|Poor, unkillable, lonely slayer of teenagers…|
Human Slaves of An Insect Nation, part 4-The Horrors of Horror
Aaahh, horror. Now that’s a genre that’s been tossed around a lot. Movies try to do it but barely succeed
and games do it, even though sometimes horror was not their original focus or intent:
Make no mistake: Horror is not an easy genre to master or to use. It is, in fact (along with comedy) among the toughest genres to work with, mostly because it is based on manipulating your audience and knowing exactly which buttons to push and a masterful understanding of narrative flow for maximum effect.
Here’s a scene that mixes both these elements in a competent fashion, only to be ruined by the forced insertion of the Benny Hill Theme song, thus ruining what could have been a funny scene, by poking your ears with sounds that were tailored to make you smirk:
But why did that scene work, before the Benny Hill Theme ruined it? What was it about a scene of zombie SS troopers and a handful of survivors in the snow that made it so? And what was it that stopped it from being even better?
Short answer is: too much information provided. A longer, more eloquent answer is provided by Mr. King himself
“The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there...”
Stephen King is a man who has made a living out of horror and therefore understands how it works and in fact explains the very mechanics of horror in less than 100 words in the quote above.
tl;dr: it’s scary when you don’t know what it is, what it does, where it came from or how it works. It aslo works much better when you can’t see it.
Movies, which are a visual and acoustic medium, find it very hard to work on that basis, since depriving the audience of these factors will result in something that’s barely even watchable or qualifies as a movie.
Behold! The (technically) scariest movie of all time!
Movies instead seek to work with mystery, with using sharp tense trills of violins to make you jump when appropriate and by presenting monsters or hazards that work with their own ruleset. But movie logic dictates that the eerie ruleset needs to be explained and overcome (at least in Occidental horror).
In Oriental horror, on the other hand, you’re supposed to shrug, go ‘meh, ghosts’ and die screaming.
Video games, on the other hand, require that the horror element must be a challenge for the player to overcome. Sadly, most developers equate this notion with
|Doom comic: 90’s videogame satire condensed in 16 pages.|
While the chosen few choose to go with games like, say, Amnesia, where you are a powerless helpless little German, who can only wave his lantern and soil his pants as the invincible creatures stumble out from the darkness and kill you with a swipe of their hands, everyone else arms you with heavy artillery and expects you to be scared of the four-legged humanoid that you can cut to shreds with a couple shots.
Here’s looking at you, Dead Space.
Tabletop RPGs suffer pretty much the same fate, because like videogames, they deal with horror as an obstacle, instead of a situation or a state of mind. People play D&D, GURPS and every other game, because they want to start off as relatively underpowered schmucks and then rise to near-godhood by sheer virtue of their brains, brawn and arcane and/or technological aptitude.
|Except for Exalted, which reels you in with its siren song of riches and invincibility and then slaps you across the mouth with its Cock of Despair. Also, everybody hates you.|
To openly admit that you are going to run a Horror game to your players is to deny them this prospect of rise to power right off the bat. Because if your players start off as a group of aspiring mud-farmers, armed with their fathers’ stolen swords and armor and haven’t become giant-slayers ten sessions in, then you’ve just lost your party, son.
Because powerlessness against the adversity (or, at the very least, the inability to beat up the Thing From Another World), is another staple of Horror. But players cannot and will not (understandably) back down from killing something, unless an alternative has already been presented to them. It’s not so much a problem on the game’s behalf, as much as your own. You expect that a team of magically superpowered sociopaths will for some reason choose to not stab said monster in the face and steal its stuff, when the same tactic has worked wonders for them in the game all this time!
|“Guys! This thing has no AC, no hit points and it keeps getting up everytime we kill it! Free XP!”|
Horror’s tough to pull off, but not impossible. It requires considerable suspension of disbelief on your party’s behalf and a lot of time and effort on your own but you know what? It’s totally gonna be worth it, man!
With that in mind, here’s:
THE SHAPESCAPES GUIDE TOWARD ACHIEVING HORROR IN TABLETOP GAMING:
Phase One: Make sure your party’s up for it.
