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Heroes in Horror: When GM expectations and PC design don’t mix

A modern variant of the mythical “grim and gritty” fantasy campaign is the “standard horror” campaign. How many of us have dreamed of running a horror adventure (horror generally doesn’t lend itself well to campaigns without high PC turnover rates) where all of the PCs are regular people forced to confront something horrific? How much fun would it be to have a flight attendant, a bookish college student, a big box store salesperson, and a construction worker have to survive a horrific threat before help arrives?

The GM’s fantasy usually lasts until PC creation. Unless the GM pregenerates the characters, she’ll more likely end up with the ex-military commando, police officer, business executive with a black belt, and a paranoid survivalist with multiple firearms and ammunition in the trunk of his car. When the GM balks, she’ll likely get resistance from changing the PCs in the form of rationalizations. The GM is left with the prospect of ending the campaign, forcing compliance, or “going with the flow,” allowing her grim horror scenario to morph into action-adventure.

There is another path, one that I find myself turning to more and more: keeping the horror while accepting the players’ preferences. Here are a few things I keep in mind:

1. The extraordinary are the most likely to survive and thus the best people to follow in the scenario.

Think about it. If the local mall becomes infested with mutant cannibalistic gnomes, the college athlete is more likely to survive than the middle-aged obese salesman with the heart condition. This goes hand-in-hand with PC creation parameters as well; if you put too many restrictions on PC choices, then you run the risk of making them too incompetent to survive or, worse, too uninteresting for their players to care if they do. Accepting that your PCs will be the creme de la creme of the victims does not mean that you can’t run an effective horror scenario.

2. Keep the toys and support to a minimum.

Players are generally a creative and accepting bunch as long as boundaries are reasonable. Telling the players that their PCs have to have regular day jobs and begin play with no weapons does not limit them from making a martial arts master or an ex-commando that’s now an unarmed off-duty security officer. This allows the players to feel that their characters are viable and have a fighting chance if they can get their hands on some weapons. Also, players “justifying their sheet” often come up with far more creative and interesting backstories than those that simply create a diner waitress or bookshop owner.

3. Just because the PCs are extraordinary does not mean that those that they care about are.

Maybe the PC is a sharpshooter and wilderness guide, but that doesn’t mean that her boyfriend is. Similarly, the PCs may be passengers on a bus, train, or airliner with dozens of NPCs that are nowhere near as skilled as they. Should the PCs leave them behind or try to help them survive through the night? Having NPCs to care about allows you to increase the threat (and body count) even if the PCs are able to fend off the horror on their own.

4. The horror has bigger guns.

If the Call of Cthulhu RPG has taught me anything, it’s that it doesn’t matter if your PC is a frail professor or a tommy-gun toting gangster; the Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath will squash them both just as flat. In fact, it can actually be more horrific when your SWAT officer PC unloads his assault rifle into a horror and realizes that it has no effect! Regardless of how strong or armed the PCs are, they’ll have to rely on their wits (ironically making the bookish college honors student more valuable than said SWAT officer in many cases).

5. Confrontation is not the answer.

Many players make their PCs with the expectation that they should be able to confront and defeat any Big Bad that you throw at them. In many horror adventures, however, this isn’t the case. Some adventures may stress survival (“we just need to get to the safe zone”), making the ability to avoid or slow down the horror much more valuable than attacking it. Other horror adventures may stress the acquisition and utilization of a “magic item” to save the day (“our bullets are useless, but if we can distract it long enough we might get it to run into the tar pit”).

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had a player say “geeze, if I knew that (insert skill) here would’ve been useful I would’ve bought it/put more points into it.” If you keep stressing that confrontation is usually not a good idea, you’ll find that your players will start designing PCs accordingly three or four horror adventures down the line.

These are some of the tips I use to keep the horror in my game while allowing my players the latitude to play what they want. How about you? How do you keep the horror in your games while also keeping your players invested?

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Heroes in Horror: When GM expectations and PC design don’t mix"

#1 Comment By Scott Martin On January 27, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

I haven’t had a lot of success running horror games– I haven’t even played in many. Often, it’s the superficially normal scenarios that go wrong that prove horrific…

I know that I have struggled with getting characters to align with horror movie ideals the few times I have tried it. I like your advice, particularly to accept the action hero… and show that it’s a threat that not even a bazooka can solve. And that the nebbish kid who reads Enochian might be the real hero after all.

#2 Comment By Koldhaart On January 27, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

I honestly love horror-themed scenarios and campaigns, but I have a hard time finding a group in my area who shares the enthusiasm for more than a couple of play sessions. In my experience, though, I’ve found that in addition to the things you wrote in your article, taking time to explain in detail just *what* is horrific about the situation or the creatures they’re up against normally works best. In a quick-fix manner, you basically just give a lot of detail when the PCs actually square off against the threat, or run from it. My favorite solution is to have a short scene where the PCs are in relative safety and can afford some time to look out of a window or from out of some underbrush to see the monsters wreak havoc.

However, in that case, you sometimes inadvertently encourage a PC to try and be a hero, either for the sake of killing a monster for XP or saving an innocent you had already created a beautiful, gory death scene for, them thinking they’re only witnessing the scene so they can stop it. Of course, if the PC should actually survive the attempt, or even more impossibly, save your doomed NPC, there’s a good chance they’ll get a taste first-hand of exactly why they *should* be running.

#3 Comment By Lucas Mannell On January 27, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

While I’ve never actually run a horror game, I thought I should point out that a careful choice of game system can greatly increase the chances of the GM’s vision surviving contact with the PCs. As a quick example, point-based systems such as GURPS can provide an upper limit for PC ability by limiting the ability for the players to buff their characters.

I’d also disagree with point 1; while it is a fact that a Navy SEAL has an astronomically better chance of surviving a Horror scenario than an overweight accountant does, I would argue that role-playing as the accountant would be far more enjoyable. To the Accountant, each challenge would provide a greater sense of danger and each success would provide a greater sense of accomplishment. Part of what made Buffy or Shaun of the Dead so interesting was that the protagonists were so normal (well, the Scooby gang was fairly normal…).

#4 Comment By BryanB On January 27, 2010 @ 5:54 pm

I’ve also had little success in running or playing in horror games. Even when I tried to emphasize the gothic horror elements of the Ravenloft Campaign Setting, the players would dismiss the horror elements by treating the game as little more than hack and slash affair with a different overlay.

I did play in a Call of Chuthulu game years ago that was a very good effort on the part of the GM. But again, the players I gamed with tried to treat it as nothing more than gun enthusiasts hunting down monsters. That was a sure fire way to get everyone killed using that system and the party didn’t it make it out of the first session of play. Fun? Yes. Long-term? Not at all. 😀

#5 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On January 27, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

@ Koldhaart – You reminded me of the point 6 that I forgot to add: Show the effect of the horror several times before finally revealing the horror. Creatures are scarier when they attack from the shadows quickly, quietly, and lethally than if they just pop up and snarl at the PCs.

@Lucas – I agree with you entirely. If I had a party of people like you around the table, I wouldn’t have needed to write this article at all. 🙂

#6 Comment By rwenderlich On January 28, 2010 @ 10:01 am

The thing I find rough about horror games is often one of the main reasons to play a RPG game is so that you can be a hero, kicking ass.

In horror RPGs, it’s all about things being a lot tougher than you are – and you have to turn tail and run. Which doesn’t make you feel like much of a badass hero.

I guess it’s all about frame of mind – sometimes it is interesting to feel a bit scared in a game, rather than feeling constantly invulnerable, it increases the tension.