Sometimes lost beneath the piles of fantasy RPGs, followed by the various incarnations of sci-fi and superhero games, falls the incredibly compelling, but often overlooked genre of horror. I don't mean a game where player character take on the roles of dark creatures as you might see in White Wolf's various World of Darkness titles, or Nightbane from Palladium Books, but a game where ordinary people are confronted by the terrors of the supernatural. Call of Cthulu, with its up-and-down publication history, is probably the most prominent of these true horror RPGs. Beyond our tabletops we look to the X-Files or Fringe for how these scenarios might play out.
However, any game possesses the potential for the horror angle to rear its head. Let's discuss some of the keys to building a successful world of horror. While we're at it, you can check out a free NPC download for your modern horror game, Complete Characters #4: Corporal Jake Avery, the haunted police officer.
Now, on with the discussion.
The question here is, how do I run a great horror RPG? Let's look at some key factors, and throw out a few tips.
To really get a good, traditional sort of horror game going, perhaps the most important element is that the presence of the supernatural world is a secret. As real as vampires or succubus or poltergeists are to the player characters, this reality is only recognized by a small percentage of the population. This is important because in order for a game to be horrific instead of just fantastical, the characters need to be more or less on their own.
Let's consider this distinction for a moment by looking at your typical fantasy game. Doesn't an average D&D campaign include elements like spirits, demons, monsters, and dark religious rites, all of which are hallmarks of the horror genre? D&D isn't a horror game despite all of this, because these things are accepted by basically everyone in that world. Sure, they can be presented as frightening or scary, but the existence of these sorts of beings is simply a fact of life.
In order for your modern horror game to remain something set apart from fantasy, this separation must continue. Encounters with gorgons happen away from prying eyes, in alleys and warehouses lit only by dim street lamps. Entities that torment and possess are invisible to the eyes and modern technology. The bodies of slain creatures turn to ash, discorporate, or revert to a human or animal form. Stories are fabricated and disseminated by powerful private or government agencies who are charged with keeping the public in the dark.
This deception is easy enough in most settings, as people are not ready to believe the fantastic. Comfortable in daily routines, with a six pack of beer and a high-def television, the average Joe is content without worrying about what goes bump in the night. Only the select few, like the player characters and a few allies, see beyond the veil.
To maintain a proper horror setting, it's also important that character death be waiting around every corner. While there's a difference between a horror game, which is naturally dangerous and violent, and a victim game, in which character death is a matter of course, the player characters must deal with legitimate danger. In other genres, the heroes wield powerful robotic armor, or heal one another X times per day, or shrug off bullets like action heroes. That sort of action and adventure is fun, but it takes the edge off of dramatic situations, and horror games are nothing without dramatic situations.
I'm not advocating being a killer GM, but it's only natural that your players are going to make miscalculations. Whether they're monster hunters, paranormal investigators, or normal people caught up in a strange adventure, they will be dealing with cold and merciless predators. Whether the villain in question is a vampire on the prowl, an arcane practitioner on the loose, or a demonic beast on the hunt, the baddies in these scenarios are not likely to hold back when being pursued, investigated, or hunted.
Players need to understand this going in, and Game Masters should be understanding. At an untimely character death, the player should push on by playing an NPC, or just helping the rest of the group through the session with plenty of strategic table-talk, and not whine about it. The Game Master, for his or her part, shouldn't penalize the player too heavily, and let the new character to be rolled up keep a healthy chunk of the past character's experience, and have comparable resources, so as not to start the fallen player back too far behind his or her comrades. After all, let's not undervalue playing in character up to and including that character's death.
Twist on the familiar
Some of the greatest games are those that take a familiar setting and put a horror spin on it. Running a modern game such as Spycraft or a superhero game like M&M or even a not-so-modern game like Star Wars, and introducing elements of horror can really serve as a fun and exciting change of pace. Any setting is capable of providing these opportunities.
To illustrate this, I once played in some horror games based on a very unlikely system: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. If you're only familiar with the Saturday morning, pizza-eating, one-lining cartoon franchise, this will seem like something more of a stretch than it really is. The original comics, which were then brought into the RPG hobby, was a black and white, dark, gritty, violent affair. Leonardo didn't just use his swords for blocking laser blasts. Still, the game I played was free of the supernatural, but was filled with dark and twisted mutations lurking in every corner, with our player characters in constant jeopardy of getting in over our collective heads and being eaten by cannibalistic monsters from the ooze. It's a short-lived campaign that we still talk about.
Give it a try. Introduce terrors like high-tech monsters that travel through phone lines, or supervillains who summon dark constructs from the ether, or ancient Sith with a Dark Side-empowered army of zombies. When you find ways to turn your normally powerful player characters into hunted or bewildered prey who find themselves in way over their heads, then the fun can start.
Next time you need to take a break from your normal Friday night game, roll up some characters with d20 Modern, or take a turn with an old favorite down an unfamiliar path. You and your players will be glad you did, I promise.