How To Play A Horror Game

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Thursday, 02 November 2017 Written by Steve

Since Monday was Halloween and it's been a long week, here's the excerpt from Spooky: The Definitive Guide to Horror Gaming that we posted to the Death Cookie right after the book (Hex's first full-sized one) was released back in October 2001. 

Horror gaming requires the player make a few changes to her normal style of play for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, horror is one of the few genres in which the "heroes" are more or less normal people, at least starting out. In most games, the PCs are dragon slayers, starship captains, pirates, and other exciting types. In horror games, they're more likely to be high school students and small-town sheriffs. Many horror games rely heavily on mood and tone, which is hard to establish but very easy to break. Players have to be aware of the mood and try not to break it. There are also a few other elements that set horror stories apart from more standard RPG fare, such as the high body count. This chapter post gives some tips for players in a horror game. 

Staying In Character-You're No Throg

Because the characters in most RPGs are constant witnesses to violence, death, and general weirdness, it's sometimes hard for gamers to stay in character when the game requires them to play normal people. You need to remember that you're not playing Throg the Warrior. There are three main categories where normal folks are different from the heroic types most RPGs focus on: reaction to violence, reaction to confrontation, and believing the unbelievable. Obviously, some characters (monster fighters, believers, etc.) will not react like most "normal" folks, but they're the exception, not the rule. 

Reaction to Violence

While Throg the Warrior is used to wallowing in the blood and guts of fallen comrades, Suzie the cheerleader probably isn't. When your character is confronted with violence, be it a severed head or an industrial accident, remember that you're not playing Throg. Exactly what this means depends on the character. Some characters will go into a state of shock, and others will cry for mommy. How your character freaks out depends on the character. The important thing is that she does freak out, especially in the early part of the game. As the body count rises, the self-preservation instinct coupled with desensitization will probably cause your character's reactions to become less extreme, but she should still have some reaction when she finds her boyfriend's head in the fridge. 

Reaction to Confrontation

Throg the Warrior is just the latest in a long line of warriors and once killed a man for scuffing his boots. Jimmy the pothead doesn't believe in violence, and even if he did, he's too weak to actively practice it. Most normal people, when faced with confrontation (especially from an obviously superior foe) will run like cheap pantyhose. In most horror stories, the protagonist eventually ends up having to face the monster (for some possible reasons, see " Keeping the Party Together" in the previous chapter  Spooky: The Definitive Guide To Horror Gaming, which you can buy here!), but until there's some reason for the character to stay and fight, he'll usually run, unless he's cornered. 

Believing the Unbelievable

Throg the Warrior has battled mighty wizards and had tea with the gods. Werewolves and vampires don't seem the least bit odd to Throg. On the other hand, the most unnatural and hard-to-explain thing Bubba the Redneck has ever encountered is the genius of Hank Williams. Most likely, Bubba's not going to believe that there's a werewolf eating townsfolk--even if he sees one. He'll probably write it off as a commie trick. Keep in mind that most characters are at least a little skeptical about the unexplained. They won't believe until they're forced to. And remember that seeing is not necessarily believing--the human mind has a boundless capacity for rationalization. 

Keeping the Mood

The lights are dim, spooky music is playing, and the GM has just described the most horrifying scene imaginable. Suddenly one of the players says, "I scratch my nooglies." While this may be funny as hell, it breaks the mood and is generally not a good idea. Regardless of the genre of horror being played, it's important for the players to work with the GM to keep the desired mood. Exactly how to go about doing this depends on the style of game you're playing. 


Dramatic games rely most heavily on mood. This doesn't mean that everyone needs to be completely serious at all times--in fact, it's usually good to break up the tension every now and then. The key is timing. When all the players are really into the game, or the characters are in a truly horrific or dramatic situation, it's best to stay in character and keep table talk to a minimum. You can fire off your cool one-liner once the tension has subsided. 


Action games should be fast paced and exciting. The key for this style of play is to avoid getting caught up in the details. Don't worry about which gun is more accurate or whether the hockey stick has a better reach than the baseball bat. Just grab something and beat the crap out of the monster. This is one of the styles of play where the GM will let you get away with a lot. Don't bother asking the GM for an inventory of the room, just tell him, "I pick up a vase and whack him over the head." Unless you're in a sailboat, he probably won't quibble over the existence or lack thereof of said vase. Just don't go overboard (there's probably not a shotgun in the hospital room). The key is to think fast and act fast--otherwise, you'll get left behind. 


