Horror Games, Nervous Laughter, and Ridiculous Farce

There's a very thin line between horror and farce.

Have you ever watched a horror film in theaters and laughed along with the rest of the audience after a tense moment? Or have you ever tried to run a horror game and had it turn into Abbot and Costello meet the Lich?

Pressure Relief Valve

Under stress, people tend to laugh. It's a sensible reaction. We're trying to convince ourselves that the thing we're seeing isn't real, isn't harmful, isn't actually going to kill us. We're fighting one system (adrenaline, heart rate, muscle tension) with another (laughter, muscle relaxation, comfort).

If you're running a horror RPG you need to anticipate this reaction and decide how you're going to deal with it.

Because your players will laugh and crack jokes. Even experienced players who are really "into it", who didn't set out to make farcical character or behave in silly ways, will need some form of tension release. In fact, the more "into it" a person is, the more likely they are to need some way to release the tension.

Very few horror tutorials online talk about this problem. There's plenty of excellent advice for setting the tone, planning a scenario, describing a room, hinting at monsters, etc, but very little on what to do when someone gets the giggles.

1. Plan Ahead

You can't keep the tension ratcheted up all the time. Plan for moments of release.
  •  When exploring a creepy old house, the players find a strange red substance dripping from a cupboard. They open it to find... a cracked jar of strawberry jam.
  • The players meet Sheriff Dimbulb. He's well-meaning but he's never heard of a goddamn "where-wolf" in the goddamn woods, no sir. Interacting with him is fun and non-threatening (in the supernatural sense) and allows your players to release some tension.
  • There's a puzzle; a clear and obvious puzzle. Something to think about that isn't maggots with the faces of babies.

2. Keep Everyone Focused
Your players will take their tone from the GM. If you're all over the place tonally, they'll follow. So don't crack Monty Python jokes or make puns, even if you really want to. You don't have to be a statue, but you do want to keep the game on an even keel.

Let your players crack OOC jokes from time to time, but don't riff off them and don't let them get out of hand. Just let the tension release, then get the game going again.

3. Embrace It

Alternatively, just accept that sometimes a horror film from the '50s is a comedy film from the 2000s. Times change, tones changes, what's scary becomes farcical. The main goal of showing up to Pretend Elfgame Night is to have a good time. If everyone's enjoying themselves, it doesn't really matter if you're running a horror game or a farce. Just make sure you've decided what you're going to do beforehand.
Source unknown (worryingly)

Basic Horror Tips

There are three main feelings horror media tries to evoke:
  • Terror: feeling of dread and anticipation. The tell-tale heart, the looming presence, the slow walk up the stairs. Your heart pounds.
  • Horror: feeling of shock and fright. The jump scare, the crash of lightning, the scream. Adrenaline surges.
  • Revulsion: visceral feeling of being grossed out. The "squick" factor. Your stomach churns.
"I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud."
-Stephen King
Generally, if you're working on a horror game, try to build tension and suspense first. Use jumps scares or chases or fights if you need to. And sure, add a few bits of squicky horror - descriptions carry a lot more weight in RPGs than in films or novels because they're ephemeral, temporary things. They live in the memories of your players. Done right, they can fester deliciously.

Here are some other tips:

1. Build a strong atmosphere. Run games at night in dimly lit rooms. Use music - music is really important. 

2. Pick a system with minimal mechanical intrusiveness. Looking up the grappling rules doesn't help.

3. Run one-shots send the PCs to a different location than the usual campaign. If you're changing the tone, change the setting too, even temporarily. A haunted house, a mysterious island, a strange castle.

4. Limit tools. It's hard to keep a horror game scary if the PCs have flamethrowers, teleporters, the ability to see in the dark, devour ghosts for sustenance, and fly. Taking away their hard-earned stuff is rarely successful or fun. Just run a one-shot instead.

5. Let your players do the work. Sketch, don't elaborate. Let their imaginations fill in the details. Let them speculate (and don't punish them for speculating).

6. Break the rules. Most good horror does. Aliens bleed acid and grow from chestbursting maggots to hideous beasts in hours. Werewolves change from people to beasts and are immune to regular bullets. The dead rise, the moon disappears, the sea belches forth sharks on legs. Saturn reigns. Etc.

Happy Halloween!

1 comment:

  1. I've never played in or run a horror game ... though the serious/farce thing is an eternal thing with anything I've run. My baseline as a referee is to run it straight, and allow the players to riff jokes as they will--because as a player, my baseline is to crack jokes at every new situation, but to double down and take the fiction seriously when I need to. I don't see any contradiction in an evening of joking and seriousness while gaming. I'd like to try horror some time though, maybe things are different therein!

    To be pedantic, I would flip your senses of "terror" and "horror". Terror is the sharp fear, the loss of control that leads to panic and rout on the battlefield because the men are "terrified" of the enemy; Horror is the slow fear, the dread, the anticipation of what is to come and/or revulsion of what lies before, of being "horrified" at what one finds. Horror comes from the Latin for "hair standing on end" or "bristling" which is more anticipatory than it is sudden, I would tend to think.