Sunday, August 16, 2020

Fantasy and Horror

In my last post I mentioned a connection between fantasy and horror that I'd like to explore a little.  If you are reading this and have some thoughts on the matter, feel free to share in the comments below.

Any fantasy (or SCI-FI for that matter) game that involves combat at all usually measures blood-spilled-per-session in pints, if not buckets.  In my last game, in which I played a fairly timid, combat avoiding halfling, there was one character death and at least a dozen other deaths (bandits in this case and their cultist leaders).

RPGs often have combat situations that are described in vivid detail by the DM/GM, and yet they usually do not feel like horror at all.  They should though, right? So why don't they and what's the difference?

There was a bit of this discussed on an early episode of the Glass Canon.  I forget which player it was that said that the big difference between horror and fantasy is that in horror stories, the protagonists fear what is to come and in fantasy, they have the superhuman courage to face it.

That's a pretty astute observation, I think.

In TOTM, my PCs do start off as terrified and fairly helpless.  They would have avoided the first couple of combats if they could have.  After a half dozen episodes, they are confronting opponents more or less willingly though.  I think a bit of realism has to be sacrificed in order to move the story out of survival horror and into fantasy; it would be a very different story if the PCs tried to run from or avoid every combat situation.  This is where the concept of 'heroism' comes in, I guess.

In my mind, there's a slider bar or spectrum of fantasy with horror at one end and gonzo comedy at the other.  The silly comedy stories (like Dungeons and Daddies for an example among thousands) still have plenty of gruesome bloodshed, but it somehow coexists with wacky comedy (arguably this arrangement is far, far darker than plain old horror in that it is totally bizarre and grotesque the moment you stop to think about it).  In TOTM I have set the slider somewhere about halfway between horror and the center point, you might say.  I like to dip into horror, but not stay there too long. 

This brings me full circle back to the ideas in the last post: why do I (or does anyone) enjoy horror at all? How is this stuff 'fun'?  I don't know.  What do you think?


  1. Fantasy games have the expectation that the PC’s will perform acts of daring heroism. Characters generally start off fairly weak like in your story and over time build up experience and become more proficient at combat as well as gaining more hit points. This is part of the appeal of the game, reward for effort and the progression of your character. As a long time DND player horror never really entered the game it was simply more of a case of good vs evil.

    I love Call of Cthulhu with its constant sense of impending doom. Characters are bit players in a larger conspiracy that will eventually send them insane. The more you learn the worse it gets for your character and this makes for fun play as you slowly peel back the layers. As a player I was never overly concerned with progression but more with just surviving against an enemy that was infinitely more powerful than I could ever be. There is certainly something appealing about being an underdog. I love handouts and Call of Cthulhu is a game that has lots of physical props that add to the atmosphere and immersing yourself in the game.

    The only fantasy game I’ve played that had effective horror elements was Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay with its chaos powers and the effects they wrought. That dark fantasy setting was less about dungeon crawls and more about a world on the brink because of the corruptive influence of demonic powers. The feel of the game was never like DND with its high fantasy elements but a Medieval Europe with decadence and poverty that gives it a grittiness and darkness perfect for horror.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Darren. I totally get the appeal of CoC and the thrill of staying alive as things get worse and worse (that sanity mechanic is wonderful). I'm sure you are aware of the How We Roll podcast - but if not, check them out. They are some of the best players of that game and that 'feel'.

  3. Have you played Darkest Dungeon? Because that is a game that takes the traditional fantasy dungeon crawl and makes it very much about (survival) horror. Part of this is the fact that the characters relative power-level is low compared to their enemies. Part of it is also because the act of going into dungeons and fighting monsters wears away at their ability to function in the world at large and on the team.

    I think most low level OSR stuff feels very survival horror. Its still about people resisting in the face of the horror, but it is also about who lives through the ordeal. It's Dawn of the Dead where the people are fighting for their life, not Halloween where they are running for their life.

    But once you get past the lower levels the concept of your characters being matching forces with their enemies is literally baked into the rules of D&D. Characters literally grow stronger by killing monsters and taking their stuff. In fact, especially the BX stuff really isn't about anything but this model. Also there is the assumption in the game world that these people's lives are cheap. Rolling up a new character is easy. Your not special. You're just a tomb-robber. Grab another character sheet bucko, its a shitty world. I think people who play in a high mortality game have only a couple of options. They embrace the pain of losing characters as part of the fun. They live for the thrill of hoping people will live and fearing they won't. Their other option is to just grow bored with it and only invest in the characters who make it past level 2.

    TLDR: D&D doesn't feel like horror because your character gets strong enough that you are fighting dragons and gods eventually and if your character dies, you just make another one. And if the game keeps killing your characters you either learn that is the fun or check out until that part is over.

  4. Thanks for the insights, Dylan. Loads of good stuff in your comment (including TLDR, which I admit I had to look up). I actually started playing Darkest Dungeon this summer and - counter to what you might expect - I found it so hard that eventually I stopped coming back. I'm sure I will give it another go. I had just abandoned X-Com as hard to the point of not being fun - and so when Darkest Dungeon kicked my ass squarely the first few times I was kind of put off. Love the mechanics, love the look and feel (didn't think I would from the screenshots), but I might take a break from ass whooping before I come back to the Darkest Dungeon table. Guess I should hold off on Dark Souls 2 for a bit, huh?