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© 1998-2001 Dru
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Genre: Writing the Horror
"genre" is a "category of artistic, musical, or literary
composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content"
(Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition). Roleplaying genres
are very similar to novel and cinematic genres—they fall into the
same categories and are marked with the same motifs. Examples of common
RPG genres are western, detective/spy/mystery, horror, science fiction,
fantasy, and superhero. Many of the genres have subgenres, such as cyberpunk
or steampunk under the science fiction genre, splatter and monster under
the horror genre, and so forth.
There also exist metagenres,
such as noir—we can imagine westerns noir, detective noir, horror
noir, and so forth. (For those unfamiliar with the term, noir works tend
to be dark, brooding, and filled with moral conflict.) Comedy, tragedy,
and romance are also, arguably, metagenres.
The intelligensia have
traditionally looked down on genre works because they are not unique works
of art—genre material relies on common themes, motifs, stereotypes,
and cliches. The very best genre material uses them but also rises above
them, such as Clint Eastwood's superb movie "Unforgiven," which
calls on the western stereotypes but simultaneously investigates them
from the point of view of an older, experienced, more world-weary and
bitter man. However, most of us without such pretensions to high culture
simply enjoy genres for what they are—unassuming, entertaining,
familiar fare with its own history and tradition.
Every genre revolves
around one central theme—the Hero's Journey. In the Hero's Journey,
the protagonist travels through some sort of ordeal, physical or emotional.
In RPGs, there are multiple protagonists—the player characters.
They are called to the adventure, receive help from allies, pass tests,
and attempt to defeat the enemy, gain some sort of reward, and return.
The genre determines the trappings of the journey.
The Genre and Subgenres
Horror is one of the
most criticized and yet most moralistic of genres. Although blamed by
various factions in society for causing all sorts of mental disturbances
and bad behavior, at its core the classic horror story is one of bad people
meeting bad ends. And its definition of bad is particularly conservative—use
drugs, die. Have sex, die. Party at night instead of staying safely and
demurely at home, die. Seek Secrets Humans Were Not Meant to Know, die.
And so on.... In the classic horror story, good always triumphs over evil,
justice prevails, the status quo is safely reasserted, and evil is vanquished,
although not destroyed. In short, it's exactly the sort of genre that
makes for good roleplaying.
Horror RPGs are even
more amusing now because the stereotypes of the genre are so well-known
to players. They will appreciate the deft use (or abuse) of these cliches
and stereotypes by a clever GM. For example, they'll know it's a bad sign
when the lights go out in the old house ... that they can't assume they're
safe just because the monster plummeted half a mile down into the narrow
canyon ... that the old man or woman living at the edge of town probably
does know what s/he's talking about when s/he begins to rant and rave....
but it's precisely because players know these things that the GM can get
away with turning the tables on them.
The horror genre can
be separated into the (not mutually exclusive) subgenres of "gothic,"
"psychological," "slasher," "splatter,"
"monster," and "pulp."
Gothic horror is your
typical 18th-century type of horror, with haunted houses, graveyards,
ghosts, and the like. Many RPGs have created at least one gothic horror
adventure for a campaign, and some, like AD&D's old Ravenloft campaign,
were devoted to gothic horror.
on the other hand, is relatively difficult to turn into an RPG, since
it usually tracks one person's descent into madness.
Slasher horror usually
involves some sort of superpowered serial killer chasing kids and teenagers
around—it lends itself well to RPGing, since the killer never seems
to die. Splatter is a relatively new genre of horror dedicated to lovingly
dwelling over scenes of stomach-turning gore ... although it's primarily
a literary genre, it is reflected in the films of Barker, Romero, and
Argento. Most horror RPGs can be turned into splatter if the GM is willing
to detail the gore, but few are specifically written that way. "All
Flesh Must be Eaten" by Eden Studios may be one exception to this
Monster horror is the
old standby of vampires, golems, mummies, werewolves, and the like. It
can be grafted with any of the above subgenres, or stand alone as a classic
"kill the monster before it kills you" adventure. Related to
this is the pulp subgenre, which is named after the awful B-movie horror
films of especially the '50s. The pulp subgenre usually involves some
science-fiction elements such as radiation or mad scientists, and may
also involve giant versions of some normal animal, such as ants, bees,
There are a number of
horror RPGs in print. The most famous is the gothic/monster horror of
Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu, in which the more the investigators learn
about the real world, the more quickly they go insane. Another popular
horror RPG is the pulpy western horror of Pinnacle Entertainment Group's
Deadlands and Hell on Earth. Several occult games fall roughly into the
horror genre but don't clearly belong to any subgenre, such as In Nomine,
Kult, and Nefilim. Falling into a monster/psychological horror genre would
be the very popular World of Darkness games. As mentioned above, in the
monster/splatter genre is Eden Studios' All Flesh Must be Eaten. A number
of other horror games can also be found.
Themes, Motifs, Settings, and Events
In horror, the Hero's
Journey is usually a conflict designed to overcome a great evil. Typically
the protagonists fight to protect themselves and their loved ones. Horror
usually pits faith and goodness against the evil, although sometimes magic
or special items or rituals can help.
Horror can be set anyplace
and in any time or reality. Although the classic horror setting is in
some sort of remote and isolated area (a haunted house, a remote village,
a derelict space ship, etc.), excellent horror adventures can also be
run in large metropolitan areas.
