Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid...

Marcus L. Rowland

Copyright © Marcus L. Rowland 1998

And then, from out of the darkness of the cavern's well, an eldritch head showed dimly. Then, as it thrust forth, I almost screamed aloud in horror - for the face was a ghastly travesty of everything civilised; it rose from a neckless body which was a mass of jelly-like flesh, rubbery to the eye, and the tentacles which adorned it took rise from that area of the creature's body which was either its lower jaw or what passed for a neck.
[H.P. Lovecraft - The Gable Window]

"Out of the darkness of the cavern's well you dimly see an eldritch head..."
"Fred, get ready to throw the dynamite!"
"...Its face is a ghastly travesty of everything civilised, rising from a neckless body which is a mass of jelly-like rubbery flesh..."
"OK, I'll start firing."
"I throw in the dynamite, with a ten second fuse."
"I'll hold up my crucifix and an Elder Sign."
"...with tentacles..."
"01 followed by 02, that's gotta blow it away!"
"08 for throwing, that's well on target."
"Any SAN loss yet?"
"...and - bugger it, will you please let me describe the bloody monsters properly before you kill them!"
[A Call of Cthulhu game]

It sometimes worries me that games that are supposed to be about horror usually end up as firefights. Call of Cthulhu is far from the worse example; games like Chill and Bureau 13, which are explicitly about monster-hunting organisations, seem to start with weapons and tack on everything else afterwards. But without exception all of the traditional horror games (I exclude Vampire and the other games in which characters are supernatural entities) are actually adventure games set against a horror background; it's assumed that ghouls or the Fungi from Yuggoth are somehow more frightening than orcs or a platoon of Imperial Stormtroopers, but in practice players often seem to react to "horrors" exactly as they would to more "mundane" threats. Rules to simulate the effects of fear and horror, the CoC SAN rating and its equivalent in other games, are often treated as just another set of statistics. When they are taken seriously characters sometimes become little more than a collection of quirks and affectations; most regular CoC or GURPS Horror referees soon become wearily familiar with players who insist on playing out every detail of characters' phobias in exhaustive detail.

Part of the problem comes from the nature of RPGs; their design usually stresses problem-solving, combat, and teamwork, while horror stories emphasise helplessness, vulnerability, and isolation. A horror story character hearing a strange noise in the middle of the night might phone the police or hide under the blankets; a character in an RPG reaches for a pump action shotgun and crucifix. A horror story's protagonist is probably alone; an RPG character usually has allies close at hand.

Another difficulty arises from the serial format of RPGs with continuing characters. In real life nobody would repeatedly look for monsters unless he was seriously deranged. In games characters seek and find them, again and again. After a while players become blase about the "small fry", and the referee has to provide bigger and better thrills, escalating the action until any hint of horror is lost in the tactics of combat and survival. Someone once said "When you've seen Cthulhu, what do you do for an encore?" Often the only answer is to end the campaign.

These aren't inescapable problems. You can set up scenarios in which the characters aren't monster hunters, just ordinary people trapped in a situation they don't understand. Chaosium has published two collections of CoC adventures on this theme, Blood Brothers and Blood Brothers 2, which are designed for one-off play and have ready-made characters modelled on various b-movie genres. In some of them it is unlikely that any of the characters will survive. Some of the CoC scenarios from Pagan Publishing, such as Grace Under Pressure, also take this approach, as do many tournament adventures. Unfortunately this is rarely possible with games that generate characters as professional monster hunters.

Fortunately there are ways to keep the players off-balance and sustain atmosphere, even with adventurers prepared for trouble. The best horror game I ever played was a scenario which involved a series of mysterious deaths in a small town. We spent several days investigating, gradually focusing on a disused church on the outskirts of the town. We never had any real evidence of the supernatural, just hints of an unseen presence. But eventually, inevitably, we found ourselves waiting for nightfall in the crypt of the church - a church we had already searched and sealed by day - with the shadows deepening and a chill rain falling outside. We started to hear slow, muffled, somehow massive footsteps on the floor above. We ran for the stairs to the main church, and found the door shut and impossible to shift. Then blood began to drip through the ceiling...

