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Horror in RPGs: A state of mind rather than a genre

This month's RPG Blog Carnival theme kindly hosted by The Other Side is horror.

Let me start out by saying I’ve never been a fan of “horror” movies per se, it is the protagonists struggle to survive which interests me the most. Movies of the last 20 years have tended to focus on visualising the gore through special fx leading to some pretty uninteresting movies such as the "Saw" franchise, "The Purge" and the godawful "Human Centipede". Hollywood has chased the computer games dragon with a series of lack lustre adaptations of truly personal and immersive multimedia experiences like Silent Hill or Resident Evil which has also poisoned the apple.

Taking a look at Empire's top 50 Horror movies we see an interesting pattern emerge at the top of the list with nothing released in the last 20 years even getting a sniff.

  1. The Shining (1980) - Spending winter in an isolated hotel

  2. Alien (1979) - Trapped in deep space with an uninvited guest

  3. Scream (1996) - A heavy breather targets you in your own home

  4. The Thing (1982) - Arctic Expedition thaws out doom

  5. Halloween (1978) - A murderous psycopath on the loose in your home town

  6. Evil Dead II (1987) - Spring break in a cabin in the woods

  7. Nosferatu (1922) - Dracula by any other name

  8. Jaws (1977) - A fishy terror at a holiday retreat

  9. The Exorcist (1973) - The girl nextdoor isn't feeling too well

  10. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) - On any street on any night of the week

What the list also highlights is that Horror can take place anywhere and anywhen. It's not the setting that counts, it's what you do in it that makes it horrific.

Your Setting is the Comforting Backdrop

In the classic titles above the viewer is given a false sense of security by establishing a safe and familiar canvas on which the horror will be painted. The seaside fun of Amity, the mundanity of a long haul space freighter, the frigid boredom of a long stay at an isolated hotel or an arctic research station. The location sets the expectation of what is normal, what players can reasonably expect to happen during their "adventure".

This is a critical part of the horror experience, which if it is foreshadowed too clumsily can often take the fun out of the reveal. The horror comes when the players are ripped out of their safe and normal existence and confronted with their (or more likely an NPCs) own vulnerability and mortality. A great example of this is how death catches up with each survivor in the Final Destination franchise. Death catches up with everyone in the end and the more sudden and unexpected the better the effect.

An Unstoppable and Omnipresent Evil

Every great horror movie relies upon a great horror villain, be it a supernatural evil spirit or just some creature hell bent on consuming your players. The feeling of hopelessness and vulnerability should be palpable. The skill of the GM is in making your players feel like they are about to become the next victim at every turn.

Whatever your Evil is it must be able to move throughout your setting unseen with impunity. Whether it is a shapechanging alien which can mimic other players or a demon who resides in your dreamspace, leaving your players without any "safe space" makes them feel permanently vulnerable.

Every good antagonist needs to have mystique and I don't mean the perfume by Lentheric. Too quick a reveal and you risk normalising your Evil. You never really get a good full body view of the Alien until it reveals itself to Ripley in the supposed sanctuary of the space shuttle Narcissus. This is also why subsequent movies dont follow in the originals horror genre footsteps because we are already familiar with the creatures abilities. The horror has fully revealed itself and in doing so lessened itself to merely a dangerous creature by our familiarity.

ALIENS - not a horror movie, it's a Bug Hunt!

Your Evil must also seem unstoppable to anything other than superhuman means. A creature whose physiology is a weapon, you know the type, acid for blood, every cell programmed for survival, an insatiable appetite hell bent on just consuming whatever is in its path with singularl preternatural determination.

A Glimmer of a Way Out

Giving your players a slim chance of survival or a glimmer of hope is key to making them want to keep trying to survive. If they think that all is lost then they will give up trying to survive and become fatalistic or suicidal in their play.

The great horror movie Evil's typically have a weakness which the survivors need to discover and then exploit. Sometimes, it's garlic, grains of rice or silver. Sometimes, it is learning how to use your dreams and some times it is just surviving until daybreak.

Remember that they mostly come at night... mostly.

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