I have long played other games, not Dungeons & Dragons. GURPS with various themes (as GURPS does) from modern, spycraft, mystic, sci-fi and fantasy to crimefighting and vampire hunting; Cyberpunk with GURPS rules and Cyberpunk 2020, Risus and the Dark Eye (“Das Schwarze Auge”), high-flying over the top action with Wushu, and crunchy fantasy with Midgard, the oldest of German Language RPGs, then FATE and several others.
In all those times, the question was a recurring one: How to emulate the special flavour of horror games? How can we emulate, with rules and dice, the feeling of navigating blindly and under threat?
The ingredients of horror
GURPS has its own sourcebook for it, aptly named “GURPS Horror”, where it tries to break it down into individual components and analyze it with a cold, scientific eye.
Classic GURPS! Steve Jackson Games is the very best at dissecting and analyzing individual components with a scientific mind. The result is a board full of ingredients, but not a definite answer.
Interestingly enough, Dungeons & Dragons, in its Old School variants, comes very close to a horror theme without even trying.
The Horror of Dungeons
It is often said that Dungeons & Dragons is a horror game. And it is easy to see why: The aspects of delving into unknown halls below ground, with nothing but a flickering torch to light the way, sneaking past deadly traps, and meeting natural and supernatural threats… giant spiders and giant toads, even giant mosquitos. The oppressive atmosphere of listening on doors before busting them open, hoping that they will not reveal a horde of enemies with bare blades… that is a horror setting … however, it only works for a time. Levels one to three, definitely. Maybe even levels four of five … but then it is over.
Why? Because characters grow in power. They start out weak, so that one wrong encounter can spell certain doom. That makes it so oppressive. Things are different once you go in with 30 hit points and heavy armor. There are still some creatures that you have to respect, but you can go in confident that you are better than whatever may come at you.
There is no fear at higher character levels.
Dedicated Horror Games
What horror does is embracing Fear.
Be it fear of death, of decay, of the craziness of the incomprehensible, of the incomprehensible state of the unknown, of the unknown itself. Dedicated horror games that aim for fear must do so by adding something that makes fear more central to the game, be it in the mechanics or in the narration.
Lamentations of the Flame Princess
LotFP goes for the atmosphere. In its mechanics it is still very close to the original Dungeons & Dragons rules, but it stresses the threat of human callousness by moving the era to one of the most callous and murderous, and honor-less, that Europe has to offer: The 17th century. Black powder clashing with tightly packed spear-wielding infantry and unspeakable deeds perpetrated on random strangers who’s lord has chosen to pick the “other” side.
Mechanics-wise, LotFP does feature a number of adverse effects that bypass character levels. It meddles with many of the spells and makes deadly black magic more accessible by giving magic noobs the Summon Spell, and in later rules additions by removing spell levels altogether so magic noobs can even Disintegrate and Cloud Kill, if they get their hands on the knowledge. Volatile societies and the refusal to give a definitive monster list makes Lamentations of the Flame Princess less predictable than D&D: That is horror with a small h, more of an invitation than a definite rule. But the door to the darkness is ajar.
Best Left Buried
BLB is based on Maze Rats, a simplified Dungeoneering game, and so too is Best Left Buried a game of simple mechanics. On the Maze Rats chassis it adds a Grip mechanic that makes characters lose themselves after confrontation with too many horrors (an obvious nod to the legendary “Call of Cthulhu and its widely adopted “Sanity” stat): The dungeoneers are changed, made more complicated, and at some point, unplayable. They accumulate mutilations and madness – and like Lamentations of the Flame Princess, BLB refuses to list generic monster stats. The horror comes from the unknown opposition, and the very clear expectation that whatever you gain will be paid for in changes to yourself that you cannot control, and that we can get through one adventure unscathed, but it is unlikely that we manage that twice, and it is almost impossible to sail through a third crypt without suffering some damage that will stay.
