By Christopher Robin Negelein
“Horror in TTRPGs don’t scare me. I can get anxious for my PC and their unpleasant death. But I am not, myself, scared so horror TTRPGs really don't work. ” -- Anonymous.
As we all know ttRPG social media is beyond the point were someone posts a clickbait hot take for the retweets. I had thoughts about his statement, but I'd rather share them with people who actually cared about said thoughts.
Frankly for lots of horror fans, this is exact vibe they are looking for. For me, I don’t get "scared" of Horror movies. It’s more the allure of losing one’s self for a moment is a “safe” panic that ends when the show, or book, is over. While for others, the sheer idea of engaging in horror media makes them go, “Nope!” And that’s perfectly fine.
But for most of gamers, this is how horror ttRPGs actually work. The genre is not “flawed,” it was Mr. "Hot Take's" misunderstanding of how people engage in the horror genre overall.
So while we are still hanging out here in this abandoned house with the lights off, let's talk about how horror works and how a GM can use that for their game.
The unknown and the imagination. One of the core tenants of horror is a sense of not knowing what is in your environment and a sense of weakness (usually isolation) in how to protect yourself from that unknown. I think this is why cosmic horror has become the successor to the haunted house -- by making the whole uncaring universe the haunted house.
When anxious, the human body floods the brain with chemicals to make it ready to do flight or fight. That overstimulation puts the imagination into overdrive. The thing in the shadows is scarier than what players can see.
Just one new stat and a new attitude. The addition of a Sanity check (or as in MFPNP, Conformity), is often the only mechanical change a monster gets when running a horror game. It forces a mechanical behavior on the PCs. But for GM masters, it is a tip off they, and the monsters, need a whole new attitude.
Horror monsters do not face the PCs head on. They prowl, they stalk and they wait until an NPC is alone before their first lunge. This does not mean the creature is out of sight AND silent. There should be plenty of sounds. The human brain gets so nervous when it hears a sound that it cannot pinpoint that unease translates into ttRPGs and horror media.
It may be cheesy, but one of my personal tricks is tapping my fingers or scratching them under the table as I describe a skittering noise just out of sight. Everyone knows what I am doing, it is no secret, but it still brings smiles and shivers as I do it. Every. Time.
Pacing and reading your audience are the tricks when drawing out the suspense until the creature finally ambushes a PC or looms over them as Conformity checks are made. And even if it is easy to kill a single one, things change as their many broodmates keep ambushing the PCs on the left every time they look to the right.
Just something to keep in mind for your next horror shesh.
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