everybody to die in a horrible, messy, and above all ridiculous way.

William ‘Will’ Stanton: I’m in.
Taryn White: Me, too.
Roland Kincaid: Let’s go kick the mofo’s ass all over dreamland.

-A Nightmare on Elmstreet 3: Dream Warriors  (featuring Dokken….)

If you are going for the grotesque and grimly horrific, then you need a game that will let you establish that right away, but is still fun for the players. Instead of having them ride along cracking jokes and enjoying each others’ company, you need to set a goal of survival for them, and a reason to want to reach it. If your group is composed of competitive people, this might be easy, but in many groups trying to achieve a shared motivation with new characters in a temporary game because it is Halloween, will not be enough. People might have fun with parts of the game, but the risk being run is one of boredom and lack of investment. Grabbing their attention and involvement fast is essential – no slow builds to a deep scare here. Go for the brutal and the personal – fast.

A solid approach to this is to ground things in the real and the familiar. A game like Outbreak: Undead makes this easy by explicitly providing options for playing yourself, and for fine-tuning the sort of zombies you might like your group’s alter egos to encounter. Engage the players right where they live, with horrible things happening to people they know in places they see every day. Once the players figure out what is going on, they can become the target.

Another approach is to make each Halloween a series – just like the movies. Bring the villain back each and every Halloween, and give the characters a sense of continuity as well. Have them play friends and relatives of their dead characters, or the emotional wrecks of any characters that survived. As it is a one-shot, do not skimp on the character death, and as it is for the sake of horror, be extreme and quick about it. Don’t make it about sequences of combat rolls with no hope of winning. Make it about outwitting the monster and living to tell the tale. Make it about unfortunate deaths, and heroic sacrifice to save the others. If at all possible, try to use the rules and tropes of some appropriate horror films, such as the foolishness of visiting the basement, the death-sentence that is premarital sex among teens, and the propensity for forests to house maniacs with an axe to grind….

If your group has a lot of experience with horror games, and plays them sincerely, then going for the deep and meaningful scare is a definite possibility. Referencing an older campaign, involving former characters in some way, or choosing a location which grew to be significant are all ways to help move players to a place where fear can take root and grow into something more. The players need a way to connect the events of the evening’s session to something larger. The realization of what is ‘really going on’ is what will take them to more than just a fear of character death, or the failure to ‘win.’ With the limited time-frame of a one-shot, one of the quickest ways to do that is to tie things in to relationships and connections that are already familiar and already have some weight. Setting the session in a familiar location but in a different era can work for this nicely. A horror defeated once before at great personal cost, can be met but not initially recognized by the players, but its depredations on their descendants or ancestors is motivation enough until they realize what it is, and how it exists across time in ways their mortal lifespans cannot…

Misdirection, or the Shell Game of Horror

When I have a regular campaign going I like to have holiday themed sessions which are not announced, and may not even be recognized for such  until after they are over. As the creation of these sessions requires more meddling with the setting than I normally like, I like to establish them well in advance and let them take on some real life of their own, rather than just injecting them into the story. If a Halloween idea calls for the death of a close friend, there is no way in hell I will be introducing said friend during the Halloween session. That poor bastard will be introduced long before to make the loss all the sweeter. So it should be with all elements that are needed for the horror night in an otherwise normal campaign.

In these situations, instead of going for classic horror, I might like to have Halloween not be about fear per se, but rather about taking the time to reflect on what has come before, and what has been sacrificed to achieve current gains. Sometimes, the price for these gains has not been paid in full and the hungry ghosts of balance come to pressure the characters in new and unpleasant ways to ensure that the ledger of their lives is balanced. It need not get supernatural at all, but sometimes a dose of perspective and a sudden awareness of indebtedness can be just as shocking as any reanimated corpse of a former lover.

