Unintential Player-oriented horror in Character-oriented horror systems

Started by Dithmer, October 22, 2011, 01:32:16 AM

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I figured that since it'll be Halloween fairly soon, and i recently had a session relevant to the subject, i'd share some things i've noted regarding horror in roleplaying games.
Firstly, when i say horror, i don't mean the traditional 'Heart of Darkness'-style revelations of how horrible things are. Instead, it's basically Scary Stuff. And when discussing its presence in games, i find that you often find two broad types: Player-oriented, aiming at scaring the Players, and character-oriented aiming at scaring the characters. Basically, where character-oriented horror often uses sanity or fear-related mechanics to impose limitations on how the characters can act when they're scared, when aimed at the player you need to make THEM scared, so that they make the character act appropriately.

I've always been a bit apprehensive regarding player-oriented horror, as it remains highly subjective when a player is scared on behalf of his character ('Eldritch horror from beyond the realm of sanity? Wouldn't scare him one bit. Spiders on the other hand...'), and as a GM i neither can or should enforce a behaviour on a character because something is supposed to be scary. I quite like character-oriented horror though, as do the rest of my group, when used through sanity mechanics, for example.

My group has been playing Dark Heresy this way for quite a while now, using the ridiculous over-the-top sanity rules that are oh so fitting with the setting ("OH GOD IT'S AN ANGRY SLUG-BIRD" *PUKE*), but in a session recently, something unexpected happened: A creature without a fear-rating sent the character's fleeing and kicked the players into ultra-paranoia mode.

Basically, they were investigating some disappearing bodies, and the trail led to an alien-cult, apparently worshipping something they called 'water'. They entered the temple, and were greeted by some priest, who asked if they had come here to be 'Cleansed'. The party's Face, who had recently lost an arm in a fire-fight, had burned his last fate-point and was only barely conscious, decided that it was a splendid idea to say yes. So the priest leads him to a basin full of water, and asks him to plunge his head into it. Which he does.

Now, this 'water' is actually an amoeba-like transparent alien thingie, which each things, and only starts moving actively if it gets hungry. Not, it had recently been fed, but it still eats anything submerged into it. So i roll the attack dice, allow him his dodge which he fails, and bam, he's dead. His head blown up and dissolved into the water.

And then the unexpected happened; instead of going into 'Badass Xeno-Killer Acolyte Stance', the Players completely freaked out, and their characters acted accordingly. Basically, 2 decided to shift their aims repeatedly between the water and the priest, 1 thought it would be a good idea to ask the priest what just happened, and 2 said fuck it, gunned him down and ran. The others followed immediately.

And they didn't stop running until they were back at their temporary headquarters. Once there, they went into the aforementioned ultra-paranoia mode; sealing absolutely everything, barricading doors and windows, hell, one of them even emptied a magazine into the toilet bowl, before jamming it with a carpet. Meanwhile i was keeping my best poker-face (I wasn't going to ruin the moment by bursting into laughter) when i told them it started raining.

one player: 'What do we do now? Go outside and see what happens?'
The rest: 'NOPE', aiming their guns at the entrance.

It was the only time i'd managed to scare players so much they projected their fear unto their characters, and we never made a fear roll. And it was totally unexpected! I'm still not really sure what i did right, but it made me think: In a situation like this the implemented fear system, which is character-oriented, would definitely be detrimental to the game, especially considering that they did so well on their own. On the other hand, I still don't really like the way it worked; the result was great, but hey, i'm a lazy GM, and i like it when the system does the work for me. And whenever i see 'scaring your players' discussed on other fora, it is almost always incredibly reliant on a good GM, or a lucky one in my case, or silly meta-game tricks. I cringe whenever i see the 'put something creepy into an ordinary description, then deny that you said it' advice repeated. It is almost never includes mechanics which can work for the purpose, and is almost always about setting an atmosphere and being descriptive

So i was wondering, is it possible to have a system which focuses on player-oriented horror? Does it already exist (I admit, i haven't looked into games aiming at horror, apart from Call of Cthulhu, which is definitely character-oriented)? Or should I be content that I sometimes manage to scare my players accidentally?


