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Phobia: Horror in gaming

A Definition of Terror

Matt Cowger
July 11, 2001  

Well, the last Phobia caused some talk. Good. Part of it was, what is horror? Is it a genre, is it an add on, is it meaningless? All of them are very valid questions.

Merriam-Webster has this to say: 1 a : painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay [astonishment giving place to horror on the faces of the people about me -- H. G. Wells] b : intense aversion or repugnance 2 a : the quality of inspiring horror : repulsive, horrible, or dismal quality or character [contemplating the horror of their lives -- Liam O'Flaherty] b : something that inspires horror 3 plural : a state of extreme depression or apprehension

The main quality here is FEAR. No mention of science fiction, no mention of fantasy, nothing. It is apt, succinct and dead on. But is it a genre? As we see in modern entertainment, it seems to be. The 'Horror Genre' is anything that combines a story with this intense element. Ridley Scott described the very sci-fi movie 'Alien' as, "A ghost story in space."

Admittedly then it is a loose 'genre', mix a taste of fear with anything and you potentially have the 'horror genre'. What else makes up this genre?


A sense of ultimate ruin and failure, or the potential of ruin. This is the Outer God effect that we see in Call of Cthulhu. No matter what the investigator does really doesn't matter much in the large scale. In White Wolf's Vampire, a possibility of personal damnation. This theme runs through other games as well. GURPS Voodoo, the temptation of the 'darker' loa. Call it what you will, it's the Nietzchian looking overlong into the abyss.

Unbelievable Physical Violence

Splatterpunk, seeing unspeakable violence done to other people. Seeing violence done to others changes a person, whether you did it yourself or saw it done. Hence Weird War Tales, an attempt to tag the incredible harm we've seen done to people with the supernatural instead of the plain variety of human villainy. 'Unknown Armies' captures well this cascading destruction if you go to far into violence.

Unbelievable Destruction Done to Property or Place

Let's call this the 'Dresden Effect'. Seeing a place completely decimated does something to people. Toxic spills, intense bombing campaigns, the devastation run by negative supernatural forces. We are, ultimately animals, tied to the ground that feeds and houses us. Seeing that destroyed cause a certain kind of terror and disassociation.

Fearful Incongruity

People are tribal creatures of habit. We adapt to our environment around us and settle into the sensorium that we live in. We go through the shapes and patterns of our lives, even in the most unpleasant circumstances, and when that is disrupted by something so out of place, so different, we experience dissonance and terror.


This is the hardest one to peg , the most surreal in some ways and the most personal. A detachment from everything around one's self. A feeling of being lost from humanity but wanting a part of this. Or, alternately feeling like you should be part of that around you (Any sort of pattern), yet still unconnected somehow leading to a sense of being lost and alone.

Any of these elements connected to any type of story ultimately creates a horror story. This in some way makes horror a transcendent genre, spanning the others. It is a meta theme you can lay across any other story. It's a strength and a weakness. Strength? Multi-style, any time, any place. Weakness-it's relentless and can wear down and become boring.

What is horror ultimately? It is a feeling. How does horror work in the gaming world? Engender a sense of one of the above in the players and you are on the right track. How does a good Horror RPG work? It gives this sense out of the gate. The best horror games give you a sensation of the above just reading the rules and background.

Is this meaningless? Obviously not, no good story is told without danger of some sort. The most extreme forms of danger, loss, ruin and hopelessness. Here is where we find horror.

Telling these sorts of stories? This is harder said then done obviously. How do you give this feeling in a non-horror game? Come along for the ride. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

Go to forum!\n"; $file = "http://www.rpg.net/$subdir/list2.php?f=$num"; if (readfile($file) == 0) { echo "(0 messages so far)
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All Phobia columns

  • Timing, Placement and Horror by Matt Cowger, 02jul02
  • Horror in Fantasy August 28, 2001
  • Don't Mind the Dark June 13, 2001
  • A Definition of Terror July 11, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

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