Good Horror Role-Playing

Tom K

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Horror is everywhere in role-playing. Heck it always has. Even before Call of Cthulhu took the minotaur by the horns and wove a way through the maze of how to do terror yarns on the tabletop, our sword and sorcery/post nuclear war settings were skewed with vampires, wraiths, ghouls, and goblins. In the big 90s, if an RPG didn't have a ton of space marine miniatures it had better have vampires werewolves, ghosts, angels, and demons as super-heroic figures in lurid tales of urban fantasy to sell. Since this time, many of us GMs have been honing our craft of scary storytelling. A lot of us have been getting pretty good at it. Over the past six years, I've witnessed a lot of pretty good, what I'd call up and comers, as well. Often their inspiration comes from some places I've never heard of, but their GM work is quality.

For fun, I'd like to read GMs describe their approaches to doing successful horror RPG session. Anybody got any they'd be willing to share?
 

daniel_ream

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I would contest the premise. There are games that use horror tropes, but actual horror games are extremely rare (and before anyone asks, no, I don't consider CoC a horror game).

There are a ton of indie horror games I haven't tried, but of what I've played the only two games that came even close to feeling like the horror genre are Mayfair Chill with the Companion rules, and Dread (the Jenga one). The first because it had rules for mimicking the beats in a conventional monster horror game, the second because it's the only game that actually provokes an emotional response in the players. I just have two people in my extended gaming circle with physical impairments so it's a non-starter.
 

TheophilusCarter

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I've never run a true horror game successfully. They always drift into action horror / urban fantasy or conspiracy / investigation. Those are all great things, but they definitely don't feel like horror - I've never felt like I'm actually scaring my players ... So, like the OP, I'm also interested in suggestions and tips.
 

David Johansen

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Player buy-in is everything in horror but you can get under their skin if you are willing to push their boundaries a bit. This can be pretty controversial but the simple fact is that only things that hit personal buttons are going to do it. You can't be a safe space and horrific. I generally feel that announcing a horror game is a horror game really undermines its ability to terrify. It works much better to say it's a mystery or police procedural or high school hijinks game and then slowly build up the tension and mysterious than it does to say "We're playing Call of Cthulhu!" For horror to succeed at horror the players shouldn't be able to steel themselves to it in advance. Nor should they know the nature of what they are facing. This is where the squeaky tub toy monsters of Lovecraft's mythos utterly fail in the modern roleplaying context. They are too well known and the modern assumption is that the universe is indifferent and uncaring. People aren't religious enough for that to work these days. The notion that heaven and hell are real is more terrifying to the modern audience.
 

daniel_ream

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The notion that heaven and hell are real is more terrifying to the modern audience.
Hmmm. That would explain the recent spate of theological dark fantasy/horror TV.

I think that there are some genres that simply don't lend themselves to the logistics of a typical RPG. Any genre based on emotional manipulation (such as horror or the Lifetime movie-of-the-week) is going to fall flat if you can't evoke an emotional response in your players, and Dread is the only game I've ever seen that reliably does that regardless of player buy-in. And it cheats, there's nothing scary about pulling wooden blocks, even if you paint them black first.

Not to mention that evoking an emotional response in your players is a pretty risky thing to do in the first place. I have a couple of board games - Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker - that have timed elements to the rules, and some of my players hate them with a passion because they don't like the adrenaline rush and the stress.
 

TristramEvans

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Its a tricky one to pull off, but something I've gotten rather good at. As said, player buy-in is important, but that means quite a bit more than simply accepting and going along with the game's premise. You really have to spend time cultivating the right group of players to make this work, unless you somehow amazingly stumble into them. The biggest effort then has to be put into atmosphere. Music and lighting; window-dressing in other games; are essential to a good horror game. And then it rests entirely on the shoulder of your performance as a GM. Any piece of the orchestra out of tune, any carefully laid element fails, and the whole experience tumbles like ...well, a jenga tower, heh.

I'll go into more detail later, as time allows. I feel like, as a GM, this is a subject I could write my master thesis on, as its what I've spent the most time over the last 20 years perfecting, but its a very dense topic.
 

daniel_ream

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Any piece of the orchestra out of tune, any carefully laid element fails, and the whole experience tumbles like ...well, a jenga tower, heh.
I see what you did there.