In comedic games, anything goes. Feel free to break all the rules, ignore common sense (and even the laws of physics), and generally be stupid. Ham it up and play to every cliche'. You, the GM, and the other players need to work together and make sure that each gag has a straight man if needed. Sometimes it may be the monster or an NPC, but sometimes you'll have to play the role. Remember that everything doesn't have to be a gag--acting truly terrified of the giant monster can sometimes be funnier than cracking a joke about it. Sometimes playing a scene seriously can make the punchline work even better. Most importantly, don't take anything too seriously, and never pass up the chance for a laugh. 


Camp is tricky. On the one hand, the characters are involved in the highest form of drama--they're looking for nods from the academy for their stunning portrayal. The players, on the other hand, know that they're trapped in a bad B-movie. You have to go completely over the top while keeping a straight face. The key with camp is to remember that the idea is not to be funny, but to be melodramatic. Campy movies are funny because the actors put so much of their "talent" into such poorly-written scenes, not because of funny lines and clever sight gags. Jokes are for comedic games. Camp requires conspicuous overacting. 

The Rules

As anyone who's seen Scream can tell you, many of the sub-genres of horror have their own sets of "rules." These are conventions, characters, and cliches that are common to movies, books, comics, and other forms of horror stories. Rules for a few of the more common types of horror are given below. Some of the rules are necessary, others are just cheap ways to get around a lack of talent. There are three main types of rules: Story Rules, Action Rules, and Dialogue Rules. Which ones are and are not appropriate depends on the type of game you're playing. 

Story Rules

Things like "the killer always comes back to life for a final scare" or "there is always an eccentric old man who knows the story of the blasphemous tome." In general, it's up to the GM to decide which story rules he will use in his game. 

Action Rules

Action rules are things the characters do. Investigating the strange noise, pairing up for sex, and reading from the strange book you found are all examples of action rules in action. Some action rules are required for the story. For example, most monsters only attack people who are alone, so it's often necessary for the party to split up to get the story moving. 

Dialogue Rules

Dialogue Rules are cliched lines, as well as the reactions to those lines. For examples, if someone says "I'll be right back" they're about to die. If someone says "Is he dead?" he is. In addition to throwaway gag lines, dialogue can be use for foreshadowing ("I've got a bad feeling about this"). The GM should also feel free to make the players eat their words. For example, if the Doctor continually goes on about how "there's no such thing as ghosts," he should be one of the first to encounter the poltergeist. A horribly botched Nerve check can make the encounter even more fun for everyone involved (except maybe the Doctor's player). 

When to Use the Rules

What kind of rules you use and when depends on the style of play, how using or ignoring the rules will help or hinder the story, and the preferences of the GM and players. Sometimes breaking the rules can be more fun than following them, and doing so can result in a much more original story. Below are some guidelines about using rules for the four main styles of play. 


Story rules should particularly be avoided, as they can make the story seem cliched, which makes dramatic play difficult. Action rules are sometimes required to keep the story moving, but players should generally only follow action rules if they make sense for the character (in his current state of mind, of course). Dialogue can be used to set moods, foreshadow, and convey irony, but the GM and players should try to avoid overused lines when possible. 


Story rules can be very useful for this style, since they help the players get right into the thick of things without a lot of exposition. Players will often follow action rules to the letter as well, since many action rules lead to direct confrontation with the monster. Dialogue rules can be used or ignored according to preference, but cool and witty remarks are always a good thing in action stories. 


Comedic games often follow most of the rules to the letter. In fact, many of the jokes will center around the characters following the rules and realizing that they're doing so (see "Postmodernism, Metafiction, and Other Words We Don't Understand" for details). In fact characters in comedic stories should often comment on how intelligent or stupid they are for doing things that'll get them killed. Comedy can also be achieved by breaking the rules. If the character does something that he knows will cause the monster to attack and it doesn't, it can be fun to watch his reaction. 


Campy games absolutely require adherence to the rules. The key is to remember that none of the characters know they're following them. The characters think they're doing perfectly logical things and saying what comes naturally. 

Rationalizing the Rules

While the rules can sometimes cheapen the story, they are often necessary to keep things moving. A good way to rationalize why a character who clearly knows better is following a rule is to keep in mind that the characters are not in a state of mind where clear thought is easily achieved. Terror, exhaustion, and physical injuries can cause people to do things that don't make sense. 

Since Scream did such a great job of showing us the rules, we'll use an example from the first movie. At some point, Sidney makes a comment about how women in horror movies always run up the stairs when they should be running outside for help. Five minutes later, when the killer shows, up, she heads right up the stairs. Why? Well, because the stairs were positioned away from the killer, or at least more away from him than the door. When someone is confronted by a threat, the instinct is to move away from it. The fact that heading for the door would be more beneficial didn't enter Sid's mind because she was scared as hell. 

