I’ve been in a weird mood lately. We’ve gotten a little more political and serious and intense in our campaign lately, but by and large our tone is usually light and there are usually smiles around the table and jokes being tossed. Don’t get me wrong — I love that. A good night of that can reverse the effects of a terrible week. If someone held me at gunpoint and said “play an exciting game where everyone’s happy and excited every week until you die or else,” I would give them a hug.
I think I’m in the mood for some scary stuff. Though our group didn’t care much for Director’s Cut: Survival Horror in our last session, changing genres for a session or two sounds like fun. The problem is, despite a deep love for campy gore-filled B-movies as a teenager, I don’t particularly like any of the following:
- being scared
- scaring others
- watching other people be afraid but not being afraid myself
You can see how, given this data, playing a horror-themed game might not be the best fit. After some thought, I think the reason I want to run a horror game has nothing to do with wanting to scare my players. After seeing how they reacted under pressure in our last session of D&D, I want to see what other emotional stimuli will do.
Just writing that sentence makes me feel like I need to don a white lab coat and start referring to my friends that come over every Thursday night as “Test Subjects 1 through 5”. That’s not really it. I don’t want them to dance like puppets at the end of my roleplay strings. It’s that I feel like I have a new toy to play with to get them emotionally engaged, and doing that always winds up with a cool story and a successful night of gaming.
It seems, these days, I can’t even be evil without being a story-hugging roleplay hippie.
Mundane Murder Mondays
All that being said, having a distaste for scaring people means I am unpracticed at it. I’m not sure how to do it in a roleplay setting.
Physical intimidation in D&D is likely to wind up in either a tactical analysis of the numbers or in vagueness and DM fiat. Besides which, a lot of players go into a battle in D&D expecting a degree of balanced combat. As we found out in Director’s Cut, a lot of players aren’t wired to value their PC’s life as they do their own. We’d never have charged store-brand Jason Voorhees if we did. You’ve got to have a lot of trust and a general consensus to keep things serious to pull that off. I don’t know that this is a good fit for the kind of game I run. Then again, combat sometimes isn’t a good fit for the kind of game I run.
Director’s Cut tried something I hadn’t seen before in giving gruesome, detailed descriptions of death and injuries. It did horrify several of our players, but not in a fun way. It was more like a “I want to quit playing this” way. I can’t see this kind of thing being an effective driving force behind a horror game, at least with our group. It was too frequent to have any impact. People were grossed out and revolted at first, and later it got boring. If I was ever to resort to physically describing gore to engage my players, I’d want it to be a grisly punctuation mark on a sentence written in pure terror — not a text message written in ALL BLOOD CAPS.
Psychological horror seems like it’d be more up my alley. Again, I think we’re talking about trust and seriousness here if there’s any hope of it working. I’ve played in some Call of Cthulhu games where this wasn’t present, and it didn’t work at all. (By that, I mean I’ve contributed to the utter destruction of the mood of almost every Call of Cthulhu game I’ve ever played in. There’s just something about playing a psychic rugby player who yells “OY” that detracts from the magic, but I can’t put my finger on it.)
The question is, how do I get under the players’ skins? In our current campaign, I’ve had the time to get to know the PCs and what makes them tick. I can push their buttons a little. In a one-shot night of gaming where the PCs are all new to me, that might be a little different. All I usually have at the beginning is what the players have written on their character sheets, and it’s not much to go on. If I ask them beforehand to tell me their character’s worst fears (which I did back in our last campaign when they were fighting the Boogeyman), they’re expecting me to touch on those fears. It’s more like a nod of acknowledgement than violating a vulnerable, secret area of their mind.
This leads me to believe a more generalized fear would work better. Vague, threatening descriptions of an evil that strikes at things most people hold dear. If I can’t make the PCs fear for themselves, maybe their loved ones? Even if physical violence wasn’t involved, the simple act of a villain telling skillful lies to destroy the relationships a character has with their loved ones and colleagues freaks me out a bit. There are plenty of terrifying things that could happen to a character’s body that don’t involve death or dismemberment. I could even go after their sanity. The tools I’d have to do this with depend on what kind of setting we’re using, and I suspect the less specific I am about those, the scarier things will be.
Maybe If I Wear A William Shatner Mask
This is all well and good (OK, maybe not good), but I am still worried about how to run a group through something like this in an emotionally engaging way. I’m also wondering, frankly, if this will be something enjoyable for either myself or my group. It certainly doesn’t sound like our usual fun. If it works, I think it’ll be really memorable and a cool experience to look back on. I’m perfectly OK with no smiles at the tables if everyone recounts stories from the adventure a months or years down the road. If it doesn’t work, it’s not the end of the world. Exciting, completely non-horrifying high fantasy is a pretty good default in my book.
I’m definitely looking for some guidance on this front, so if anybody feels like casting their nefarious shadow in the comments, I’d be darkly appreciative. Until next time…..