Please consider the following content warnings before proceeding forward with the article. I will touch upon real-life trauma and tragedy as I explore “the line” in horror gaming.
In this think piece, I’ll be exploring “the line.” What’s the line? You know the line. That line in horror gaming that indicates how far is too far. Y’know? THAT line.
I’ve been in the horror gaming circuit for a few years now. I’ve seen that line swing like a pendulum depending on various factors. If you’ve written, run, or played horror games and ever pondered how far is too far… here are a few things worth considering.
Who Are Your Players?
Obvious, right? Who are the players? No matter the game, system, or genre, the people playing these games are real people, with real experiences, who may be carrying real trauma. Bear that fact in mind as you continue reading.
Are these players close friends that you know intimately? Or, are they complete strangers? There’s probably a difference between the horror material that you’d present to your home group compared to the material that you present at a gaming convention.
Why do you think that is? My take?
Each player character is being run by a real human being with complex feelings, emotions, and experiences. When you’re with known players, you have the advantage of intentionality in choosing which material would best suit your players (remember, even in horror gaming, the goal is enjoyment). For example, if you know that your friend Luke has a deep fear of snakes, you’ll probably avoid running a Call of Cthulhu Adventure featuring snakes or the snake-god, Yig. If your BFF Miranda just suffered a painful miscarriage, you’d probably avoid the miscarriage sections of Bluebeard’s Bride.
With complete strangers… that’s a whole new arena. Where do you draw the line? There are so many triggers, encounters, and circumstances to take into consideration. And all the while, you’re juggling these unknown items in the blind. It’s an unrealistic expectation to inquire, probe, and expect players to disclose their every trauma, insecurity, and fear during the 10 minutes it takes you to set up your game.
So, if you’re trying to find the line when it comes to players that you don’t know, I recommend setting everyone up for success by disclosing the game’s significant triggers or content warnings up front (prior to play).
“Hey guys, welcome to Rain, Rain, Go Away. Content warnings include harm to children, suicide and spiders.”
By taking this step, you give players the option to walk away, request a story revision, or to emotionally prepare themselves for your game.
I started including content warnings as a table handout prior to starting my games. Yes, sometimes the warnings spoil certain “shock and awe” parts of the horror. For example, one of my published horror scenarios includes veiled child abuse. The player characters never witness it, but they interview child abuse survivors and follow evidence that leads to this discovery. The overarching mystery is leveraged on unraveling these crimes against children. Total transparency, it’s challenging for me to show my hand prior to play, but I recognize its necessity.
And you know what? I’ve never once had someone complain. Not once. As I continue to offer content warnings prior to play, I further realize their value. Most players, I’ve found, appreciate knowing what’s included in your game.
Now, Creators and GMs? If you wrote/have a game that you’re ready to run, and the players aren’t on board with your content or line allocation, I 100% respect your decision not to revise, alter, or dial it back. If the entirety of your game is based on spiders and your entire table is arachnophobic, I (personally) don’t expect you to change your entire scenario to the lair of cobra king, or opossum den, or whatever animal everyone determines is safe. I respect the decision to maintain the creative integrity of your story. Those players just aren’t a good fit for that scenario. That’s fine.
As my momma says, “everythang ain’t for everybody.”
By disclosing those content warnings upfront, you open up the possibility to run something else or allow everyone else the opportunity to go and play something that they’ll enjoy.
Here’s your takeaway:
- When deciding where to draw that line in horror, consider your players. They may role play fictional characters, but those are real people driving these characters. Consider including content warnings prior to play. It’s an easy way to promote a safe environment and to set everyone up for success.
Where Is the Game Being Run?
Location, location, location. It’s not just a colorful phrase in the real estate market. Location should also be a major consideration on where you draw the line in horror.
Are you running at home? At your LGS? At a convention? Online? Let’s explore where to draw that line based on location.
If you’re running in a home environment, you probably enjoy some comfort liberties on how far you can push the line. It’s a controlled environment, right? If the players are cool with it, live your truth and push that envelope, right? Well, hold on friends… that’s not necessarily the case.
If you’re playing Bluebeard’s Bride, you may encounter sexual assault, suicide, rape, bulimia, or domestic violence. Does your host have a family member who is a rape survivor? They may not be at the table, but they may still be in the vicinity. Be mindful of your environment, even when in the safety of your own home, or a friend’s home. That home has occupants who could suffer second degree burns from your table’s exploration of horror.
If you’re playing at your LGS, be mindful of your surroundings. I’ve had GMs specifically request private rooms or tables away from the general population for adult themed horror games. Hell, I’ve done it when I’m running Dread. Last thing I need is for Little Tommy to come running by and knocking over my Jenga tower mid-scene. The last thing you need is Little Tammy overhearing where that tentacle went.
If you’re playing online? Whew, honey. Look, it may feel like a home environment, because chances are… you’re sitting at home aaaaand gaming with your friends. Please be mindful and please be careful. If you’re not using a mic and we’re recounting a chestburster springing out of your ribcage, your kid in the other room watching Disney+ might have some trouble sleeping. If you’re not using video, you might not be able to see from my facial expressions that your line is pushing my lines.
Convention play? ALL of the above! In addition, check with your convention staff. They may have rules pertaining to the use of safety tools (see more below) or the types of content eligible for play.
