Thinking about horror monsters and making them scary

opaopajr

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Ooh, do we all get a turn to wear the pope miter and speak ex cathedra?! :ooh::grin:

"On game night Table Ablutions to the Most High GM shall be made in Diet Dr. Pepper, for it tastes so much like regular Dr. Pepper, yet none of the calories. So sayeth the Lard(ass)." :angel:

Who's next? :clown:
 

Hautboy

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When things (creatures, magic, ...) are reduced to a mechanism or a system, as they often are in RPGs, they have less awe to strike with. Certainty kills mystery.

Like people have said above, foreshadowing is a good tool. You can build up tension with rumours, reluctant witnesses, weird tracks, sounds, and then release it in brief encounters before starting again and again until the showdown. As tension builds, perception should remain uncertain, leaving room for the imagination. Even after the end, the players need not get a full disclosure of what they were up against.

Logic is certainly a system, and the laws of nature another. If you can wrench something out of its logical place, or make it seem like somethings out of place, the players are on their toes. On the other hand, GM may need a system to keep the phenomena from collapsing into a chaotic mess. The creature can break a law of nature in so-and-so case. It reacts to light, electromagnetic radiation or speech in so-and-so way. It is two-dimensional. It makes people add large numbers in their heads (nod to Greg Bear).

And I like the idea of no return to complete safety: the encounter may change the characters/players. Their world view may have changed, something may have escaped after all and the imagined consequences may be uncomfortable. It need not be more than a weird sound or a strange track after PCs have returned to safety.

Repetition is another mystery dissolvent. There is a need to change gears from time to time (e.g., switch from horror to action) to avoid making the next adventure "yet-another" horror mystery.
 

Voros

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I love horror games and honestly don't care too much if I 'win' it or not. Death can be just as fun. Ten Candles is a great horror game that always ends with PC death and the aforementioned Cthulhu Dark has a great simple rule that if you try to directly fight Mythos monster yer gonna die. I just can't buy that any real fan of horror films or literature needs can't find pleasure in a horrible end for their PC.

On the other hand there's the ingenious Final Girl which as the name suggests usually ends with one last survivor triumphant if perhaps a little, you know, disturbed.

 

Stevethulhu

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If you want to scare players, fear of the known is what you need. Fear of the unonown doesnt work at a table with dice and pizza.

Let them see the aftermath of what something can do. Let them read up in character about what it was that caused all that carnage. Let them learn what they're dealing with.

Then let them realise they're stuck in a castle with it and they can't leave because of the storm.

And it's hunting them.

There's a book for Legend of the Five Rings call Bearers of Jade that has some of the best, most practical advice for running horror scenarios that I've ever read. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in running horror.
 

dbm

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Some good ideas in this thread. To my way of thinking there are three layers to ‘horror’ in RPGs:
  1. Jump scares
  2. Fear of the unknown
  3. Fear of being powerless
Jump scares are the easiest to create mechanically, being completely driven by GM narration. They can also be slotted in to many scenes and scenarios. Clearly they work directly on the players, with no actual interaction with the PC. I guess the only concession I would make to rules here is if someone’s character is unfazeable in some way they I wouldn’t use this technique on them as that would be contrary to the definition of their character.

Fear of the unknown is interesting in that the existence of a defined set of monsters in a book starts to leach this away. In my group, we quite often will start with just a monster description when the characters are still inexperienced (and in a horror-focussed game that state might not change very often), and avoid using the name of the monster. Naming something gives you power over it. For games with a mysterious element we tend to let the players give their own name to the monsters. I think stats are useful, because it helps the GM run the monster as intended, rather than just making things up on the fly; it can be too tempting to add a new ability just to thwart the players left-field idea that should neutralise the threat but comes ‘too soon’. Let the players have their victory and reveal the next, deeper and darker level of horror that can now be glimpsed... So, stats are good but commonly known stats are the death of fear. Make your own monsters up for best effect.

Fear of powerlessness can take one of two primary forms in my opinion. Being imprisoned or captured in some way is one, but the other is knowing that you are hopelessly outclassed. This can help keep the fear levels up once the ‘unknown’ has started to be understood by the PCs. They might have worked out that the non-Euclidean Beast hunting teenagers on campus is vulnerable to titanium, but managing to land a blow on such a weird creature as a science-nerd character whilst weathering an overwhelming potential for attack will still likely be scary. The chance of success is very low. Now, some players may not be invested in their characters to the point where the potential for death moves them, so this is probably best saved for later in the game when they are more invested (or simply don’t try to do horror games with people who don’t actually identify with their characters - it won’t work).

