October is a good time to talk about scary RPGs.
Perhaps it's a reflection of the maturing gamer population or societal trends as a whole, but I've noticed an increase in the amount of horror elements present in traditional "fantasy" RPG scenarios.
This fascinates me. I love the horror genre, particularly horror short stories (both the venerable Lovecraftian as well as the very new). I do think there are more than a few RPG designers that share my tastes, so horror probably filters into what they do. Paizo has shown more than a fair amount of horror or gothic elements in their adventures, particularly in their adventure paths. (The Runelords AP is brimming with it.) Certain respected designers, such as Richard Pett and Nicolas Logue (mostly Paizo) and Adrian Pommier (Goodman Games) display an obvious affection for the genre, so again, it probably seeps into their work and if they are aware of this—and I'm sure they are—I doubt they mind. More and more, I read newer adventures and see little gory bits or frightening details; it's truly a groundswell of horror vibes within fantasy roleplaying.
Yet for all this, traditional horror RPGs still flounder. Call of Cthulhu attracts a passionate, but still fairly small group of devotees in comparison with popular fantasy RPGs. Despite the huge resurgence in zombie-related movies, shows, and literature, games such as All Flesh Must Be Eaten still seemingly hold red-headed stepchild status in the industry. But why?
It's my pet theory that much of this is about expectations. Fantasy campaigns are very open-ended, and generally players can expect to "win" by completing adventures, punishing the bad guys, etc. When players think of a horror campaign, many probably envision a campaign in which their characters are more helpless or overwhelmed, and one where happy endings are not promised. Many regular players may be put off by this, and the powergaming crowd, now more numerous than ever (in part, IMHO, because of a tacit encouragement of powergaming stemming from the emphasis on character customizing and stronger PCs in latter editions), may hate the idea. Recent editions have focused more on a player-has-more-control and a rules-heavy/DM-lite approach, which is usually the opposite of that in horror RPGs.
Horror RPGs and campaigns can also go flat if not run properly. A campaign centered around a singular "monster" such as zombies or vampires can get old quick if variety is not introduced. Other, more broad horror RPGs, such as World of Darkness or the venerable Chill, can fall into a sort of monster-of-the-week pattern which is likewise undesirable. I think these common pitfalls haven't done horror RPGs much service.
Lastly, running a "scary" campaign is tough. It's quite one thing to be scared alone in your basement late at night and quite another to be frightened or even have the proper mindset for horror when sitting around a table in a brightly lit room surrounded by joking friends woofing down Doritos.
So what to do? How can we rescue the poor horror campaign?
1. Mix elements. The Ravenloft setting does this well. Find a group that doesn't mind some horror in their fantasy campaign—a bit of peanut butter in their chocolate, if you will—and amp up the horror elements. Introduce short horror-adventures or settings based within the larger world. If nothing else, it's a good change of pace.
2. Encourage them to embrace the implied hopelessness. Playing PCs in a horror game doesn't mean losing, but the victories are more fleeting. Even in Call of Cthulhu, infamous for its lethality and PC insanity, characters can hold the forces of evil at bay for yet another day, even if the rise of the Old Ones seems inevitable.
3. Allow the more powergaming folks some good battles. Most zombie movies involve a lot of zombie-stomping, even if one bite from one of the sluggards can fell a hero. Let your games be no different, and make it clear that playing horror doesn't mean running away 24-7.
4. Be creative with your campaigns. If the RPG focuses heavily on one monster archtype, introduce variants, power groups and secret societies (the Vampire game always excelled at this, I feel) and other non-monster challenges.
For example, although the walkers—zombies in all but name—are the only fictional threat in the Walking Dead universe, they are certainly not the only villain or "monster." Just ask a WD aficionado about the Governor sometime! A focus on one monster type should not mean a boring campaign.
Next time: What makes an adventure truly scary?