As I mentioned before, Horror does not work with startling or surprising your audience. It works by building the foundation of the emotion you want to invoke. And to do that, you need a party of players willing to be the mortar.
|Yielding, quivering mortar, spiked with just the right amount of baby blood.|
First off, make sure they know they are going to play through a horror campaign. Explain to them that you are willing to run a game based on supernatural terror with a lot of build-up and all the specifics described above. Use a great horror game as reference and they’ll get it.
I’m just gonna leave this here…
See who sticks around and work with those guys. Do not try to force your idea down everyone else’s throats, because it will not work. Some people downright do not like Horror as a genre of gaming, because they’re either not into it, or they’re just a load of fucking pussies.
|Yes, Jim. I am talking about you.|
Make sure the party who’s up for it has a grasping of what Horror stands for. If a guy considers Evil Dead 3 as a legitimate scary movie, then maybe he’s not the best person to have around mid-game, when he suddenly realizes that his rogue evil hand has not turned into a murderous doppelganger just yet.
With that in mind, proceed to…
Phase Two: Setting the Tone
Horror, like Communism in Greece, comes in all sorts of flavors. It can be gory, viscery, cosmicy, psychologicy
|Or serial-killery vanilla|
And this is just a tiny, insignificant portion of the available genres and subcategories of Horror! From a distance, they might all seem similar, but upon closer inspection are in fact quite different and are each governed by their own set of narrative rules and foci.
So before you go ahead and start talking to your friends about “YOUR AWESOME HORROR CAMPAIGN IDEA” make sure you know what kind of story it is you want to tell. For the sake of convenience, here’s a very brief, generalized summary of each flavor of Horror outlined above:
Gory Horror (Or Gorror, because that definitely sounds smarter): Gorror is all about bone, blood and intestines. It’s about axes to the gut, melting faces and chainsaws to the dick. It’s also about body horror and terrible mutations of the flesh and all sorts of messed-up stuff that can ruin your appetite.
PROS: Gorror is easy and requires only a sick, twisted imagination. It is also good for a laugh or two and makes for straightforward stories and villains.
CONS: Rapid acclimation of the players toward the subject matter. Pretty soon, you will be tired of coming up with increasingly horrible shit and your campaign will devolve into a Monster-of-the-Week marathon.
Visceral Horror: Visceral horror is what is sometimes called ‘small-scale horror’. It’s a genre that focuses on the players and the people surrounding them and it’s about disasters that target them and only them, in ways that no one but them can comprehend. It’s essentially the end of the players’ world, instead of the whole shebang.
PROS: Visceral horror is a very rewarding genre in and of itself, since it focuses on the players. Provided the players invest time into it, then they can pretty much get the campaign going on their own.
CONS: Visceral horror is exceptionally hard to pull off, moreso than the other genres, because it requires a level of maturity on behalf of the players that is very hard to come by. It also requires you to avoid scaling the challenge beyond the borders of the players’ world, which is much harder than you can imagine.
Cosmic Horror: Made famous and given its most iconic representatives in pop culture by the Lovecraft Mythos, Cosmic Horror is about the inevitability of mankind’s demise, our unimportance in the greater scheme of things and of little people giving their lives to keep the Ancient Evils at bay, if only for one more day.
PROS: Cosmic horror is chock-full of great material for you to work with, whether you draw your ideas from the Lovecraft Mythos or any other related media.
|Nudge-nudge, wink-wink, nudge-nudge.|
It’s also a genre that starts off terrible and pits the players against impossible odds, giving you some head start right off the bat.
CONS: Media oversaturation. Cthulhu and his buddies are in comic books, podcasts, youtube shows and plushies and have long since been reduced to a joke. They are also so very well known that any seasoned nerd knows everything there is to know about them, dispelling the power behind a big reveal.
Psychologic Horror: Like visceral, this is a genre that requires focus on small portions of the world falling apart around the players and investment on their behalf. However, where visceral horror deals with ‘small-scale’ terrors, psychological horror can be about fucked-up shit going on and ‘Everyone’s crazy! Everyone but me!’. Psychological horror also deals with mind-shattering, very sensitive matters, with supernatural complications.