So, for a horror game I would start with the unknown, season with a smattering of jump scares at key points, and transition to a state of known powerlessness as the adventure progresses. That doesn’t mean I would build a railroad, more that I would change the emphasis as the game evolved. Having the monster appear and eviscerate a red shirt as a demonstration of it’s capabilities can provide the confirmation to the players that this thing is mostly out of their league. If we are talking about Great Old Ones then the focus is more likely to be finding books or cave paintings etc. that tell you about the last time the thing rose, or graphic predictions of what will happen when it rises for the first time. Hopefully they will chose to play smart and find a way of overcoming the odds beyond simply ‘I hit it’.
 

CRKrueger

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If you want to scare players, fear of the known is what you need. Fear of the unonown doesnt work at a table with dice and pizza.

Let them see the aftermath of what something can do. Let them read up in character about what it was that caused all that carnage. Let them learn what they're dealing with.

Then let them realise they're stuck in a castle with it and they can't leave because of the storm.

And it's hunting them.

There's a book for Legend of the Five Rings call Bearers of Jade that has some of the best, most practical advice for running horror scenarios that I've ever read. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in running horror.
Interesting. I’ll have to check out that L5R book.
 

Stevethulhu

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Some good ideas in this thread. To my way of thinking there are three layers to ‘horror’ in RPGs:
  1. Jump scares
  2. Fear of the unknown
  3. Fear of being powerless
Jump scares are the easiest to create mechanically, being completely driven by GM narration. They can also be slotted in to many scenes and scenarios. Clearly they work directly on the players, with no actual interaction with the PC. I guess the only concession I would make to rules here is if someone’s character is unfazeable in some way they I wouldn’t use this technique on them as that would be contrary to the definition of their character.

Fear of the unknown is interesting in that the existence of a defined set of monsters in a book starts to leach this away. In my group, we quite often will start with just a monster description when the characters are still inexperienced (and in a horror-focussed game that state might not change very often), and avoid using the name of the monster. Naming something gives you power over it. For games with a mysterious element we tend to let the players give their own name to the monsters. I think stats are useful, because it helps the GM run the monster as intended, rather than just making things up on the fly; it can be too tempting to add a new ability just to thwart the players left-field idea that should neutralise the threat but comes ‘too soon’. Let the players have their victory and reveal the next, deeper and darker level of horror that can now be glimpsed... So, stats are good but commonly known stats are the death of fear. Make your own monsters up for best effect.

Fear of powerlessness can take one of two primary forms in my opinion. Being imprisoned or captured in some way is one, but the other is knowing that you are hopelessly outclassed. This can help keep the fear levels up once the ‘unknown’ has started to be understood by the PCs. They might have worked out that the non-Euclidean Beast hunting teenagers on campus is vulnerable to titanium, but managing to land a blow on such a weird creature as a science-nerd character whilst weathering an overwhelming potential for attack will still likely be scary. The chance of success is very low. Now, some players may not be invested in their characters to the point where the potential for death moves them, so this is probably best saved for later in the game when they are more invested (or simply don’t try to do horror games with people who don’t actually identify with their characters - it won’t work).

So, for a horror game I would start with the unknown, season with a smattering of jump scares at key points, and transition to a state of known powerlessness as the adventure progresses. That doesn’t mean I would build a railroad, more that I would change the emphasis as the game evolved. Having the monster appear and eviscerate a red shirt as a demonstration of it’s capabilities can provide the confirmation to the players that this thing is mostly out of their league. If we are talking about Great Old Ones then the focus is more likely to be finding books or cave paintings etc. that tell you about the last time the thing rose, or graphic predictions of what will happen when it rises for the first time. Hopefully they will chose to play smart and find a way of overcoming the odds beyond simply ‘I hit it’.
How do you build up the tension and anticipation that a jump scare requires? I've found it almost never works in the real world of gaming.

Fear of the unknown also almost never works. Players tend to be blissfully ignorant of what they don't know is there in my experience. See my earlier comments about pizza and dice in a well lit room.

Fear of being powerless has another name. GM created frustration. How often can players think that having their agency taken away is fun? Because that's what powerless means in RPG terms.

While all three of those methods can and do work to varying degrees of success in written and visual media, the medium of the RPG has very different demands and constraints from other forms of entertainment.
 

Ghost Whistler

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What makes monsters or horror scary (and I don't mean the modern take of torture or snuff porn) is the lack of agency the victims get. They're helpless, even when they think they aren't. Whatever happens, WILL happen, and nothing they can ever do will stop it.

