October is Horror Month here at the Ontological Geek! All of our pieces this month relate to horror in games, and we’ve got a bunch of great guest articles lined up for your enjoyment. We’re still accepting pitches for about a week or so, so e‑mail us at email@example.com if you have an idea!
Fear and disgust are at the core of horror. That those two emotional responses should in some combination accompany a good horror story seems, if not incontestable, then at least uncontroversial, but where those responses should be embodied is not quite as clear. If you tell spooky stories late at night then it’s pretty clear you are trying to scare your friends (in fact, creepypasta, a form of Internet ghost story which has its roots in this oral tradition, are often told in second person). But the stories themselves have protagonists, however sketchy, and those protagonists are as important for instilling fear in the audience as the horrifying events that beset them.
The default position for a horror story is that both the protagonists and the audience should be affected in the same way, but that clearly isn’t the case all the time. Protagonists may be unaware of how horrific their situation is, or is about to become, adding dramatic tension; they may be so jaded or courageous or just so powerful that they do not register the horror; or they may be the source of the horror themselves. On the other side of this, a genre-savvy audience may not be moved by horror tropes they’ve seen before, or may expect the jump-scares and so be prepared for them, or a horror story itself may be played more for the sadistic or erotic pleasure of its audience, or with bleak humour to leaven the atrocities. In addition, there are a clear set of tropes and signifiers of horror that might be used in the service of a horror aesthetic without being used to actively horrify; as exemplified by the (brilliant) video for Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) by Backstreet Boys .
There are clearly a range of approaches to horror which involve scaring different people at different times and to different degrees. In the majority of media forms those people (audience and protagonists) are separate entities, hierarchically arrayed under the guidance of a single authorial node. I want to look a bit more closely at tabletop roleplaying games, however, because in these games the distinction between audience and protagonist is significantly blurred, the hierarchy flattened and the action is mediated by systems of rules and feedbacks. This raises the question: who, exactly, is the game trying to scare?
The structured, rule-based roleplaying games that we are familiar with today developed out of wargaming, a form which, by its very nature is a depiction of horrific events, although not necessarily horror events. Wargames abstract away from personal experience; the player is issuing commands and checking to see how well those commands are executed. This is where the idea of morale comes in as troops face up to the banal horrors of war, as well as the fear and terror tests that many fantasy-based systems such as Warhammer or Warmachine/Hordes will call for when models encounter more recognisable signifiers of horror. Individual soldiers can be subjected to fear and disgust, but it becomes a logistical problem for the player rather than a visceral or vicarious one.
The new role-playing games, led by Dungeons and Dragons, turned that relationship between player and game on its head with the introduction of the player-character (PC). This hyphenated construction bridges the gap between audience and protagonist, subject and object, making them facets of a whole that exists only in the shared space of a game. Players no longer merely issue orders, but are embodied in the game-world and act directly on the narrative.
Moreover, many roleplaying games’ rules aim to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, as part of the general sense in which they are non-competitive. Even in the most stat-grinding of games, the gamesmaster is expected to provide a challenge rather than work all-out against the players, and as such there is no need for systems to mediate between competing players or to define the limits of play. D&D makes both of these positions explicit when discussing morale; this is from the Rulebook included in the 1991 boxed set Dungeons & Dragons Game:
“In a battle, the players decide whether their characters will fight, flee, or surrender. This is their decision alone; no PC can be forced to surrender or to flee if the player doesn’t want him to. The players’ characters are as brave (or cowardly) as the players want them to be.”
While the DM can check to see if monsters are scared of the PCs, the PCs can never be forced to be scared of anything, which in practise often boils down to them being scared of nothing. This despite the core gameplay of D&D being much closer to traditional horror than it is to the fantasy literature its container settings emulates. A small, isolated group transgresses into an enclosed, badly lit, world with its own logic. They are symbolically separated from the wider world, with limited resources and unsure of what they will face. The darkness is pregnant with unknown foes; as likely to be undead horrors, hideous beasts or unworldly monsters as the orcs and goblins of generic fantasy. All this ought to lead to a game of tension and panic, but it rarely does.
Most groups end up playing dungeon-crawling games as power fantasies strode through by bulletproof characters. Yet the designs of the games, at least in their early iterations, are geared towards sudden and violent death for the unwary PC. D&D is a horror game in all but name which has been softened by popular demand. This is unsurprising when considered historically; a key innovation in role-playing games was character consistency over many play sessions. This in turn engenders a sense of empathy for characters beyond that usually experienced in a one-off board or wargame and which is at odds with a high mortality rate.
