Archetypes of Horror
With Halloween approaching we are often tempted to play a one-shot horror scenario, or even a campaign horror game. There are many RPGs and supplements out there―from Call of Cthulhu to Ravenloft―to facilitate your horrible needs. Unfortunately, most of them focus on creating heroic characters that are ill-matched for a horror game. While we all want to be heroic as players, we need to play into the genre. With that in mind, below are some basic archetypes you can choose to play in a horror game.
Babbling Fool: The antithesis of the heroic character. Many people would ordinarily avoid playing this type of character, but they can be quite useful in horror settings. This character helps to establish the tone of fear, they are sympathy characters, and they can also be quite effective sources of comic relief. It's best not to start off as the fool, but to evolve into the character. Often times, the Babbling Fool has truly fallen prey to the horror of the situation―and in a CoC game, they're probably the most insane.
Kill 'Em All: This character is the “combat brick” of the game and comes closest to a classic heroic type. Helping the party face the horrors of the world without losing their minds, Kill 'Em 'All characters typically have some larger goal in mind beyond merely escaping with their lives. They're usually fighting to save someone or something―maybe the planet Earth. These characters will overcome problems of morality and fear fairly quickly if they think their goal is still attainable. Of course (flip-side): if the goal is taken away―even if just temporarily―the character will probably have a breakdown.
Wise One: Whether it's the mad wizard, the hermetic journalist or the fearless police detective, these characters embrace the horror around them and try to learn its true nature. They often argue that knowledge is the only way to defeat the horror, but of course this is just an excuse for the GM to drag the party closer to their doom (mwa-ha-ha). Sometimes these characters are near-mad to begin with, and the horror they see unfolding around them just proves their bizarre theories were correct.
Calm Under Fire:These characters are just trying to escape the horror they find themselves in, to make it out alive. They are often seen as leaders, but they are really just a mix of “Wise Ones” and ”Kill 'Em All” characters. This means they often choose between the lesser of two evils, whereupon they tend to find themselves in more trouble than they would have been in had they just headed for the exit.
Living in denial: This is most of us “normal” people in such situations. It's not so much that we don’t believe people are being killed, but it’s the supernatural stuff that we deny. These characters will try to invoke science and offer mundane explanations for any situation. The first supernatural entities they encounter will likely defeat them, or drive them stark raving mad. They can be cannon fonder if they're weak, but if they're strong enough they may come to evolve into another type over the course of the game.
It's wise to choose your archetypes at the start of character creation, as it can be hard to evolve from a “successful” character to one in a horrible situation who is a possible failure. This is one reason why horror sessions play “best” near the start of a campaign, where you can struggle and evolve. Another point to keep in mind is the near-perfect balance of archetypes. It is this balance that drives the “Calm Under Fire” characters. Without them, the group will likely collapse into chaos and become easy prey for the horror. The balance also forces players to stay together as the chaos unfolds around the party; this is key to keeping a horror game going.