Last week, we delved into the topic of Horror in Gaming on the podcast, so, in the spirit of Halloween and in keeping with our creepy theme for the month I figured I would revisit my “Are *blank* Settings the Best Settings” opinions and go a little more in-depth into my thoughts on the topic. Also, the fact that we’ve restarted Karen’s World of Darkness / Hunter: The Vigil game, it seems to be more than appropriate.
Now, before I start, I recognize the fact that the horror genre isn’t for everyone, be they a GM or a Player. That being said, I do believe that there is a little room for Horror settings – either as a side-quest, a temporary setting shift, or a simple one-shot – at every gaming table. Whether as an extended campaign or a quick break from the routine, horror at the tabletop can open some fascinating (and twisted) doors for those on either side of the screen.
Horror Crosses all Gaming Genres – Like the image above suggests, with enough planning and creativity, any tabletop RPG can be put on its ear and taken in another direction with the element of horror. Truth be told, plenty of TV shows do this every holiday season, with this, that, or the other Halloween episode popping up. If they can do it, so can you! Craft a creepy adventure path for this time of year for the players, even for one night, just to mix things up, or approach it as a slow build and get their heads spinning (or rolling) when you throw the current genre for a loop. Everything from Alien to The Walking Dead shows us that Horror isn’t just stuck in Transylvania or the Ravenloft setting.
Let Your Creep Flag Fly – I like to believe that gaming groups with staying power establish an unspoken (or not) understanding of where the “line of sensibilities” is, and generally, it may be stepped up to, but unsavory to cross. Understanding where this line is and then choosing to cross it (primarily as a GM) can really strike a chord with the players and possibly make them uncomfortable, so it should be done sparingly, with a specific purpose, and potentially with a damage-control plan on hand for when the session ends. However, the pay-off can be huge for both Players and GMs, as the introduction of a horrific element (or elements) can make a lasting impression on the Player while simultaneously letting the GM dip into the darker pools of their imagination to really ramp up the tension. It’s on thing when the adventurers track down the necromancer and his minions that destroyed a town, but it’s a whole other game when those minions turn out to be the half-eaten zombie corpses of orphans the characters had just saved three weeks ago. I could go way worse, but my reputation is already bad enough around here…
Keep ‘em Guessing and Keep them Thinking – Dropping in some horror to a traditional fantasy game here, or a spy-type setting there can help a GM in numerous ways. First, it can serve as a gauge for what boundaries the players may or may not want to test. Maybe the attempt is a hit, or maybe it’s a flop, but either way it can help to craft a better game. Second, it can be utilized in a non-canonical sense if the GM is worried about disrupting an ongoing campaign. While certain tropes (I’m looking at you, time-travel) can become problematic, utilizing horror in a dream-sequence can serve as a side-quest of sorts or function as a plot device to move the story along. Sure, that may be very deus ex machina with the whole “You wake up and it was all a dream,” it can still serve a function, if used sparingly.
We here at Monkey in the Cage are lucky enough to not only have a GM willing to challenge our psyches and creep us out on a regular basis, it’s also important for the players at the table to give back as much or more than they take in. Horror in the game world doesn’t need to be Dracula, Frankenstein, and Brain-Melting Cthulhu all the time, but when it is done right, man does it make your skin crawl!