Ron Edwards

Hello, and welcome,

Yes indeed!

The go-to game for me along these lines is Dead of Night. It's doubly valuable for not working as well as I'd hoped in one instance, which led me to think more deeply about why it works so well when successful. Some good threads here about the game include [Dead of Night] Werewolves! Men with guns! Mom!, [Dead of Night] Hair, [Dead of Night] Nice Mr. Fitzgerald, and [Dead of Night] Bad Signal at Concrete Cow. The authors call it "campfire horror," which I think is a good term for exactly what you're talking about.

We've discussed the issue on and off over the years, too. In Horror in Sorcerer: Does it happen, is it different?, I tried to summarize the points that have been raised. One game I mentioned in there which seems relevant to your post is discussed in [Dread/Jenga] Heartbeat, slow down (long). There's also a follow-up thread, Emotional responses in RPGs.

I feel a bit rude for replying with effectively a reading list, but the fact is, we've discussed this so much here, and raised so many points, that it might be best to use the resource we're posting in for what it's good at.

Best, Ron


No worries, I'm just glad that you pointed me in the right direction; There's a lot of material here, and as a newcomer it's not exactly easy to find what you need. That said, it really does look exactly like what I was looking for, and i don't have a lot to add.

Dead of Night looks like the game I've always wanted to play, now I just need to pitch it to my group. Most of them like Horror movies (both good, bad and so-bad-it's-good) so it shouldn't be too difficult.

There is one thing I've been wondering about though, and it is pretty much about the 'mechanics' surrounding horror. I've been arguing a bit about this with one of my players, who said that 'you can't have a horror game without a sanity system' and that the characters needed mechanical constraints in the face of fearsome beings. I disagreed though, but in the other extreme, namely that you couldn't have such a system and genuinely scare the players, since a) the subject might not appear at all scary to the player, leading to b) the character is forced to behave in a certain way, which the player finds contrary. This is all well and good in a game of Call of Cthulhu, but as mentioned, it is not really a horror game. My argument was that, to evoke a horror game properly, you need a strong GM, a point that was also brought up in one of the threads.

Now looking at Dead of Night and Dread, i can't help but notice a certain difference in how they work to create Tension.

Dead of Night has no mechanics forcing the characters to behave in a certain way, but it does have mechanics that encourage; I'm thinking mainly of the Bad Habits, and granting survival points for adhering to clichés. But there is still the issue of the GM having to be strong: Even though Tension rises and falls, and the players actually have an influence of that, it is still up to the GM to interpret and present the Tension, sort of chanelling it to the players. I may have to try it first, but it seems that a strong GM would still be needed, or the Tension would fall flat.

And looking at Dread, it seems to connect the Tension directly to the mechanics themselves, in the way that to some people (myself included) Jenga in itself is pretty good at creating Tension, thus alleviating pressure from the GM. Intorporeal called it 'physiologically taxing' for the players, but it definitely has an impact on how the GM has to handle things; considering that the Jenga is the only mechanic, it doesn't seem like he has a lot to do apart from setting the scenes and determining the challenges, whereas the GM in Dead of Night has a bunch of tools he can play with.

I don't know if I make sense, or if someone has already said this, I just thought this was interesting.

Callan S.

From what I've seen, what makes you fear and what makes you shrug are similar in principle to moral conundrums, except moral conundrums are, I think, alot easier to produce. You know, you clear the Kobolds out of the room, rip the tarpaulin off their treasure pile (it's a tarp!) and find the kobold children underneath, shivering. So, slit their throats and move on? Moral conundrums are kind of easy to find. But your water example - you just don't know what's going to fire that! It's much harder to find! And I think your right in a way of needing a sanity system, or some sort of fear system that dictates some character responce, because if it is hard to figure what will fire the fear responce, the fear system depicts frightening events in the fiction that they might start to sympathise with. The fear system is kind of like an entree, just to work up the appetite for fear! >:) But the fear system isn't the main meal. It depends - if you agree the finding of what triggers genuine fear in players is a bit hit and miss, then basically sometimes/often your going to have sessions which just rest on the fear systems results/slugbirds. But maybe I'm wrong on the hit and miss thing?

