What Is Scary?
October 15, 2013

What Is Scary?

I am a fan of horror based role-playing games. Games like World of Darkness and all of its fine sub-games, Call of Cthulhu — still a game I look forward to one day trying (soon…) — All Flesh Must Be Eaten, and so many more. And this is the perfect time of year for games like these. Why? Because Halloween is nearly upon us. Unfortunately, the term “horror” in role-playing games often has the same connotations as it does in many modern video games. Basically “horror” has become another word for “action” with elements like vampires, zombies, and other traditionally “scary” creatures. No. That is not what horror gaming is all about. That is not all that it can be.

Scary tabletop games are really tricky to pull off. It’s just like how watching a scary with the lights on while surrounded with a group of friends is not the same as watching one alone, in a house all by yourself, with all the lights turned off. With others there in a well lit room so that rule books can be read, getting the right atmosphere for a scary game is difficult, though I will not say it is impossible. Horror, however, is not necessarily scary. Horror games are suspenseful, tense, and full of the elements of the uncanny and the odd, the familiar and the unfamiliar as one, all with the characters in question not having the capabilities of handling what comes at them on their own. It’s the difference between The Walking Dead and an action game where you mow down countless zombies with infinite ammo machine guns. The key to a horror role-playing game is suspense.

So, how to you make a game suspenseful? Simple, you let the players do the work for you. You put them in situations that seem to have no way out and you see what they do. You limit what they are able to do beyond their own natural abilities, potentially even taking away any unusual powers they might have, though not without having that mean something. “Yes, normally your teleportation spell could take you back to your tower, but it is not working. You feel the power building, but there is something limiting you, though you cannot tell what.” Do not simply take away character abilities for no reason or without cause, as that will lead to frustration rather than suspense. Having whatever limitations you give them mean something will alleviate this somewhat, though you still need to be careful, and to give it back to them when appropriate. Antagonists that are more than just mindless monsters are also a way to add tension. Make the antagonists simple, yet give them an element of the uncanny. Things that are “uncanny” are things that are familiar, yet with just a touch of the odd or unusual. Do not overplay it. Simple details that reinforce the normal and hint at the odd are best.

Finally, remember that role-playing games are often focused on combat. Too much combat can ruin a suspenseful game, turning it back into a monster-masher. However, you should not remove combat entirely. Rather, make every combat encounter meaningful. Make the enemies resilient without being overpowered; hard to stop, but not able to take down the characters in single powerful blows. Doing so with lengthen the fights, making them feel more tense to the players as they try to whittle down their opponents, finding that they are not so easy to dispatch as they might be used to.

I wish all of my readers a fun, happy, and safe Halloween, and hope that you all have some great suspenseful role-playing stories of your own to share.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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