This lack of control over their situation is what leads to fear, panic and the desire to do something, anything to stop the inevitable.

Can RPG rules replicate that in a way that all players will want to follow it?
My initial thought is no because taking agency away from players is a very risky thing to do. Maybe there are players out there that enjoy it, who knows. BUt my experience would be that they would resist, hard. Even if only subconsciously - they would seek to do this or that but findingo ut they coudln't would lead to frustration. They don't want to play Final Destination the RPG

I have to go with Yes and No.

Yes because once you define a monster with labels, stats, fear points and the like it's just another beast to fight or evade. *yawn* The trick is to use your flavor text to invoke fear of the unknown while placing the players in a position of decisive action. Consider the following examples of the same situation:

GM #1 A monstrous shape passes just beneath your rowboat. Its sheer size is maddening and the boat nearly capsizes in its wake. What do you do?

versus

GM #2 Something huge passed under your rowboat, make a Perception check. [roll is successful] It's a Star Spawn of Cthuhlhu, take 1d10 fear points and make an Agility check as the boat nearly capsizes.

No because stats are the "physics" of the game. The DM had better have a good handle on their monster's capabilities even if the players don't. This doesn't mean players should know everything or you have to statblock Yog-Sothoth. What I mean is that through investigation, exploration, roleplay et cetera the players should be able learn just enough about the monster to make informed decisions that can possibly defeat it.

Well stated. Running into a "Schroediger's Monster" (love the term BTW) is incredibly frustrating and annoying.

Emphasis mine. This bears repeating and should be in a DMs Bible somewhere. I try to keep my flavor text in succinct bites of 1-2 sentences.

Mr. Lovecraft succinctly states everything a DM really needs to know about running a successful horror game.
Sure, but rp depends on information. The GM then has to be very careful in what he reveals such that the mystery is preserved while not depriving the players of information about the scene.

My experience is somewhere between those two examples. Saying "it's a star spawn" is clearly the wrong approach, but if the player is nearly capsized then mechanics of some kind are being invoked.

I'm not sure that's quite true; the players may, after all, want to run away. I think you need some sort of stats whenever the monster and players interact, even if they are something like Cthulhu Dark's "if you try to fight a monster, you lose and die".
I would be interested to know how the upcoming Alien rpg handles the xenomorphs given they are desiged to be as fatal as possible. They have two mouths and bleed acid. They are dangerous in almost every conceivable way, even in defence they cause harm. You aren't meant to fight them, you're meant to maneuvre them into the requisite puzzle solution so that pressing the big red button finishes them off.
 

dbm

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How do you build up the tension and anticipation that a jump scare requires? I've found it almost never works in the real world of gaming.
In my experience it’s a question of delivery and pacing. As the GM narrating what the PCs are experiencing I would start to slowly build tension by talking more slowly, and a little more gently. That starts to focus attention on what you are saying, then... BAM!

Sure, you are dependent on a number of factors to pull this off, but I will come back to that...

Fear of the unknown also almost never works. Players tend to be blissfully ignorant of what they don't know is there in my experience. See my earlier comments about pizza and dice in a well lit room.
To borrow a famous phrase, there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns. The known unknowns are levers you can use with your players. They know that farm animals or pets are going missing, or that graves are being disturbed, or that the local church bells have started ringing for no reason. This is a hook to let them know there is something happening that they might want to investigate.

One of the best CoC campaigns I played in started with my character waking in the middle of the night and seeing a vision of a green, vaguely human figure standing at the end of her bed and then the figure’s head was slowly consumed, bit by bit... The next day I received a phone call that the professor I studied anthropology under had died...

Something weird was happening. Someone my character cared about had died and it was very scary for my character. Since my character was the types of person to get involved she called up some good friends to accompany her to the funeral and so started the campaign. I’ll come back to this...

Fear of being powerless has another name. GM created frustration. How often can players think that having their agency taken away is fun? Because that's what powerless means in RPG terms.
Here’s the thing: playing a horror game is like getting on a rollercoaster or going into a haunted house at the fair. You know that you are going to be put in situations which are ‘scary’ and you want that. It’s the same with watching horror films. People want to be shocked and / or frightened. Playing a horror RPG or adventure provides the same kind of ‘safe scare’ that some people want.

Second, being powerless doesn’t mean being tied to a chair with no options. It means being totally outclassed and knowing that your character could die at any moment if they try to confront the threat directly.

