Horror is one of my favorite genres. In fact, I tend to run most games with a measure of it. Horror can go with just about anything even sometimes when you think it shouldn’t or does it. I like high-powered horror – kicking monster butt! – but I like the lower-powered stuff too. There are some schools of thought that say you can’t have real horror with characters who can’t change things that happen to them. Well, I don’t think that’s true and honestly, in my experience it hasn’t been.
I have learned a lot of things about making a horror campaign function and to get players fully invested in it over the years and here are the three key ones:
Stakes are required – and not just wooden ones to put down Dr. Acula. A game must have stakes to be meaningful if it’s a horror game. They can be small, or large, or epic, but there must be stakes. You must (as a wise man said) lose to know how to win. In this case you must know what you can lose if you don’t win. This particular bit is the most key tidbit of knowledge I can pass on for running a horror campaign successfully and to completion. This doesn’t mean the players need to know what is at stake right away much less their players, but eventually the other shoe must drop and you should be as direct as you can with it. Tell them what’s at stake and then show them how they cane lose it. So what does that mean? It means even if you like playing fast and loose with the rules (and I do) you need to keep a firm grip on the stakes and not waver on them. If they fail they fail. That’s part of horror – not knowing if you can win and despite it still going on. Or sometimes not. Running away from a problem can lead to some profound roleplaying!
So how do you keep the stakes from being too easily dealt with? Add danger. Add so much danger. Well proportional danger. If you have a group of 75-point everymen PCs even one monster is going to be a lot for them to deal with. If you have 400-point monster hunters then you need to up the danger and make it matter. This can be a hard thing to grasp. I’ve personally written a system to gauge difficulty in combat for GMs and even years later and many lessons learned it’s still not perfect. I’m skeptical of my own work, but it’s still pretty good and all we have. Still, nothing takes the place of GM experience in this regard – especially in GURPS.
The last and final of the trifecta is pretty important too. In RPGs in general need the players to trust the GM to some degree, but horror campaigns require it. The GM needs to have the players trust them and the GM needs to trust the players. That sort of trust can be very hard to get with pick-up games and tends not to exist outside of established groups. That said, the right caliber of player(s) who can do this with new to them GMs and if you can find such recruit and keep them. They’re rare as unicorns though.
Picking Over the Bones
Those three things are really the building blocks of a good horror game, but by no means the only ones. These will give you a good foundation and like all foundations are obvious in retrospect.