Horror RPGs

Lessa

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Title.

Speaking of purely terror/horror gaming/games, here. I understand terror/horror can be applied over other genres too, but let's ignore that for now.
 

Voros

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Hmm...as usual depends on how you define GM-driven. The excellent Final Girl has a rotating GM a.k.a. is 'GMless.'

FG is one of the finest designed horror games I've played. Obviously narrow in intent, just as the genre it emulates is, but that is part of its charm and effectiveness. I actually wonder how much it could be hacked for other games, perhaps not even horror games!
 

Tommy Brownell

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Title.

Speaking of purely terror/horror gaming/games, here. I understand terror/horror can be applied over other genres too, but let's ignore that for now.
Depends on how you're meaning.

It certainly, like supers games, requires some serious player buy-in or it doesn't work. But if you're asking about, say, a "horror sandbox" or something, I could see how that could be harder, though not impossible (a zombie apocalypse situation would be easy enough to do as one).
 

K_Peterson

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It would help if you define the term.

I would guess the answer to be yes. The GM presents the environment, the circumstances, and the threats. The players typically want to experience the fear/horror/terror in a passive-mechanical manner, within the framework of their character. Because the point of the genre is to vicariously experience vulnerability, fear of the unknown, fear of isolation, fear of losing your mind or loss of self-control - to the extent that it is possible within an Rpg session. They want to be scared or freaked-out - immersed in the experience. Not hopeless, but faced with serious threats that could results in character death, or mental trauma.

IMO, player-driven horror/terror in an Rpg framework would likely dilute the experience, because the player could extract himself from it, viewing it from a point of "safety" or detachment. If you can escape the "risk" or "danger" by assuming some kind of authorial voice, what is the point of playing a horror/terror Rpg?
 

PolarBlues

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The TV series Supernatural (back when it was good if you can remember that long ago) offers a decent model for a more proactive, sandboxish horror kind of game. Between jobs, Sam and Dean would often look at a selection of different, potential supernatural incidents in different part of the country and pick whichever case seemed the most promising. The GM still has to create the content, the mysteries to be uncovered, the grissly events and spooky crittiers doing the haunting, but that model allows the players to decide which of the cases to look into and what order.

What makes this work is that Sam and Dean are professional monster hunters who actively seek out supernatural threats rather than just getting drawn into it by accident (which is the more typical horror trope). For the sandbox feel, it also helps if the focus is on smaller, local supernatural events like the odd haunted house or a few mysterious deaths in a small town. Once you introduce cult summoning elder god and ushering the apocalypse kind of stories, getting involved or not isn't really an option .
 

Paragon

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It also kind of depends on what kind of horror. Supernatural, referenced above, is action-horror; there are absolutely some strong horror elements in it, but the characters in it go in expecting that they can figure out how to handle it, and with some general understanding of how various supernatural hostiles indicate. As such, they have, as noted, a pretty high order of agency for horror characters. Survival horror, like the zombie apocalypse example Tommy mentions, is less so (though obviously there's some overlap with action-horror, but in its purer form doesn't assume the capability level monster-hunter stories do); while characters have some choices, an awful lot of them are choked off by the nature of the situation.

But either of them are more player-driven than, say, a typical haunted-place story, where, if there's a win condition at all, it may well be a very narrow and specific one, and thoroughly obscured by forces the PCs do not understand and that will do their best to wreck them, while likely having much more (though usually constrained) control over the situation than they do.

I guess I'm saying the horror genre includes a much larger variation in the degree of protagonist volition than most genres, and to some extent, the very nature of horror is about potential for loss of control at least in part. So you have to both narrow down what sub-set you're talking about, and decide where you're drawing the line at "GM driven" versus "player driven".
 

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There are enough horror-themed boardgames for me to say "no", with the caveat that they don't work as well to inspire feelings of terror in the players.

Dead of Winter is a favourite. Zombie scenario set in wintertime. Each player leads a small clique of survivors in a shared safe house. The zombies are battering down your barricades, but you need food, kerosene, medicine, gear etc as well as maintaining thw defences

When you send survivors outside, you roll a die to see whether they're fine, take damage or even get bitten, and you randomly pick up different resources depending on which town lications you visit.. The game is basically hardcore management of limited resources/worker placement.