You can’t blame the players for this disconnect, either, as they have no real cue telling them to be scared. This was addressed very quickly with the release of Call of Cthulhu, Roleplaying’s other grand innovator and primogenitor. Call of Cthulhu is explicitly a horror game, rather than just implicitly one. It also introduced the sanity point system as a parallel of the standard hit point mechanic as a way of quantifying horror. This mechanic goes completely against the mental determinism of D&D. In this case saying that actually there are circumstances in which the character might act contrary to the player’s wishes, but formulating it as a function of the external world: just as being hit enough times takes away a person’s physical agency, so being exposed to enough horror will inhibit their mental agency.
Here we are very clearly scaring characters, and this works quite neatly with the indescribable nature of Lovecraftian horror. We’re not scaring players, because it is impossible to make the player as scared as the character, or even close to being so, because the character is experiencing something that cannot be translated out of the game world and into the play area. They can only be told that this thing is so scary that their character is brought this much closer to total insanity by experiencing it. Used judiciously, the tension of sanity loss can itself provide a different kind of fear for the player, as the GM shows their power to unilaterally make a character unplayable by merely revealing knowledge. Playing Call of Cthulhu can be an experience of horror for both players and characters, but on differing levels.
Later horror games have followed through on this idea of horror through loss of control, usually via mechanics to simulate panic or instinctual responses. Sometimes a bit of control is left for the player; Unknown Armies allows a choice between panic, paralysis and frenzy, but makes the player stick to that decision once it’s been made, adding an element of meta-gaming and dramatic tension to the scenario as the player has to weigh up considerations, either narrative or statistical that the character would not, a very different kind of tension to that of rolling a die.
More thematically, D&D’s horror line Ravenloft is a setting that is about the most frightening thing that can happen to the average powergaming dungeon looter. The setting is a roaming, self-contained ‘demiplane’ that picks up characters at whim and while it is filled with all manner of demons and vampires and other classics of the horror aesthetic the real terror for most players comes when they realise that they can never leave. Ravenloft is a direct challenge to the personal freedom so venerated in the rest of the game.
Then there are the games where the player-characters are the source of horror. Even though the horror of the World of Darkness is supposed to come through predominantly in the storytelling, the systems reinforce that the source of the power the characters have is intrinsically damaging to the world and to themselves. The Humanity system in Vampire: The Masquerade, a sort of marker for how depraved a character is, can be an effective way of forcing the player to confront the horror of their own characters actions. As the character gets more powerful they have fewer compunctions about committing atrocious acts, but as the system forces those act to occur ‘on-screen’ the player, if not the character, is forced to endure the horror of the situation.
And of course, even in a game like Call of Cthulhu, atmosphere and description can create an atmosphere of horror as well as they can in any other storytelling setting. Nevertheless, the tension provided by die rolls should not be underestimated. Even in non-dramatic settings, dice add drama. Where you have very clear limits on what PCs are able to achieve physically, or if it is entirely up to the GM, then action sequences can stultify. This is fine if action is not the main thrust of the game, but on the other hand probabilistic systems governing contests and combats can generate naturally and procedurally the kind of risks and reversals, the this-might-just-works and how-could-it-possibly-go-wrongs that are integral to dramatic storytelling.
But horror isn’t really about combat, or at least if it is it shouldn’t be about the kind of combat you can walk away from unscathed. The really good idea you suddenly have should be the one that saves your life this time only and by the skin of your teeth. Cthulhu shouldn’t just die on the roll of a natural 20. The system should be stacked against the player so that they have to fight to survive, and so that they know that they are up against things that have more power than them. Done like this, the small illusion of control being gradually eroded that the dice give the player can be a very effective tool for scaring them when the monsters that the characters face may not be able to do so.
Here the spectre of player knowledge vs. character knowledge becomes apparent. When players are scared because they know how close to death they are then they are scared in a way that characters can’t be. So we come full circle, with systems for showing characters how scared they should be scaring players, and systems for raising tension in players ideally feeding back into the gameworld and making the characters tense and wary.
For me this is the key to horror in the tabletop setting. A gaming table is an often raucous place, with people drifting in and out of concentration; atmosphere can be hard to maintain. Meanwhile, a monstrous reveal is a difficult thing to pull off. Even if the characters have never seen whatever foul horror you unveil, the players probably have, because there’s a picture of it in the guide behind your screen. Coercive and unfair mechanics and the tension of how that will affect their characters can help translate that horror out of the game world and into the players, and more crudely, can force characters to act appropriately to their situations. Without this constant reminder, this nagging doubt, that everything might not be alright, the power to horrify is lost. Even the most atmospheric setting can collapse into little more than a spooky aesthetic, while the most horrific of acts can continue, normalised by system and exposure, without the power to shock.