D&D is (to be trite) about killing things and taking their stuff. Horror is about trying to avoid things killing you to take your soul, whilst at the same time trying to out smart or subvert this overpowering threat. Or at least get away; think about ‘hut in woods’ type horror scenarios where the main objective is to survive. That might be the best your character can hope for in a horror game, and that is ok (from a genre perspective, at least)! So, the odds are long and your character could easily die if they fail to pull off their plans. That is powerlessness with agency still in place.

While all three of those methods can and do work to varying degrees of success in written and visual media, the medium of the RPG has very different demands and constraints from other forms of entertainment.
The prime factor is that people need to have signed up for a horror game of some kind, or you have to know your group really well and know they will accept and adapt to a broader game having a horror interlude. If you have a group who reject the idea that facing over whelming odds and needing to play clever (i.e. not simply employ direct confrontation) makes a good game then they will never enjoy horror. Don’t run horror for a group like that. If you are inserting horror into a ‘regular’ game you need to do some IC sign-posting and then give them a clear OOC heads-up or they will follow standard PC protocol of ‘roll for initiative’ and try main-force against your over-powered adversary.

Along those lines, you need people to make characters who would fit into an investigative horror story to support most of these games. The characters need to be more ‘normal’ than most PCs, but with enough of a spirit of adventure or curiosity to open the door, read the weird book and not simply carry on with daily life. Conversely they shouldn’t be Navy SEALs who happen to be in Arkham visiting relatives (or if they are, step 1 has to be showing them these skills are useless, a la Predator). The most ‘combat positive’ PC type you tend to get in horror is the washed up PI who used to be a cop.

You talk about struggling to build tension in a brightly lit room - don’t have a room like that when you run the game! We used to play CoC from around 7pm to midnight, in a fairly traditional dining room in a friend’s house. Dark walls, heavy curtains. Very quiet. Make sure the environment supports the feel you are going for. I’m not talking LARP here, just lower the lighting levels and help people focus. There is a reason people tell horror stories around the campfire.

Finally, you will get some people who start off too gung-ho for the game you are aiming for. Let their PCs be a grizzly example of why that is the wrong approach! Let’s say you are in the process of describing a dark room, where there is a monster hiding. You envisage the players opening the door, scoping it out carefully and spotting something amis before bugging out (maybe the monster is feeding on an earlier victim?) One of the players has a hair-trigger and either runs straight in the room or sees the monster and attacks it. That’s fine. Make the other PCs surprised, and have the monster eviscerate that PC with overwhelming force (by the rules - the monster should have already been designed as an out-classing enemy). When they are in bloody pieces on the ground, ask the other players if they would like to flee or to attack (give them that explicit choice, don’t force them to come up with the idea of running) then either have the monster feed on the dead PC whilst the others run, or go TPK and start a different campaign in the next session!

I’ve played some fantastic games of CoC and it works well if people want it to. But not everyone wants to play horror and that is cool too.
 

PolarBlues

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Avoiding titles in D&D can be really impactful. In one game I described a vampire as a well dressed pale man who seemed unimpressed by the party. When they attacked him I described misses at hits that instantly healed. That more than anything unsettled them.
Gottcha. So no more Dr Hydra or Lady Wendigo. I hindsight, that makes so much sense!
 

soltakss

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For me, a monster is scary because it kills or harms people. It might also be really tough and really dangerous. As a PC, I will try and kill such a monster.

Some monsters might be inherently scary, in which case they have an ability that makes people scared of the monster. Again, if it harms people then, as a PC, I may well try to kill it, but I have to overcome its scariness to do so.

For me, horror films, TV shows and books, with the exception of Eraserhead, are a bunch of people trying to survive against monsters, overcome monsters, defeat monsters or whatever. They are not particularly scary for me and I treat them as Bug Hunts.

Eraserhead, on the other hand, totally creeped me out when I first watched it and again when I watched it 15 years afterwards. I'm not going to watch it again.
 

Toadmaster

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I would be interested to know how the upcoming Alien rpg handles the xenomorphs given they are desiged to be as fatal as possible. They have two mouths and bleed acid. They are dangerous in almost every conceivable way, even in defence they cause harm. You aren't meant to fight them, you're meant to maneuvre them into the requisite puzzle solution so that pressing the big red button finishes them off.
Based on the pre-sale pdf, Alien uses a stress mechanic. Certain actions and events increase stress, and increased stress improves skills at the cost of increasing the chances of a breakdown. I haven't played with it yet, but just reading through it, it seems to have a lot of promise, and will certainly be worth looking at for other situations. A bit like CoCs San but with much more depth.

