Horror & Being Watched in RPGs

It should be noted that I’m a huge fan of horror games, and that I’m always working on one.[1] Last night, I got to meet & talk with the fantastic Morgan Dempsey about horror movies & video games. We talked about The Orphanage, Alien, Aliens, Silent Hill, Fatal Frame 2, and others. One of the bits we talked about is how the camera work heightens tension & anxiety, challenges hope, and gives the viewer the sense of characters being watch. (Which, in good horror, makes us feel like we’re being watched.)

Role-playing games used to do this, and then some of the current fashions of gaming, particularly in indieland, went away from this. Namely:

  • Die rolls should be out in the open
  • Failure should be interesting and move the story forward

While those are fucking great ideas to put into most games, they inadvertently weaken the horror game. And I’m not talking about games that engage horror tropes without its themes, like Monsterhearts[2] (which is not a slam against it, since it’s not emulating a horror story but a damaged supernatural teen romance one, and does it well), but an honest-to-fuck scary, anxious, terrifying game.

Let’s go back the camera work. That’s such a huge element of visual horror media, and it’s not something that RPGs can emulate well.

Or is it…

You remember the old-school trick of “roll notice” and saying nothing if people failed? That created the sense of “did we miss something?” and “are we about to get our faces eaten?” You ever watch how people react in those situations, where suddenly the tone of play changes because there is a sense of impeding doom?

That’s our version of camera work. So let’s unpack what’s similar.

Being watched isn’t just about the feeling of impending doom. It’s also the feeling of knowing you’re missing crucial, immediate information.[3] In horror, camera placement that shows, say, the Alien stalking the humans shows you that the humans are missing that crucial information, and you so dearly want to tell them to run or turn the fuck around and fire. Or jarring camera placement that suggests stalking without revealing the stalker gives the viewer a sense that there’s information somewhere they can’t quite see, again achieving the same effect.

What’s important is that the viewer either knows or believes that there’s missing information. It’s not just that there is the lack, but that the lack is felt. It’s made tangible in our minds. That’s key. The dread of knowing that you don’t know, the loss of confidence — all those are hallmarks of horror.

This is why I love that Unknown Armies hides hit points. The idea of hiding notice rolls is also interesting (as long as it’s not a long mechanical beat). Hide all damage rolls, and rely on the GM to describe what that damage looks like — the unreliable narrator element can also play here.[4]

By the players knowing that there is something going on but the information is not guaranteed, we can create a sense of being watched and truly dealing with the unknown. So my horror games will involve these elements — but new takes on them, to see if we can’t make them shine a bit more. It may not be what’s in fashion right now, but those are the right choices for the genre I cherish.

– Ryan

[1] Once Mythender’s done, I’ll pitch the Emerging Threats Unit game that I started to attempt as a Fate game some time ago. It’ll likely be its own system, and that’s why I keep tweeting about Delta Green stuff.

[2] At the time of this posting, there’re twelve hours left on its IndieGoGo campaign. Check it out!

[3] The horror game and the mystery game are kissing cousins, as they’re both when done well very tight information games. And that’s why some Call of Cthulhu games fall flat, because the information is already loose if you’re dealing with Mythos elements that everyone knows about.

[4] Though, I’m jumping onto a tangent here by talking about hidden damage rolls. Something for later.


4 Responses to Horror & Being Watched in RPGs

  1. E. Foley says:

    Nothing freaks me out more than when the GM asks for a notice/spot/perception check and then is like, “Okay, you don’t notice anything” and then just goes on with whatever else is happening. :-)

    I also love Monte Cook’s trick of having your players’ backs to the door. Then you can occasionally look over their heads as if you’re noticing something behind them and then shake it off like it’s nothing. ;-)

  2. Enlightened post there, Ryan. Glad you’re challenging assumptions.

    How to forge a mystery game OR a horror game (or both) in the crucible of this new world of participatory play is a tricky concept to imagine. At the same time, mystery games that revolve around guessing the GM’s plot before she reveals it is usually not very appealing either – nor is being led by the nose, where nothing you do really matters.

    I feel Technoir handles participatory play in a mystery game better than most – the players, through their actions, flag elements they want to be involved, yet it’s still up to the GM to figure out how they’re involved. It helps that the noir theme doesn’t require the connections to always make complete sense (read: Chinatown).

    Very interested in hearing follow-ups on more on your take on techniques in horror game design and GMing.

  3. D says:

    When the thief wants to listen at a door, the DM rolls for him behind the screen, and says “you don’t hear anything”. The thief is still uneasy because he doesn’t know if he failed or if there really is nothing behind the door. Nowadays it’s blasphemy to even have the GM rolling dice in a game. It’s cool you are challenging some of these recent fashions in rpg design and describing the awesome benefits of some of the older techniques.

  4. Coderodent says:

    In games where there is a large number of skills you can take this one step further; ask for skills that the players don’t even have (and therefore have no chance of succeeding)

    In front of the crumbling statue ask:
    “Anyone have Demonology, or Ancient Religions?”

    After discovering the slimy pool of noxious green ooze: “Roll a Toxicology, or Epidemiology for me.”

    After a shuddering in the underground mines: “Does anyone have Seismology, Architecture or Structural Analysis?”