The children of Founder’s Falls faced off against the Ink Monster. The students of His Holy Light University found themselves face-to-face with the Glass and thus themselves. A douchebag and his two friends found terror in the Plant of Honey Branch. We witnessed the horrors of the Meat Doctor as he tortured our poor inmates at a mental asylum, and we got to meet up with a group of despicable ghosts stuck in a cycle of revenge.
Great monsters are key to any successful horror game. Great characters are equally important. But so are setting, theme, and style. Each one must blend into the other in order to keep your game tense, without it falling to overly obtuse and cliche. It isn’t like I haven’t fallen into these traps before when running earlier games and I’ll probably fall into more later on in life, but, there are a few things that people can do to keep from failing when running or creating a horror story.
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be sharing some of my tips and tricks for crafting the psychological horror New World of Darkness games featured on the Fandible podcast.
1. Revealing Your Hand
If you look back at one of my first horror games for Fandible, Shattered Memories, the characters aren’t given a clear explanation of what exactly they are facing up against. At one point, a Glass in the guise of Alex tries to explain it but can’t go beyond saying “You won’t understand. Just accept this.” The characters understood that they were fighting people from outside their reality that could reach into the character’s own doubt and use it against them.The characters understood that these ‘Glass Beings’ wanted one of their own that been hidden in our reality. They had a vested interest in helping this runaway and thus, an explanation wasn’t important for them. They were going to help the girl regardless.
A lot of times, I am ripped out of a book or a movie because they have the scene. You know the scene — the scene where they pretty much grab the audience by the collar, lean in nice and close, and shout out “THIS IS WHAT THE MONSTER IS AND WHERE IT CAME FROM! YOU ARE WELCOME!” And it’s so jarring. Maybe there are some underlying assumptions about the intelligence of the audience and their desire to understand everything, but, I’ve always found it more important to ask ‘does it matter?’
Let’s examine Silent Hill, a video game for those of you who haven’t looked at the genre since the day of Mario. Our protagonist crashes, loses his daughter, and goes off searching for her. He faces horrors, he faces darkness, and he faces the twisted reality of the Otherworld. He does all these things without an explanation of what exactly is going on. And while he does get a vague idea of the history and darkness that he’s up against, it doesn’t matter to him that this all doesn’t truly makes sense. And as a player enjoying the game, it doesn’t matter to me because while the situation is beyond our reality, the character’s reaction isn’t. He’s out to find his missing daughter and he’d march through Hell to get her back.
The most important part of a horror game is not worrying about explaining everything. That’s what is truly scary about horror – the unknown. You give them a vague idea what something is, but it’s just enough for them to have more questions. In our game of Congealed Happiness, the Ink Monster simply informs them he requires experiences from others. He likes happy ones – like from a child. His actions, and the characters’ reactions to them, prove that he’s powerful.
Show don’t tell. And when you do have to tell, don’t tell it all. Leaving a mystery for your players to figure out later is the best thing you can hope for.
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