Are Horror RPGs Possible?

So, today I finally watched the original version of The Wickerman having had it from Netflix since before Thanksgiving. While watching it I was reminded of a time when horror meant something other than gore porn which alone was worth the time. It also brought back memories of very frightening thriller horror from that time period focusing on witches and satanism as well as pagan.

Like many gamers it made me want to get out some horror rules (specifically the first edition of Palladium’s Beyond the Supernatural) and plot out a campaign. But I was stopped fast.

Can you really create a horror RPG campaign that will be fulfilling for both players and the game master? It is certainly possible to create a mood of horror as Death Frost Doom shows. Consider this, however, in horror there are generally few if any survivors and most horror films, especially of the more thriller type, leave a suggestion if not an outright demonstration that the leads have failed in ending the horror.

As a result we have to create action horror games. Sure, we have horrific events and a variety of supernatural and normal horrific events. That said, from the earliest horror games such as Stalking the Night Fantastic, Chill, and the afore mentioned Beyond the Supernatural you were a very competent individual who stood a chance of defeating the horror for good while surviving. Even the game that began horror as a genre, Call of Cthulhu was more August Derleth than H. P. Lovecraft for this reason. The other path, mostly as a result of White Wolf’s Vampire and its success although also see in Stellar Games’s Nightlife is you playing the monster.

In the end the best we can do is something like Call of Cthulhu which intersects with horror in a more TV than movie space (I don’t feel qualified to comment on horror literature having limited exposure). CoC investigators, with their regular success and survivability are more akin to Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The X-Files (especially the pre-mythology conception of the show) as well as Derleth’s The Trail of Cthulhu.

In that way, I think the development of those games has hurt RPG horror. While a horror campaign is probably not possible the proliferation of a “horror light” mentality and horror mechanics to enforce the mood has dampened the ability to bring horror as a style for certain adventures. It has encouraged us to think of horror as sanity points and monsters who eat them (instead of hit points). Horror should be a feeling of doom and that, even if you get out alive, you somehow didn’t win.

9 thoughts on “Are Horror RPGs Possible?

    Me and me third level chums running blind in the dungeon from a troll that was kicking our arse, spiking a random door behind us and turning around to find we had locked ourselves in a mummy's tomb.


  2. Our 1st level D&D game had a definite horror feel. When players were refusing to go with the rest of the party into the Crypt or choosing to run-like-hell instead of playing the number-crunching game, I think you've managed to get the right feel. 🙂

  3. GURPS:Horror suggested that you begin a campaign with a one-off episode using expendable characters, whom you then mercilessly crushed. The campaign proper would then begin with the real PCs going in to find out what happened to the first lot.

  4. Horror RPGs are quite possible (if difficult to achieve). Horror campaigns, not so much(?).

    I like horror one-offs where the characters are very much allowed to die (or suffer even worse fates). Then again, if you're playing a disposable character, then you lack the attachment required for real fear.

    It comes down to creating a mood that even competent characters will respond to. Paranoia games (phantom die rolls for example), disturbing imagery, perhaps eerie soundtracks, creepy voices (I've managed that at least once), overpowered threats, etc.

    But that doesn't really even scratch the surface of how you can allow competent characters to defeat overpowered evil without them getting too confident in the face of the next threat.

  5. What about adding a horror adventure into an extablished campaign of a different tone? Add significant amounts of creepiness and suspense, then let them have it. Hold no punches, slaughter PCs that have great meaning to the players, and end the campaign in a proper, horrific TPK.

    That would probably accomplish what you are getting at, as well establish yourself as a truly Evil Bastard.

  6. This seems to fall back onto the broader problem of getting players to stop thinking in terms of numbers and mechanics and instead allowing themselves to get immersed into the story. Tricky, that.

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