Horror, Die Mechanics & Risk Management

Yesterday, I started off Horror Week with a discussion about dice mechanics in horror games. There were some comments about how to do a variant on Fate that would work, which got a “it won’t work” reply from me. Today, I’ll talk about why it doesn’t work for horror, because on the surface it seems like a good idea.

Alan said (among other things):

For Fate you could front-load the expenditure of fate points and only allow for the +1/+2 bonus, never the reroll. But I suspect this will lead to further, hard to predict ramifications.

This is a “how badly do you want it” mechanic, much like Gumshoe‘s General Abilities mechanic. And for horror, these are toxic.

Imagine if you will the following hypothetical slice of a game session:

GM: Okay, so you turn into the alley, with the horror behind you. Shit! The alley is a dead end. There’s a fire escape along one of the buildings that’s secured, and a large & rather full garbage bin nearby. What do you do?

Player: Could I reach the fire escape from the garbage bin?

GM: You could try.

Player: I totally do!

GM: Roll Athletics.

Player: Okay, so I have four points in Athletics. How many should I spend…

And now all the tension in that moment is deflated, thanks to shifting from tense narration to an abstract economic game. It’s a decision point that moves from the lizard brain into the rational brain, due to the fact that it gets into intangible numbers rather than natural language and requires something we humans are good at doing: wishing to keep what we have and worrying about loss & risk. In that regard, the mini-economic game is interesting, but it’s a very different game from “dear god I feel dread” that a horror game need to survive.

Likely outcomes:

Player: I’ll spend two points. [Rolls] Barely succeeded!

GM: Sweet! You leap to the fire escape in time!

That’s the good outcome.

Player: I’ll spend two points. [Rolls] Missed by two! Crap! I should have spend them all.

And there’s the outcome where the dread of the poor reaction is mixed with the anger of miscalculating a bet. Two different emotions from two different places that conflict rather than support each other.


Player: I’ll spend two points. [Rolls] Made by two! (Wish I hadn’t spent those points.)

And there’s the outcome where the elation of a good outcome is mixed, again, with the anger of miscalculating a bet. Two different emotions from two different places that conflict even worse.


If you’re not trying for tension in a game, this mechanic is fine. It’s an interesting drama management system, where you ask the question of “how much do you want this?” But in a horror game, abstract economics breaks tension at its most crucial moment: the point right before mechanical revelation. You have to rebuild quickly coming out of that moment of gambling and the emotional hook related to that outcome. And that’s not fine, which is why the “maybe you could spend Fate points before the roll” doesn’t solve the problem.

(Which is why I have this odd desire to run a Chinatown (the film) game with Gumshoe, rather than one of its horror variants or and of the games where you need to know a lot of unique IP in order to know why the clues in the game matter.)

Such mechanics also prompt thought & consideration before the roll, to weigh spending more or fewer abstract resources. What if they weren’t abstract? What if we could use natural language rather than numbers to introduce the “how bad do you want this” element? What if that wasn’t a resource, but a form of consequence generation? What if whatever currency you used had a linked meaning in the fiction rather than purely dramatic management?

A lot of questions to ask about what feeds into a horror mechanic, which is why I love looking at horror systems.

Audience participation: What systems work for you for keeping tension? What don’t? Why? It doesn’t have to be specifically horror, as long as it keeps strong tension and could probably be used for horror.

– Ryan


20 Responses to Horror, Die Mechanics & Risk Management

  1. GRIM says:

    As in computer games where people have to manage their ammunition in survival games, so I find that fairly brutal guarding of HP/Energy/Sanity etc creates a decent paranoia and tension about losing it.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I think tomorrow’s post is about Sanity mechanics, actually. (Partly because you just game me more to think about, regarding the nature & role of the UI in those mechanics.)

      – Ryan

  2. Kit says:

    Does Annalise work for you? It seems to violate points of this post and the previous one (post-hoc expenditures to change rolls, complex and big coin economy), yet, for me, it works fantastically well. I’m not sure why, yet, but I’ll think on it.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      How does it work?

      – Ryan

    • Kit says:

      Hm. Hard to encapsulate, because Annalise has many small moving parts. I’ll try.

      You all play people who are in some sense likely victims for a vampire. You don’t know who or what or what kind of thing the vampire is at the outset.

      In scenes, there may be Moments, where you spend coins off of traits on your sheet to get outcomes—positive achievements, or negative consequences. You then roll one die per possible outcome, and assign them. High values mean you get achievements or avoid consequences, low values mean you miss achievements or are hit with consequences.

      You then go around the table spending coins off of claims (bits of narrative that you are a GMly authority over) to work that claim into the moment, and adjust the dice—rerolls, increments, decrements, etc—or add new possible outcomes and roll dice for those, too.

      That’s the short version. It’s well worth a play—some of the most creepy and emotionally claustrophobic horror I’ve experienced.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Sounds Otherkind-y, which does seem to work well for horror. The tension of concrete choice isn’t the same as the tension of abstract math. And making that a choice is hot.

      I’ll have to check it out. I think I have a copy somewhere. It sounds close-but-not-too-close to a horror game using Otherkind ideas I have a few thousand words on.

      – Ryan

    • Kit says:

      Nathan actually explicitly acknowledges Otherkind in the text.

      I think you’re very right in talking about the different kinds of tension. The fact that there’s a list of natural-language hopes and horrors on the table that you have to choose from is definitely a big part of why it works.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Yeah, Otherkind dice are pretty awesome. Bliss Stage uses that as well.

      For those who are unaware of what we’re talking about: http://www.lumpley.com/archive/148.html

      – Ryan

  3. Fnorder says:

    While it increases the GM bookkeeping by a bit, my teams enjoyed when the actual Sanity AND Hitpoints they had left was a secret. The hits and stress would be described in more detail, and the uncertainty created more paranoia and tension.