Each player has a hidden agenda that allows them to win in a cooperative game, and one player is a traitor who wants the house to fail.

In addition, the survivors are named and have different skills. There's a random deck of events that includes raiders, finding more survivors (more hands to work, but more resources needed), but also includes personal events for individual survivors - including things like suicide.

Baaically, it's every isolated-group/survival/monster-outside movie you've ever seen. Not great for pure terror, but suspicion, isolation, hopelessness.

Heck, games like Werewolf or Among Us ahow that you just need to put people in a room and tell them someone is plotting to generate suspicion and intrigue.

The old Aliens boardgame was basically co-op characters being chased by Aliens, but there was always one person willing to cut and run, leavining everyone else behind. Feelings often ran high...
 

tenbones

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The funny thing about PC's being the monsters is that I find most of the time players rationalize their actions, and in their minds they're doing "necessary things for the greater good".

But it's me, as the GM, that contextualizes those actions as horrific (depending on if there are survivors LOL). But in terms of "horror elements" - I can't think of one time a player has tried to be the one that makes things horrifying. I'm sure it's happened... but I can't think of it.
 

K_Peterson

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The funny thing about PC's being the monsters is that I find most of the time players rationalize their actions, and in their minds they're doing "necessary things for the greater good".
But it's me, as the GM, that contextualizes those actions as horrific (depending on if there are survivors LOL).
That definitely seems like the exception to the rule: if the player characters are the sociopathic/psychopathic monsters inflicting the horror and terror on victims, then player-driven-input is probably not out of place. Their characters are detached from the experience anyway if they have to be reminded of what they inflict on their victims.
 

tenbones

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Having run pretty hardcore WoD games, and generally very dark cyberpunk games for decades with many many people, I can anecdotally think of only a handful of times where a player *didn't* rationalize the horrifying shit they were doing by justifying it for some other reason. It doesn't mean they didn't know that they were doing horrifying things relative to humans (if we're playing WoD) but the fact that most of the time they've adopted the notion that they were not humans with condition <X> - rather they were <X> that struggled to hold onto whatever scraps of "humanity" they had.

The acts themselves that were truly horrifying were almost always things that had to be realized after the fact, and almost always because of how the world reacted to it before they said "shit... "

As with most people doing dramatic stuff in their lives, they tend to not quite understand the magnitude of their acts until the smoke clears. I think it's part and parcel of "Plans go off the rails" and "I didn't intend to go berserk while hunting" or "Well I didn't anticipate Frenzying on that bad Rage roll" or whatever. They tend to not consider the actions that led up to it - or they prerationalize it as a necessary deed due to their condition.

Edit: so we do get horror. But it's almost always the GM (myself) coloring in those details.
 

CRKrueger

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If you're talking about everyone playing in a genre-aware, 4th wall breaking, OOC way, no. Anyone can follow genre tropes ironically or unironically.

If you talking about actually frightening, horrifying, or terrorizing your players, then yes, I think that has to come from the GM, but the players also have to be ready to play like that.
 

Fenris-77

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If you're talking about everyone playing in a genre-aware, 4th wall breaking, OOC way, no. Anyone can follow genre tropes ironically or unironically.

If you talking about actually frightening, horrifying, or terrorizing your players, then yes, I think that has to come from the GM, but the players also have to be ready to play like that.
I agree. That last bit, about the players being ready to play like that is where at least a little bit of things comes from the players. If all the players are bought in and reacting appropriately I think there can be a critical mass achieved where the overall effect is greater because the players are feeding off each other. If that did happen I'd probably call that a really successful session too.
 

tenbones

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yeah it also comes down to the GM setting the tone. I mean we're saying "horror" but that definitely comes in different flavors and people have tolerance levels that range widely. It takes skill as a GM to pull it off based on reading their players, and not overdoing it to the point where it comes off as schlock (unless that's the intent - we love some Rodriguez/Tarantino style fun-gore at times). But if you want to have horror/terror and inflict it on your players... it should be taken under consideration, unless we're really just talking about "spooky" or "eerie".
 

Trippy

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I think an aspect in a lot of horror lies with players, or at least their characters, feeling helpless or out of control of a situation in some way. While this would leave the GM more likely to be driving a situation, it isn’t necessarily so - sometimes the mechanics do the job for you to.
 

