B4 Series #2
When the term “horror genre” is mentioned, the initial association is made to classic and sometimes cheesy monster movies or the more modern gore-intensive film experience. These particular approaches do have their place in the genre but there is much more available for use, especially in the role playing game venue. Given the narrative nature of the hobby, the less-visceral realms often can be of even more value as they can propel a plot line or entwine with a character’s background. And some constant presence of non-horrific horror helps establish a constant tone in a campaign even when a particular adventure isn’t really a “horror” one.
Looking at the world of films, consider the movie Alien. It is a science fiction piece given that it is set in the future on a space ship that visits a different planet but it is considered a true horror classic because of its tone, pacing and visuals. By loosely following the example of this film, a game session can be extremely suspenseful and far more effective as a horror game than one that leans on the use of monsters, sudden violence and blood.
Describe to the players the deep shadows around them that partially obscure the details of the area in which they are traveling. When those details can be seen with some clarity, be sure to highlight their bizarre characteristics and vague meaning. Keep your GM voice steady and possibly just a little slower and quieter than normal so the players have to stay focused on the moment. And when an attacking creature finally takes action, avoid the urge to describe the beast in full detail and instead offer information in brief flashes to maintain the mystery.
Personal psychology plays a big role in the horror genre too. Many characters in many different stories carry with them memories and mental damage from previous events. War, accidents and various tragedies all shape the thoughts and emotions of people and these can be ripe fruit of horror even when there is not a monster in sight. These sources can come from a character’s background or they can be encountered as the story develops. Either way, they offer a very interesting way to establish a subtle horror tone to a campaign.
For example, during the course of a typical dungeon adventure, the party has a particularly tough encounter with trolls. One of the characters is brought to a near-death condition or possibly captured. This traumatic event could be the seed from which further unease and even horror springs. The next encounter with a troll would trigger a Willpower save by that character with failure resulting in temporary Wisdom damage or the “shaken” condition. Any dungeon monster or environmental encounter could be the cause of this small-scale mental affliction but it serves to represent the strain of adventuring life not normally taken into account.
Approaching the use of horror in these ways can be a challenge for a GM and for the players. The subtlety is a little foreign when compared to the broader scope and heightened heroism most commonly employed in role playing games. They run counter to the well-established tropes found in our hobby and they are a little harder to implement during a game sessions. But the use of these different tools and methods work to make us better storytellers and players which ultimately increases our enjoyment of the hobby so don’t be afraid to go down this darker path.