As with the movies I think the situations will play out very differently between one xeno and normals, or many xenos and a squad of marines. While the odds would seem to be much less grim, I think one xeno vs a squad of marines could still be effective under the right circumstances. The mechanic would certainly work for critters other than xenos. I have high hopes that it will create a similar jumpiness and stress in players as the AvP video games do.

I think not giving the players a lot of time to consider their actions will also go a long way to maintaining that sense of unease.



Here’s the thing: playing a horror game is like getting on a rollercoaster or going into a haunted house at the fair. You know that you are going to be put in situations which are ‘scary’ and you want that. It’s the same with watching horror films. People want to be shocked and / or frightened. Playing a horror RPG or adventure provides the same kind of ‘safe scare’ that some people want.

Second, being powerless doesn’t mean being tied to a chair with no options. It means being totally outclassed and knowing that your character could die at any moment if they try to confront the threat directly.

D&D is (to be trite) about killing things and taking their stuff. Horror is about trying to avoid things killing you to take your soul, whilst at the same time trying to out smart or subvert this overpowering threat. Or at least get away; think about ‘hut in woods’ type horror scenarios where the main objective is to survive. That might be the best your character can hope for in a horror game, and that is ok (from a genre perspective, at least)! So, the odds are long and your character could easily die if they fail to pull off their plans. That is powerlessness with agency still in place.
Essential to have player buy in, which in someways is unfortunate, because adding horror into an otherwise normal game could be so effective. It also has a huge chance of going sideways with many players being unhappy about being "tricked" into playing a game different from what they signed up for.

Movies like Phantasm 2, and The Evil Dead are good examples of players who are capable, but still in over their heads. While it is quite possible for individuals to defeat individual monsters, defeating the larger evil is much less certain and in the end it really becomes about small victories with many set backs / defeats.

Also different levels of horror, most vampire stories are horror, yet in the end the heroes often triumph. Some the horror is nearly as much that of the victims as it is about the aggressor, American werewolf in London, Cat People, The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde etc. The "monster" being horrified by what they have become (are becoming) and the PCs by what they must do to "win". Others like From Beyond or The Fly are more about discovering terrible things and preventing them from escalating, often with a personal cost.

Then you have monster hunting which generally falls under horror, but is quite different. Tremors, Ghost Busters (played a little darker) and to some extent even the Alien and Predator films (excluding Alien) can fall into this category.
 

CRKrueger

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If you have a group who reject the idea that facing over whelming odds and needing to play clever (i.e. not simply employ direct confrontation) makes a good game then they will never enjoy horror. Don’t run horror for a group like that.
I wouldn’t run anything for a group like that, or play in anything they were interested in. I’ve got better things to do...like dying of tetanus after being saved from crucifixion.
 

TristramEvans

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For me, horror films, TV shows and books, with the exception of Eraserhead, are a bunch of people trying to survive against monsters, overcome monsters, defeat monsters or whatever. They are not particularly scary for me and I treat them as Bug Hunts.

Eraserhead, on the other hand, totally creeped me out when I first watched it and again when I watched it 15 years afterwards. I'm not going to watch it again.
You should check out Suspira.
 

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A relatively recent monster movie I liked was Absentia.
Modern day setting with call backs to dark fairy tales about creatures living under bridges... and that fairyland penchant for taking people hostage. It's probably a good fit for a game of Changeling The Lost.
 

TristramEvans

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A relatively recent monster movie I liked was Absentia.
Modern day setting with call backs to dark fairy tales about creatures living under bridges... and that fairyland penchant for taking people hostage. It's probably a good fit for a game of Changeling The Lost.

Yeah Absentia had an interesting enough premise to overcome it's budget, or rather lack thereof. Funnily though \I was thinking over most of my favourite horror films, and the majority don't have any sort of monster. If anything I'd say it's the exception rather than the rule, as far as my tastes.

The Shining - I guess you could make an argument the Hotel itself is a monster, but not the type you could overcome in any physical sense.

The Wicker Man (the original, not the hilaribad remake) didn't have a monster, unless "monster" can mean a village of Pagans.

Does The witch in The Witch count as a monster? I guess so, but it's not the witch herself that the horror is focused around, rather the breakdown of a family from the inside. I almost think the film would have been just as effective if they left out the witch entirely, or left it up to viewer interpretation whether she was real or just the product of paranoid fantasies driving a wedge between family members (of course, then we wouldn't have gotten the awesometastic Black Phillip seduction scene)

The Ninth Gate is't scary at all, but I wouldn't know what to categorize besides horror. It is one of the most entertaining films in the genre though, I've lost count of how many times I rewatched it. And again no monster (unless you count the director)

No monster in Let's Scare Jessica to Death either. Just a lot of f-ed up mind games.

