Since we’ve been telling stories to each other, we’ve been telling scary stories. It only makes sense that sometimes when engaging in all of the many tabletop, collaborative storytelling games that we continue that tradition. There’s a unique exhilaration of being afraid, or of being brought into a narrative enough that you feel second hand fear and even dread for the characters you and your follow players are embodying. Take it from millions of horror fans all around the world in absolutely every culture film, prose, and games: horror is here to stay. As a storytelling device and genre, horror has been the tool by which people have been able to tell stories that traditional media simply refused to tackle. Adult themes of abandonment, religious abuse, racism, themes of sexual abuse, and other things more traditional storytelling sweeps under the rug in ‘good taste’, horror has seen fit to play front and center either literally or by weaving deep stories with nuance and careful consideration.
When we sit down at our home tables to discuss and play games with these themes such as Call of Cthulhu, Vampire the Masquerade, or Ruins of Symbaroum, we have the ability to directly talk with our players before the game begins, during session zero, and likely if you are friends away from the table have frank and friendly discussions about what you should and should not to at the table to meet everyone’s needs, comfort and limits. Sitting at the convention table however we lack a lot of that luxury. Characters aren’t being made, they are often handed out or chosen from a pile. Not every person is going to feel comfortable going over deeper limits or exploring their personal issues, let alone them to strangers. Elements of horror at the convention table need to be handled with care and precision – not only your players, but you too deserve to have your mental, social, and physical limits and space respected.
So what can be done?
Having been a lifelong fan of scares and frights, and a huge fan of sharing horror with my players, I’ve developed a quick start guide I use when doing something either short notice or for spaces like conventions where you have neither the luxury of access to your players ahead of time, or possibly zero control of the type space you’ll be assigned to run your game.
- Know your personal Limits, and offer no Judgement to Others for Theirs
At the very beginning when folks sit down, have them write things they hate about scary movies or games on a piece of paper or a cue card. On the other side of the paper, write your own limits and things you hate on the other side. Quickly compile the things people hate, and without saying who turned in what – have everyone agree that regardless of the kinds of monster they will be playing as, or fighting against, the group agrees to not cross these lines.
- Be Up Front (Content Warnings Are Your Friend)
When you sit down to write your scenario, think about what you are going for. Zombies tend to come with gore, vampires with topics related to consent, and slashers with both! A cosmic horror may involve disturbing imagery, and even ghost stories tend to lean on topics of tragedy, sometimes very real history (Candyman comes to mind as a ghost story that hits many triggers). When you post your game to the convention and put out a call for players, be very clear about what themes your game will be touching on.
- Be Ready To Ad Hoc
As Dungeon Masters and Storytellers, we all know there is a well practised skill with improvisation that really sets a dividing line between a massive failure of a session, to providing moments of incredible fun for us and our players. No where is ad hoc and improv more important than in horror. I say this because core elements of what you have written or prepped may suddenly become unusable once everyone is at the table. A moment that everyone agrees to simply ‘fade to black’ on that needs no description or discussion may be needed, room or scene descriptions may need to be edited live and wording may need to change on the fly. Why? Because your table has been placed next to a table of mostly minors on a Saturday afternoon, or a player at the table asked that cats and dogs not be harmed or that harm not be described. This sounds easy enough, but when running horror at convention, the instances of how often you may need to do it tend to be multiplied at a rate you may not have anticipated. Prepare for this however you can, possibly with a few extra pages of notes or multiple options or end states in case of player failure.
- A Tight Grip, But A Light Hand
Horror isn’t for everyone at its most serious or darkest. Sometimes getting everyone together for a horror tale requires the gore and frights to take backstage to action or dramatic elements. Often one of the most effective elements of horror seems antithetical to table top games – the risk as reward of the dice translate well, but respect of player choice means that making your players feel moments of helplessness almost anti-game in nature. This means balancing that helplessness to rewarding players with ‘rays of light’ or ‘hope’ based not on clear deus ex machina, but by rewarding their choices. If someone selects a player character who is a soldier, something mundane but also extraordinary can totally turn the tides for players (IE: Resident Evil’s rocket launcher). If someone selects a character with faith (or True Faith in Vampire terms) then solutions to problems should exist entirely because of that choice should be made clear. Essentially, curate the experience based on the characters more than you might normally – this will give a cinematic feel that really has brought people to scary movies for decades.
I hope some or all of this is helpful as you navigate horror games, both at the convention floor, and in your own home games! Thanks for reading!
By Katherine Alexandria