Horror themes are pretty
straightforward—good versus evil, idealism versus cynical corruption,
morality versus immorality. Common horror characters are the mad scientist,
the mysterious government agent, the insane asylum victim, the teenage
kids, the corrupt or incompetent cop, the misunderstood monster, the serial
killer, the cultist, the "bad kids" who will be killed, the
"good kids" who will be hunted, and so forth. Some common events
Fights (usually wreaking great damage on the protagonists) in
• abandoned building
• teen make-out
• person's home
• secret government
• foggy street
• madmen or madwomen
• mysterious homeless
• blank-eyed and
gang members, police, security guards
• beserk guard
• a dusty attic
• a musty cellar
• tombs and crypts
• a hospital or
• cult headquarters
• scary woodlands
• an old library
filled with ancient tomes
Escape from a(n)
• twisted death
trap or torture chamber
• nightmare come
• hunt through
• monstrous ambush
• serial killer's
Although not every GM
will want to cross a genre in a campaign, sometimes an adventure that
has another "feel" is a welcome change. Most players will be
familiar with the motifs of these other genres and will recognize what's
happening as the GM introduces them. In general, players are happy to
have their characters fall in with a particular genre for a while. An
entire campaign could be cross-genre, too, if the GM and players are interested
in pursuing such.
• Set the game in an alternate Earth or another world entirely
• Use fantasy monsters like vampires, werewolves, zombies, and so
• Involve black magic, necromancy, cultists, evil gods, and so forth
• Emphasize that swords just aren't very reassuring against the
hordes of evil
• Feel free to bend the rules of reality to increase the horror
quotient—it's fantasy, after all.
• Set the game in the Old West
• Emphasize the town gallows and cemetery, ancient Indian customs
or taboos, lost settlers, the devil as a gambler.
• Mysterious strangers are even more dangerous in horror westerns
than they are in regular westerns
• Use vampires or zombies who can take a ton of bullets and keep
advancing on the protagonists
• Don't forget the town chapel as either a sanctuary against evil
or a cause of it
• Make discovering whatdunnit part of the horror process
• Toss out lots of red herrings that provide natural explanations
for the deaths until the investigators are left with nothing but the unnatural
• Defeating the evil must involve solving the mystery around the
• Emphasize the use of technology, especially radiation, genetically
tailored diseases, and so forth—soulless science.
• Let the characters use high-tech gizmos against the monsters
• Stalk the characters through locked-up laboratories, derilict
space ships, abandoned space colonies, etc.
• Monsters can be replaced by really scary aliens, e.g., the Aliens
• Anything that can kill or badly damage a superhero is by definition
• The monster should be a good match for the superheroes ... either
pulpy like Godzilla or a nasty, superintelligent serial killer like The
• If the evil can't affect the superhero, it can still affect the
superhero's nonheroic friends and loved ones.
Metagenres should be
used sparingly and, usually, consistently. Players might get confused
or annoyed if one game is noir and the next comedic and the next romance
and the next tragic. Remember that each metagenre will have a lasting
effect on the character and the campaign.
• Emphasize fog, steam, gases from broken pipes, anything that makes
• The protagonists should be cynical but good at heart; feel free
to test their cynicism by putting women and children into danger. If the
victims die, grind the protagonist's face in it.
• Local government organizations or charitable organizations are
very likely to the cause of ... or at least covering up ... the existence
of the evil.
• Although the horror may be dismissed, it won't go without having
a lasting effect on the world ... a close friend may be dead, the protagonist
may lose a job or limb, etc.
• Comic horror is almost, but not quite, an oxymoron.
• Use the stereotypes and cliches and make them obvious and stupid.
("Omigod, the monster is here! Quick, let's all run upstairs!")
• Make the monsters themselves silly ... think "Abbot and Costello
• Make the situations outrageous ... think the last half of "Dusk
to Dawn" or "Evil Dead."
• End on an upbeat note, with everything falling in place in the
end and everybody getting their "just deserts."
• Let the evil kill; no narrow escapes here. The monster or killer
is out for blood and gets it. Don't spare a few close friends of the PCs.
• Exploit the player characters' weaknesses to make it harder for
them to fight the evil.
• Emphasize the spiritual or moral struggle that accompanies the
physical struggle against this horrific creature.
• Every time the protagonists hesitate, another person dies.
• Emphasize things falling apart or coming undone, an ending that
may resolve part of the problem but doesn't even begin to address the
greater social issues, or an ending that dismisses the evil but costs
the lives or reputations of even the innocents involved. Note that tragedy
should NOT be used often in RPGs!
• Horror and romance aren't easy mixes; usually the characters are
too busy fighting for their lives to fall in love. However, it's not impossible.
• Consider making the misunderstood monster a subject of romance;
it's in love with a character or earns a character's sympathy, respect,
and possible love.
• Putting pressure on the characters can give them a chance to show
off their best sides—bravery, self-sacrifice, etc. This can aid
a romance ... let NPCs admire those qualities.
• Emphasize positive values such as the power of love over evil.
Both members of the couple should be equally strong and vulnerable, with
neither always becoming the victim to be rescued, even though one may
have begun as the victim.
originally written October 13, 2000
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