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Horror Plot Devices

Posted on November 29, 2004 by Flames

Written by Travis Rodgers

Plenty of articles deal with setting the mood for a horror RPG. As a result, I’m not going to tackle that topic. Instead, I’d like to talk about plot devices that, when in operation at a level of generality above specific mood elements, set the stage for creating a truly horrific RPG.

Halloween. Psycho. The Shining. The horror movies that are widely regarded as belonging in the upper echelon of their genre have earned their place for a reason: they have scared the heck out of their audience. They have made the audience feel vulnerable, even if they have frequently exploited unlikely scenarios (e.g., The Exorcist, Alien). After a few hours researching various top scary movies lists, I have compiled a consensus top 13: The Exorcist (most frequently named to lists, most frequently #1), Halloween (highest average rating), The Shining, Alien, Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, Silence of the Lambs, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Rosemary’s Baby, Jaws, Evil Dead, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The common denominator here is not mind-numbing violence, grotesque imagery, nor jerky camera angles (though some receive high marks in some of these categories). No, the crux of successful horror is to exploit one’s vulnerabilities.

The formulae for success are well known: a person cut off from others, isolated, falls into despair and madness. An injury leads to decreased ability to defend oneself from whatever ills await. Pains and suffering of friends and loved ones lead to hopelessness. These emotions—loneliness, dread, and hopelessness—are the tools of a successful horror film, book, or RPG. To the extent that a medium can elicit one of these emotions, the medium will be successful. The question for the present becomes: how do we best arouse these emotions while in the midst of an RPG?

In an RPG, it’s difficult to scare characters. Findar the Barbarian is not real, after all. He can destroy a legion of orcs and ogres. And if you put a machine gun in his hands, his air of invulnerability rises. He cannot bleed and cannot die but in the mind of the player. Thus, it’s much easier (and much more fun) to scare the players behind the characters. It might seem, prima facie, that it’s more difficult to scare your players in an RPG than in another setting (such as the cinema). But this is not the case. Any fear your players harbor will be effective when applied to their characters provided there is some emotional link, between player and character.
The danger associated with a difficult challenge is part of the reason why many people play RPGs. They provide a safer medium for risk-taking than real world experimentation. And because they’re safer, and because the world is imaginary, it’s cheaper and easier to put player characters into horrific situations.

Isolation is the easiest way to elicit loneliness from a character (via the player, of course). The problem with isolation is that most games are not played one-on-one. So if you resort to isolation in your game, you’ve got to keep it limited in time so other players don’t become restless. In solo games, a scenario wherein a character awakens in a strange and/or deserted place provides sufficient means for the GM to chisel away at the player’s machismo, without the aid of other clever plot devices. Coupled with other techniques, it’s devastatingly effective.

Related plot devices that work well to build up the sense of isolation include stalkers and cases of mistaken identity. A cleverly designed stalker needn’t be incredibly powerful to make the character’s life miserable and put a scare into the player. An heirloom, missing from the character’s possession, a divulged secret the character would prefer unknown, or any other number of stalkeresque behavior can set in motion a horrific run. Mistaken identity can be even more effective. Imagine a character entering a foreign land after a scrap in which he or she lost some identifying equipment. Upon setting foot in the place, everyone in eye and ear shot gapes in terror or disgust at the character, for he bares a striking resemblance to an escaped child murderer (or perpetrator of [insert your heinous crime here]).

Hopelessness is indeed one of the main plot points in a (soon after the apocalypse) post-apocalyptic game. A number of people have died, things have changed irrevocably, and there your character is, in the middle of it all. The character’s life cannot continue as it had and he’s forced to change nearly everything about himself. If a “minor apocalypse” occurs during the run of an otherwise non-apocalyptic campaign, the effects are heightened. For “minor apocalypses,” consider: an undead attack, contained to one town but decimating everything that was normal therein; radiation leakage—again, localized but devastating; and at the risk of being non-PC (in the non-gaming sense), a terrorist attack. We’ve probably all seen how effective this last scenario is at altering lives for the long run.

Finally, a personal sense of dread can be affected by a slightly creative damage system. When Findar’s character sheet shows 1 hit point remaining, his player is worried, of course; however, a low hit point total alone will not put a scare into players in most cases. Creative injury types, such as poisoning, deformity, curses, will all add to the mix. A poisoned character may have to hurry to complete a task in order to remove the toxin from his body, eliciting an extra scare even if there be no ill effects in the meantime. The threat of deformity is a very real scare. Toxins and injuries, if not properly treated, can lead to deformities with long-lasting ill effects. Cursed characters can suffer myriad ill effects: loss of vision, inability to employ certain, useful skills, etc.

When coupled with actual, in-game effects, however, even “normal” injuries can add to the terror. Compare a system that imposes penalties along with damage dealt to a system that just uses hit points. While a character in the latter is but a walking tank with full firepower until he dies, one in the former will gradually slow, weaken, become distracted, all to the detriment of his abilities (especially combat abilities). This shifts the focus of the adventure from, “Go to point A and kill creature B,” to “Must…find…healing. And…avoid…combat.” Creative damage is almost a prerequisite for a horror game and it’s a great change of pace for a more vanilla game.

None of these tips preclude abiding by the popular articles’ suggestions as to how to strike up a terrifying mood. In fact, the two can, and should be combined so as to bring about the ideal, complete mood for a horror game. And, of course, the list above is not exhaustive. Find your players’ fears and use them. If you’ve ever read Robert E. Howard’s (the original author of Conan) terrifying descriptions of serpents in combat, it might be interesting to know that he feared them greatly…and his descriptions of them were fueled by his fear. It’s true; fear brings out good things in us.

Check out Travis’ Carnal Knowledge RPG Website for some of his other writing and horror game material.

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