The Horrors We Harbor
When playing in a horror game we often rely almost entirely on the GM to set the stage and indicate the emotions that our superheroes must fight through. I'll talk more about horror stories when we get to the system blogs, but right now I want to talk about playing in a horror game. I think the ultimate goal of the player in a horror game is to help the GM by playing into the fear instead of ignoring it. To do this, we must understand fear.
Fear is a feeling that occurs in situations of perceived danger, which has disruptive effects on the body and leads to a “fight or flight” reaction.
Looking at this definition we can see a general trend; there are several stages in establishing fear. You start with a Description of something scary or gross. As players, this description should lead you to recognize clearly that you don’t want to encounter or experience this thing. If we just shrug it off, we cannot feel fear and we won't enjoy the game to its fullest potential. Next comes the idea of perceived Danger, or the foreshadowing of a Danger. This naturally escalates our fear. As players, we should actually talk about this fear and show how we each deal with it (or fail to deal with it). In talking about this fear we should show our Anxiety about it. As our anxiety about the future encounter or outcome grows we eventually reach the Panic stage. Panic is the final stage of horror, and it’s the feeling that it's our turn to experience some terrible outcome. This panic doesn’t mean you must flee, but you're likely to do so unless you're cornered or think you have an idea to overcome the danger.
Description → Danger → Anxiety → Panic
I agree that the expectation is for the GM to establish the core of these feelings in the game. But once established, as players we need to interact with this sequence. One way is to talk about the feelings and reactions we undergo as we move along the path of the sequence.
Example: The GM says you hear a scream. You talk about how the scream shocks you and that it came from just ahead in the direction you are going. Later you encounter the body of a man that the GM describes as having been eaten away by acid. You add some detail about this, perhaps the man's head has melted, with just a single gold ring left in the right ear―the only body part left untouched. As your thief character reaches for it, their hand gets burned by the goo that covers the corpse. The GM says there is a gooey trail leading off in the direction you must go. As the party continues on the characters should start watching for the danger, anticipating it, worrying about it, discussing what it might be and how to defeat it. A few rounds later the GM describes a giant blob eating away at a trapped dear. You must decide what to do: now you can describe how you face your fear.
Additionally, as players we need to track our emotions to the events going on around us. As the fear grows, we need to be aware of where our characters are, so that they can react appropriately to each new encounter. Failure to do this means we'll get inconsistent reactions and fail to get immersed in the game.
Fear is something we must meet head-on and embrace to get immersed in a horror game. As we have seen, fear occurs in stages: a Description that is threatening, with a sense or foreshadowing of Danger. Anxiety comes next, ending in Panic as the fear becomes realized. If we fail to participate in these stages or lose track of our responses, we will just not “feel it” and the game will turn into just another heroic adventure.
Horror is about the experience of fear; not about success. It's not action but fear that drives us. If we do things to amplify this fear as players, the game will take on a much deeper sense of true horror and we will enjoy it that much more.