Here’s your takeaway:
Be aware of your surroundings. Location matters. Don’t indirectly cause direct damage to a bystander because your line allocation wasn’t appropriate for the environment.
What System Are You Playing/Running?
Horror can pop up in any system or game. With that said, I was indoctrinated to believe that “if you’re sitting down to play a horror game, you know what you’re getting into, so take it or leave it.”
I believed that for a long time. I’ve grown out of that train of thought over the years. Horror isn’t a one size fits all type of genre. As outlined above, that line moves depending on several factors. Systems can definitely be a factor, but it’s not the end all be all of line allocation.
Can we agree that different systems have a different expectation of horror and where that line is?
For example, which system is going to splash you with the most amount of gratuitous blood? Call of Cthulhu, Kult: Divinity Lost, or Alien: The RPG?
Did an answer immediately spring to your mind? Cool. Unlearn that.
Which system are you most likely to encounter sexual assault? Bluebeard’s Bride, Cthulhu Dark, or Kult?
I know what you’re thinking. I thought it, too. Unlearn that.
Bluebeard’s Bride, for example, focuses on feminine horror. Anything and everything that may terrorize a woman is right there in the scenario. It’s universally understood as “part of the game.” If you’re playing Bluebeard’s Bride, expect to be sexually assaulted, have an abortion forced upon you, or be beaten for getting your makeup wrong. UNLEARN THAT! Sure, those experiences are included in the game, but I’ve played Bluebeard’s Bride multiple times. I can assure you, that line isn’t dictated by the system, it’s dictated by a myriad of other factors.
Call of Cthulhu has a different lore than Vaesen, Vaesen has a different tone than Kult, and Kult looks and feels a lot different than Alien: RPG. I hear you; I get it. A game system’s content typically draws different “line-drawing” variants of horror gamers. I know. I understand.
Here’s your takeaway!
- What I’m challenging you to unlearn is…Don’t hide behind a system. Just because a system focuses on feminine horror, doesn’t mean that it can’t be dialed back, altered, or revised. Just because a system includes sci-fi horror doesn’t mean that it won’t include feminine horror. Take into consider all of the items above when drawing your line in horror. Oh! And for the love the Old Ones, don’t ever tell me or anyone else that “the system made me do it.” No, boo. You did it. Don’t hide behind the system. You’re in control of that line.
Who Are You Writing For?
This is a big one for the creators out there! Who are you writing this content for? Are you writing it for your home group, convention play, your own personal amusement, or are you preparing it for publication? Sometimes the line in horror isn’t determined by you; it’s determined by the recipient for your content.
If you’re writing with the intent of publishing, you need to immediately stop, drop, shut it down open up…
No, seriously, stop and reach out to your publisher. You might kill kids all day in your home-brew campaign, but if you’re writing on another publisher’s license, you need to check their rules and guidelines before you go too far and lose a lot of time and energy.
Publishing companies have rules that dictate what they’ll allow to ride on their license. So, your line discernment choices may not matter if Free League Publishing or Chaosium says, “…we don’t do that here.” As a creator, it is 100% your responsibility to know where they draw the line.
Ya’ll ready? I highly encourage the use of safety tools.
Now, those who have known me for years are probably reading this and saying, “What happened to Bridgett?!”
Why? Well, total transparency, I was adamant against the use safety tools for years. I had no respect for them, no use for them, and I thought the entire concept was ridiculous.
I’ve grown since then.
I’m not about to tell you how to live your life, run your games, nor tell your stories, but I will say this… the deployment of safety tools has significantly more benefits than drawbacks.
Safety tools (X-card, lines and veils, etc.), in my opinion, have a place at the gaming table. Why? If you’ve made it this far and can’t answer that question, I encourage you to reread everything above.
Real people play these games. Real human beings. They come to tables to play. Play. We’re here to play, which is indicative of having fun. Fun. I want everyone at my table to have fun. By offering safety tools, it’s my way of showing both humility and concern for the human beings at my table. Even if they don’t use them, that option is available to them.
Some horror gaming tables play by the, “you go low, we go lower” approach. The bottom of the horror barrel isn’t deep enough for them. They’re not satisfied until their fingers are pulling up dirt. That’s. Awesome. Play/Run horror in a way that’s fun for YOU and your table. If the safety tools are in play, and you don’t use them, that’s fine. What harm is there to make them available?
Are you looking to explore some safety tools? Monte Cook Games released a Consent in Gaming PDF that tackles some of the heavy lifting on how to “Tackle Mature Content with Confidence.” Best news? It’s free!
Author’s Note: We’ve discussed where the line is in horror and how it effects the players and the environment, but let us not forget about the GM. They have the ability to enact those safety measures as well. I’ve seen it happen and I absolutely LOVE how the table self-corrected out of mutual respect for the Keeper running our game. The GMs are people, too, guys.
Where should you draw the line in horror? There’s no concrete answer here, but I think that we can agree that there are a few determining factors that should be taken into consideration.
I challenge you to think of the line with as much fluidity and mobility as possible. Maybe the line starts at a 10, drifts back to a 9, and eventually settles on a 5. Perhaps it hovers around a 2. Maybe it goes to a hard 11 and stays there.
There is no wrong way to run horror TTRPGs, but there ARE wrong ways to draw that line.
What other considerations should be taken into account when placing the line?
What have been your experiences been with the line?
Tell us in the comments!