Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Un-Horror Games (A Late Halloween Post)

I've never been big on horror RPGs. I don't hate them - I just don't get them. I've read plenty of Lovecraft, like horror movies and shows in general, but they just don't translate to the tabletop for me. Some illustration:
  •  I've never seen people jump in fright at a table the way they do in a scary movie. I think this is where "An RPG is not a book or a movie" kicks in really hard for me. I think part of the impact of a horror book or a movie is the lack of control - "please don't open that door" - and yet control is one of the signature features of an RPG. It's what makes them different than a book or a movie. Characters in more traditional media routinely make bad decisions and "go into the creepy barn" when an RPG character might run away, round up some help, or go oil up the chainsaw before entering. It's a completely different situation.
  • Most roleplaying games focus on some level of heroic play. You're a bigger than life character fighting the good fight against bad things. Modern D&D, Pathfinder, Star Wars, most Savage Worlds campaigns, the various superhero games - all of these tend in that direction. You don't run from evil - you run towards it! Maybe it's because you're a hero, maybe it's because they have the gold and the XP but that's a strong assumption within the game. Horror is usually assuming the opposite - there are things you should run away from and in many cases you cannot defeat at all. At best you can temporarily contain them, and that's fairly unsatisfying to a lot of heroic style players. I'll include myself in that bunch.
  • The best I've been able to do and experience is a sense of impending doom. A game like the Warhammer RPG includes situations where the PC's know they have to face a foe they likely cannot defeat but have to do it anyway to save someone or cause some temporary difficulty to the foe. This is different from "fear". It's more of a doomed hero vibe than a horror vibe. I think a fair amount of Call of Cthulu adventures end up falling into this category as well. 

I'm not saying there aren't some people out there who can run it - the right GM, the right system, and the right players might do everything I cannot. I've never seen it in person but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. It's just never worked that way for me, either as a player or as a GM. My attempts at horror games look more like "Ash vs. Evil Dead" than "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and honestly I am fine with that. My players have a good time, I have a good time, everybody wins on some level. 

Yes, in Season 2 The Delta gets possessed! The horror!
I've said it before but the only thing I've seen legitimately scare players in tabletop gaming is level-drains and instant-death poison/traps/magic in old school D&D. Sure, it's random and unfair and terribly inconsiderate of your character's perceived place in the narrative, but isn't that what horror is about? The unexpected? The permanent loss? That's a canvas I can work with, but most players nowadays are not interested in those kinds of mechanics. I suspect that just reinforces my feelings about horror games stated above. It still makes for a nice change of pace every once in a while.


Justin Ryan Isaac said...

I've played in a few Call of Cthulhu scenarios that had me on the edge of my seat. We played by candle light and the GM timed things just right. I may have jumped.

thekelvingreen said...

Yeah, I've been in plenty of scary horror games too, although I must admit that often it's something other than the monsters or mood that scares the players; I remember one game of Call of Cthulhu in which the players were more disturbed by a madman with an axe than they were anything else!

Darnizhaan said...

It's not the monsters or the system. It's the atmosphere at the table.