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"Real" Horror

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Rapier's "Low-Hero Combat" thread got me thinking about the difference between horror and action-adventure. I'm a big fan of horror, yet the genre of RPGs (largely via Call Of Cthulhu and, I suppose, video games) seems to regard it as an action-adventure affair, in which the heroes tote around machine guns loaded with silver, crossbows loaded with wooden stakes and ubiquitous crates of explosives. I understand that most games tend toward action-adventure, yet when I run horror it's more like the movies, where shooting the monster does little good. Fighting with conventional weapons might gain you a little here and there, but ultimately you can't beat the monsters with brute strength. If that's your strategy, you won't live long.


I'm curious how many others run horror this way. For those who do, have you run entire campaigns? How long did they last? How did they go? It's been a long time since I've run horror, and my current group doesn't much like it, but nonetheless I'm rolling some ideas around in my head.



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I've run a number of modern horror campaigns over the years, and they ARE usually more occult-adventure than true horror. I've decided that's okay...it takes more work to make a scenario really creepy, to the point that it unnerves the Players. So I save it up. There'll be several episodes of figure out what the current Bad Thing is and finding a way to destroy it, with combats against dozens of undead, checking out the libraries and bars, and now and then a crate of explosives.


THEN, I'll throw something at them that their usual tactics are useless against. If the PCs have special powers, they don't apply or the fiend is immune to them. Guns are useless against it, or somehow neutralized. The PCs can't detect it, or if they can it puts them in an awkward situation.


For example, the creature might be invisible except to the PCs "Kirlian Goggles"...and in a crowd of people. It could be possessing a DNPC or an innocent child. It could use mind-controlled innocents to fight.


We're not quite to horror yet, but the players are off-balance and challenged. How about if it is in the basement of an abandoned building and can disable all of the investigator's electrical equipment? What if it is killing a victim every three hours in a horrible fashion, and the longer the heroes take to find its weakness, the more people die?


Getting surreal can give players the feeling you want. What if they're actually fighting a series of post-hypnotic suggestions that have been implanted in everyone in a small isolated town...including THEM?


There are alot of good horror games with advice on creating the feeling you're looking for. I've focused on how you can make a game scary for seasoned occult commandoes. Show no mercy (or at least make the Player believe you won't show any).

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The problem with running horror is that it's nearly impossible to scare anyone. And any attempts to set a mood invariably get killed by phones, crying babies, crieds of "It's too dark to read my character sheet"...


The best horror films and books rely on the persons imagination, not on description. But in an RPG, everyone wants to know what "it" looks like.


Everything I run has a horror influence in it somewhere (because that's what I'm all about), but I tend to run only Call of Cthluhu style horror games, and the "big bad" of those is often something unkillable by manual means.

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Guest Champsguy

I've run horror a few times. I usually did it as one-shot games, though, because most horror protagonists don't keep running into the same stuff (unless it becomes "action-horror"). Honestly, if I met a vampire in real life, I'd start carrying around crosses, holy water, holy wafers, salt, stakes, garlic, and all sorts of vampire paraphenalia. I might also get myself some silver bullets (if there are vampires out there, who knows what else might be there too). I think horror works best when its unexpected.


Also, you've got to have the right group. Certain gamers are there to hit things, not to be scared.


When I do run a horror scenario, I like to spring it on people. Have them create heroic level characters. Introduce a mafia boss. Lead in with a few subplots that begin to develop. Have a few unexplained things begin to happen, but make it look like it's the work of the known bad guy (Jimmy the Snitch disappeared from the safe house in the woods). Then, just as the players have gotten comfortable and think they know what's going on, let loose the undead serial killer.

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Originally posted by Blue

The problem with running horror is that it's nearly impossible to scare anyone. And any attempts to set a mood invariably get killed by phones, crying babies, crieds of "It's too dark to read my character sheet"...


True. The only times I've managed to truly scare my players (and even myself) was when there have been absolutely no interruptions. Not even food breaks.



