Horror is one of the most criticized and yet most moralistic of genres. Although blamed by various factions in society for causing all sorts of mental disturbances and bad behavior, at its core the classic horror story is one of bad people meeting bad ends. And its definition of bad is particularly conservative—use drugs, die. Have sex, die. Party at night instead of staying safely and demurely at home, die. Seek Secrets Humans Were Not Meant to Know, die. And so on…. In the classic horror story, good always triumphs over evil, justice prevails, the status quo is safely reasserted, and evil is vanquished, although not destroyed. In short, it’s exactly the sort of genre that makes for good roleplaying.
Horror RPGs can be amusing because the stereotypes of the genre are so well-known to players. They will appreciate the deft use (or abuse) of these cliches and stereotypes by a clever GM. For example, they’ll know it’s a bad sign when the lights go out in the old house … that they can’t assume they’re safe just because the monster plummeted half a mile down into the narrow canyon … that the old man or woman living at the edge of town probably does know what s/he’s talking about when s/he begins to rant and rave…. but it’s precisely because players know these things that the GM can get away with turning the tables on them.
The horror genre can be separated into the (not mutually exclusive) subgenres of “gothic,” “psychological,” “slasher,” “splatter,” “monster,” and “pulp.”
Gothic horror is your typical 18th-century type of horror, with haunted houses, graveyards, ghosts, and the like. Many RPGs have created at least one gothic horror adventure for a campaign, and some, like AD&D’s old Ravenloft campaign, were devoted to gothic horror. Psychological horror, on the other hand, is relatively difficult to turn into an RPG, since it usually tracks one person’s descent into madness. Try this genre only with highly experienced and willing roleplayers! Slasher horror usually involves some sort of superpowered serial killer chasing kids and teenagers around—it lends itself well to RPGing, since the killer never seems to die. Splatter is dedicated to lovingly dwelling over scenes of stomach-turning gore … although it’s primarily a literary genre, it is reflected in the films of Barker, Romero, and Argento.
Monster horror is the old standby of vampires, golems, mummies, werewolves, and the like. It can be grafted with any of the above subgenres, or stand alone as a classic “kill the monster before it kills you” adventure. Related to this is the pulp subgenre, which is named after the awful B-movie horror films of especially the ’50s. The pulp subgenre usually involves some science-fiction elements such as radiation or mad scientists, and may also involve giant versions of some normal animal, such as ants, bees, etc.
Themes, Motifs, Settings, and Events
In horror, the Hero’s Journey is usually a conflict designed to overcome a great evil. Typically the protagonists fight to protect themselves and their loved ones. Horror usually pits faith and goodness against the evil, although sometimes magic or special items or rituals can help.
Horror can be set anyplace and in any time or reality. Although the classic horror setting is in some sort of remote and isolated area (a haunted house, a remote village, a derelict space ship, etc.), excellent horror adventures can also be run in large metropolitan areas.
Horror themes are pretty straightforward—good versus evil, idealism versus cynical corruption, morality versus immorality. Common horror characters are the mad scientist, the mysterious government agent, the insane asylum victim, the teenage kids, the corrupt or incompetent cop, the misunderstood monster, the serial killer, the cultist, the “bad kids” who will be killed, the “good kids” who will be hunted, and so forth. Some common events are:
Fights (usually wreaking great damage on the protagonists) in a(n)
• abandoned building
• teen make-out spot
• person’s home
• secret government laboratory
• foggy street
• madmen or madwomen
• mysterious homeless
• blank-eyed and malevolent children
• antagonistic gang members, police, security guards
• berserk guard dogs
• a dusty attic
• a musty cellar
• tombs and crypts
• a hospital or insane asylum
• cult headquarters
• scary woodlands
• an old library filled with ancient tomes
Escape from a(n)
• twisted death trap or torture chamber
• nightmare come to life
• hunt through empty streets
• monstrous ambush
• serial killer’s chainsaw
• Set the game in an alternate Earth or another world entirely
• Use fantasy monsters like vampires, werewolves, zombies, and so forth
• Involve black magic, necromancy, cultists, evil gods, and so forth
• Emphasize that swords just aren’t very reassuring against the hordes of evil
• Feel free to bend the rules of reality to increase the horror quotient—it’s fantasy, after all.
• Set the game in the Old West
• Emphasize the town gallows and cemetery, the violation of native customs or taboos, lost settlers, the devil as a gambler.
• Mysterious strangers are even more dangerous in horror westerns than they are in regular westerns
• Use vampires or zombies who can take a ton of bullets and keep advancing on the protagonists
• Don’t forget the town chapel as either a sanctuary against evil or the cause of it
• Make discovering whatdunnit part of the horror process
• Toss out lots of red herrings that provide natural explanations for the deaths until the investigators are left with nothing but the unnatural explanations
• Defeating the evil must involve solving the mystery around the evil’s creation
• Emphasize the use of technology, especially radiation, genetically tailored diseases, and so forth—soulless science.
• Let the characters use high-tech gizmos against the monsters
• Stalk the characters through locked-up laboratories, derilict space ships, abandoned space colonies, etc.
• Monsters can be replaced by really scary aliens, e.g., the Aliens movie series.
• Anything that can kill or badly damage a superhero is by definition scary
• The monster should be a good match for the superheroes … either pulpy like Godzilla or a nasty, superintelligent serial killer like The Joker.
• If the evil can’t affect the superhero, it can still affect the superhero’s nonheroic friends and loved ones.
• Emphasize fog, steam, gases from broken pipes, anything that makes seeing difficult.
• The protagonists should be cynical but good at heart; feel free to test their cynicism by putting women and children into danger. If the victims die, grind the protagonist’s face in it.
• Local government organizations or charitable organizations are very likely to the cause of … or at least covering up … the existence of the evil.
• Although the horror may be dismissed, it won’t go without having a lasting effect on the world … a close friend may be dead, the protagonist may lose a job or limb, etc.
• Comic horror requires the GM and, preferably, players to use all the stereotypes and cliches and make them obvious and stupid. (“Omigod, the monster is here! Quick, let’s all run upstairs!”)
• Make the monsters themselves silly … think “Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.”
• Make the situations outrageous … think the last half of “Dusk to Dawn” or “Evil Dead.”
• End on an upbeat note, with everything falling in place in the end and everybody getting their “just deserts.” The monsters might just end up friends with the PCs.
• Let the evil kill; no narrow escapes here. The monster or killer is out for blood and gets it. Don’t spare a few close friends of the PCs.
• Exploit the player characters’ weaknesses to make it harder for them to fight the evil.
• Emphasize the spiritual or moral struggle that accompanies the physical struggle against this horrific creature.
• Every time the protagonists hesitate, another person dies.
• Emphasize things falling apart or coming undone, an ending that may resolve part of the problem but doesn’t even begin to address the greater social issues, or an ending that dismisses the evil but costs the lives or reputations of even the innocents involved. Note that tragedy should NOT be used often in RPGs!
• Horror and romance aren’t easy mixes; usually the characters are too busy fighting for their lives to fall in love. However, it’s not impossible.
• Consider making the misunderstood monster a subject of romance; it’s in love with a character or earns a character’s sympathy, respect, and possible love.
• Putting pressure on the characters can give them a chance to show off their best sides—bravery, self-sacrifice, etc. This can aid a romance … let NPCs admire those qualities.
• Emphasize positive values such as the power of love over evil. Both members of the couple should be equally strong and vulnerable, with neither always becoming the victim to be rescued, even though one may have begun as the victim.
Originally written October 13, 2000