Cube gives a situation sort of like The Shining where I suppose you could consider the environment a monster, but I wouldn't classify it as such. Same problem with Oculus - can a mirror be a monster?

I'm not sure where to draw the line between a scary regular old person and a monster either. Does the sadistic rich gamemaster in Would You Rather? count? What about Robert Mitchum's character in Night of the Hunter? Or the opportunistic killers in You're Next?

Honestly, though, the most horrifying film I've ever seen, the one that still disturbs me 30 years later from the first time I saw it as a child. The film so dark that makes Arranofsky's Requiem for a Dream look like an 80s sitcom in comparison. That is probably one o the only films that I admire yet simply would not watch again because I don't need another 3 decades of fresh nightmares, has absolutely no monsters.

It's actually a cartoon...

 

dbm

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Honestly, though, the most horrifying film I've ever seen, the one that still disturbs me 30 years later from the first time I saw it as a child. The film so dark that makes Arranofsky's Requiem for a Dream look like an 80s sitcom in comparison, that is probably one a the only films that I admire that simply would not watch again because I don't need another 3 decades of fresh nightmares, has absolutely no monsters.

It's actually a cartoon...
Never heard of that, but just looking at the stills on IMDB is a impactful. I can live without experiencing that film.
 

Toadmaster

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The Ninth Gate is't scary at all, but I wouldn't know what to categorize besides horror. It is one of the most entertaining films in the genre though, I've lost count of how many times I rewatched it. And again no monster (unless you count the director)
I like the 9th gate, although it isn't really that great of a movie, confusing, slow paced. kind of irregular at times, and really no likable characters but anytime I run across it on TV I end up watching it.

One of those movies where 60% is the casting, 30% the visuals and 10% the script. I could probably video tape Frank Langella and Johnny Depp baking cookies and get an Oscar nomination out of it. :smile:


Talking about movies without a clear monster that scared the crap out of me as a kid, The Entity.

In the movie there was a sound when the attacks began that reminded me of an off balance washing machine. I had a room in the basement next to the laundry room, so...
 

dbm

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My dad had Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds when I was little and it used to scare me shitless...
 

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Yeah Absentia had an interesting enough premise to overcome it's budget, or rather lack thereof. Funnily though \I was thinking over most of my favourite horror films, and the majority don't have any sort of monster. If anything I'd say it's the exception rather than the rule, as far as my tastes.

The Shining - I guess you could make an argument the Hotel itself is a monster, but not the type you could overcome in any physical sense.

The Wicker Man (the original, not the hilaribad remake) didn't have a monster, unless "monster" can mean a village of Pagans.

Does The witch in The Witch count as a monster? I guess so, but it's not the witch herself that the horror is focused around, rather the breakdown of a family from the inside. I almost think the film would have been just as effective if they left out the witch entirely, or left it up to viewer interpretation whether she was real or just the product of paranoid fantasies driving a wedge between family members (of course, then we wouldn't have gotten the awesometastic Black Phillip seduction scene)

The Ninth Gate is't scary at all, but I wouldn't know what to categorize besides horror. It is one of the most entertaining films in the genre though, I've lost count of how many times I rewatched it. And again no monster (unless you count the director)

No monster in Let's Scare Jessica to Death either. Just a lot of f-ed up mind games.

Cube gives a situation sort of like The Shining where I suppose you could consider the environment a monster, but I wouldn't classify it as such. Same problem with Oculus - can a mirror be a monster?

I'm not sure where to draw the line between a scary regular old person and a monster either. Does the sadistic rich gamemaster in Would You Rather? count? What about Robert Mitchum's character in Night of the Hunter? Or the opportunistic killers in You're Next?

Honestly, though, the most horrifying film I've ever seen, the one that still disturbs me 30 years later from the first time I saw it as a child. The film so dark that makes Arranofsky's Requiem for a Dream look like an 80s sitcom in comparison. That is probably one o the only films that I admire yet simply would not watch again because I don't need another 3 decades of fresh nightmares, has absolutely no monsters.

It's actually a cartoon...

OMG I had forgotten all about this.

The Watership Down and The Plague Dogs are amongst the most depressing films from my primary school years, and I don't think I would sit through these dirges even now.

I wouldn't describe them as Horror films, but they certainly are ordeals in Misery.
Martin Rosen and Richard Adams killed most of our childhood with these gloomladen pieces!
 

