I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Quick HORROR tip: make it LIGHT and REALISTIC

After so many posts about "dark fantasy" games, talking about "light realistic" games might sounds strange... but might be appropriate.

In order to have a "scary" horror game, realism could be a good choice - otherwise, the players might fall back to fantasy tropes of peasants slaying giants. 

In the horror genre, there could be a single foe - say, a guy with an axe - and if he gets you, you're probably dead.

It happened to me in one D&D game. I describe a monstrous entity and the fighter said "I attack". I said, "well, it is the size of a bus...", he attacked anyway, dealt 8 damage or whatever, and got ignored by the entity. 

His actions were not absurd in a game where you're supposed to fight dragons.

"Light" rules are important too. If the rules are complex enough that make you study the character sheet for solutions, you disengage from the "fictional" and therefore lose any "scare value" that you could get from it - as described in the example above. The players was thinking "attack bonus" instead of "giant-sized flying worm".

In an horror game, you should spend significant amounts of time engaging with the fictional world - building tension, describing clues, etc.

I remember one CoC game that got my players scared by simply describing an empty room with some green ooze under the bed.

At this point, "I roll perception" could ruin the mood.

But if you need this "roll perception" stuff, the system should be quick and deadly about it.
Unknown Armies has the right idea about this - PC skills are often around 20% to 40%. They are unreliable and fail more often than not. Combat (especially with guns) is extremely swingy - you can die with a single shot OR after more than a dozen stab wounds.

[It does have a complex and interesting system for mental trauma, however. For short games, this isn't even necessary - you don't have to check if you're scared, you should know a dagger is extremely dangerous].

Cthulhu Dark took simple, deadly rules to the extreme: fight a monster and you die, period. Too extreme for my tastes, but adequate to some kinds of horror.

There are other forms of horror, of course - you could have all kinds of adventures in hellish landscapes, dream worlds, or full of powerful but flawed heroes struggling against inner demons or cosmic entities. The protagonists could be fighting trauma, madness, addiction or poverty instead of monsters. 

But these two guidelines seem adequate for, say, 80% of any "best horror movies" list.


If you're looking for good horror games, I've good experiences with Unknown Armies, Kult and, of course, CoC (I haven't tried the current versions, only old ones).

But, come to think of it, old school D&D might work too, especially if the PCs have no armor, few weapons and few ways to level up (e.g., a one-shot set in modern days). 

A 1st level fighter with 3-4 HP can do little against half a dozen zombies, except maybe run. If the PCs are stuck in a house with a 4 HD monster - or even maniac with an axe trying to get them by surprise - their chances are slim.

The PCs saving throws often fail and, if the adventure last for more than one day, they recover only 1d3 HP.

Stronger monsters (e.g., vampires) are unbeatable unless you find their weaknesses.

[There is more to be said about using FEWER monsters, BTW - something I addressed recently here and here]

Giving a very bad THAC0 to everyone (including monsters) might be a good way to ramp up the tension. 

Combat lasts for a few rolls, but every single one might mean death.

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