Volatile and Unpredictable: That is the idea behind the mechanics of “Dread”, which challenge player dexterity. There are not dice. The game mechanic is tied directly to playing “Jenga” and pulling building blocks out of a tower without compromising its stability to the point of catastrophe. But this cannot work for very long. Every player knows: that the tower will, at one point, collapse, is coming closer. And it is inevitable.
Don’t Walk in Winter Wood
An inevitable crash is also what waits for the characters in the smart, rules-light, and very atmospheric game “Don’t Walk in Winter Wood”. This game is a special gem that brings a lot of value with very few pages of actual rules. The game’s recommended setting plays out in the approximate time of New England’s Witch Fears, in the classic horror milieu of the remote and lonely, where man is small and insignificant in the face of the overwhelming power of nature and the unnatural. The mechanic comes in the form of “cold tokens” that are accumulated and make a character either dead or mad, with increasing swiftness. Sooner or later it will happen. There is no turning back.
The atmosphere comes from a unique way of telling that is lent from campfire tales: Third person past tense, the way you would tell the story … and that feeds the impression that we hear a story that may very well have ended horribly.
I have never played it, but I have read the rules. Mothership has weapons that can do a lot of damage, and it invites the “Warden” to introduce monster effects that, once again, bypass character advancements. And in space, where Mothership usually plays, death is a constant companion: You just need a hole in your space suit and things spiral out of control fast.
Inter-character relations also provide fodder for fear: There is a stress mechanic and depending on character class, the way a person handles stress is different. Most relatable: When a warrior suffers stress and acts on his fear, he spreads fear among his own teammates.
Obvious, and effective.
World of Darkness
Is WoD actual horror? And why not?
The characters tend to be the menace themselves. They are the mages, the vampires, the werewolves, changelings and occasionally the hunters. The first of those are obviously a special type of game, where the players themselves are native to secret strata beyond the “normal”. Only in the last two cases does the setting step into the horror territory, as the Changelings must dodge beings mightily more powerful than they, whose magic they have only borrowed. They are superior to normal humans and entangled in their own fantastic environments, though, so fear remains a secondary element. Hunters are where horror is at: Regular people like you and me who are confronted with the “Truth” and tackle what would be PCs of the other games in the WoD-universe, relying on half-understood tools and careful investigation, and then, suddenly, outbursts of violence. But even the Hunters are more steeped in the mysterious as parts of special brotherhoods and backed by powers of beyond themselves: more formidable enemies of the horrific than mere mortals. To make the game really horrific, it depends on the skills of the “Storyteller”, the creator of the adventure and his or her atmospheric descriptions and techniques of setting the mood and steering the experience close to the creepy and unsafe.
What have we learned? What do horror games, dedicated and non-dedicated, powerless and powerful, have in common, when it comes to horror itself?
The fear of the Unknown that lurks around the corner, which dissipates as soon as you can calculate it. If you know that your 56 hit points will allow you to weather 5 or six hits with a sword before shit get real, then you are not worried. You are safe. And so you cannot experience dread, fear, and horror.
When your game rules say that the GM has to ask your permission before anything bad happens to you, or if you alone are the only person that can narrate what happens to your character … and this sort of games exist … then it cannot be horror. You can construct a horror narrative, but you cannot experience it – because you are in control.
When the opponent you face is unseen, and some unknown liquid drips off its talons, with effects you cannot judge, then you worry. The outcome is in question. You are not in control. Your decision is steeped in variables.
Is your enemy vulnerable to certain weapons, or invulnerable ot others? Can her burn? Will our vessel sink? What is beyond the veil, what hides in the mist, and what can it do to us?
We don’t know, and
we can’t calculate.
Decisions might have dire consequences, and we don’t know which is the right call.
And Decisions – they are what roleplaying games are ultimately about.
Playing is making decisions.
Here we are, then, close to the real, where we also make decisions without clear knowledge of the stakes: in the realm of horror, Playing Unsafe.
Picture by Pedro Figueras von Pexels