A new campaign for Call of Cthulhu is underway, now approaching its fourth instalment. As a result my brain is full of all things spooksome and grotesque. I’m running it for Encounter Roleplay, at Twitch.tv/encounterroleplay who can also be found on twitter at @EncounterRp. At the moment the campaign isn’t full-on, heavy metal horror, but it’s already had its moments of nastiness and dread. Horror gaming has its own tropes and rules, many them present in horror movies and books as well, and running a horror campaign caused me to think about some of them a lot in the last few weeks.
- Isolation. Being alone and unable to reach help is frightening in itself, but in horror it is almost always employed as a narrative tool as well. Characters in a horror story have to be prevented from removing themselves from the source of the horror – leaving a haunted house, calling the police, running away, and so on. Horror stories employ a device to keep their characters from escaping, be it a washed-out bridge a cut-off phone, or a conspiracy so all-encompassing that sources of help like the police cannot be trusted.
- Motivation. As always, characters in a horror game need a motivation for what they do, especially because what they do is likely to be horrific and dangerous. The consequences for not engaging in the horrific plot you have laid out for them must be worse than going through with it. In my Call of Cthulhu campaign, each character has a horrible mutation that is slowly taking over their body, and only by pursuing the evil cult that inflicted it can they remove it and save themselves.
- Escalation. Horror stories tend to start off slow and ramp up the horror gradually. Some have a gruesome opening to set the tone, but then revert to relative normality gradually escalating to a terror-laden climax. I try to ramp up the horror both over the course of an individual game session, and over a whole campaign.
- Revelation. Horror is about information. As well as simply horrific sights and sounds, learning the unpleasant truth behind events usually forms a part of a horror story as the implications of what is found add to the horror. This is particularly true of horror roleplaying games, where uncovering information is both a goal of the player characters, and a device to add more horrific elements.
- Obfuscation. A counterpoint to the above, it is important not to reveal too much about what is going on too early. While it is frustrating for players not to know what is happening at all, it also defuses the creepiness and fear to have too much knowledge, especially at the beginning of a story. Characters should have to work to learn the truth behind the horror, and some things might never be known completely.
- Atmosphere. It goes without saying that horror games thrive off atmosphere. The sinister, creepy, unwholesome and strangely juxtaposed all help a horror game thrive. One pitfall however, is introduce something creepy solely for purposes of atmosphere that is then seized on by the players as a vital clue. In these cases, be prepared to improvise to make your incidental detail relevant to the main plot.
- Danger. Player characters tend to die a lot more often in horror games. Compare to Dungeons & Dragons, for instance, where higher-level characters are functionally immortal. A Call of Cthulhu investigator can die from a single gunshot – realistic, perhaps, but a lot different to how other roleplaying games work. Players should be aware their characters are in mortal danger, so they are not too dismayed when their character is devoured by some horror from behind space and time. In return, the increased potential for death lends fun suspense to every encounter.