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Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Does Gaming Get Horror?

Can gaming do horror?  Sure.  Ever hear of Call of Cthulhu?  Chill?  Yeah, gaming's taken many stabs at the so-called horror genre.  But can it produce what horror's supposed to engender?  Fear in its devotees?  Because really, horror only feels like horror when it comes uninvited into our lives.  From pulse-pounding jump scares to cold revulsion at something disturbing - or grotesque, horror lifts our rocks to expose the metaphorical nasties we'd rather not see but can't look away from, an experience not easily packaged...

The best books get into our heads, a prerequisite for feelings of unease, while movies are multisensory and replicate real-life experience, although they often go for the easy, low-hanging fruit of gore.  Gaming (of the tabletop variety) happens in the participant's heads, which saddles the GM with some of the responsibilities of a writer; and herein lies the challenge of horror games.  It's much harder to nail the landing.    

First, horror's not exclusive to any one genre.  It's just one of a whole range of feelings humans are capable of.  Horror strolls literally every avenue.  Soldiers fear war; lovers fear the death of their paramours.  Every survival story has a horror novel buried in its pages, ending be damned.  The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is more than just an examination of human innocence amid genocide.  It's ending, especially, is simply horrifying.

Worse still, it's arbitrary.  Werewolves in the middle ages are fantasy; but toss one into modern-day London and it's a horror movie.  And I get why.  Monsters are the danger that intrudes upon our safest moments.  Medieval knights and wizards are equipped to deal, however incompletely, with these things, making them truly heroic.  Modern people, ignorant of the old ways and softened by the illusion of safety, are merely victims.

At any rate, gaming horror is all-too-often reducible to monsters already neutered by heroic fantasy and a lack of actual risk.  Ghosts?  Check.  Vampires?  You betcha.  Man-eating werewolves?  The party just killed one last week and levelled up.  The sanity we lose in Call of Cthulhu isn't ours to give.  It's all just math on a sheet.  We risk nothing vital enough to merit panic, much less actual horror.  The scares are fake and largely academic.

In the end, horror's deeply personal.  And the things that scare us are closely guarded and shared only in confidence such that exploiting them for a game comes off like what the philosophers of old called a dick move.  Who would knowingly do this?  A little emotional intelligence goes a long way, but it sometimes means your game is long on Stradh and short on scares because horror absolutely implies dealing real-world discomfort... 

There's a goldilocks zone that's hard to find.  A sweet spot.  I prefer to focus on existential dread of the sort that briefly disturbs, but respects most reasonable boundaries.  Earth is really the egg of a cosmic monster just waiting to hatch.  A long-standing - and trusted - NPC is revealed as a cannibal - after one of many celebratory dinners!  It's the philosophy that intrudes on sleepless nights and bothers us short of anything approaching trauma. 

I'm sure I get this wrong.  A lot.  And my games become modern fantasies with ordinary (sometimes trained) protagonists fighting monsters they'll meet - empowered by white magic or machine guns - and winning out in the end or dying with no more heartache than a total party kill.  The OSR, with its life-is-cheap culture and homebrew critical tables, recalls slasher flicks in their gory particulars.  But it's cartoon violence and often reversible.

So can gaming do horror?  I've changed my mind.  Gaming can do monsters and stat blocks, the raw materials of a horror campaign.  Games can do the rules needed to measure out survival and quantify just how terrifying that elder god was.  Gaming simulates the suffering of imaginary minds; but that's where it ends.  You can't bottle this stuff.  It takes a GM and the right group of players.  A group willing to scare and to be scared within certain boundaries set largely by consideration and emotional intelligence.  Only then can horror be play...


  1. I'm sure there's some kind of formula to get us to horror.

  2. I doubt the power fantasy of D&D can get the powerless of horror.
    Try Little Fears, Dread, or Ten Candles.

  3. The only time I've really spooked my players was in a d20 Future game set in the Aliens/Predator cinematic universe. Group of colonial marines exploring a colony complex, expecting monsters behind every door. There was nothing. Oh, there were clues that a Predator had come along and wiped out the colonists, but nothing but empty room after empty room. Really freaked out my players as their anticipation and dread grew.

    So yeah, I tend to agree with your final assessment. It's really in the right mood set by the GM and players, not in anything mechanical.

  4. Replies
    1. It's the classic lesson of horror movies. The less you show, the scarier the monster is.