AsenRG

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In Black Christmas no one ever confronts the killer, it's just a weird voice on the phone and various (NPCs) being murdered.
In Call of Cthulhu the big-bads are, IMO, better left off stage as frightening possibilities...
Most of the time. The rest of the time, you run them over with a steamship:smile:.
Depending on whether you've got a steamship:wink:.

Regular humans can be plenty creepy/dangerous without resorting to tentacles.
With that, however, I fully agree. Which is why I like Unknown Armies so much!


This is HUGE and again, should belong in a GM Bible somewhere. I think titles should be avoided period unless a character's background or experience says otherwise (e.g. the 1st level ranger with undead as a favored enemy gets a pass on common undead)
Rest assured, it already is in a GM's handbook. Namely, most PbtA titles include it, Dungeon World included:grin:!

Really? Can you cite any sources? People who have endured or committed terrible things are at a high risk for PTSD among other things.
Well, I think he means "RPG players quickly come to odds with their characters committing atrocities".
 

Toadmaster

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Most of the time. The rest of the time, you run them over with a steamship:smile:.
Depending on whether you've got a steamship:wink:.
Often overlooked, but a fair number of Lovecraft's protagonists resort to violence with various degrees of success. From flamethrowers, rayguns and acid in the Shunned house to military intervention in The Dunwich Horror where the U.S. Navy lobbed torpedoes at one of Dagon's summer cottages. :smile:
 

Black Vulmea

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It should be hard to scare adventurers.

Resourceful people can be pretty challenging to intimidate, and many roleplaying games produce player characters who are adept at solving problems - by force, intellect, skill, or whatever. In my experience, they are not, as a general rule, run-of-the-mill victims who are the stock-in-trade of the horror genre.

As such, I rarely try to horrify players.
 

Ladybird

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My dad had Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds when I was little and it used to scare me shitless...
I was camping with a bunch of friends in someone's field once. Someone had bought speakers, and we'd all bought booze, so there was a good time had by all and we went to our tents kinda drunk.

Whoever woke up first in the morning had access to the stereo. So the rest of us were rudely awakened by the cries of martian war machines invading our field...
 

Necrozius

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Yeah reading a few essays or tips on what makes horror work is a step in the right direction.

Some commonalities that seem to really "get" at people (many already mentioned up thread):

- Powerlessness (being unable to do anything, whether due to force constraint or paralyzed through physical or emotional reasons)
- Body horror (really bad, unchangeable things done to your body)
- Anticipation (building up tension that something is about to happen and it won't be good)

I've managed to pull off decent scenarios by focusing on those things specifically. In Dark Heresy, in particular:

- the monster was not harmed by their super awesome guns of chain weapons; it just kept on coming at them (there were no psychics or magic user PCs)
- a character got trapped and had no choice but to chop her own leg off with her chainsword so that she could get free
- the creature only appeared when the lights went out; before it made is appearance, the lights would dim more and more or flicker on and off, making little attacks here and there). Only when it got pitch black did it materialize; the players went "OH SHIT". They still remember that session very well.

Anecdotal, so grains of salt and all that.
 

Skywalker

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I liked the new Kult’s adaptation of the PbtA rules for this. The rules are assymetrical and the GM side is a lot more freedom narrative than the PCs side, allowing GM’s flexibility with the monster’s action but also going beyond them to include the environment and other narrative effects, such as splitting the PC group. As GM I could do more of what you see in horror movies and computer games more easily and players were really kept on their toes as what would happen to their PCs.
 

PolarBlues

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I am not convinced that horror games are about scaring you players anymore than comedy games are about making them laugh. My take is that in both instances you are basically looking at an action/adventure games that are informed and constrained by their respective genre conventions.

As such you are likely to get a few good laughs during the horror game and a few tense moments in the comedy one, though one of the two is more likely to have a happy ending than the other.
 

dbm

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I am not convinced that horror games are about scaring you players anymore than comedy games are about making them laugh.
But I have often heard it said that (a particular) comedy game wasn’t funny. And that was seen as a basic failure of the concept. A horror game that isn’t ‘scary’ at least at an intellectual level seems to have fundamentally missed the target, to me.
 

TristramEvans

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I agree that most horror games are more adventure with disturbing elements or genre conventions, just as the vast majority of horror movies aren't really scary
 

FeralToaster

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My take is that in both instances you are basically looking at an action/adventure games that are informed and constrained by their respective genre conventions.