I think that horror, like John Wick's Play Dirty, is one of those play styles that's high risk, high reward. If everyone's into it and agrees to flow with the premise, and they're good at it, and, and, and, you can have the best session ever. But the risk-reward ratio is so skewed that I just don't bother.
 

David Johansen

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It always comes back to trust and clarity. There are lots of people who don't like to be scared and are scared of showing any sign of emotional vulnerability in a social situation. They say things like, "I can't be scared," or, "Horror isn't scary," because showing weakness scares the shit out of them. And yet, they're usually pretty easy to get wound up in play.
 

Stevethulhu

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Horror is really, really hard to pull off in an RPG. But unlike the trolling contained in Play Dirty, I've seen some good advice on how to do it.

My favourite being, let the players know what the creature they're up against is capable of. Or, Fear of the Known. Because when your players have their characters going out into the woods at night, they will rightly bitch when a previously unknown entity jumps out and removes their lungs by way of their eyeballs.

But, if they find a body in the woods with all the evidence pointing to it being something that can rip your lungs out through your eyeballs, you're on the way to creating the right atmosphere for a monster hunt. And atmosphere is what horror games are all about.

Only it's really hard to get a good horror atmosphere when you're sat under nice bright lights, with pizza and beer on the table and people making bad Scream jokes at every opportunity.

Which leads me to the other problem. There almost inevitably comes that moment when someone says, "Ok guys. We have a nest of vampires here. Let's load up on stakes, holy water and flare guns. It's time to burn them out!" At which point you're not really in a horror game anymore.
 

Stevethulhu

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Except they've been out flanked by the vampire's fanatical human allies with their machine gun.
Which is still outside of straight up horror and into action. That doesn't always have to be a bad thing, though. One of the reasons I want to run some CthulhuPunk at some point is to shoot Great Old Ones in the face with rocket launchers.

After all those times when seeing them was enough to drive you irretrievably mad, some payback is in order...
 

TristramEvans

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Avoiding Hollywood cliches is pretty high on the list of priorities for achieving horror. If it isnt scary in a film, it couldnt possibly be in an rpg, and can anyone think of a vampire film that was actually scary?
 

Tom K

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I would contest the premise. There are games that use horror tropes, but actual horror games are extremely rare (and before anyone asks, no, I don't consider CoC a horror game).

There are a ton of indie horror games I haven't tried, but of what I've played the only two games that came even close to feeling like the horror genre are Mayfair Chill with the Companion rules, and Dread (the Jenga one). The first because it had rules for mimicking the beats in a conventional monster horror game, the second because it's the only game that actually provokes an emotional response in the players. I just have two people in my extended gaming circle with physical impairments so it's a non-starter.
I get what you're saying but disagree with you. CoC installed Dread's "Jenga-effect" with its Sanity rating and Insanity rules long before the advent of needing props, like playing cards, building blocks, and candles, into horror role-playing games. It has proven to be a helpful rule system for when the genre changes from say cosmic horror to say torture porn to say phantasmagorical haunted house adventures. You're talking to the guy that authored Crawlspace which uses playing cards for a good night of grade B horror and used it years before Dread was published. I liked Chill as well. Just that there was nothing new when I read and then played it.
 
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Tom K

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I've never run a true horror game successfully. They always drift into action horror / urban fantasy or conspiracy / investigation. Those are all great things, but they definitely don't feel like horror - I've never felt like I'm actually scaring my players ... So, like the OP, I'm also interested in suggestions and tips.
If I may suggest finding a way to incorporate the action horror into a futile ending, but having most everyone feel great about it when it happens.
 

Tom K

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... The notion that heaven and hell are real is more terrifying to the modern audience.
Letting players explore the afterlife is my gag these days for sure. I use Scripture as distractions but it works for the tabletop when it isn't preaching something.
 

Tom K

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Avoiding Hollywood cliches is pretty high on the list of priorities for achieving horror. If it isnt scary in a film, it couldnt possibly be in an rpg, and can anyone think of a vampire film that was actually scary?
Challenge accepted.
 

