Monday, November 25, 2013

Horrors: The Style is the Thing

One of the biggest things you have to think about in a horror game is, quite naturally, the horror of it all. What makes the game scary? How do the rules complement or detract from it? What kind of enemies will the protagonists face?

My game actually makes it relatively easy to survive the various threats because death isn’t really the source of the horror for this game. Yes, it’s a possibility. And yes, there are things out there which can take you down quickly. But there are other options (termed Critical Moments) for what can happen when you lose all of your health points AND you can choose to trade up to half your health point damage for a single injury instead.

The injuries are pretty simple and straightforward and emphasise the pain of survival. While enough health point damage can slowly kill you through blood loss (at an hourly rate to begin with before becoming a minute-by-minute rate), it can so easily become a simple resource. Injuries, on the other hand, really ram it home that pain hurts.

I have seen some players look at having a single health point left in a classic World of Darkness game. He thought that everything’s fine and was quite happy to leap at a monster that I knew would certainly kill him. When I casually pointed out that he was so badly damaged he could only crawl towards it, he suddenly changed his mind and treated his character as badly hurt.

Injuries also function as a pretty neat reminder to Game Wardens that the character is hurt, as well as how they’re hurt. When a character can carry very little weight due to their bad back, and that comes up in game, the Game Warden then has the opportunity for a little description that emphasises that pain.

Of course, the trick with injuries is to ensure that it doesn’t become a painful sub-system in and of itself so I’ve kept the overall system around it quite simple.

Anyway, the game also has Morale which can be chipped away by various events and bolstered by methods of blowing off steam (venting, fighting, seducing, shopping, etc.). This actively encourages players to have those tense moments in-game as hitting 0 Morale means their character will go into Fight, Flight or Freeze (player’s choice).

Which also fits the protagonist’s mental state.

If you don’t find some release for all the tension you’re feeling, it’ll find it’s own release.

All of this means that it’s a game where the experience of living and surviving the threat becomes the real horror. This isn’t to say that the game is designed around torture porn where the characters are slowly brutalised and abused, far from it as that would soon become either relentlessly depressing or simply tedious.

The game is designed around people actively avoiding harm. Death is a threat but it’s not the only threat. When most people see a knife wielding maniac, they fear death but they comprehend the fear of pain. In this light, even rather mundane situations such as saving someone from a burning building or pulling folk out of the rubble becomes more tense because it’s not just a whittling away of health points you have to worry about.

In the end, you want to avoid pain in general.

Naturally this means that some of the combat rules (cover and concealment, dodge and parry) are designed to allow and encourage the players to attempt to use their terrain to avoid damage so that they don’t feel utterly helpless.

Vulnerability is good, utter helplessness is bad outside of a one-shot.

Next week I’ll talk a bit about the entities and how they play into this particular style of horror.


  1. This is sounding very good. I like the idea of cashing in hit point loss for an injury, letting you keep going but with defined penalties, but also keeping it abstract in the shorter term. No need to track minor cuts separately, but you know they'll add up over time. And you can always skin the transition as one of those injuries you just don't notice in the first rush of adrenaline, or that takes a while to swell up.

    The Morale sounds interesting too, and actually sounds like you could reskin it for other genres. For example, it'd potentially be decent in a political game where setbacks knock your confidence and make you react irrationally.

    1. That would be awesome. I'm now imagining the morale consequences of dealing with Peter Capaldi's character in "The Thick Of It".