“Tender lumplings everywhere
Life’s no fun without a good scare!
That’s our job, but we’re not mean
In our town of Halloween”
This is Halloween” from “Nightmare Before Christmas”
Given that this post falls on Halloween, I figured it would be good to talk about horror, as it applies to gaming. My opinion may differ from yours so please let me know what you think. I started writing this like a week or two ago, trying to get ahead of the topic because it needed some work. I mention that because some of the examples I talk about the difference of horror and the idea of horror that sticks with you were done in the first of a multi-part episode of Extra Credits
I feel there are two kinds of horror in general, the kind that use jump scares and the kind that use mind screws. The former is your slasher flicks and Resident Evil games where things pop into a scene and are gruesome and horrible and then things quiet down and then suddenly here’s the killer again, while the latter is more where they spend the time building the suspense as you see or hear things just out of reach and your brain spends the time constructing horrible ideas about what it is.
The jump scares are easy to write as all you have to do is give a sudden shock from time to time. A monster crashing through the window, a vehicle ramming against yours as you drive, someone randomly exploding. The story could be anything, though usually they will play up factors of secrecy, isolation, darkness, disconnection, so that the players cannot feel comfort in a large group of ‘normal people’. Maybe one of your PCs is cursed as a werewolf and each month must turn, but the villagers won’t understand as they fear for their lives. So, jump scares first is the wolf attack and the first change, others later become hunters and loss of control moments.
Mind screws take much more time to do right. The reason being these are much more than simple scares. These are situations where you begin with a story that has you believing one thing that suddenly shifts into something unexpected. The werewolf example could be a mind screw if instead of the PC turning into a werewolf, someone else was and the PC was being framed through use of various magic or drugs. The players are under the assumption their friend is going to change and… poof the villager instead grows fangs and a few feet. Or maybe the PC is actually getting taken over by another entity who is trying to fix something that happened, like the superhero Deadman.
Mind screws are not exclusive to horror, but can be done extremely well here. Con movies can do mind screws, like the Ocean’s Eleven movie series, but that’s more in storytelling in general. The idea of a horror mind screw is to keep your players off-balance. Don’t tell them what is going on in any more detail than you have to. I remember the old Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde works, but one example recent in my mind is the NES video game because Dr. Jekyll encountered various evil people in his adventures and Mr. Hyde encountered evil monsters in his. Looking back at that, I can see it being part of their reflection of the beings in the town being aggressive in different ways.
I can see an RPG where something like that happens to the PCs, but the cause could be anything. Are they dreaming? Maybe its a Simon Belmont curse. Perhaps things just are that creepy sometimes. But what if after fighting through a few encounters, they discover a creepy looking cabin in the woods with an old hag there. Is it Baba Yaga here to eat their soul or a witch offering Macbeth style enchantments and visions or just a crazy woman?
For other ideas of mind screws, look at video games like Silent Hill, Sanitarium, or even Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem which has scenes that make you question what you see, and sometimes, you find you may be right, the darkness is trying to kill you. For example, one of the characters killed four people believing they were taken over by monsters stealing their bodies before sealing up the room. In the future you find the room they were in and there are only three skulls in the pile of dead bodies.
The idea to make the sort of mind screws work is to figure out ways to play with your players concepts of things. Don’t give players all their information, and in the information you do give them be willing to mess with them. There was a video of Paizocon 2013 discussing doing horror RPGs and they gave a lot of great ideas, but one I liked was when they touched on the improv idea of platform and tilt. Platform is the scene, and in a horror game you generally want to make it as simple and non-scary starting as possible and then just throwing in the tilt, or the change, to throw the platform out of whack and then have to right itself.
Think about that idea a little more. Look at scary movies and games where they start off introducing you to the characters, getting to know them and the world before even having anything to do with zombies or murderers or whatever. If the platform is “a world with zombies” because there was a zombie encounter at the opening, then don’t expect them to be scared of them because that is their world. Instead, give them a quiet start, things are slowly coming to a build and then blam. The first Resident Evil movie did take quite a while before you ever saw your first zombie, for example, as opposed to having the movie start with the zombies chasing them through the city.
Lastly, be willing to let your players go crazy. Toy with their perceptions in weird ways, like them seeing certain things everywhere, maybe they hear birds chirping even when deep underground, perhaps they see things that they cannot be sure if they saw. You just describe certain things, let the players play with them for a while before they begin questioning themselves. Crime drama Perception had its main character suffer hallucinations that helped solve his cases, but in horror the idea is more to play with the tension, to make the person question their perception of the world and wonder what is really real. Imagine a PC who has an imaginary companion to tell things to, like if Sherlock Holmes made up Watson out of desire for companionship.
Sort of like Tyler Durden.