Pictured: the most twisted fucking thing ever to make it into a game,
when presented in context.|
PROS: You got the entire Silent Hill series of games (except for 5 and that shit one on the PSP) and a ton of movies and books to draw inspiration from. You can also count on your pumped players to help right along.
CONS: See PROS.
Once you’ve picked your tone, move on to…
Phase Three: Setting
I covered settings back in a previous article and went on for pages on how important world-building is for a tabletop rpg campaign. Well, if that seemed like a long and arduous process, then you’re about to get horse-kicked in the teeth and then dragged through jagged glass, because Horror settings are a thousand times more important!
“You’re um…in a town, in um…Illinois. Now give a shit!”
Since Horror is a genre that requires horrible things happening to the audience or the people around them, you must focus on building a world that the players will care about. There’s a reason why small towns and archetypal characters work best in the genre and that’s because the audience can more easily identify with them and therefore give a damn when the Shoggoths suck the skin off their bodies and dump them from the church’s belltower.
A Horror setting needn’t be extensively detailed or planned out from start to finish. But it needs to be something that the players can invest themselves in. Try to get your group to chip in and help make the world a little bit their own. Have them make up a backstory for their characters, their family lives, etc. This way, they will give a fuck about the herd of ghouls living under the graveyard that has been manipulating the town council, exchanging the bodies of the dead for arcane power.
If, on the other hand, your players make crazy, senile characterswithout family and extensive knowledge on the use of heavy artillery andexplosives, then kindly ask them to sit in the timeout corner.
Make also sure that you milk the setting for what it’s worth and try to make them think it’s worth fighting for. If you get the players to invest themselves in Podunk, Illinois, only to have it overrun by zombie sex cultists three sessions in, then you fucked up.
With the setting done, move on to…
Phase Four: Antagonists
So who is the enemy, exactly? Who or what are the players fighting against? Remember, this is a genre that is based on the concept of information being withheld from the players, in order for it to work but that doesn’t mean you can make shit up as you go!
|The small town Cthulhu cult were alien rogue agents from the planet Zorblax working for the guv’ment all along! OR WERE THEY?|
The good thing about Horror as a genre is that pretty much EVERYTHING can be an antagonist. From cultists, to ancient gods, to monsters to aliens to the land itself! Treat the genre like a 2-dollar whore. Do whatever the hell you want to it. Research ancient history or conspiracy theory and tweak it so you make something new.
So the mad scientist old lady that’s been living in the old train yard has built a monster out of the parts of stray cats and small children. Or the thing that lives in the forest is an alien guard dog that survived a spaceship crash for god knows how long. Or the town was built on an old Viking settlement from 500 A.D. Who knows? Sky’s the limit here, really.
But no matter what, the antagonist needs to be clearly defined, explained and limitations set to it. Even almighty Old Ones cannot casually stroll into Earth and even ghosts are trapped inside their haunting. Above all, the enemy must seem impervious to harm, without actually being so.
With that in mind, move on to…
Phase Five: To Kill a Great Old One
Well, not kill him. Even death may die and all that, but at the very least contain or dispel him. Either way, with the Antagonists set up, you still need escape clauses and means for the players to fight back. Remember: Horror is the genre where you cannot beat the monster up with fisticuffs, but you can at least trap it in a piece of amber that has been dipped in the heartblood of a child.
Like say, this one. This one looks good.
Escape clauses also need to be put in place. A good horror story has one of them set up, as a failsafe toward utter and total party death in the hands of Urr-Shaggai, the Patient Watcher from the Stars. A great horror story, on the other hand, has three.
Allow me to explain: when developing your antagonist and escape clauses, try to think in videogame terms. Make up three possible outcomes, and a fourth that dictates that the players earned their horrible deaths, having missed or fucked up every other chance they got.
Think of them like this:
Good ending: The players find the Sleeping Stone, the magical guardian of Podunk, set up there by the Navajo since time immemorial. They manage to interpret the spell and realize that Urr-Shaggai is in town before the Laughing Moon ritual comes to fruition, thus trapping the creature in the stone. Few people die.