Voros

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Ten Candles is another example of a sublime horror storygame where the players get to narrate, although it still has a GM.
 
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Necrozius

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I've sometimes let other players take on some of the horror "driving". Let them define how another PC panics. Let them control a monster while their PC is out of commission (or dead). Reward XP for having their characters act in ways that are super self-destructive, but fitting in a Horror story.
 

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Horror is a lot easier to do when driven by the GM, but I've found that the best moments of horror in Call of Cthulhu campaigns often come when players have lost a lot of sanity, read a lot of tomes, and start attempting to deploy their spells and artifacts for the greater good.
 

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Most effective game of Call of Cthulhu I ever ran was due to the players letting their imaginations run wild in character. I describe a bump in the night, they start making frightened assumptions, pretty soon everyone is huddled close and whispering. Probably one of the most fun sessions of any game I've ever had really.
 

tenbones

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I've had really good experience in inducing horror simply by the reactions of my NPC's. I don't ever tell my players how scary/horrific things are, I simply let my reactions via the NPC's (if any). So often the actions of the players don't really dawn on them until way after the fact... which often makes things even more horrific.

But that kind of answers the question from my perspective - I can't/don't want to control what the players feel (which means if I'm playing with sociopaths it would probably be a little obvious - or my GMing is *really* bad), but it also means it's on me to reinforce the emotional tone of things.
 

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I think to really be an emotional experience, at least anxious if not actually scary you really have to combine the GM, players and rules as it requires good immersion. The GM has to provide good descriptions and have a good delivery or it is just more orcs and goblins. The players absolutely have to buy in and participate, that I wouldn't be scared if bob here suddenly flew straight up out of his chair and exploded attitude many player have towards sanity / fright rules will completely ruin the vibe. The rules can really help or hinder the atmosphere. They really need to be of a type that just gets out of the way, holding things up to look up a rule will just kill the mood. Rules to encourage that feeling of being on the edge or where it is obvious things are spiraling out of control can be very helpful. maybe not scary in themselves but when a die roll leads to nail biting "got to make this roll or its game over" and Player "was that a success, what is it what did I see" GM "its nothing..." player "I made the roll didn't I?" GM "maybe... you just see shadows". That heightened emotional level will make the player more open to the scary.
 

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It also depends on the players being their characters.

Such that I could play anyone but if I don't care if they live or die, immersion is broken. So if the player really becomes their character, like an actor can, then they will instinctively react like their character, such that there should be very few dice rolls involved, or needed.

As someone has said, it is all down immersion.
 

Baulderstone

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It also depends on the players being their characters.

Such that I could play anyone but if I don't care if they live or die, immersion is broken. So if the player really becomes their character, like an actor can, then they will instinctively react like their character, such that there should be very few dice rolls involved, or needed.

As someone has said, it is all down immersion.
As a long time Call of Cthulhu GM, I've found that Sanity rolls can sometimes be an obstacle to good horror. I'd describe a horrific event, a player would begin to have an interesting spontaneous reaction to it, then I'd stop them to have them roll dice and adjudicate the Sanity check, and they'd note the results on their sheet. When the check was over, their spontaneous reaction was gone. I had killed the very thing we were playing the game to achieve.

I'm more cautious now. If the players are really into a scene, I'll let them react on their own, making a note of the check. I can always call for the sanity check a little later, when things are slowing down. It's not unrealistic for the full shock of an event to take time to show itself.
 

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I'm more cautious now. If the players are really into a scene, I'll let them react on their own, making a note of the check. I can always call for the sanity check a little later, when things are slowing down. It's not unrealistic for the full shock of an event to take time to show itself.
I'll do this sometimes as well and I've noticed an interesting trend where if I forget to call for the check later the player(s) will often enquire themselves whether one is needed. At this point I sagely nod and reply "I think so, yes."
 

Baulderstone

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I'll do this sometimes as well and I've noticed an interesting trend where if I forget to call for the check later the player(s) will often enquire themselves whether one is needed. At this point I sagely nod and reply "I think so, yes."
Great point. I do the same thing. When a player asks if they need to make a Sanity check, the answer is always "Yes."
 

under_score

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I've occasionally asked for a sanity check in advance, if the players are definitely going into a situation where they're going to see some shit. I'll privately roll the amount of sanity lost for anyone that fails and maybe alter my descriptions a bit from there without explaining why. It's worked out well for me in the past.
 

