Horror Games & Die Mechanics
Welcome to Horror Week here on my blog! :D
I played a lot of GURPS back in the day, and I was particularly drawn to GMing horror games. I couldn’t tell you why that was; at the time, I hated horror movies. (This was before I watched the Alien franchise, and began understanding horror went beyond slasher flicks.) The games were successful — there was a sense of grit & dread from the system that I could tap into.
Then I played Unknown Armies, which friends & long-time readers know that I claim it’s the best RPG in existence. I loved the feel it has, even though today I feel the whiff factor is a lot less to my liking.
Of course, I’ve played a lot of Fate, and in my experiments trying to make a Fate horror game, I have formulated a hypothesis on what makes a central mechanic work in horror:
Decisions about resources to bear for a given moment are made before the dice are cast. Once the dice are cast, they cannot be manipulated by other resources.
Or, to put it simply:
No fucking rerolls.
The dice are a threshold of uncertainty & capriciousness. In a game where the stakes are set to be harsh and uncaring, like any good horror game, that feels tense. You have to decide whether this die roll (and whatever resources you’re putting to it) before rolling. This shifts the hope in this situation to a single moment in the dice, and hope is the core element of horror.
When you have a game that allows for resources to be marshaled after a roll, like rerolling or adding a bonus like in Fate‘s aspect invocations, you completely destroy that emotional grip the dice have. Immediately, your mind goes to the thought of “well, if this roll doesn’t work, I have these three aspects I can tap and some Fate points…” Some equate this with player agency or games with powerful, competent characters, but it’s more primal than that. It’s where we put our hope or faith in a moment — is it one where we have some control, or is it one where we don’t?
All games are, in some way or another, about emotional points — from the simple celebrations of being victorious to satisfaction of executing a narrative arc. Horror games are about celebrating that feeling of tension and hope of triumph in spite of the wolf in the darkness. At least, the horror I want to play. You know, Alien. Or (some episodes of) The X-Files. Placing hope outside of you (the dice) rather than within you (your ability to deal with a shit roll through resources & other effects) is key.
Games like Fate & Cortex Plus can’t do Alien-style horror, but they can do urban fantasy, which is the kissing cousin of horror. That gets into a different discussion, one of theme versus tropes. It takes more than a die mechanic to make a game horror, but the wrong die mechanic can turn it into urban fantasy very quickly. And there are die mechanics that seem like they should work for horror, but create other emotional responses that distract from the moment.
All that is what I intend to write about this week. Because, you know, it’s Horror Week! :D
 Pro tip: you can’t just tack on a sanity or madness system and say “Look at me! I’m horror!“