The Horror House Railroad is the third – and probably the last – article on role-playing the fear I wrote together with the Italian blogger Pennymaster.
As I told before, these articles are a translation/remake of the ones from Pennymaster’s Italian blog, but I adopted these tricks in my own sessions and I found them effective.
Just consider that, again:
- It’s my personal point of view on the topic, not a diktat.
- 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.
- I don’t use this advice in ALL my RPG sessions, just in the ones focused on horror, dread and fear: to generate fear in the players you need different tricks from the normal ones.
The Horror House Railroad
The assumption of this article is that good horror stories – or scary horror stories – need a very narrow concatenation of scenes and situations, planned in detail to offer a terrifying experience in crescendo, from which players should not deviate so much.
Saying it in other words, the best horror game sessions are very railroaded sessions. And they are railroaded like the waggons of a horror house, in the dark and decadent carnival that comes every now and then close to your home.
Just like a journey into the tunnel of horrors, in good horror stories, EVERYTHING should be preordained, the characters are not in control of anything and they know it, but they enjoy it too.
This could really be the fun part of the game.
So, beware if your players tend to be very independent and specifically counter the directions decided by the Game Master: in the best case, players will be caught by the story construction, but since everyone puts in the plot his ideas, the result will only be a story by vaguely horror tones. Maybe a good game session, but without the ill emotional involvement of a typical horror “experience”.
With too much freedom and an active agenda, gamers are playing Buffy The Vampyre-Slayer, Supernatural or Grimm, not American Horror Story or The Twilight Zone. It’s ok IF YOU WANT to play Occult Detectives stories. It’s not ok if you are playing frightened boys in a cabin in the woods, waiting for their massacre. This way, players will have fun for their apport to the creation of the story, not for the inner tension that they have tried. Once again, nothing bad, but perhaps not what do we want to achieve.
We want trembling gamers, not mature adults who never lose control. We want people who suspend disbelief enough to bring home a bit of that tension. We want people who would say “enough!” but masochistically say “more!”.
We want fragile, terrorised nerd with goose bumps.
So, the only way to achieve this result is a chain of events and situations strongly linked, planned and set up by the Game Master, with everything going from bad to worse as in his programs, up to the final scene: a well-prepared confrontation with the evil. It is a real, damn, railroad.
Many players do not appreciate railroaded sessions and it is normal: a thriller, fantasy, science fiction or mystery adventure doesn’t need railroad.
However, still consider the efficacy of this style of play to scenarios strongly focused on fear and horror. Maybe you can manage part of the session more openly or as a sandbox… Then, when Detectives finally reach the tunnels under the subway, where “the Rail Crone” is hiding, start to lead the story more firmly to the final encounter.
Try it, even once. Then let me know if it works for you.