That said, sometimes it is nice to disrupt the balance of an otherwise stable campaign with the revelation that the reality the characters have been taking for granted is not exactly what it seems. Sometimes things do go bump in the night… not that any proof will remain later. The haunted house which we all know is not haunted, might just provide a few persuasive arguments that there is some foundation to the idea of ghosts. The family legend about a cursed artifact might suddenly take on more credence as things inexplicably go wrong, and what is not to love about a story where the face of a dear dead friend is spotted in a crowd, but no trace remains that untaught mortal eyes can follow? The fortune telling medium with a penchant for speaking in riddles and no compunctions about assigning hard quests can be a great aid on fright night.

With the greater familiarity and continuity available to a long-term game with a regular group, the GM can plan some big and impressive scares, timed to go off at the appropriate time… say, Halloween. These will be game changers, but as Halloween stands at the gateway between one season and the next, between one world and the next, is there really a more appropriate time to mix things up? Introduce threads which when followed will end the life of a beloved NPC, destroy a way of life, or set in motion a series of choices the understanding of which could drive people mad. No matter what genre in which you play, even a light-hearted one, things can be brought to the surface which mark and change the characters – which harrow them. When you know your group, your game, and your genre, you can do this without breaking anything. Of course, the farther you go from the baseline of normal play, the more risk of player surprise you run. Think things through, subtly survey the players, and change your perspective of the game to mirror theirs before you commit to any monumental changes which might alienate some of the party. When you are ready, go forth, and gnaw at them with deeply targeted fears, and bring them to their knees under the weight of terror before sitting back to watch them either rise to the challenge or fall trying.

It is such turning points that legendary stories are made around a gaming table.

Out of the frying pan, or ‘This one goes to 11’

What do you do if you already play a horror game as your ongoing campaign? Do what the supernatural beings in Buffy and Reaper did and take the night off? You could, and sometimes maybe you should, but sometimes – just sometimes – you should crank the intensity high enough to hear the players’ nerves crackle.

If you are routinely in a horror setting, then you are constantly fighting the war against horror itself becoming routine, and your stories becoming stylized affairs of ritual, formula, and conceit. A varied palette of scares is required to sustain such a game. Moving between levels of intensity, levels of player comfort and discomfort, and arranging for the choice of appropriate degrees of  risk and reward is essential. On Halloween, or some other special holiday, it might be time to blur those lines, shatter those formulas, and tread on some taboos to remind the players that there are dark things in the world, and they had better walk lightly.

One could imply, for example that PC Kindred have been blood bound and have been doing dark deeds all unaware which are about to come to light. One could give hints that the successful campaigns against the mythos your investigators have been running are just delusions in padded rooms… or just one delusion in one room to one very fragmented mind. One could plant evidence that the noble investigator has in fact been the flesh-eating serial killer she has been hunting throughout the campaign. One could reveal the enchanted sword which has been such a boon in fighting the party’s enemies has decided it is time to collect on the debt the party owes – in souls… and so much more. None of it need to be true, but for one night, one uncomfortable and horrible night, it could seem to be all too true. Betrayal and the revelation of a horrifying truth are just one road to this place, but that road is fast and goes directly to where you want to go. Other roads might not get you there in time, or with the same level of investment. Whatever route you take, be prepared – for one night at least – to pull no punches and leave everything that defines a group in doubt. Give them real cause to fear… then, let things seep back to normalcy… until next year.

Get Horrible!

RPG Blog Carnival

The RPG Blog Carnival has been travelling since 2008. This month the topic is ‘A Horrible October.’ Archives for the Carnival can be found at the RPG Blog Alliance. To follow the carnival this month, the host is Troll in the Corner and the links for the contributors will be collected on this page.

More on Horror

2 Responses to “October RPG Blog Carnival – Surfing the Surfeit of Horror”
  1. Ruddy good read! I feel a bit bad though. I’ve been touching on horror in role playing games for a couple of months, just because I love the genre, and had to struggle to come up with something new for this blog carnival. I think I managed it, but because i was trying to avoid going over my old ground, it’s not up to your standard. 😦

    • Runeslinger says:

      Thanks for the kind words. I have posts on horror littering up my archives too, which I hope will earn some fresh eyes from this round of carnival visitors.

      I really liked, and spread around, your excellent post on mines as a location. I am planning to use what it taught me in a few scenarios in the near future. I will take a look at your carnival entry today~

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