TristramEvans

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Challenge accepted.
lol, which one, naming a scary vampire film or running a vampire effectively in a horror game? The former I remain skeptical. The closest for me might have been 30 Days of Night, but while a brilliant film doesnt quite manage. The latter, I have actually ran an effective horror game featuring a vampire (and a werewolf!), it may even have been my masterpiece as my players still talk about it to this day, but it was pretty far from anything conventional.
 

TristramEvans

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Salem's Lot was pretty creepy when I first saw it. Not sure if it still holds up.
The TV mini series by Tobe Hooper? Honestly, I was bored out of my mind, but havent seen it since I was 12
 

daniel_ream

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CoC installed Dread's "Jenga-effect" with its Sanity rating and Insanity rules
As implemented, Sanity is just another style of hit points. People don't have an emotional, visceral reaction when their dwarven thief takes 2d6 damage from a battleaxe, either.

I mentioned Chill because the Companion has an interesting variant rule in it: at the beginning of the mission, the PCs have a negative to any roll to interact with the monster equal to its Evil Way Score. They can buy this modifier off by doing genre appropriate things like running away from the monster, researching the monster, seeing evidence of the monster's presence or influence (my favorite: if you have the Introspective Flaw, you can brood for eight hours and gain monster points). This has the emergent effect of making the monster unbeatable until the players have done enough of the usual genre tropes to buy off the penalty, so you get beats like you would in a typical monster horror story, rather than "I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit, it's the only way to be sure".
 

David Johansen

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Twilight frightens me but that's not quite what you meant.

Anyhow, sanity can work, I love the dread mechanic from Mutant Chronicles 2d20 because your fumble range increases as you accumulate dread. That's very realistic, people under stress make mistakes. But it all requires some buy in. Sanity loss is scarier for people with some mental health issues but it might become inappropriate. I read somewhere that terrorists need to avoid to avoid crossing the line into horror because they risk driving their victims to action and driving their backers away. I think something like that is true for horror: one needs to avoid becoming banal. If your great evil is too realistic it becomes unappealing. All great villains have some resonating appeal with their audience.
 

TristramEvans

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Twilight frightens me but that's not quite what you meant.

I wrote a film script a while back that opened with a scene of a young girl walking home at night through a sketchy area, and this young, pale well-dressed man pops out and says " Laura, I'm a 200 year old vampire, but I've fallen in love with you. Your special qualities that no one else in this town can see have touched a heart I'd long since thought lost. You make me want to be human again, to feel the experience of love. Teach me Laura, teach me to be a good man again."

"Really?" she says, her teenage heart soaring.

And he says, "Pffft...no!" And leaps on her, ripping out her throat with his teeth, before proceeding to gouge out her belly and suck on her entrails, until finally, wet and covered head to toe in blood and gore, he raises his hands in the moonlight and says "Look! I sparkle!"
 

David Johansen

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Sure, but is that really as scary as an entire generation of young girls taking Twilight's message into their hearts and heads?

Anyhow, it's easy for a GM to up the stakes in a game but it's more effective to throw in twists and curves. At one point, in a supposedly silver age Necessary Evil campaign the PCs were staying at a house in Hawaii where a bunch of monsters were crashing. Ra came in through the window in the morning and drank all the orange juice, declaring it was like liquid sunshine. The tone was light and a bit silly, until the big, shy, hairy fellow lurking in the corner slipped into a PC's room and said all shy and softly, "you should kill them all, you could you know, I'd help you, and then we'll feast on their flesh." Apparently finding themself cornered by the wendigo was a bit much for that player. :grin:
 

TristramEvans

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Sure, but is that really as scary as an entire generation of young girls taking Twilight's message into their hearts and heads?
Its meant to be funny, not scary, but Twilight's message isnt anything new to specifically infest this generation, its typical lady porn. Older man meets Mary Sue character, theres a love triangle with her having to decide between two super guys who are interested in her boring shit because in her heart she believes she's special and they constantly confirm this despite never doing anything to show this to the audience. Cue familydrama. Cue rape fantasy metaphors. Its the same thing one can find in a thousand romance novels.


I dont find people's atypical sex fantasies scary, just boring.
 