TristramEvans

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I've replaced the SAN roll with a draw from the tarot deck in my Mythos games, and this is done before describing what the players are seeing. I find that it heightens the tension immediately and informs how they then react to what happens, almost like the mechanical equivalent to a music cue that something bad is about to occur.
 

Baulderstone

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I've occasionally asked for a sanity check in advance, if the players are definitely going into a situation where they're going to see some shit. I'll privately roll the amount of sanity lost for anyone that fails and maybe alter my descriptions a bit from there without explaining why. It's worked out well for me in the past.
I've replaced the SAN roll with a draw from the tarot deck in my Mythos games, and this is done before describing what the players are seeing. I find that it heightens the tension immediately and informs how they then react to what happens, almost like the mechanical equivalent to a music cue that something bad is about to occur.
Makes sense. Makes sense. Dread can be more effective than surprise in horror games.
 

Lessa

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I've replaced the SAN roll with a draw from the tarot deck in my Mythos games, and this is done before describing what the players are seeing. I find that it heightens the tension immediately and informs how they then react to what happens, almost like the mechanical equivalent to a music cue that something bad is about to occur.
This is a great idea. Reminds me of the jenga tower thing.

How do you do it exactly? I mean, do you use the drawn tarot card for a suggestion on something to improvise on the scene or something? Care to elaborate?
 

Toadmaster

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I've replaced the SAN roll with a draw from the tarot deck in my Mythos games, and this is done before describing what the players are seeing. I find that it heightens the tension immediately and informs how they then react to what happens, almost like the mechanical equivalent to a music cue that something bad is about to occur.
That is a good idea in many regards, one it helps get the rules out of the way of the description. You could also leave the cards face down until the reveal, so the players know something bad is coming, but don't know how bad.

That is something that video games have a big advantage in over TT RPGs. The old AvP game playing as the marine was truly scary, more recently I found the same with the Call of Cthulhu game that came out last year. That one I just quit playing when nobody else was home, because it was honestly creepy.

"Fog of war" is hard to create in a table top game, and even harder to recreate that sense of dread from every shadow and strange noise.
 

Lessa

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That is a good idea in many regards, one it helps get the rules out of the way of the description. You could also leave the cards face down until the reveal, so the players know something bad is coming, but don't know how bad.
What the cards do? I still don't understand that part.

Say, you draw the Devil. What does that mean?
 

TristramEvans

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Phaserip sanity rules work like this...

A Minor Arcana inflicts Emotional/Psychological stress, reducing the character's Psyche by the point value of the card.
Major Arcana cause a psychological break or wound with temporary or lasting effects, but this is mitigated by the character's Arcana rating.

Arcana describes a character's familiarity with and resistance to the supernatural. Normal folks default to The Fool (0)

Every Arcana Trumps the the Major Arcana below it, except for The Fool (0), which Trumps everything except The Magician (1). So ignorance is a shield against the psychological damage of experiencing the supernatural - your mind rationalizes it or refuses to accept it. Once you gain an Arcana of Magician (1) , you are extremely vulnerable as you've started to question your reality, and a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Everytime a character's Arcana is Trumped, it increases by 1.

While I do have an assigned list of effects assigned to each of the Major Arcana, this is more of a guide for new GMs. In practice I use my own interpretation of the Tarot and the circumstances to determine the effect. But you can't really expect every GM to have a background in reading/interpreting Tarot symbology.
 

Lessa

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Thanks for the explanation. That's REALLY good.

I'll think in a way to apply that to my upcoming Delta Green game. :smile:
 

Lessa

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That is something that video games have a big advantage in over TT RPGs. The old AvP game playing as the marine was truly scary, more recently I found the same with the Call of Cthulhu game that came out last year. That one I just quit playing when nobody else was home, because it was honestly creepy.
I know right. AvP1 and 2, System Shock 2, STALKER, Alien Isolation, SOMA, Resident Evil 7. I've played it all, and also was scared to play at night with headphones.
 
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