Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Defending The Horror

My band marches to a slightly different beat.  The games I run, and things I make, tend to feature a bit more horror and take their inspiration from similar sources.  The recent discussions around game art got me thinking - are my own ideas outside the D&D mainstream, too?

I'm not going to change anything, but it got me thinking why horror is such an important part of my game.  Let's say you think horror has no place in the game - as if giant poisonous spiders dropping down on characters and creating near-death experiences doesn't spike the fear and terror at the table.  You might say, demon-possessed serial killers going around doing vile things to innocent people is quite a bit different than running into a few horrible monsters in the dungeon.  There's a qualitative difference between fear and fear/disgust (oh - and check out Roger's excellent disgust articles for a deep dive)  I guess the concern is  that running a dark game is lurid and would arouse prurient interests or generate moral feelings of disgust.  "And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee…"

Melan said something on the "You're No Hero" post that really stuck with me - "The great moral dividing line in sword & sorcery stories lies not between altruism and egoism, law and lawlessness, or hero and antihero, but humanity and inhumanity… A roguish protagonist is not fundamentally different from one who respects law and order when we compare them to inhumane cultists and sanity-blasting horrors from beyond. "

And to steal a line from everyone's favorite peddler of shock and controversy, the darker the game world, the greater the light even a single candle will shed.

The Black City might have a few horror elements, like getting abducted and vivisected in the Tower of Pain, or drinking the wrong water and devolving into a mutated cannibal berserker.  Bah, mere occupational hazards.  I actually see the setting as a rip-roaring romp with totally awesome Vikings.  With big axes.  Fantasy Vikings = pirates, and what's more fun than being a pirate?  Am I right or what?  The ninjas may have real ultimate power™, but I'll take booty and wenches and rum (or in this case, mead) any day.

So make it horrible and dark, and put some squeamishness and icky stuff in your games.  Even amoral rogues that stand up against your horrors will seem "heroic" by comparison.  I'm not advocating role playing the icky stuff and running a "let's do snuff" game, but after all, a man's greatness is measured by his enemies.  Give your players something worthy of fighting.

I really enjoyed my Monday post on demonic possession in D&D - I'm kinda tired of retarded looking demons with vulture heads and gorilla bodies, and am going to spend some time working through a few alternate demons that follow the "immaterial, unclean spirit" approach, and play up the exorcist angle, too.  But I would be interested in hearing if folks think those kinds of articles cross any blatant lines about mixing real world beliefs with gaming.  I'd hope that you'd consider the comment section a safe place to dissent.  My own feeling tends to be, if it's used as a hideous monster in the movies, chances are I'll consider pulling it into a D&D game.

Carry on.  Make it monstrous, make it horrible, keep it Weird.

Planetary:  something about 'keeping it strange' just felt right for this post...


  1. I get a lot of inspiration from horror films for my D&D games. If the players run into Zombies they usually end up running away - not necessarily because of the stats either.

  2. Yeah, I think horrors fairly well in the mainstream of D&D inspirations. :)

  3. As to whether articles like the one about the Unclean Spirits cross some kind of line, I don't think so. It's a game, we know it's a game, and using Biblical-style demons is no more an insult to Bible believers than playing Squad Leader is an insult to veterans of World War II.

    Individual play groups need to decide what is allowed at their table. Bloggers, game designers, and so on should write what interests them and respect their audiences by understanding that we're capable of making our own judgments.

  4. Horror has always been a part of my fantasy games. I really think it's hard for characters to "heroic" without that challenge.

  5. "Give your players something worthy of fighting."

    Amen. In a recent game we spent an entire session battling random encounters. I finally threw up my hands and cried, "Enough!"

    Like you say, give the intrepid explorers a worthy foe!

  6. In our 2nd B/X D&D game I rolled a wandering monster in the Crypt section where the party had previously lost a retainer and buried him under a pile of stones in a desecrated temple.

    I rolled a Zombie.

    Random encounters can sometimes be awesome! :)

  7. I think there is a definite place for horror in the mainstream of RPGs. Cthulu has been around since the beginning. Vampire is horror. This stuff is mainstream.

    That said, I think there is a common art standard beyond which gaming books should be discouraged from crossing.

  8. While it's been fun bashing on Raggi and DCC all week, I'd certainly like to see folks put up some art they think can cover the same material (keeping in mind the art director's intended responses) without being offensive or "crossing the line" or whatever. Of course, that assumes the original goal wasn't simply to offend some people and start discussions (which I find extremely like).

    None of the art you've associated with the Black City has squicked me out so far (not that I think it would be a bad thing if it did), yet you state you aspire to similar things. Either you're doing something different, or you need to post more art ;)

  9. I've always preferred demons as formless soul-eating horrors rather than big tough boss monsters made out of bits of stuff (that'll be all that Earthsea influence). Helps to differentiate them a bit, I find; a demon doesn't need to be a big scary grobble-monster because it can find one to possess, seduce, co-erce or bribe into doing its big scary grobble-monster duties for it. Having a demon aboard might make the grobble-monster more grobbly (that'll be all that old Warhammer influence) as telegraphy - but that's still not as scary as someone who looks pretty ordinary but is a seething hive of demonic foulness underneath.

  10. I say we need horror to remind us of how good our lives actually are, and to make the light and bright worthwhile and something to aim for.

  11. @Greg: You're holding up Call of Cthulhu as mainstream horror, but there are similar things in various Call of Cthulhu adventures to the infamous demon-vagina. And Delta Green goes much farther. So did much of the Sabbat-oriented World of Darkness stuff (my group at the time ran a coterie of Tzimisce Sabbat torturers - all ordinary folks with good day jobs that went all 'reservoir dogs' during game time).

    The difference here is that much of D&D's corporate focus has been sanitary for as long as the suits are calling the shots; now that the game is in the hands of hobbyists, we can make products that match how we actually play the game (at least, what I'm getting from these limited comments are that folks think horror antagonists are totally fair game).

    @Antion: my buddy Felt likes horror but isn't a huge fan of drawing gross-out stuff; when I get closer to having the manuscript done I may appeal to the OSR community of artists for some help, and some of these pieces could be edgier - a few of the bosses planned for the deeper levels are a bit grotesque.

    @Stuart: Yes! Turning a dead PC into a zombie, after being left behind in the dungeon not blessed/buried properly, is excellent - definitely have used that one as well.

  12. To me, horror in an RPG has nothing to do with being visceral or gory necessarily. Horror is stepping outside of a psychological comfort zone. In a typical "horror" film, the protagonist(s) is typically confronted with something outside his experience or "normal" ability to deal with.

    That's why "Alien" is a horror movie and "Aliens" is an action movie. In the first film, what are basically a bunch of oil rig workers in space have to face a terrifying creature. The marines in the 2nd film are facing terrible foes, but they have the skills, mindset, and tools to deal with them. Heck, they must shoot/blow up at least a few dozen of them before the end.

    In a fantasy game like D&D, your PCs are usually quite capable of dealing with something big & hairy that might jump out of the dark at them. Heck, that's practically in their job descriptions! Horror in these instances is where the normal (for them) isn't good enough.

    Zombie apocalypse stories are popular for this because the threat can turn former friends into the enemy. "Save the last bullet for yourself!"and the like. The sense of doom, the feeling that –even if you survive– things won't ever be "OK" again. That "discomfort" is the source of horror. Not the rotting corpses shuffling around the streets.

    Adventures where the PCs can't win conventionally, or "winning" means picking a lesser evil. Those are more likely to fit the Horror label, IMO.