Baulderstone

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Most of my horror games haven't really been scary. In most cases, I really am not even trying to be scary. I have run genuinely scary games though, mostly in my late teens and early 20s. That was a point where I was beginning to be a competent enough GM to pull it off, and I and my friends were still young enough that I was willing to really try to get under their skin. I wouldn't be comfortable with using the kind of content that I played with back then at the gaming table now, except maybe with a very select group of people. That aside, I have some general pointers that don't involve getting personal.

Before you have horror pierce the veil of reality, it helps to have spent some time building that reality. I agree with David Johansen here:

I generally feel that announcing a horror game is a horror game really undermines its ability to terrify. It works much better to say it's a mystery or police procedural or high school hijinks game and then slowly build up the tension and mysterious than it does to say "We're playing Call of Cthulhu!"
I've found Kult works much better as a supplement to other games as a game by itself. If people sit down to play Kult, they know they are in for gnostic horror, that reality is lie, etc. It can be a fun game, but nobody is going to be surprised when reality starts to unveil. If you put the Kult cosmology behind something more mundane, you are in better shape, assuming you have a group that isn't going to be mad about bait-and-switch.My group didn't have an issue with that. It was something I liked about running GURPs back in the day. I could be really coy about what the game was really about.

You also need to have ways to reinforce a sense of reality in other ways. Call of Cthulhu has always been very generous with player handouts: news clippings, letters, photos. These kind of things build a sense of reality. On top of that, they allow players to draw connections on their own. If you tell the players the vital clue that reveals the nature of the monster, it might be scary. If the players are looking over their handouts and the realization comes from them, it is more likely to be scary. You've made them imagine the possibility on their own.

I've had a lot of success with setting horror games locally as well. When the whole group knows all the locations and the NPCs are real people, it makes things more vivid. My first Vampire game was set in the town I lived at the time, and everyone made characters of themselves. That game got uncomfortably intense at times.

It's worth thinking about authors like Matheson and King. Their horror is very rooted in daily life, which is why it is very accessible. Lovecraft really made an effort to ground his fiction in reality as well.

Speaking of Lovecraft, I don't buy the argument that you can't scare people with an indifferent universe. Lovecraft's characters were all largely rational, scientific people. The "idea' of an indifferent universe wouldn't have been alien to them. Lovecraft's stories take place in an indifferent universe, but the scary things in it are a lot more concrete. People confuse vague descriptions of Lovecraft's work for the stories themselves.

It's like the trope about how in a Lovecraft story the protagonist is always dead or insane at the end. Most gamers know that trope, but protagonists in Lovecraft's stories rarely are mad or dead at the end of the story. I really enjoyed that silent movie ot The Call of Cthulhu, but they had to ruin the end by adding a closing scene on the main character telling the story from an asylum.

As implemented, Sanity is just another style of hit points. People don't have an emotional, visceral reaction when their dwarven thief takes 2d6 damage from a battleaxe, either.
It is nothing like that. If you take 2d6 from a battleaxe, you can heal it back, either by the cleric making the wound go away or by just sleeping for a few days.

If you lose 2d6 Sanity, you will probably never get it all back. You are inching closer to permanent madness, and by lowering your Sanity, it is more likely you will fail your next check. Also, depending on the roll, you will temporarily lose control of your characters actions.

I'm not saying losing Sanity is automatically going to scare your players, but it more intense than losing HP.

I mentioned Chill because the Companion has an interesting variant rule in it: at the beginning of the mission, the PCs have a negative to any roll to interact with the monster equal to its Evil Way Score. They can buy this modifier off by doing genre appropriate things like running away from the monster, researching the monster, seeing evidence of the monster's presence or influence (my favorite: if you have the Introspective Flaw, you can brood for eight hours and gain monster points). This has the emergent effect of making the monster unbeatable until the players have done enough of the usual genre tropes to buy off the penalty, so you get beats like you would in a typical monster horror story, rather than "I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit, it's the only way to be sure".
I ran horror with Savage Worlds and I would sometimes tell the players their was a Benny in it for them if they did something like genre appropriate like check out the noise in the basement alone.
 

daniel_ream

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I wrote a film script a while back that opened with a scene of a young girl walking home at night through a sketchy area
It's worth noting this is how Whedon started Buffy: the surprise role reversal was that instead of the vampire killing the ingenue in the teaser, the ingenue kicks the vampire's ass.