The Horror

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Since creating "true" horror is so much more difficult, most "horror" RPG's are more dark pulp or supers. For actually scary RPGs, the independants have more variety. Kult, Chill, Little Fears, etc. As for not being afraid since you describe the monster, the quick answer is "don't." Follow the movie greats. Don't let them see it until it is on them, then describe only what they'd notice, which ain't much when a large shape is rushing at you. Instincts kick in, and instead of your brain going.. hmm.. lets see.. big thing coming at me in a predatious manner? Uhh.. well, what kind of predator is it? Your brains goes CRAP! MOVE! at which point the whole Fight or Flight kicks in. As always comes up in these threads, Nightmares of Mine is "THE" Horror supplement. While for Rolemaster, it doesn't really have a system attached to it. Ultimately, it borders on impossible to have a campaign where every session is scary. Instead, it may be easier to have only one or two sessions be truly scary for the players and just have scary moments during other sessions. Also, there is different types of fear, some are easier to create than others, though as with life, the more difficult types are usually the best.

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adventure. I'm a big fan of horror, yet the genre of RPGs (largely via Call Of Cthulhu and, I suppose, video games) seems to regard it as an action-adventure affair, in which the heroes tote around machine


I presume you are referring to D20 Call of Cthulhu and not BRP Cthulhu. The former is very action-oriented (Librarians with an Armour Class rating and Handgun feats! :eek: ) whilst the latter (the original) has one of the most lethal combat systems around (it discourages combat in favour of investigation).


I've campaigned the horror genre continuously for many years. It requires sideways thinking. Challenges shouldn't really be combat-oriented. If your players can win the scenario via gunplay then you aren't playing in the horror genre, you're in the action-adventure genre. Skills and roleplaying are the order of the day - you cannot scare players who rely on their handguns instead of getting into their character and interacting with the world.


If the players do not care for any of the NPCs around them, how can they feel that their worldview is threatened by in-game events?


Setting the mood for weekly (or bi weekly) play is a tough prospect. It's hard to scare players if they come up against the same old opposition every time. Variety is required. Or, to put it another way, the Unknown Monster must stay unknown and not become familiar and contemptible. As soon as your players can identify the evil beast-thing from beyond as a MindSucker from Planet MacDonalds you have lost.


Another technique that is important is the enforcement of the rule that Power Comes At A High Price. You can also substitute Knowledge instead of Power. The world is hostile and nothing comes for free. Every success the PCs get should be tempered by the loss of loved ones, limbs, sanity et al.


The other technique that works in your favour is the Onion Skin (AKA the Slow Burn), whereby plot elements and The Awful Truth behind the Big Conspiracy are only revealed slowly over a number of gaming sessions (if ever). Example:


Session 1 involves angry gangsters wondering who is bumping them off, and the attendant fallout for the PCs. Session 2 follows up on clues from previous, and it is suspected that resurrected undead gangsters are the trigger men. Closely followed by the investigation of the undeads lair, and the creepy family of undertakers who seem to be working with them. Session 3 discovers that the family are themselves black magicians with a network of contacts, and they are intent on assuming control of the criminal underworld. Sessions 3 and 4 reveal their extortion, blackmail, pornography, slave trading and organ-legging schemes, and the links to those in power (D.A., Mayor etc, all of whom are depraved in the extreme) via a formula for immortality. Next session the price for that immortality is discovered, and so it continues...


You have to keep things weird, unpredictable and generally run contrary to established gaming. Things should start out normal but as the campaign progresses the PCs should encounter darker and more twisted sessions, until they start questioning everything around them. When your players (not the PCs) start having real life nightmares based on your gaming, you will know you are succeeding ;)


Running a successful horror campaign is probably the hardest of all GMing tasks. It's also the most rewarding.


I can suggest a few sources to help you along:


Call of Cthulhu 5th Edition

Delta Green

Delta Green: Countdown


GURPS: Illuminati

GURPS: Cliffhangers

Horror Hero (4th Ed)

Any Cthulhu mailing list / bulletin board (e.g. Strange Aeons, Yog Sothoth etc)

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I love running Horror & Occult Adventure ... I think that Champsguy has got it right, Horror is best ran as one-shots or a series of seperate "sequels" to the one shots (a trilogy works best). As far as fear, I only have one thing to say: Know Your Players. Horror is a genre that needs to scare people, it deals with a lot of psychological twists and turns. I usually look at the following formula:

1) Familar location. Great for table-top gaming ... run the game in your city/town and use familar locales. I once used a local cemetary for a game and one of the players still can't go near it IRL ;)

2) Mood. You don't need darkened lights to set a mood (it's nice, but not always effective). Use mood music set on a low volume in the background. Good examples include: Nightmare on Elm St, Halloween, Disturbing Behavior and some of Midnight Syndicate's stuff. Also, the occasional photograph helps with visualization for locations and quick, rough drawings sometimes encourage more fear than anything else.