As such you are likely to get a few good laughs during the horror game and a few tense moments in the comedy one, though one of the two is more likely to have a happy ending than the other.
I tend to agree with this sentiment, I have an old one shot scenario based on "Jeepers Creepers", a lesser horror movie franchise. That while has a few tense moments is basically the players making tactical fortifications and squad combat. Players enjoy it for its "horror movie feel" and not being straitjacketed into making bad decisions. The latter of course being a horror genre staple but because it doesn't translate well to tabletop I've dropped in favor of more player agency in decision making (which of course can often be bad but in a fun way that everyone enjoys or at least I do:devil: ).
 

TristramEvans

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Jeepers Creepers is another one where the director is creepier IRL than the film

I thought the first one had potential, started good but lost steam halfway through. I think I switched channels on the first sequel half an hour in
 

Toadmaster

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I am not convinced that horror games are about scaring you players anymore than comedy games are about making them laugh. My take is that in both instances you are basically looking at an action/adventure games that are informed and constrained by their respective genre conventions.

As such you are likely to get a few good laughs during the horror game and a few tense moments in the comedy one, though one of the two is more likely to have a happy ending than the other.

I think there are two sides to that. Agree that most horror games are actually more on the monster hunting / investigative side than the scary side, simply because providing the right amount of actual scare to the players is hard. Perhaps creepy, or even graphic but not actually in the real world scary. Horror games that are supposed to immerse the players in the horrors the PCs are facing and provide some actual (mild) fear is definitely a thing, but a smaller niche of players / GMs who actually want that. Horror movies run the range from the classic Universal monster movies which are pretty tame for modern audiences, to really disturbing stuff like Saw and Human Centipede. Most horror films fall somewhere in between. Oddly horror and comedy go together like peanut butter and chocolate (Shawn of the Dead, Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein).

Not much different than sex in RPGs, many players want a little titillation (Frazetta and Vallejo inspired art, boob armor, mail bikinis, barbarians in loin cloths, half nekkid serving girls and guys, seductive spies and femme fatales, hints of depravity, superheroes in skin tight spandex and ridiculously revealing outfits) because that fits the genre of many games.

Some want none of that, pure G rated only and a smaller number are looking to cause actual arousal of the players with the in game activities. Still you can find games that definitely take that path, and I'm sure they run into somewhat similar issues to horror games that are actually scary.


It is not easy to create specific real emotional responses of any type from players.
 

Spartan

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Good thread.

One thing to think about is"fear of the numinous". We're scared of tigers because of what they do. We're scared of ghosts because of what they are, since in most folklore they don't do anything. But it's still scary.

I agree with ditching titles. Describe, don't define. Let's the player's paranoia do the defining. Make sure the monsters are other, and you've done most of the work already.:smile:
 

dokel

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Okay so I'm going to throw in with my pet theory that the basis of all horror can be traced back to the four fundamental 'givens' of existential psychology: Death, Freedom, Isolation and Meaninglessness. Here is a very basic overview for anyone who might be interested.

And I would say that the continuing popularity of horror movies can, in part, be explained by their cathartic nature. They allow us to confront our existential anxieties within a safe, boundaried context.
 

Voros

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One important subgenre if horror I feel we may be passing over to a degree is the one where the protagonist (in film usually a woman) feels they may be going insane and increasingly can’t distinguish between reality and illusion/dreams, perhaps haunted by ghosts, a cult, mysterious figure or doppelgänger.

Examples include The Haunting, Images, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, All the Colors of the Dark, Carnival of Souls, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and many more.

There’s a great book by Kier-la Janisse called House of Psychotic Women all about the subgenre.

It is probably a bit difficult to create pre-made investigation/supplements for as the madness usually needs to be tied to the specific circumstances or psychology of the protagonist and isolation is such an important element in its effectiveness so playing as a group would probably dilute that. Some may also see shifts between reality and illusion as disempowering or even railroading.

But I think Tynes In Media Res does a good job of capturing the feel of the subgenre in CoC. A narrowly focused PbtA or storygame where the session is built around a discussion with the players as they build their PCs would also work pretty well for it.
 

dokel

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One important subgenre if horror I feel we may be passing over to a degree is the one where the protagonist (in film usually a woman) feels they may be going insane and increasingly can’t distinguish between reality and illusion/dreams...
The psychological phenomenon of gaslighting does, of course, take its name from a stage play that was adapted into two films (the second one, starring Ingrid Bergman, being by far the better known) where the female lead is made to doubt her own sanity. In this instance the source of her woes is all too human and the film is normally considered a thriller rather than horror.

 
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