And he says, "Pffft...no!" And leaps on her, ripping out her throat with his teeth
Richard Lee Byers' The Vampire's Apprentice.

Its meant to be funny, not scary, but Twilight's message isnt anything new to specifically infest this generation, its typical lady porn.
Twilight is note-for-note a ripoff of Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series. You can thank blame Hamilton for the paranormal romance genre; she pretty much invented it.
 

daniel_ream

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It is nothing like that. If you take 2d6 from a battleaxe, you can heal it back, either by the cleric making the wound go away or by just sleeping for a few days.
Does it help if I tell you we're playing RuneQuest, where none of those are options? RQ players still don't react the way their character would, emotionally or mentally, to losing a leg or being severely injured. That's my point: Sanity is a hit point mechanism. Loss of hit points doesn't engender anything like realistic reactions from players, and IME neither does Sanity. It's not a mechanic that produces genre-appropriate behaviour.

I ran horror with Savage Worlds and I would sometimes tell the players their was a Benny in it for them if they did something like genre appropriate like check out the noise in the basement alone.
The helpful thing about the Chill Companion is it lists several specific things that will earn you monster points. I find one of the bigger problems with a lot of narrative games is they rely on the players to bring the genre-savvy rather than encoding it into the game rules. While that may work for some particularly media-knowledgeable groups, I've never seen it work at the table.

Also, your solution doesn't preclude the "nuke the site from orbit" solution, as there's nothing preventing the players from effectively loading up on torches and dynamite in the first scene.
 

TristramEvans

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The sanity system I use works quite well, taking elements from several games. Characters have a Stamina and Psyche rating, equivalent somewhat to Hit Points and Sanity. When "san loss" might occur, players must draw from a tarot deck, the number of draws (between 1 and 3 corresponding to intensity). If a suit card is drawn the number determines the amount of Stress taken, reducing psyche. But if a Major Arcana is drawn, this triggers a very specific psychological effect.
 

TristramEvans

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Twilight is note-for-note a ripoff of Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series. You can thank blame Hamilton for the paranormal romance genre; she pretty much invented it.
I never read any of Hamilton's Blake series, but I read the first book in her "fairy" series, and it was indeed note for note very close to the underlying concepts of Twilight, if a bit more graphic. True Blood also plays in the same sandbox.
 

TristramEvans

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It's worth noting this is how Whedon started Buffy: the surprise role reversal was that instead of the vampire killing the ingenue in the teaser, the ingenue kicks the vampire's ass..
I'm sure that was an influence. Was a big Buffy fan for the first 3 seasons back in the day.
 

David Johansen

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Now, letting them nuke the site from orbit just lets you mess with the growing horror of the realization that they imagined the monsters and destroyed the human race. I did a game with zombies once where they zombie infection was treatable and the infection was a brain parasite similar to one that jumps between rats and cats. The PCs assumed it was the standard zombie scenario but in the end it was they who were the monsters who shot up a small town and killed people's family members. They didn't think it was as funny as I did. ;)
 

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Safety. Secrets. Suspense. Surprise.

Done. Unpack those words and you got yourself horror in its manifold forms.

Everyone skips safety for some reason, I never understood why. Without a baseline normal, what sort of impact can anything abnormal have? It speaks to daniel_reams comment about forewarned knowledge of game helps neuter the thrill.

Another one is surprise, as too many people rely on "jump scares," (and I wholly include Jenga-mechanic in here). You want the tension of suspense to be followed by a surprise to release that tension. But the more it is flagged ahead of time the weaker the sale, IME. But then some people are terrified by waiting for a balloon to be popped by a pin, so... Find where their Suspense is and ride it. Mine is not in falling blocks, sadly.

When in doubt, be creepy. Creepiness is all about Secrets and Suspense looming over Safety. People are desperate for the Surprise just to get out of that state. Terror is the state of physical threat, which is hard to emulate in an RPG. Horror is the mind-expandy that lingers in their quiet hours. That is easier to emulate in an RPG, you just have to be ready to push their Safety buttons.

Unpacking those words, you'll improve tremendously.
 

Tom K

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lol, which one, naming a scary vampire film or running a vampire effectively in a horror game? ...
Running a scary vampire scenario. Actually I already did but my vampire could have been replaced with a wizard or witch. There was no real blood thirst just blood demands through ritual. But the Characters on that dig ("The Dig" at Origins in 2016) almost crawled up into themselves when they found the corpses facing downwards.
 