3) Time. Unless you have a basement with no windows, you should run at night. Night time is when the creepy things ooze outta the walls and present themselves to attack. Also, there should be a pace for the game ... don't let it stall too much on someone working on an idea. Give them 5 mins tops and, if they can't think of something, tell them "Times Up".

4) Vagueness. Having vague descriptions of what you're battling will help more than anything. If you're fighting a werewolf, what's more intimidating? "You see a humanoid figure covered in ripped clothes and fur snarling at you" or "You hear a gutteral snarl as something dark flashes by you ... you couldn't see what it looked like, but you did notice the fangs it had." Leave it up to the players' imaginations to get a picture and work with that ;)

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Horror is a mood genre, so you really do have to have the right players to get it to work well.


But here's a few tricks that might enhance the game aspect of it.


You'll probably rely on EGO rolls to effect in game sanity and ability to keep their cool. With that in mind to get the feel right don't let them get to high of an EGO, best way to do that is to not tell them you're about to dump them into a horror genre, if they think it's some kind of Modern genre (or anything else) they may not pump that EGO up.


once the game has started, mess with them.


The character finds and opens the Neronomicon and reads a few passages... give them 4 pt KS: Elder Beings, -4 pt EGO -2 right off the bat. Bang. The price of some types of knowledge is your sanity (Lovecraft seemed to think so, worked for him.)


Betcha the next character thinks twice about trying to quickly gain knowledge about something. This prevents the Characters from knowing everything about the enemy so you can just keep 'em guessing.

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How could I have forgotten? Doh. If you have a Gamecube, or know someone who does, play Eternal Darkness. It is one of the best survival horror games around. Not only is it creepy as hell, but as you lose sanity, it becomes even more so. At first you don't notice it.. perspective gets a little off, and creepy sounds start in the background. When you get really messed up, you start having psychotic breaks, where you'll enter a room, and your limbs will fall off, and then you'll recover and realize you hadn't really gone into the room yet. Then it *really* messes with you so that when you go to save, it looks like it is deleting all your old saved games, or you go into a room full of zombies and it says the conroller is unplugged, or the game will mute itself and show the little green MUTE in the top right corner like most TV's do. The reason it is so effective is because, for once, the game messes with the players, and not the characters. I could see doing something like this in an RPG. Since a character sheet is like a big list of options that players can use to get out of situations, take away the character sheets. Have them throw dice in a box to roll so that they can't see the results. Being a player is about being in control. Horror is about not being in control.

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Originally posted by ThothAmon

I presume you are referring to D20 Call of Cthulhu and not BRP Cthulhu. The former is very action-oriented (Librarians with an Armour Class rating and Handgun feats! :eek: ) whilst the latter (the original) has one of the most lethal combat systems around (it discourages combat in favour of investigation).


Yes. "Real" CoC is a game where stupid characters die (or meet a fate worse than death!) quickly, and where smart characters eventually die (see above) too. That is, of course, unless the GM is generous enough to keep the game fairly "low-level" in terms of what kind of horrors actually appear.


Calling it action-horror is just bizarre.


GM: "Ahead of you, you see...


Player 1: "I start running. As in, away."


GM: "... the bloated form of the Great Shibboleth."


Player 2: "I fire my Uberweapon at it".


GM to player 2: "The Uberweapon doesn't seem to have an effect. Your character goes 'Pop' and ceases to exist."


Player 3: "I grab his Uberweapon from his corpse."


GM to player 3: "There is no corpse. By the way, your character goes 'Pop' and ceases to exist."

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I think there's a fundamental disconnect. Most horror works rely on the protagonists either overlooking something or being stupid to the point of cliche. Which the author can do; he controls the characters, and if something slips their mind it's because he said so. Whereas most gamers spent their formative years making equipment lists including "1 skin (water or wine), 1 10' pole, 50' of rope, one week's iron rations..."


In short, gamers never overlook anything.

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Ahhhh. Horror. Also known as Boo!


Horror does not require players to do things stupid, but it does require NPCs and PCs to be caught in unexpected events that operate in a way beyond normal rules. It is the "jump", the suprise, the twist, and the shift beyond the expected rules that make horror possible. If you focus on that, you can achieve a horror feel to the game.


I have been running both horror and monster action/ adventure genre games for decades now (being my favorite genres). The two seldom cross. If the characters are prepped for I have two "articles" on the subject that might be illuminating for you.




It is a more theoretical piece, but helps you get into the mind frame of what you need to do to actually generate horror.


