Friday, December 17, 2010

A Taxonomy of Horror

Last post discussed the Dunwich Horror as a pulp action horror story that inspired the common approach to using Lovecraft in gaming; I briefly introduced the idea of Pulp vs Purist horror styles I've seen in modern approaches to the genre in gaming.  (The excellent Trail of Cthulhu blew the doors open for me on Purist style gaming).

Whereas Pulp vs Purist describe styles of play, let's take a moment and establish some additional foundational terms for describing horror - apologize if this seems too professorial, I'm really just a hobbyist that wants to establish a lexicon for further discussion.  (These classes of horror come from an 80's horror anthology - Dark Descent - but they work well for my purposes).

Supernatural Horror
Most horror, and certainly most horror in D&D, is supernatural horror.  Demons, devils, ghosts, and the undead; supernatural horror involves these intrusions of evil into an otherwise sensible world.  Most of these stories have some cosmic theme of  good vs evil.   The gothic tales of the 19th century, the works of Stephen King, movies like The Exorcist or Rosemary's Baby, these are all good examples of the supernatural horror story.

Psychological Horror
Psychological horror arises from the actions of the monster at the center of the story - I have met the enemy, and he is us.  Implacable murderers (Jason, Freddy, Leatherface), grotesqueries, torture, body horror, this is the stuff of psychological horror.   Movies like Saw, Friday the 13th, Halloween, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, those visceral slasher flicks, are well-known examples.

Weird Horror
Lovecraft and similar writers fall into the realm of weird horror - and so would things like scientific horror, materialistic horror, atheist horror.  The nature of reality is unknown or misunderstood, the cosmos is vast, impersonal and uncaring; when we stare into the void, either we see nothing, or we something worse than nothing.  Most weird horror is literary, but I'd put materialistic movies like Alien in this group as well.

Horror in Dungeons & Dragons
Most D&D horror fails - D&D is essentially a pulp action game where monsters are meant to die.  I hate the stupid Far Realm that infected 3.x and 4E with it's idiocy, tapping into the trendiness of tentacles.  It supposedly interjected Lovecraftian elements into the D&D cosmos, but the teleology is all wrong, so it just doesn't work for me.  Everything is reduced to supernatural horror; the players are pawns or foot soldiers in the great battle against evil (or madness), and at the end of the day, they usually get to go home, victory in hand.  Where's the dread?

Can weird horror work in an action game like Dungeons & Dragons?  I hope so!  What do you think?


  1. Very interesting write-up; I'll be interested to see how these ideas play out with D&D.

  2. Sure it can! You just have to be playing with a group that can be satisfied with a more literary game, and don't need to hack everything to bits in order to feel like they've actually played D&D.