Tom K

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As implemented, Sanity is just another style of hit points. People don't have an emotional, visceral reaction when their dwarven thief takes 2d6 damage from a battleaxe, either....
I am not sure when your first CoC ever lost Sanity Points, but that is not the case of all role-players that keep CoC the most useful Horor RPG ever.

QUOTE I mentioned Chill because the Companion has an interesting variant rule in it: at the beginning of the mission, the PCs have a negative to any roll to interact with the monster equal to its Evil Way Score. They can buy this modifier off by doing genre appropriate things like running away from the monster, researching the monster, seeing evidence of the monster's presence or influence (my favorite: if you have the Introspective Flaw, you can brood for eight hours and gain monster points). This has the emergent effect of making the monster unbeatable until the players have done enough of the usual genre tropes to buy off the penalty, so you get beats like you would in a typical monster horror story, rather than "I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit, it's the only way to be sure [/QUOTE]

So Chill led to being one with the Player-Character's alter-ego. Perhaps a vampire striving for justice or a werewolf wanting to clobber monsters bigger than him? I see the horror tropes turned upside down on their head. That in my paltry book of folklore being scary looks very much like superheros waiting to happen.
 
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daniel_ream

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Find where their Suspense is and ride it. Mine is not in falling blocks, sadly.
It's an imperfect solution, surely. But one I find better than simply marking down "ok, 1d6 SAN loss" on a character sheet.

I sometimes wonder if just having everyone ante up $5 to the snack fund that they lose if their character dies would have the same effect. Hmm. And you could offer them 2:1, 3:1 odds for doing in-genre things.

I think I need to playtest this.
 

daniel_ream

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I am not sure when your first CoC ever lost Sanity Points, but that is not the case of all role-players that keep CoC the most useful Horor RPG ever.
I sincerely doubt that the CoC roleplayers I've played with or seen are representative of the platonic ideal of All CoC Players Everywhere, no. Just like I doubt that the subset of such players you or anyone else has ever dealt with are representative, either. I do know that the trope of CoC players saying "**** it, we're doomed anyway" and loading up on the dynamite and tommyguns is so common that it's a cliche.

So Chill led to being one with the Player-Character's alter-ego. Perhaps a vampire striving for justice or a werewolf wanting to clobber monsters bigger than him? I see the horror tropes turned upside down on their head. That in my paltry book of folklore being scary looks very much like superheros waiting to happen.
I honestly have no idea what this paragraph was trying to say.
 

Tom K

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Safety. Secrets. Suspense. Surprise.

Done. Unpack those words and you got yourself horror in its manifold forms... you just have to be ready to push their Safety buttons.

Unpacking those words, you'll improve tremendously.
To quote Trio "Uhuhuhunhuh."
 

Tom K

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I sincerely doubt that the CoC roleplayers I've played with or seen are representative of the platonic ideal of All CoC Players Everywhere, no. Just like I doubt that the subset of such players you or anyone else has ever dealt with are representative, either. I do know that the trope of CoC players saying "**** it, we're doomed anyway" and loading up on the dynamite and tommyguns is so common that it's a cliche. I honestly have no idea what this paragraph was trying to say.
I have an idea what you're up to.
 

David Johansen

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That's why I'm not a big fan of taking away the guns. Let the fools have their security blankets. Let them accidentally shoot innocents. Let them think they killed the monster and have it hit them at home at the victory celebration. Let them have the dynamite and atom bombs but let the enemy get the detonator. All the weapons are just the security Opaopajr's talking about, let them feel powerful then show them they're naked.
 

CRKrueger

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the second because it's the only game that actually provokes an emotional response in the players.
You mean it cheats by using the physiological effects of adrenaline to mimic emotional response. EDIT: Ok, you agree it cheats. I wouldn't even necessarily call that effect Horror either, it's more suspense/surprise like the "Gotcha" moments in a slasher flick or something.

People who actually role-play immersively as opposed to 3rd person dramatically/narratively, frequently experience emotional response from roleplaying situations with a good GM and players. That's part of the whole point of the activity, really.
 
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