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Horror Gaming Month—Week One
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Horror Gaming Month—Week One

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October Week 1—Horror Month

This month marks our one year anniversary working on the blog. We are so very grateful to our friends and fans who have supported us. Reading our blog, asking us rules questions, buying our product line through Rogue Genius Games. And of course, supporting our first big hardback product in the Talented Bestiary.

October witnesses the turn of the season for most of us, and of course closes with Halloween. So we kicked off the blog last year with "Horror Month", giving advice and new rules for fear mechanics, creature and encounter design, and I even detailed a free mini-campaign to illustrate the principles of running a memorable horror-themed game. You can find those articles right here on our product page, as well as the other archived articles from the past year.

We want to continue that theme all this month, with different articles bringing new ideas and practices to your spookiest adventures. So today I want to talk about subtext and adding a deeper meaning to your horror story.

Horror Stories Are the Best Stories

I have always believed this. I contend that every emotion or genre is best told against a scary backdrop. First, fear is a powerful, visceral emotion—one that we can feel so deeply it can become unpleasant. We don't want to actually scare anyone, but a deep-running emotional theme is great for immersion and maybe acts as a conduit for feeling intense emotions on other levels.

Consider vampires for a moment. I find vampires fascinating and fun, and of course terrifying in a good story. But which is better? A vampire with speed, strength, bloodthirst, and an allergy to silver? Or a vampire cursed to wander the night because he blamed God for the death of his wife? Vampire stories are inseparable from a combined sense of dread and tortured romance. Iconic vampire characters struggle with loss of faith, waning humanity, ennui, and the mortality of their loved ones. Fast healing and negative levels are statistics that help describe the monster, but it is defined by complex emotions and a theme that carries from before its death and long into unlife.

The same is true of iconic mummies, flesh golems, and any other classic horror monsters. Using mummies as an example, compare a shuffling, strangling mummy to a revived warrior-priest seeking to reassert the prominence of his dead empire. Consider the relentless and vindictive nature of the mummy's curse, or the anachronism and reversal of being thrust from a lunch primitive empire into a world where ones people are subjugated by imperialism. Those themes drive the narrative, and the trappings of revenge and undeath overlay the actual plot with horror. That depth tells a more satisfying story.

Of course, one of the real gifts of a deeper subtext is that characters don't know the full story. Horror tales bring the expectation of dark desires or supernatural death, and the mystery of not knowing why such tidings find a village or plague the night heightens the tension. Every classic ghost story includes the discovery of the ghost's past and a pursuit of the fetters that bind it. Unconvering those parts of the campaign make the ghost more real and provide satisfying drama. 

Death Teaches Life

There are a thousand grisly body horror movies, including innumerable slasher flick franchises that can easily be substituted for one another. Unfortunately, without dedication to a strong underlying story, a lot of horror adventures can be the same way. A more satisfying example of horror might be the Saw films, which utilize bloody machine puzzles to tell a story that is also characterized by creative genius and a sense of the value of life. In case you live at the North or South Pole, the villain Jigsaw kidnaps a variety of victims who share a theme of cheapening life. If they win their tormentor's game they might come away with a renewed purpose for living or stop demeaning the lives of those around them. The creative engineering of Jigsaw's traps highlights the films, portraying the franchise's villain as an intelligent, sad person whose terminal cancer and deceased son pushed him over the brink. Any undead juggernaut with a machete or vengeful leprechaun can kill humans until they stand atop a pile of bodies. A truly horrific villain thinks he's helping his neighbors by forcing them to face a symbolic death in order to change their life.

Another wonderful example of deeper meaning in a horror tale is the Walking Dead franchise. The comic and television show clearly illustrate two core themes: humans are the greatest monsters, and all life is precious. Whether debating the wisdom of bringing new life into a world savaged by zombie apocalypse, or struggling against the apparent necessity of killing the living in a world already full of death, the struggle of the show's survivors is scarier and more meaningful because of the moral questions and the desire to return to civilized behavior. A zombie story without such elements is just less clever and less fun, and to me, less scary. The horror of survival and the repeated death of innocence drive the emotions home and make us care more about the characters and what happens to them.

Deeper Characters

I frequently give advice on telling stories or designing encounters from a GM's point of view, but the truth is the same principles often apply to playing PCs. I try not to make a character that doesn't have some agenda or motivation it could pursue in a sand box. Player characters are the stars of the show, and so horror campaigns should offer more complexity for their PCs than just 'live or die', which is a pretty clear choice most of the time.

Returning to the Walking Dead, think about the returning characters and the parts of their character that flesh them out. Daryl has a firm moral compass, but is also very loyal. Inside that loyalty is sometimes the feeling that other survivors won't last without him, and sometimes he'd be better off on his own. One of my favorite characters is Carol, who fakes meekness and normalcy but resorts to violence with increasing savagery to protect her companions. And of course, Rick Grimes struggles to retain his humanity while viewing newcomers with an honestly acquired distrust. The world is dying and zombies are everywhere. But the important themes of the show are the loss of civilization, the barbarism of the living while they try to survive, and the struggle to preserve life by killing the living.

That depth can easily be applied to any PC. Define the motives for you character and look for ways she might struggle in scenes. A paladin surely opposes evil and commits acts of violence sparingly, but what happens when she comes across a brood of orc children orphaned by her righteous sword? Suppose she vows that she will heal and show mercy today, in the fifth layer of this godforsaken dungeon, because she hasn't gone a day without ending life in months?

Of course, it bears warning players to make sure these motivations stay in character and don't presume to tell another player how to have fun. Some may not want the depth I want. Some players don't believe that killing an evil NPC is ever an evil act. I disagree. The conflict between different ideologies for PCs can add depth and make for memorable roleplay, but they shouldn't extend to frustration outside the story. Make your character unique and nuanced by experience or motivation, but don't let your story or philosophy eclipse everyone else's fun.

Make It Real

In roleplaying games, it's sometimes hard to immerse in a sense of dread, so use real emotions people can relate to in order to tell your campaign or character narrative. Make horror real by telling a story with horror elements instead of just throwing awful monsters and villains. By going deeper into emotion and motivation, the moments outside of combat maintain the tone for the campaign and ad urgency to combat.

Next week we're going to talk a little about agency and consent in horror stories. In the mean time, there's a sale on horror-themed pdfs here at, so go do a little shopping in our Four Horsemen Present line and with some other companies and find something awful to do to your players or to your GM's NPCs. I recommend FHP: Gruesome Dragons. Pestilence threw in a template called a drachnid, and it's exactly what it sound like.

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