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Horror: Motifs and Actualities

The Treatment of Horror in Role-Playing Games

Note: This article was originally published in issue #4 of Interactive Fantasy.

by Phil Masters

This article is concerned with the treatment of "Horror" in role-playing games (RPGs). Rather than attempt a comprehensive survey of the field - a substantial task I will leave to more dedicated souls - it deals with a small number of specific examples which seem, to me, to demonstrate certain principles. However, before moving on to these specifics, I would like to propose a preliminary thesis; that "Horror", as the term is used in RPGs, has at least two different and quite distinct meanings:

1. The set of motifs and images associated with that body of fiction, mostly in the gothic mode, which is usually called "Horror". Examples of these motifs include vampires, other undead, werewolves, haunted houses, more or less gruesomely unpleasant things happening to characters, and characters experiencing intense fear. Since (I suspect) the appearance of the work of H.P.Lovecraft, a further bundle of tropes can be added to the list; invasions from outside time and space, philosophical nihilism, despair, and consequent insanity. (Insanity has been a major feature of horror for far longer than that, of course, but Lovecraft links it to his primary theme of existential terror.) This article will refer to this approach as "Motif Horror".

2. Actual stories, plots, and scenarios that are scary, worrying, and horrifying. In other words, that which leads to the players experiencing fear. This approach will be termed (purely for convenience, and without pre-judgement as to its subtleties), "Emotional Horror".

This difference is, if one thinks about it, considerable - but it does not always seem to be acknowledged. What I will term "Motif" horror games - those which are built around use of "stock gothic" images - usually declare that their aim is actually to scare players - and they may well succeed in this - but such games can go on for long time without anyone experiencing much sense of terror. Conversely, games with very few supernatural or "gothic" motifs can be "scary". To the extent that players genuinely identify with their characters - a situation which many games declare as their highest aim - then any serious and prolonged threat to a character's life and well-being should be frightening. In practice, it is rare for games without a declared "Horror" element to achieve this effect to any great extent, which is hardly surprising; role-playing games are a form of entertainment, with a substantial commercial element, and the creation of fear in an audience without at least some minimal, tacit prior consent from that audience, is likely to alienate the customers.

Given this division, it may be worth briefly surveying the history of Horror RPGs. In fact, games incorporated occasional elements of "Motif" horror from very early on; some of the first lists of "monsters" for the earliest editions of Dungeons and Dragons (published by TSR, 1974 onwards), included vampires, zombies, and flesh-dissolving blobs. But it was the appearance of Call of Cthulhu (published by Chaosium Inc), in 1981, that introduced the idea of horror as the game's central theme. Call of Cthulhu ("CoC") is based on Lovecraft's work, of course, and to a considerable extent, it straddles the two definitions of horror. On the one hand, the game and the scenarios published for it make diligent (and usually competent) efforts to evoke an authentic air of fear, and mostly pay close attention to Lovecraft's paranoid intellectual nihilism. However, because Lovecraft's universe is so implacably uncaring, and his monsters are so inhuman and powerful, the game simply could not function if the player-characters confronted the main opposition directly with any great frequency. Thus, in many scenarios, the Lovecraftian elements are pushed into the shadows - becoming, in fact, background motifs.

Thus, CoC is often played as a thinking person's game of life and rather serious adventures in the 1920s and '30s. The player-characters are referred to as "Investigators", and that is how they function, seeking to determine both the nature of the threat they face and the correct counter-measures to bring against it, before they are actually obliged to confront any horror. Some campaigns apparently involve little fear and no supernatural activity for weeks on end.

Early competitors for CoC, such as Chill (published by Pacesetter, 1984; subsequently re-published by Mayfair Games) and Stalking the Night Fantastic (published by Tri-Tac Inc., 1983), focused heavily on the "motif" aspect of horror, and were in fact mostly fairly tongue-in-cheek. The extreme example of this trend was the Hollywood-licensed Ghostbusters (published by West End Games, 1986) game, a moderate success that acquired a number of passionate devotees - but which arguably belongs much more in the history of comedy games than in this article.

