Recently, I read an excerpt from a new horror supplement for the most well-known roleplaying game in the world—you know the game. The excerpt was advice to players and game masters on how to play or run a horror roleplaying game, or any roleplaying game for that matter. I won’t rehash the advice—it can be found all over the internet. For players and game masters alike, it was bad advice. And rather than rehash why the advice was bad—as has already been pointed out by so many others—I’ll just offer the advice I follow when I run horror or other genres of roleplaying games.
Tropes in roleplaying games, as in other media, are common conventions and recognizable devices used for the purpose of setting up expectations. While tropes can become clichés when handled poorly, the well-crafted use of a trope or a creative twist on a trope can produce interesting and fun results. Using tropes makes the job of game-mastering a sane endeavor, saving time and energy by not having to re-invent every character, scene, and plot from scratch.
Speaking of expectations, you should meet them—unless you have an extremely good reason to not meet them. Subverting expectations simply for the sake of subverting expectations often leads to disappointment, confusion, and distrust, as we are slowly and painfully learning from all of the “disruptors” in games and other media today.
In conventional D&D, the expectation for players is “kick in the door, kill the monsters, take the treasure,” and the expectation of the dungeon master is that he is merciless god of the tabletop. The satisfaction of this expectation has kept D&D alive for fifty years.
When running an investigative horror RPG, if the players never have opportunities to solve a mystery, or come face to face with an eldritch horror, or discover Secrets Man Was Not Meant To Know, they would be disappointed, and they perhaps wouldn’t show up at my gaming table next week.
Rather than stifling creativity, working with expectations sets boundaries to creatively explore within those boundaries.
Draw inspiration from fiction and nonfiction, old and new. The first plot for my horror RPG was taken from the film Horror Express. Other elements have been drawn from other horror films (Quatermass and the Pit), short stories (Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark and The Whisperer in Darkness), novels (House of Leaves), mythology (Prose Edda), poetry (Goethe’s Der König in Thule, Poe’s Ultima Thule), and so on.
Steal shamelessly. The first D&D campaign I was in as a player was basically lifted from the film Jason and the Argonauts.
Every story has been told before—this is your opportunity to tell your best version of that story.
Stock Characters and Stereotypes
Use stock characters for NPCs when you can in order to save time for yourself and your players. NPCs don’t need to be artisanally crafted, beautiful and unique snowflakes. They represent a particular type of person, and whatever minor quirks might make them seem different are really negligible—they are “different” just like everybody else.
Is this lazy? No—do you really believe you are going invent a new human being (as if you could) for every NPC?
In the start of my horror campaign, aboard the train were several stock characters—The Big Game Hunter, The Eccentric Scientist, The Nosy Journalist, The Deranged Cultist, etc. Sure, they had individual names and incidental particularities, but they were still stock characters. And there was no scoffing or eye-rolling at the table—the players could easily and immediately imagine what that character was like without me having to go into too much detail for them to get the picture.
Use whatever stereotypes for characters that are appropriate for your setting. This is a fictional world. It is not real life. It doesn’t have to bear a resemblance to real-world history or people at all, nor should it.
If your world, for example, has Tolkien-esque orcs and goblins, every one of them can be assumed to be irredeemably evil. If your world has Lovecraftian aliens, it can be assumed that they are indifferent at best or malevolent at worst towards humans. If you world has paladins, it can be assumed that they are champions of goodness and justice.
Treat characters as what they are—fictional characters. This is fantasy, and as such, characters don’t need to be deeply complicated or conflicted, because in the end, it doesn’t translate well at the tabletop.
Show how NPCs from the same culture have similar customs for relatively homogenous cultures. NPCs will still have individual differences, sure, but for the broad details, their shared customs must be easily recognizable for players.
In his Dying Earth series, Jack Vance used shared (and often unexpected) customs of various peoples to humorous effect. Pathfinder‘s setting, The Inner Sea, details customs of dozens of localities, making the people of each distinct. John Wick’s 7th Sea also serves as a good example of nations with distinct customs that make the nationality of a PC or NPC instantly recognizable and understood.
And if you can pull off an accent, even a cliché accent, use it if it will help PCs to recognize where the NPC is from.
No Exceptional Characters
Characters, including player characters, are not exceptional—this is especially true in a horror game. Some characters are fodder for the serial killer, or the eldritch horror, or the strange plague.
In a horror game, player characters will die. They must die. Or go insane. Or go insane and then die. Or maybe, if they are extremely resourceful, if they are very lucky, they may survive to tell the tale.