My fantasy games would mostly fall under the headings of fantasy horror if a genre was applied to them. I love the feeling I get when a player is creeped out by my game or they get involved, reacting with fear or horror at the game. It is largely why my favorite fantasy game is Earthdawn (I know I only play it via email at the moment and Pathfinder is my main game) where it is all about the darkness and the things that live there. Not to mention what they can do to you once they find you. This turns me to the point of my blog today. There are two definite streams of horror, the traditional path or the worlds of Lovecraft inspired weirdness.
Whichever style of horror you like is what you should concentrate on presenting to your players. I love Lovecraftian stuff but I do use the more Gothic Horror style on occasion to mix things up. Knowing the difference is the key to the way you get the players involved.
Traditional refers to those works of horror that became widely popular through mass media and literature. These tales were popularised by the Gothic Horror writers in the 18th century but their fodder for their novels was well established by this time. It stemmed from folklore and stories shared with a basis in religion or even pagan ritual. Largely, the novels written at the time were written by women and targeted at women focussing on a female protagonist that was caught in a spooky mansion with elements of the supernatural that tested them.
These initial stories were very popular in their time but few have common appeal today. It was not until Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that we see titles that are commonly thought of as traditional horror today. Writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson amongst others that turned the idea of Horror into a creature feature, or horror of a deeper darker nature designed to scare the reader to the core. These titles endure to this day and scare every new generation. They endure because at their heart are tales of human vice and virtue played out in a fantastic way.
The traditional horror tack in fantasy games normally takes a known trope of the genre and plays it up to the group of players. As a GM you want the players to recognize the threat early and for the players knowledge of the threat to spur the horror. For example, using a vampire in a game causes all of the players to sit in a group and talk about what they know and what they need to do to survive. They treat every situation with kid gloves and wonder at the power of the creatures that they are facing. Will it die in sunlight? Can we get close enough to stake it? Has it got brainwashed spawn in the local community? The very presence of this type of creature almost dictates an investigation before the ultimate confrontation. Are the players up to the task? As they stare down the vampire they will feel their own hearts in their mouth as they roll the dice for initiative.
An off shoot of this style is to use creatures that has been made famous by the game itself. Consider the Beholder from Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). This creature is now synonymous with the game and nearly anyone that has played even a modicum of D&D knows of the floating eye tyrant. The responses tend to be the same so that we can recreate the idea of a traditional horror experience. I am sure that the first time the Beholder appeared that it was really quite a Lovecraftian style encounter though.
Lovecraftian horror is a newer version of horror and stems from the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft who was an unsuccessful but prolific horror author whose works are now strong influences on most major horror writers like Stephen King, Dean Koontz and James Herbert to name a few. Lovecraft wrote horror stories that focused on strange, alien forces that had little or no cares for humanity and the madness that they caused in humanity when they found them. Each power was a unique thing that existed with the knowledges hidden in the Universe. Almost all of these powers or creatures were extremely destructive in a way that humans are destructive when they tread on an anthill. That is these creatures are completely oblivious to the suffering or destruction that they cause and even when or if they do notice they have no cares for it. This horror style focuses more on the insignificance and horror of the unknown than it does on fear of a particular type of creature.
As Lovecraft was never a full time author and died young in 1937 it has taken some time for his works to become influential. In fact he was largely unheard of in the 1970’s but started to gain a following as influential authors started to site his name in their list of influences. Lovecraft focused on this alien style of horror but as his creations become more mainstream (e.g. Cthulhu) some of his writing would also work in games of traditional style horror with the more popular of his creations.
But it is this style of game that appeals to me. Lovecraftian horror is definitely a different feeling of horror. It contains an element of the hopelessness of humanity against the never-ending Universe. It highlights how little we know, and when used creatively, how desperate and offensive we can be in pursuit of this knowledge. It is why Earthdawn appeals to me. There are a loosely affiliated group of astral creatures called Horrors. If you want a traditional game you can use a Horror that is common in type but the games that commit to memory are the ones that use the unique, bizarre and most alien. Also these creatures live off emotion and the manipulation of humanity for the purpose of feeding is truly disgusting and alien to take on as well.
Cultists fall into both categories. If they are cultists of devils, demons or angels then they fall much more under the traditional category of horror. This is because these creatures, weird as they are, are all in place around humanity to teach them of sins which are known impulses and urges. Whereas a cultist of a Horror may worship it so that it can turn all snow purple. nobody knows why. But on investigation your hero may discover that the blood of living sacrifices is needed to turn the snow purple. These motivations are alien and therefore the horror much more different and the cultists will be much more random to portray than a devil worshipper.
In my next post I will look at the ways that you can begin to instill this feeling of horror into your game. There are techniques that work really well and get the players to feel the fear that their characters are. The techniques for both of the above streams of horror are largely very similar and I offered the description above as a primer for you. So until next time keep rolling!
Mark Knights is 40 year old guy living in a small rural town called Elliott in Tasmania, Australia. I have been role playing since I was 11 years old playing the original versions of Dungeons and Dragons, MERP, Elric, Dragon Warriors and the like amongst other genre games. I played D&D 2nd Edition through the 90′s but I ran Earthdawn for my fantasy setting and loved it as a GM. When 3rd Edition came out for D&D I tried it but found it too heavy on rules. I ignored the 3.5 edition of DnD in favour of Earthdawn (big mistake) as I thought it was just a money spinner. When 4th Edition DnD came on my players and I gave it a red hot go but hated what it had dumbed the game down to be. On a trip to Melbourne to buy some 4E stuff from a hobby store an old mate of mine pointed me at Pathfinder and in a Fantasy setting I have never looked back.