In fact, and despite the appearance of some competent products such as GURPS Horror (published by Steve Jackson Games, 1987) over the years, it is arguable that no company really attempted an "Emotional Horror" game to match CoC until quite recently.

The "breakthrough" was almost certainly the series of linked games published by White Wolf and starting with Vampire: the Masquerade (published 1991). In fact, it could be argued that these introduce a third, new approach to game horror, which might be termed "Romantic Horror". Vampire casts the PCs, not as opponents of the supernaturally horrific, but as its embodiments. Nominally, in the game designers' intention if not in typical play, they remain victims of the horrific elements of the game-world - but their victories are defined, not by any success in defeating monsters, but by the extent to which they come to terms with, and even learn to use, their own monstrous natures. Subsequent games in the series (including Werewolf: the Apocalypse and Mage: the Ascension) make varying use of horrific motifs and situations, but tend to continue with this theme. White Wolf appear to be most interested in the psychology of the horrific, and make relatively little attempt to frighten players. Thus, their products might be defined, according to taste, as either especially subtle games of Emotional Horror, or especially pretentious games of Motif Horror.

Which said, they may also have inspired what seems to be a detectable movement - an attempt to restore the "naked fear" aspect of Emotional Horror to RPGs. The epitome of this would probably be Kult (Originally a Swedish game; the English translation was published by Metropolis, 1993). I personally am not closely familiar with this game, but it has been flippantly defined as "Call of Cthulhu without the mindless optimism"; its central theme is apparently a kind of paranoid Gnosticism.

(Gnostics regard the material world as the intrinsically evil creation of a flawed demiurge - "this is Hell, nor are we out of it", so to speak - whereas the atheist materialist Lovecraft simply regarded it as vastly uncaring. Which would be worse in reality is probably a matter of taste; which emerges, in game or story, as more terrifying is, of course, a function of the competence of the authors.)

Meanwhile, there have been a few, brave attempts to explore alternative forms and sub-categories of horror. One curious but admirable example is GURPS Atomic Horror (published by Steve Jackson Games, 1993), which seeks to shape a game-world out of the semi-horrific SF "B-Movies" of 1950s Hollywood. This theme may be simply a little too bizarre and quirkish to catch on, and the horror element is, arguably, peripheral, but the game supplement's attempts to take role-playing into some half-forgotten by-ways of popular culture is, if nothing else, interesting(1). However, to complete this article, I have chosen a slightly off-centre case study; some recent products in the "Hero System" product line.

The Hero System started life as a superhero game (Champions, originally published Hero Games, 1981), which remains the centrepiece of the line, and as the superhero genre is omnivorous (if unsubtle) in its assimilation of themes, it is not surprising to discover some horror motifs in Hero products. The supplement Horror Enemies (published 1993) is the epitome of Motif Horror in this context; aimed squarely at the Champions market, it is in fact a game-oriented catalogue of supervillains and suchlike, all of them derived from traditional "horror" stories; they include vampires, werewolves, black magicians, and insidious monsters from space. They are, perhaps, more frightening than the average Champions bad guy NPC (if only in that they are mostly unambiguously willing to kill), but not by much. The book is also, it should be said, a witty and varied collection of game ideas, and represents more than enough justification for the use of Motif Horror in such games.

Conversely, its sister supplement Underworld Enemies (published 1993) barely uses the word "horror", but its contents are often somewhat disturbing. It is largely based on the kind of modern superhero comics that feature uncomfortable and even emotionally unstable heroes in conflict with deadly - and definitely unstable - super-criminals. Thus, it includes a great deal of insanity and psychological horror. The book's psychology is no more subtle than that of its inspirations, having all the sensitivity to human motivations and mental states of a second-rate Hollywood blockbuster. It adopts the primitive horror-fan's assumption that insanity is exactly equivalent to a talent for efficient, calculating mass-murder; its "insane" characters are mad, and so they kill, but in matters of self-preservation and long-term organisation, they are thoroughly efficient. Despite some moments of ingenuity, and one or two excellent character concepts, the book is also somewhat over-written and sometimes downright silly, but this reader for one would call it more frightening than Horror Hero - if only in its paranoid view of American society(2).

