Today we’ll be moving along into the next chapter, which is a chapter of advice to the GM on running a horror game. I’m hoping they get this right, because my own direct experience is that people tend to wildly overestimate their ability to tell any kind of genre story. They aim for comedy and end up with bad slapstick crammed with atrocious excuses at jokes; they aim for high drama and get a bad rendition of a soap opera; they try for horror and end up with bad comedy by accident.
First up, we get some discussions on the balance of heroism and horror, the importance of consent in horror games that comes with a nicely detailed explanation of what the GM’s responsibility is, and an equally detailed explanation to the players about what their part in things is. As with most things done by Paizo, attention is paid here to the fact that people can be uncomfortable with what the group is doing and that they need to let the GM know in such a situation. We’re all in this to have fun, not to suffer for the pleasure of others.
This is followed up by a section on horror subgenres; this is a lovely thing, as I occasionally feel like people don’t really understand that while horror as a whole is horror, it splits into different forms on closer examination. Slasher horror is a far cry from body horror or psychological horror, after all. Since they do a very good job on these, with a general description followed by storytelling themes, monsters and threats, basic plots, and advanced plots, I’ll simply touch briefly on each type before moving on.
Body horror is first in line; while this honestly is as simple as the sound of breaking bones and the nauseating jolt of something going wrong in your body, in practical game terms this is straight-up physical horror about biology. From transformation to mutilation and beyond, it’s horror of the flesh. The section on Corruptions very much ties into this theme.
Cosmic horror is the horror of the vast, cold, and uncaring cosmos. Beings older than time to whom the mightiest of mortals aren’t even enough to amount to fleas threaten the world entirely by accident. Madness is often an important theme in this kind of horror, as the revelations of the truth of the world rattle the foundations of a character’s entire life and understanding. The best you can hope to accomplish here is to put the end of the world off to some later date, and hope the people then can do the same.
Dark fantasy is fantasy that relies on horror themes; if you really want to know what this looks like, do some digging and look up the original myths and fairy tales behind Disney’s happy-go-lucky stories. Fairies that were eight feet tall and carnivorous, beautiful beings who were so outraged a mortal could look upon them that they’d put the poor soul’s eyes out, heroic striving against the unbreakable curse of destiny, and much worse await.
Ghost stories are the kind of horror that relies on the supernatural and the spectral; a lot of Steven King’s works fit this category. Whatever nightmare caused the source point of these tales to come into existence, the PCs are latecomers, forced to deal with the fallout of tragedy in a very real and life-threatening way. The many incorporeal forms of undead in PAthfinder can be put to good use here, and stories will revolve around trying to put them to rest once and for all.
Gothic horror is the kind of thing you find with Dracula, right down to the fact that Ravenloft for D&D was originally something of a gothic horror setting that later got expanded. Full of gloom, decay, despair, and the wages of sin, it’s also ful of tragic beauty and romantic aspects. Curses should probably feature here, and domains of evil certainly fit in. Tragic villains are a big thing for this kind of horror – feel sorry for the monster and kill it out of mercy.
Psychological horror, one of my favorite subgenres, is rich with themes of paranoia, self-doubt, conspiracies, existential dread, and confronting the question of what’s real and what’s a hallucinatory figment. This is also the absolute hardest kind of game to run in a heroic-styled system like Pathfinder. It’s certainly doable, but if you’re not thoroughly familiar with your players and the psych-horror subset, I don’t suggest it. It’s all too easy for it to go awry.
Slasher horror is honestly the easiest form of horror for a game to run; simply design a villain the players can’t beat, let them know it, and let them know the villain is after them. Have hapless victims to get destroyed by the unstoppable juggernaut as a sign of what’s coming. This is most likely to be the form of horror everyone knows from movies; jump-shock splatterfest films with villains like Jason and Freddy Krueger are staples of it.
That’s the list of most horror subgenres; others certainly can be said to exist, and these are simply points along a spectrum of horror, so any given story may blend different horror types together. They serve as important starting points for the GM, and can be crucial if you’re not familiar enough with horror to go your own way just yet.
Next up we have advice on creating horror adventures; these include caveats about understanding that you’re writing an interactive adventure, not a screenplay or novel, choosing the central terror of the story, spreading the fear around so that no one person gets overloaded, the benefits of obfuscating the dangers (it’s not an orc barbarian; it’s a pale humanoid in the shadows with glowing red eyes and blades made of rust-stained mill saw fragments), and more. The most useful thing here is the discussion of how to use treasure to spread the horror and advance your plot; notes, journals, personal items, old books, and dusty fragments of items can all be more valuable than gold.
That’s all for today; next time I’ll be back for the section on horror storytelling.