Jeremy Kostiew asked on Google+:
What makes a good horror RPG? Rather, what has made a good horror RPG?
Was it atmosphere? Something about the mechanics? Hammer Horror soundtrack? Creepy GM? Haunted playspace? […]
I posted my answer there but it go so long, I realized I should turn it into a blog post! This also gives me a chance to provide links.
I’m not a fan of horror in general because it rarely reaches me. In movies in particular, it usually pairs violence and gore with repetition and cliche. For me, well-done horror is something like Identity (2003) or even some of the better X Files episodes: a lot of atmosphere, and threats that are not just about brutality and death.
Atmosphere: I’ve been in a few successful horror role-playing games, and many unsuccessful ones. The best I played was a campaign based on Clint Krause’s Roanoke game (Clint Krause Games 2006, out of print). My husband Edmund was the game-master and ran it at our local game club; we had a large ensemble cast that could change from week to week based on attendance, and a group of players known for their banter and kibitzing (including me), so horror was a challenge. Edmund payed a lot of attention to atmosphere. He talked to us beforehand about the genre, and asked us to play only if we were willing to get in the spirit, not goof around; the mood of the game was described as Brotherhood of the Wolf meets Lost. He had a soundtrack, sound effects, props, low lighting, etc. I posted detailed actual play reports on RPG.net, where you can get a better sense of how the game felt.
Tension, Transparency, and Temptation: It’s useful to have some sort of mechanic to keep track of and ratchet up the suspense. Examples include the Humanity/Taint/Corruption tracks in a number of horror games, which generally apply to individual characters; or the countdown clocks in Apocalypse World (lumpley games 2010). It’s most effective if the players see their fate coming incrementally closer, and if they have an incentive to court danger. Roanoke uses the Doom pool, which allows players to gain a maximum success on a die roll at the cost of adding one Doom point to the pool that will determine the endgame phase of the campaign: Heroic Escape, Tragic Escape, Heroic Death, or Terrible Death.
Threats: Successful threats may vary from person to person. If you’re not familiar with the “passions” as used in Unknown Armies (Atlas Games, any edition), you should go take a look, I think they provide a good model. Basically, every character’s personality in UA is defined by three passions: a rage passion (what will unfailingly get under their skin); a noble passion (even a monster may love animals); and a fear passion, which is codified into five categories (violence, helplessness, isolation, the Unnatural, and the Self.) Reading about the types of fears can help a GM think of more varied threats, and identify ones more likely to get a response from the characters and players at the table. In Roanoke, each player has to pick a fear as one of their character’s traits, so they’re directly telling the GM how to draw them in.
Misinformation: A lot of the mood and tension rely on the characters’ imperfect understanding of what is going on. In our Roanoke game, the GM used the Bag o’ Rumours: he wrote little snippets of rumours and had us draw them in secret at the beginning of a game session, as something only that player’s character would know. Some were true, some were false, but most were a little bit of each. They worked very well to sow doubt, provide foreshadowing, and serve as bargaining chips (“I know a secret!”)
Tangled Relationships: A lot of the player buy-in, the spread of uncertainty, and the ratcheting up of suspense comes from or is greatly enhanced by a web of relationships — positive and negative — between the cast of characters. Even if the game is planned as a one-off, I recommend taking the time to establish some allies and antagonists among player characters as well as with primary NPCs.
Boundaries: Because horror gaming relies so much on (A) playing with our darkest fears and (B) shared mood, it’s prudent to have some way of controlling content so that the players will have fun even as the characters are being put through the wringer. In Roanoke we used what we called a Veto card (that was before we had heard the expression “X Card“). Each player got a card they could flash when they felt someone was bringing in elements inappropriate to the setting or the group. It didn’t matter whether it was for mood, story, or personal reasons, it was non-negotiable (although it was okay to ask questions to clarify the scope of the veto.)