The real target of dread in RPGs is the first of a few articles on role-playing the fear I wrote together with the Italian blogger Pennymaster.
This year I (role)played horror stories more than usual. I was working on Imago Mortis, that is a horror hard-boiled game, and testing new adventures for Ultima Forsan and Tropicana, that actually have something horror in them.
So, I used to think a lot about fear, horror and dread in RPGs, also remembering my innumerable game sessions with Call of Cthulhu, World of Darkness and Kult.
Then, I remembered of a fellow blogger I always appreciated, Pennymaster, and his articles on the same matter… the better I have always read on the topic. Pennymaster has a blog in Italian language concerning RPGs, that has existed for a long time before mine (I mean Caponata Meccanica, the Italian one, not The Hero Engine).
Finally, I put my thought on “Roleplaying the Fear” on these articles and I want to share it with you. Just consider that:
- It’s my personal point of view on the topic, not a diktat.
- It owes much to Pennymaster’s theories. In some cases, I have just translated his sentences;
- It doesn’t strictly represent what you can find on my Savage Settings. Savage Worlds has a different mood, and I did not officially put these tricks and advises in my games, even if I use them in my personal game sessions;
So… Here is my (and Pennymaster’s) first article on role-playing the fear.
The real target of dread in RPGs
There are a lot of RPGs out there focused on horror, fear, sanity and paranormal phenomena.
A few tricks on how to bring the dread at your game table can be very useful in creating the right atmosphere.
To be truly effective and terrifying, in our opinion a horror story must cause some inner discomfort. This discomfort, however, needs to be deep, personal and irrational, and it is impossible to project it on an “outer” object, even in the case of a character controlled by the player.
Let’s say it better. Every time you put in danger the survival of the character, even if in a splatter situation, you reduce the possibility to really generate terror in the player. If the target is his character, the player somehow relaxes, returns to the old established patterns, strives for the survival of his hero and, in doing so, alienates the character from himself, taking distance from the horror itself.
Your first trick in mastering a horror story should be:
The real target of dread is the player, never the character!
Example 1 (wrong): Characters are in a dark room, and one of them gets banged against a wall by an unknown and invisible force.
In turn, all the characters undergo this treatment and, if they do not do something, they will die.
Here you can find some errors:
- There has been no preparatory atmosphere.
- The threat is too direct, “physical”.
- Above all, the player’s fear is not focused on something atavistic, deep, irrational, taking place inside him: they are so bothered by trivial details to ensure the survival of the character to don’t mind to their own discomfort and projecting it on their characters.
The result is a sort of relief, a depersonalization and, ultimately, the failure of the mechanism of fear.
Example 2 (right): Characters are in a dim room, apparently empty. Children’s voices are heard sobbing, but it is unclear where they come from.
Then one of those baby voices, seemingly coming from nowhere, whispers a few centimeters from the ear of a character (and you do this for real to the player): “Come play with me?”. The character suddenly turns and does not see anything.
This causes fear. It brings goose bumps. There is an implied threat, a disturbing situation, an open ending.
The player must feel irrationally that the danger hanging over himself, not his character. He must constantly repeat “it’s all fake” not to run away from the table.