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Phobia: Horror in gaming

Horror in Fantasy

Matt Cowger
August 28, 2001  
Horror and fantasy fiction have had a long, long marriage. Arguably, much of the earliest horror fiction is also fantasy. Robert E. Howard's fantasy was rich with horror elements. This is understandable, he was part of the Lovecraft circle. Many Conan stories had Lovecraftian elements. This carried on into modern fantasy. Read any Moorcock, chock full of horror elements.

For that matter even 'classical' fantasy fiction ala Tolkien had horror elements. Sauron and the Nazgul... almost unstoppable terror.

Horror and fantasy are deeply tied. One of the most notable of current 'horror' writers, Clive Barker has written novels that combine elements of fantasy and horror. Is 'Weaveworld' fantasy or horror? Are the two 'Art' books? King's 'Dark Tower' series also springs to mind. The fantastic and the horrific dance together quite well. But let's look at the 'classical' fantasy mold.

Games like D&D3E, Earthdawn and Stormbringer lend themselves quite well to the freakish add on of horror.

The burden here though falls on the GM. These games are full of 'terror lite', you have undead, strangeness and mystical powers right and left. Horror is added in fantasy by description not by environment. The world is full of anomaly (to us 21st century folk anyway), the secret to adding horror to fantasy is shock and depiction.

Here are some tricks:

Hit the personal danger of the world

The fantasy world is full of casual violence. Make it visceral, make it meaningful and bring it home. Violence to friends and henchmen, violence to NPCs the characters have come to know and love, destruction of home and property. Hit it hard and hit it big and describe it to detail (although not boringly so, this is left up to you. I'm not going to tell you how to tell a scene).

Pace it babe, pace it

Scatter the seeds. Build up to the horror, a ruined temple here, a dying forest there... then WHAM, some payoff. This is story telling basics, but even more important when building the horror scene. Horror in this sort of fantastic and jaded environment relies even more on this. The deal with fantasy is, well, it is fantastic, so you are fighting an uphill battle off the get go. So you've got to rely on the old tricks of spreading things out and grudgingly telling them the story. Hit them hard when they are bored, cadaverous bodies in the mines, a halfling hanging from the trees, hit them gross and hard... after the build up.

Orcus waits for no man

Another element is make evil magic evil, have it have repercussions. Those that summon the dead whither, those that deal with the demonic become mad and diabolic. Make wild magic wild and insane, those that deal with it become detached, illustrate it. Elemental magic? Have them loose their connection to those not connected to the elements.

Terror in one, two three

Make the scary, scary. Don't become jaded with the world yourself. Undead should weep decaying flesh, dragons should radiate a stench that frightens pack animals at a distance of miles. The regeneration of trolls should be freakish to see. Reach into yourself and make those boring standard fantasy scenes mean something, make them ugly. Make the evil, look waaay evil, then make them do something inhuman. (See above) They don't follow 21st century values after all. There aren't politically correct goblins.

Am I flawed, did I choose... wrongly?

Also, tempt those good guys! Show orc babies, let them slaughter, righteously, a camp of goblins and show the female goblins and their offspring suffering because of it. Let no righteously good act go unpunished. Let the good guys see the wake of destruction they leave behind. After all someone in the Keep on the Borderlands had to keep it all up. Every orc had a mother. Make that understood, don't let 'evil' races become faceless slaughter victims. In fact, that is one of the troubles with fantasy games, evil races. Find motivations for them, goblins dont just exist to slaughter and be scumbags. They have a reason for what they do, they do what the light races see as horrific. Part of horror is horror of motivation (disassociation) make those paladins see the consequences, make those lawful good mages see the results, hell make them all see that killing has a price.

A face on the enemy is a big factor in the horror of combat. Any sort of combat, orc or human, make them realize what they are doing. Again, make it visceral and real. Make them realize It Could Be Them. The next orc slaughter won't be such an exercise in tactics when the terror of war is involved.

I've not gone mad, the world has!

Don't forget the human element. If a mage has lost his mind, illustrate it. Have him make veiled, yet somewhat incoherent threats. Have the assassin slit a throat mercilessly in front of the party and make them understand how horrible that action is. Bring it home to them. Even in the world of casual violence some things are far too horrible for a person to see. That is of course a trick.

Make it Zorachus. We want some T&A and V

For the over 20 market-Make it adult. Let's face it. These days visceral horror is adult, as are a large number of fantasy gamers. The days of 'Mad about Dungeons and Dragons' are over, and thankfully the fantasy game world seems to be growing up with us. The modern day, us, well we ourselves our jaded. We need to push the boundaries occasionally, for the more bloody minded it will take a little work. So, push it a little, if you've got the group for it.

The key to the horrific in fantasy is description and moralistic test. It is already fantastic and strange to us, so the trick is to tie in modern themes with fantastic environments.

Scare those paladins, make them fall. Nothing, really is as frightening to them as failure.

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What do you think?

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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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