    Speaking of paranoia – Paranoia. Again due to the players not knowing all rules used at the table.

    Also the classic Deadlands wound system meant that while more experienced fighters could more easily avoid getting hit and hit better, no matter who you were, if you got hit you were basically as likely to die as the next man (btw today is the 130th anniversary of the OK Corral shootout). However the large spread of dice results gave another dimension to player anxiety, not in the good sense – results were too unpredictable, and skill not important enough for my friends’ tastes.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Yeah, Unknown Armies having that hidden is what first blew my mind. The bookkeeping is worth it.

      And yeah, all good points. Thanks!

      – Ryan

    • Fnorder says:

      Also DRYH does it right – inevitability of awesome failure (not just irritating failure) and the visibly increasing risk factor made me rethink many other games. Also the increased risk is the playes’ decision, making them state through the mechanics how important and how tense the scene is.

  4. Quinn says:

    I haven’t been able to think of a dice mechanic that works for horror. I think dice themselves are not so great for horror.

    Your post made me think of this:

    We’ve got a deck where every card is one of three types (Shock, Gore, Terror), in addition to having some other rider effect (unique to each card). Characters have a hand, and when events happen, the DM places 2-4 cards down for the characters involved in a scene. Each card you can’t match from your hand (discarding it afterwards) damages you.

    Assuming that card draw is rather difficult, imagine that wind up when you are down to your last cards, both of the same type, waiting for the GM to put his cards on the table.

    Definitely could use refinement, but I think the basic form has some impact/immediacy, which you seemed to state (rightly) a preference for.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I think dice can be used very effectively for horror, but you have to throw out a lot of complicated die tricks and keep the feel primal.

      But I find your mechanic interesting. I’m not sure what emotional beat it’ll generate, though. Something to play with.

      – Ryan

  5. Scott Favre says:

    It’s a diceless game, but Dread does horror really damn well.

    It uses a Jenga tower instead of dice – basically, you pull blocks instead of rolling dice. If you knock over the tower your character dies.

    The tension that can be built by having a teetering tower just when things start getting intense in the game is fantastic. I’ve never seen players actually start sweating with dice.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      We talked about Dread in the comments on the previous post.

      I’ve never seen players actually start sweating with dice.

      Sure, but Dread also cheats. It fuses player skill with character skill. It’s a hell of a great hack for the emotional brain, which I say with the utmost respect to Eppy, but it’s not the sort of design I’m interested in.

      That said, Mythender is similar, creating tactile resonance with the fiction. Just as an adventure game rather than a horror game.

      – Ryan

  6. nat says:

    Well, yeah, Dread fuses player and character skill, sorta. But then, any game where the player has choices about what they’re rolling/spending does, too. It just happens that there’s a physical component to Dread, whereas calculating whether to spend that extra Fate point, or burn a trait, or whatever, is a purely mental skill.

    And, yes, this is a potential downside. But it also turns out to be a bit of an upside. I think your analysis about the thinking brain interfering with or clashing with the feeling brain is spot-on. And that’s why what could potentially be a very distracting mechanic works so well–because pulling those blocks in Dread is so visceral, it seems to tap more into the lizard brain, and doesn’t mostly make people think the way that rationing hero points seems to.

    As further evidence, the few times I’ve seen the horror completely drain out of a game of Dread were when one or more players got more focused on the task of, essentially, playing Jenga than on the relationship between the blocks and the fiction. In particular, when some machismo got a couple guys having a pull-off that was far more important to the players than the actual fiction conflict was to those players’ characters (according to those same players). At that point, the emotion switched from “tension” to “challenge”.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Dread fuses player and character skill, sorta.

      No “sorta” about it.

      But then, any game where the player has choices about what they’re rolling/spending does, too.
      Are you equating adding two numbers together or briefly analyzing an economy (which anyone at the table advise you on without removing your participation) to something that you cannot interact with if you have a physical disability? That’s not an accurate parallel. I’ve played with folks who have problems grasping math, and it’s not the same as someone who can’t play Jenga in Dread.

      At that point, the emotion switched from “tension” to “challenge”.

      Huh. That’s really interesting. I’ve seen similar in Seth Ben-Ezra’s game Dirty Secrets, where the central mechanic involves playing Liar’s Dice.

      – Ryan

  7. Martin says:

    Knowing that something (bad) will inevitably happen, but not knowing when it will happen always works for me to create tension. The feeling of racing against the clock without knowing how much time you have left.
    A good example of a boardgame that makes use of this is ‘pandemic’. Can’t think of an RPG right now which has this kind of mechanic build into it, but I’ve seen it used by other GMs and used it myself many times by just making up a mechanic: ‘Okay, at the end of each scene/round you roll a d6 – on 1 one, the cops arrive/ship runs out of fuel/whatever, so you better hurry.’
    It creates a complety different emotional beat than knowing ‘we have 3 rounds/scenes left to fix this’.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That’s a good point. That’s where games with hidden information, like your hit points in Unknown Armies, work well. When you can evaluate the odds, it gets weaker.

      Such explicit mechanics like the one you cite work great in the board games, like what Leacock (creator of Pandemic) does well in some of his games. But “just making up a mechanic on the fly that works like this” is in the realm of GM advice and not game design.

      Note: it’s Pandemic, not ‘pandemic’. Capitalization and punctuation are your friends, not your enemy.

      – Ryan

  8. Martin says:

    Hm, you’re right – the line between game design and other stuff like GM advice is something I need to draw clearer.
    As someone who hasn’t designed a game yet, but is just trying to write a first draft, understanding what actually belongs to game design and what doesn’t is something I’m still trying to figure out. (Same for capitalization and punctuation in english.)