Good-Bad ending: The players stop the cult, but not the ritual. The Sleeping Stone is now useless and Urr-Shaggai is contacted. The Sleeping Stone cannot help them, but Urr-Shaggai has not yet become manifest and is therefore unable to exit his summoning circle. Perhaps the players can collapse the old mine around him and trap him there, stopping the threat, but not eliminating it.
Bad Ending: The players miss all the clues or do not do anything that actually stops the cult or the ritual. Urr-Shaggai is made manifest and tears through the town, killing everyone and the players get away by the skin of their teeth. Now they only have to live with themselves…
Fourth Ending: The players missed everything. They are killed by the cult or Urr-Shaggai in increasingly horrible ways. None of them survives.
Of the four endings, only one results in complete failure, each of them giving the players a fighting chance and a glimmer of hope. A proper Horror story dictates that the victory of Good over Evil is pyrrhic, but is a victory nonetheless. A story where the bad guys come on top and good is extinguished is just a terrible story all around.
With those things in mind, your campaign started off, leading us to the final part…
Phase Six: The Entire Game
Okay, here are some hard truths, delivered blogger-style!
Sit down in dat chair right there, lemme show you how it’s done.
-Your players might not be scared: This is true of all horror campaigns. Your players, jaded by decades of movies, games and books, might not be awed by your terrible death-metal voice impression of the Voice Without Mouth, oracle of the Old Ones. In fact, they might shrug or downright laugh. Make sure you do not give a shit. They might not have come over to shit their pants, but because you have managed to make them invest in the story or just because they like the fucked-up things you present to them, week after week.
-Avoid unnecessary detail: Horror is the art of laconic presentation. Do not do voices if you cannot do voices. Do not use music
|But if you do, play this album. It’s creepy as fuck.|
And for the love of god, do not use monster image props! Remember: less is more in horror.
-Player interest is key: Make sure you do not lose it. It’s what made the campaign happen and will cut your own workload in half.
-Scale the threat carefully: Don’t drag your heels for weeks before the Big Reveal but don’t shove it in their face right away. Make them work for it and guide them so they can discover it on their own. They’ll think they earned it and you’ll be the crowned King of Awesome.
|“The King in the Table’s Top! The King in the Table’s Top!”|
-You are not the Lord of Terror: Or you might be. I sure as hell am not, which is why I wrote this guide, as an experienced Horror GM to those starting off. Maybe you can make your players shit their pants or cry with the flick of a word. But if you’re a regular schmuck, know this:
By following the steps on this article, even in the loosest sense, you’ve made something entirely your own and it will show and your players will love it. Yes, writing it down might not get you a publication, but it will get you the respect and interaction you are looking for in your players.
And that, son, is a fucking win right there.
On the subject of shitty movies, I just realized I did not mention that other piece of shit everyone keeps referring to as ‘da scariest moveh of ull tiem’,
More shit happens in this trailer than in the entire film. Rosemary’s baby is a lullaby of a horror movie that’s slow as fuck and doesn’t lead up to anything and ends right when the director and the crew are done jacking off and the audience gets invested.
“But Kostas, this was made in the 70’s. Movie pacing was slow in the 70’s.” Okay, asshole, I’m game. Let’s look at another awesome scary movie made in the 70’s.
Oh shit! Slow but well-crafted pacing, a great premise and a whole load of scary yet awesome shit taking place constantly! Hmmm, well I guess Rosemary’s Baby is horse-dookie after all.
PROTIP for all of you cunts supporting this mindless loop that exists about Rosemary’s Baby: just because your artfag older brother, your dad or your mom like that piece of shit, doesn’t oblige you to like it too. You’ve got your own fucking taste and things like a pregnant woman crying over everything for 2 hours and a scene where an ape-devil sorta has sex with her in her sleep might not be your cup of tea. So please, for the love of God Internet, grow some balls!
|They’re bouncy, colorful and loads of fun! Bitches also love them.|
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