Postmodernism, Metafiction, and Other Words We Don't Understand

Do the characters know they're in a horror story? Are they aware of the rules involved? The level of awareness the characters have as to their situation can restrict or encourage certain kinds of dialogue, especially in comedic stories. For example, the black character, if he's aware that he's living a slasher story, will probably realize that his chances of survival are slim. In some cases, it may be fun to take such self-reference to an extreme, with the characters praying aloud that their players roll well or spend Yum Yums. Generally, characters in dramatic and action stories will not be aware that they're involved in horror story, but they could very well be aware that such stories exist, and even use those stories as guides to dealing with the situation. Characters in Campy stories should never be self-aware--as far as they're concerned, they're the first people to ever deal with such a traumatic situation. 

Separating Player Knowledge and Character Knowledge

In all games, it's important to separate what you as a player know from what your character knows. This is especially true in horror games, because in most cases your character doesn't even know he's involved in a horror situation during the opening stages of the game. In a fantasy game, you know you're playing Throg the Warrior in the land of Ug, and Throg knows that he's Throg the Warrior from the land of Ug. In a horror game, you know you're playing Terror at Camp Waka'naka, but your character thinks he's just going camping so he can drink beer and have sex. Separating what you know from what your character knows can help you stay in character and react in a more realistic manner, which will make the overall story a lot more believable and entertaining for everyone involved. 

Working With the GM

Like separating player and character knowledge, working with the GM is something that should happen in all games, but is especially crucial in horror games. In most games, the GM can pretty much give the PCs a goal (anything from "figure out who killed the baron" to "there's gold in them thar hills") and they'll take it from there. In a horror game, the GM does give the PCs a goal ("don't get eaten by the monster"), but there's often a right and wrong way to complete the goals. In most horror games, the wrong way is to do the intelligent thing and get the hell out of dodge. The right way is to hang around and get picked off one by one. 

The GM has plenty of tools to encourage the players to do the stupid things horror characters often do, but sometimes he needs a little help. The players have to be ready to occasionally play their characters a little dumber than they actually are (remember they're scared and won't think of everything anyway). For example, if the car won't start, don't insist to the GM that your character can fix it (or worse, point out to the GM that the car is brand new and in perfect repair). Make a token attempt to get it running (assuming there's not a werewolf breathing down your neck), then accept that it's not going to start. The GM and players have to work together to explain why the characters are doing dumb things. 

You can also help the GM out by occasionally throwing character hooks his way. In many horror stories, some link between the protagonist and the monster is revealed. This is usually difficult unless pregenerated characters are used, but can be done. If you see a way to tie your character in with the monster, toss it to the GM. It's usually best to do this subtly. Don't say "the killer is my character's brother." Instead, when the crazy old man tells about the killer who's been staking the camp since last Halloween, have your character shed a tear and mention her brother been missing since last Halloween. If the GM likes the idea, and it fits with his storyline, he'll probably work with you. 

Dealing with Fear

One of the hardest things to do when playing in a horror game is to act scared, creeped out, or even downright terrified. Some GMs are so good at setting the mood that their players are actually a little on edge during scary scenes, but this is a rare gift. More often, the players have to fake it. As a player, it's your job to make sure that your character reacts to frightening situations with appropriate fear. 

Sometimes (especially when the characters are faced with the "shock" brand of horror), the GM will require players to make a Nerve check, with failure indicating that the character is affected by the scene. In some cases, the GM may decide what a failed roll means--characters who fail may run away, throw up, or suffer penalties to rolls. In most cases, it's up to you to decide what fear does to your character. Some characters may fall to the floor crying, some may run screaming, and others may faint. When faced with something shocking or terrifying, decide how your character should react to the situation and play those reactions. Never simply ignore the horrors the character faces--if you do that, you're missing the whole point of playing a horror game. 

Dying Gracefully

As anyone who's ever seen a horror movie or read a scary story knows, characters die. In most horror stories, at least half of the core character group gets wiped out by the time the monster is dead. While you can sometimes do things to increase your character's chance of survival, you must accept that some characters are going to die, and yours may be one of them. When that time comes, don't argue and pout. Accept your fate and move on. 

Once your character is dead, you could just head home. Hopefully, though, the GM's story will be good enough that you'll want to stick around. If you do, try not to be a distraction to the GM and other players. In fact, you should try to help out as much as you can. If you make it clear that you're willing to help, the GM will probably be able to find NPCs for you to play, and may even be willing to let you help him run the game when the party inevitably gets split up. You can also help out the other players by making beer runs, helping new players understand the rules, or playing somebody's character when they need to go to the bathroom or duck out for a smoke. In general, be a good sport and don't take your character's death too personally. Other players will follow your example, and the GM just might give you a break next time.

©2012 by Hex Games
How To Play A Horror Game.
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