What is a Horror Game?
What goes into a good horror story or game? Good question. After much internet research, I have come to a general theory of how one should create the horror story, as well as the various roles PCs might play within it. This article will explore this theory from a player's perspective, to help you help your GM with the game.
Stages of Horror
Fear: We have [LINK]discussed fear[/LINK] in detail already, and we recognized the need to embrace and play into the fear, to help the game establish a horrific tone. Anxiety (automatic response): Anxiety is a “prey response,” a natural physical reaction to an overwhelming sense of fear. Under this heading we might include anything from uncontrollable trembling or crying to being completely paralyzed. Mechanically, different game systems will handle this differently, but it's something you really have to play out, or you'll be missing the whole point of the horror game. These responses are often temporary in nature, and other players may assist the affected, helping to urge their fear-stricken companions forward.
Cognitive Dissonance: The “this can't be happening” moment: this is the point in the game where the players must confront the reality of the horror they are facing. It's more about narrative than mechanics, because the tone set here will determine everything going forward. Will the party enter the haunted attic, or retire to the living room in hope the phenomena will pass? At this point as players, we must be truthful about our reactions to the experience. Are we strong and stable enough to keep fighting, or is escape and avoidance the better part of valor?
Telic Action: This is a term that simply means “taking planned action”―in this case, action against the horror, in attempt to legitimately defeat it. In horror stories, this is typically the climactic scene, and the most challenging to the players. In this stage, a plan needs to be developed and attempted. Every PC will need to play their part (or suffer the consequences, which may include anything from mentally falling apart to physically dying).
We have already [LINK]dealt with insanity[/LINK], but death is also an important part of any good horror game. While deciding on the social contract, management of death scenes should probably be one consideration the group takes into account. Do you want gory scenes of mayhem and body horror, or do you want more of a classic movie “cut to black” technique? If players control multiple characters, this might affect their feelings about death.
Length of games
Consider the planned length of the overall game, as the pace of a one-shot will be different than the pace of a campaign. Players need some way to determine how far they should expect it to go. Short sessions and one-shots often encourage players to take greater risks than they might in other situations, while longer games allow for more extended character development. The contract should make clear whether this is going to be a one-shot or a campaign. Stages of Horror Campaigns
Low Power Stage: This seems to be the most responsive stage for horror games. There's nothing like it when both characters and players lack the experience, the knowledge and the skills to overcome the horrors they are about to face. In the low power stage, the fear of the unknown and a lot of creepy foreshadowing can really make a horror game work. Simple undead creatures, murdering cultists or low power demons can be good challenges at this stage.
Medium Power Stage: In this stage the players have already faced off against mindless creatures, so now the plots of horrible creatures―big bad boss monsters and evil characters―become their major challenges. These might be anything from insane geniuses and wizards, to powerful supernatural foes like vampires or or demon lords.
High Power Stage: This seems to be the least likely stage to run a successful horror game, because the characters' strength and knowledge is just too great for them to honestly fall prey to fear. The characters have become experienced monster-killers, and the stories become more heroic than horrific. The GM may have one more card up their sleeve, however: at this stage players may have to face off against the demonic hordes and gods of the supernatural world.
So there you have it: the factors and stages of a horror campaign. Taking all of these factors into account