Despite the fact that everyone was running a well-armed investigator, it took about two minutes of playing time for the entire team to decide to run. Whatever was upstairs had us beaten, at least for that night. No dice rolls were involved; just superb narration by a referee who really knew how to set the scene, a door that wouldn't open, and players who had got into their roles to the point that they were reacting as though their characters were real people. [see footnote]

Creating a genuinely horrific atmosphere is difficult, and it can rarely be sustained for more than a few minutes. Even a tiny lapse, a joke or a comment out of character, can wreck it. A mood of anticipation of horror is more readily achieved and sustained; people who fear horrific possibilities do make jokes, whistle to keep up their spirits, and make remarks that might seem to be in bad taste, so a lapse of this sort can be covered by the referee ("Your joke seems to lighten spirits momentarily, but soon uneasy silence descends again.") Anticipation can easily be turned to true horror, and helps to intensify moments of horror when they occur. In the example above, quiet narration and deliberate underplaying of the scarier elements of the setting had us on the edges of our seats when the action started.

A good example of this mood can be found in Wells' The War of the Worlds; there is a period of several hours, after the first Martian cylinder lands, in which nothing happens but the slow unscrewing of a hatch. Eventually it opens, and the first Martian is seen. It's a moment of genuine terror, intensified by the long anticipation that precedes it.

While anticipation is all very well in its place, it fails if it leads to an anticlimax. The film The Thing From Another World succeeded admirably when the characters anticipated danger - but when the monster appeared it was ludicrously unconvincing. Its remake, The Thing, succeeds because its monster is genuinely horrific even after it is seen. Unfortunately it took millions of dollars and a major special effects team to reach that point, resources that are rarely available in an RPG. All too many of the creatures encountered in horror scenarios are better anticipated than described in detail; once players know what they are, they stop fearing the unknown because it isn't unknown. Glimpse a ghoul once and it's a frightening horror; run into ghouls again and again and they are soon just another monster to kill.

Is there any need for this situation? Does every moment of terror have to be resolved by identifying the cause, killing it, and logging it in an adventurer's I-Spy Book of Abhorrent Monsters? Many of the scenarios written for publication are unfortunately locked into this form of presentation; their purchasers seem to feel cheated if there isn't a major confrontation with evil at least once per adventure. A long-term campaign soon runs into the problems I've described if it uses this approach.

Some of the best horror stories end ambiguously; can players accept that they won't always get all the answers, and that the answers they find may not always be right? Much depends on their maturity, but in general it should be possible to reach a conclusion that satisfies the players but leaves a few loose ends. For example, the team that visited the church never learned exactly what was happening; we came back the next day and set fire to the place, hoping to drive out whatever evil was there, and saw a burst of strange leprous light which we interpreted as the destruction of whatever was occupying the church. The killings stopped, and it seemed that we'd won; months later we learned that we'd broken the spell that was confining something to the area around the church, releasing it to move on to a major city and start operating on a much bigger scale.

I'm running out of space, and there really isn't much more to be said, apart from suggesting that the best way to get into the right mood for a horror campaign is to read some horror, look at the way it works, and try to adapt these techniques to your game. Monster-bashing is the easy approach; genuine horror, and the anticipation of horror, are harder, but with the right players they are more sustainable, and give a much better game.

Marcus L. Rowland

Footnote: Since playing in this adventure I've discovered that this scene was "borrowed" from William Hope Hodgson's The House Amongst The Laurels, part of Carnacki The Ghost Finder. Several of the Carnacki stories are excellent examples of anticipated horror, and they include at least two stories in which the monster is not an anticlimax when it's seen; a comparatively rare event in horror fiction. They can be downloaded from my web page,, as part of my Forgotten Futures RPG.