Horror and role playing games have a long-term relationship. It’s easy to forget sometimes — but in my day, chances were pretty good that a player’s first scare wasn’t in a Vampire: the Masquerade game, or a Call of Cthulhu session — it was in Dungeons and Dragons, facing a horde of zombies who could suck the character levels right out of you. Or, even worse, walking into a ten-by-ten dungeon room to find a bleached-white skeleton who turned out (as you discovered once the henchman got squished) to be an arch-lich.
There are a number of horror-specific games on the market now — “personal horror” is the hallmark of White Wolf’s World of Darkness, particularly Vampire: the Masquerade and the late-and-lamented Wraith: the Oblivion. If you’re partial to more human protagonists, you’ve got Call of Cthulhu, Hunter: the Reckoning, and All Flesh Must Be Eaten. Horror in the old west? Step into Deadlands, or pick up the forthcoming Fistful of Zombies supplement for All Flesh.
And that’s fine and dandy. I love every one of the games mentioned above, and if there were world enough and time I’d be playing them all weekly. Daily. But that’s missing half the equation. Horror isn’t a genre — it’s a mood, an attitude, a theme, a motif. Don’t be fooled by the marketing — your fright doesn’t need to be limited to the games designed to heighten it.
Everyone’s had one of those moments, haven’t they? There you are, enmeshed in your game, munching cheesy poofs, bickering or bantering with your fellow players — and then something happened. The monster popped out of the closet — or the real nature of the antagonist was revealed — or spiders began to drip from the ceiling.
The bantering quieted down … the orange powder on your fingertips went unlocked … and the clack of the dice against the card table grew loud and ominous. The game master took an obvious pleasure in tormenting you — but you were concerned for more than just the life of your character.
You were frightened. Frightened vicariously, sure, like you are when you watch a movie or read a novel — but frightened all the same.
Gaming has the potential to scare you a whole lot more than movies and novels do — it isn’t Sue Sorority or Frank Fratboy being stalked by the killer, it’s YOU — your character, at least. Nothing is a more immediate emotion than fear, except for love — and that’s a good deal more difficult to instill deliberately. That’s precisely how it should be viewed and used: as an emotion.