Recognising the success of the genre per se, Hero Games have also produced a "genre book" for the subject, called, simply, Horror Hero (published 1994). This is an interesting but persistently flawed piece of work, and in some ways illustrates all the traps into which horror games can fall. Reasonably, given its function as a "sourcebook" for a "generic" rules system, it incorporates discussions of a number of horror sub-genres. For some reason, a few paragraphs early in the book covering the same ground as GURPS Atomic Horror are left undeveloped, but three settings are given detailed treatment: nineteenth-century "Eldritch Horror" (based on the most melodramatic of gothic tales); "Pulp Horror", from the first half of this century; and Modern, "Paranoid" Horror.

In other words, the book reviews a variety of motifs. However, horror game authors frequently seem to feel that, if they fail to probe the depths of truly Emotional Horror, they are failing to engage with their chosen subject, and this can lead, as in Horror Hero, to a tragi-comical degree of over-writing. When this is combined with an amateurish, repetitive prose style, the results are simply unfortunate. The worst of this is credited to a narrator figure:

... It is horror that guards the knowledge of fear's demise. And there are many who benefit from fear and unknowing, from the street-scarred mugger who surprises you on a darkened street, to the rulers of the world ...

But the game-background descriptions are little better:

Adventurers who inquire about Taxlan will soon find themselves slipping beneath the surface of rationality into a twilight abyss of deranged fantasy. Their only answer may be cold steel between the ribs or a set of concrete galoshes.

And even plain explication of refereeing methodology can lapse into mangled purple:

... Describe the cold chills a PC feels in 90 degree weather that pass as quickly as they come. Intimate the weird sensation that insects are paying close attention to a particular PC ...

Well, as the history of horror fiction amply demonstrates, even the worst prose stylists can sometimes come up with interesting plots or scenery, and this supplement has some nice touches; for example, the "Eldritch" sample campaign is based around a perverse and twisted "Wild West" setting that is both unusual and potentially useful, while the "Pulp Era" section is interesting in its adaptation of Lovecraftian imagery into something that catches the spirit of its inspiration without any encroachment in matters of copyright(3). However, the authors appear to have just one idea for a horror campaign structure; the PCs should be part of a small but valiant conspiracy for good, which opposes a larger, world-wide association of ostentatiously evil entities. The resulting over-emphasis on motifs culminates in the "Modern-Day" setting. Paranoid horror is nothing if it lacks at least an element of subtlety; this book introduces an international conspiracy of werewolves and wereboars.

This article has not addressed a number of key questions about horror role-playing; the greatest of these is, perhaps, the problem of whether any game which achieves significant emotional identification of the players with the protagonist PCs can ever allow itself the degree of threat - the willingness to destroy (fictional) bodies and spirits - that may be demanded of "true" horror. That topic is left for another time. But it is the source of the apparent tension between "Motif" and "Emotion" that, I would argue, dominates the history of horror role-playing. The tension is problematic, but also - sometimes - profitable.

Notes:

1. For categorisation purposes, Atomic Horror would have to be considered as a variant form of "Motif Horror."

2. But then, it is linked to Hero's Dark Champions product line, which is the most frightening thing this writer has seen in gaming for a long time. Stripping the superhero genre of its naive idealism and simple moral codes, Dark Champions reduces the basic concept to one of crude, paranoid vigilante fantasy. Almost all the villains carry huge guns, and the only things stopping them are a array of ruthless vigilantes, superhuman only in their success rates, but carrying equally large firearms. Most of the members of ethnic minorities depicted are one-dimensional stereotypes. The "hero" most frequently depicted in descriptions of the game-world lacks even the basic limitations usual in otherwise similar comics - a personal moral code, or simple human vulnerability. There is a blazing contempt for due process of law. Horror takes many forms.

3. An even more sophisticated accomplishment of this kind appears in the earlier Hero System supplement, Champions in 3-D, published 1990. Allen Varney's contribution to this book, "Horror World", is remarkable for its combination of non-Lovecraftian horror motifs, an evocation of the authentic emotions of Lovecraftian horror, and the use and subversion of conventions of superhero narrative.

Copyright ©1995 Phil Masters

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