Monday, 28 May 2012

The Non-Euclidian Nature Of Horror

(Two new followers in under a week, I'm on a roll! Enjoy the ride...)

While I wanted to move over to RQ for a while to get away from any intensive atmosphere pressure as it's wierdly draining as a GM to try to keep that going, I am feeling an itch that I will end up implanting elements into my RQ game too. My games were never very scary anyway but I always tried to keep up a pretense of a horrific atmosphere.

Horror comes in many different flavours. Being a Call Of Cthulhu player addict the type of horror I'm most familiar with is existential and 'fridge' horror (and I really need to learn that linking to Tv-Tropes only loses me readers as they get sucked in over there instead...) which usually takes a while to sink in such as realising you've just bricked up a living person into a stone cell or that should you fail to meet the requirements for Eihort's sealing on the exact right date you will be directly responsible for any ensuing damages. But there are a number of different types of horror, most of which can be found in all media and I have dabbled with a few others. As follows will be a couple of the ways I've considered that could be used to create a more tense and disturbing game in RQ. Needless to say these will be seasoning not to be applied with any strength more than one in ten sessions or so to keep the players grounded and not too heroically inclined...

Survival Horror: This comes in two basic flavours, wilderness survival horror and being-stalked-by-something-unnameable (BSBSU) horror. The former relies on the feeling of isolation that comes from being cut off from civilisation with very limited resources and the lurking presence of death at all times. This is, I find, hard to pull off in games because it essentially comes down to a resource-management minigamewhich divorces the players from the perils their characters face. Films such as 127 Hours (which I do not recommend spending the 2 hours of your life required to watch on btw) do show some of the fear that would be present in RL for inspiration, and I'm aware that it's my fledgling GM status that prevents me from evoking proper responses from players but even so...

The second case is much more easy to conjure up in games. Indeed the first instance I plan on using horror is based on it. It involves some (preferably hard to detect and probably even harder to defeat) malevolent entity relentless wearing down the heroes' defenses. In my case I aim to have a cave system, hopefully having limited the light sources of the PCs, which as they explore they gradually discover is the hunting grounds for a pack of tooth fairies (of the Hellboy variety). What starts as a vague chittering soon escalates into a whirling, bitey death cloud that is inexorably closing in on them unless they can escape. This I can do and have successfully ratcheted up the tension using this sort of scenario before, it's good fun.
Obviously, for bonus points you can combine the two types together.

Jump Scares: A token mention has of course to be made of the humble jump scare. While the effect of a good jump scare shouldn't be underestimated it is worth noting that a fair bit of time has to be put in before hand building suspense so it's best utilised as part of a larger mood-setting piece rather than an isolated incident. Always feels a bit cheap imo, just like in films. Gore would also fall into this category really, though most gamers I've played with are so desensitised to gore in general and in fantasy settings in particular as to not even count this as horrific any more. Maybe I need to find new friends...

Fridge Horror: This is horror that only dawns on you when you stop to actually think about it, rather than at the time. This is the stuff true Lovecraftian horror is made of, though the specifics are dealt with in the next section. I can recall a few instances when this has been used to good effect in CoC games, particularly where terrible choices have to be made. In a recent game I played in, the GM didn't let on that we'd forgotten to rescue some children from a burning cell until it was too late. From the looks around the table, that scene will stay with us all for some time. As cool and flexible as this is, it doesn't have a huge amount of place in a high-fantasy setting really so I'll be giving it a rest at least until I get back to CoC.

Cosmic Horror: This is horror born from existential doubt and the shattering of humanity's (or lizard manity's or beastmanity's) delusions of grandeur. It is is surprisingly easy to inflict on characters, especially in FRPGs, as a few failed prayers and little selective denial of confirmation bias should put them right into their place. Players on the other hand are much more complex beasts  and tend to be more difficult to scare. It generally depends on the sensibilities of your individual players, but of all the people I've ever played with, I am proobably the most susceptible to this play so it hasn't found much effective use. As Josh mentions in the comments here it is especially common among those veterans of Mythos that have either faced and answered any misgivings they have or are simply more Lovecraftian and not interested in the slightest. YMMV.

Honourable Mention: Surrealist Horror: This is what I tend to use in the Dreamlands and similar settings and is similar to body horror a lot of the time. Body parts randomly shifting andd melting, playing off of actual player phobias and similar blurring of the player-character divide can lead to some interesting outcomes. Though it's probably more along the lines of creepiness than actual fear.


  1. Good post. I'll have to take some time to digest it. I recently wrote a post about Horror in gaming, but I'm not sure it really fits in to any of these categories...

    1. Thanks, I'm glad you found it interesting. Having read your post, I'd suggest it would be something along the lines of the second type of the survival horror I mentoned? While your version is less explicitly about being stalked, it still seems to play on the notion of an ephemeral enemy flitting about just out of reach and knowing "There's something out there!".

      That said, these are just my rough ideas and there's definitely a unique flavour to yours so there's probably little point trying to make the different categories mesh arbitrarily!

  2. I've always been after one particular kind of scare above all others as the most noble and frightening of scares in my CoC games. It's what I've taken to calling "the Creeping Horror," a sort of combination of Fridge and Existential Horrors.

    Experiencing the Creeping Horror is a process whereby accumulated knowledge suddenly gels, part of the fright coming from the fact that you've known this all along. It's the part in the horror movie where a hundred tiny violins are plucked to make a sound like tinkling glass as the actor's eyes suddenly enlarge. The implications become concrete; the hideous thick stinking sweat that came off of the shopkeeper they just shot in the head was the same kind of sweat grandma had on her death bed... what does that make ME?

    That sort of thing.

    1. Yes! I know exactly what you mean, it's kinda what I was trying to convey with the Fridge horror above but a little more specific. I'd be interested to know how often it's been something you've managed to achieve in a game?