Ron Edwards


I wasn't present at the argument you mentioned, and don't want to involve myself in it, but I think this topic is especially prone to "you can't have" and "you have to have" phrasing, or their strange offspring, "characters need ..." Different games can have different mechanical templates; the imperatives in phrases like that tend to obscure that fact that the speaker wants something out of play. Finding out what that is, and abandoning the notion that it's obvious or holds in all cases for all games, is the necessary first step for having the discussion.

I also see - at least in your presentation - the overly casual use of terms: horror, "scare the players." Failing to define them and using them as if they're synonyms are ways to avoid dealing with what another person is saying. I hope the threads I linked to will be interesting and helpful to get past that problem.

And finally, "strong GM" sets off alarm bells for me. It may not mean the same to you, in which case ignore my next comment. What it means to me is that the social group as a whole lacks a commitment to the imagined material. (If you want examples, I can provide links to threads, but I figure at present I put enough footnotes into the thread already.) The "strong GM" is therefore necessary to maintain social order, attention to the events of play, and any emotional content he or she feels is important. As I see it, such a situation is broken from the start.

If you mean something else by "strong GM," then ignore that point and let me know what you have in mind.

Your perceived contrast between Dead of Night and Dread is valid, I think. In one of the linked threads, however, I mentioned that Dead of Night does include a physiological source of tension as well, once you understand and apply its subtle action-order ("initiative") mechanics, so I think they're a bit more similar in that regard that is obvious from a first reading.

You also mentioned, in pasing, "mechanics forcing the characters to behave in a certain way." This is an interesting issue. Sanity in Call of Cthulhu is one thing; various behavior-dictating mechanics in other games can be different. The classic example comes from the opposed traits in Pendragon, and from a number of more recent games which treat argumentation exactly like combat. Anyway, my brief point is that such mechanics can be quite effective - not in themselves mirroring or prompting the emotions of the players, but in setting the parameters for characters' decisions and responses that players do produce. So what look like bloodless "I failed my roll, my guy screams" mechanics are not always poor design.

Best, Ron

Frank Tarcikowski

Hi Dithmer,

QuoteAnd looking at Dread, it seems to connect the Tension directly to the mechanics themselves, in the way that to some people (myself included) Jenga in itself is pretty good at creating Tension, thus alleviating pressure from the GM. Intorporeal called it 'physiologically taxing' for the players, but it definitely has an impact on how the GM has to handle things; considering that the Jenga is the only mechanic, it doesn't seem like he has a lot to do apart from setting the scenes and determining the challenges, whereas the GM in Dead of Night has a bunch of tools he can play with.

While I was really excited about the idea of using Jenga as a game mechanism for a horror RPG, for the very reason you describe, I grew increasingly frustrated with the game text and the GM role it set out. Basically the text was saying, "Use the Jenga tower to fool the players and do everything the way you planned it anyway." You'd find a lot of those silly meta-game tricks you were talking about described in the book. They even managed to turn the Jenga tower into one of them, effectively.

Still I think the Jenga idea might work if applied differently. But really, Dread is intended for the ultimate tyrannical Illusionist GM.

I think the reason your players reacted in such an extreme way to "the water" was that they simply did not know what it was and what it could do. So the unknown is an important GM tool in running a player-horror oriented scenario, which means that you as a GM are the only one who knows what's going on and therefore, you are the only one who can really judge the consequences of what the characters do, which does put you in a very strong position regarding "what happens in the game fiction". This is not really how I like to run games and I think you neither. I have occasionally enjoyed it as a player but it does tend to get old at some point.

The way I've played Dead of Night, we played it in a more collaborative way, with everybody embracing the clichés and playing their characters more like movie protagonists, than like actual, real, scared-as-shit humans. So it was more popcorn horror than campfire horror, I guess. I don't think anyone was really genuinely scared at any time.

- Frank
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Frank Tarcikowski

P.S.: Hey Ron, reading your account in Sorcerer-horror-thread of your nightly dog-walk after watching The Sixth Sense really made me grin. The very same thing happened to me after watching that movie, when I was taking the laundry to the cellar one night and suddenly the lights went out.
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