More Boo!


This is a slightly more random collection of game tips on how to run a horror genre game. This is focused on the nuts and bolts of how to run a horror game.


I also might suggest hitting up the following links.

Here are some useful things....



Handy bunch of links...



THE HORROR WRITERS ASSOCIATION (HWA) is a worldwide organization of writers and publishing professionals dedicated to promoting dark literature and the interests of those who write it. HWA was formed in the late 1980s with the help of many of the field's greats, including Dean Koontz, Robert McCammon, and Joe Lansdale. Today, with over 1,000 members around the globe, it is the oldest and most respected professional organization for the much-loved writers who bring you the most enjoyable sleepless nights of your life. For more about us, click here.



The Horror Screenwriters Page. A good place to start. Designing game scenarios and GMing is more like writing, shot blocking, and directing a movie than it is writing a story. This is a good place to get your feet wet in the blood of things.



Handy forum. Some gems to be found, but you have to wade through crap.

Writerswrite.com, ReadersRead.com, HowToWeb.com and Writenews.com

Associated sites.



Some of the links are dead (no pun intended). Those that work are good.




You can google some more if you want. And avoid paying any money for anything on the writing sites. That is how they make their money, but what you need can be gotten for free if you search on the web long enough.


And before you say... "These are all writing sites. They have nothing to do with gaming..." GMing is a great deal like writing a story, be it book fiction or screen play. These tools, plus some story telling skills, can make you a great horror GM. Trust me on this one. I have been a horror and action horror GM for a regular campaign for about 18 years now.

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Originally posted by archer

In short, gamers never overlook anything.




Yeah, that's been my experience too.


Gamers never do anything stupid. They never miss obvious clues or hints. They never get so caught up in the wonderfulness of their Honkin' Big Guns that they forget to use their brains.


They never do any of that, do they?




The real problem in the horror genre is finding excuses to _not_ kill off your PCs.

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I can set the mood, and have players that will go along with it. I have a great conspiracy that will suck the hero's right into the middle and will drive them from one horrific encounter to another with little rest outside their trips to the psychactrist. What I don't have is the basic character professions and a way to progress them into real metaphysical contenderds.


I mean, I can do that without loosing the feel of the game, I just don't know the power level and professions to start with.


See my thread titled Horror Campaign if you want to respond.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Some Horrific help


I rely on three elements to convey horror in games


1. Isolation: The protagonists need to realize that they cannot get help from any outside source. Whether it's by physical isolation (lost in the wilds, on a deserted moon-base, or stuck on a boat in the middle of the sea) or social isolation (the "no one believes us" tactic where even if the protagonists ask for help, their pleas are at best ignored or at worst taken as evidence the protagonists are cracking up).


2. Helplessness: The protagonists need to understand that the direct, easy approach isn't working. Even logical deduction seldom yeilds progressive courses of action. This is the classic "you can't nuke Cthulhu" element. The protagonists should swing between "defeat the menace" and "survive the menace" throughout the scenario. Not knowing what to do is one of the essential elements of horror.


3. Mystery: The protagonists shouldn't have a clear idea of what they're up against. They should chase evidence, catch brief glimpses, or stumble on the aftermath of the menace, but never get the whole picture, except perhaps at the climax of the scenario, or the epilogue. Knowing what you're facing gives an element of comfort, a sense of stability which is something the protagonists should never have.


I also use several tricks to help the players maintain the mood. The first of which is an agreement between all players and the gamemaster that this is a horror scenario, and to accept the conventions of the genre.


If you can, run the game in a place that enhances the horror mood. Preferably someplace with broad empty spaces behind the players and gamemaster. You don't need to play in blackout conditions, but use a single source of light bright enough to play by, and eliminate any distracting sources of light. Make the hallway leading out of your family room as dark as possible. Sit with your back to a window looking out into a darkened front yard (I tend to run my horror games at night, since daytime intrudes too much on the mood.


HAM IT UP as the gamemaster. Describe scenes from a "first sence perceived" standpoint. Rotting dead bodies are scented before they are seen. Shambling horrors are heard shuffling through the streets. Cold winds chill the flesh. Give the players just enough to let their imaginations run wild. You'll realize that players are excellent at scaring themselves.


Finally, keep the pace moving. It doesn't have to be car-chaces and gunfights, but events must keep occurring. Don't let the protagonists rest too long. For horror to work there has to be pressure to keep going, the sense that if you stop you're dead.


Hope this helps a few of ya.

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