Ramblings of General Geekery

Horror TTRPGs and Player Agency

I was recently listening to the Titterpigs episode on horror games, where Scott and Keith put out an open question to their audience: can you have a horror game that lets you retain agency throughout the whole adventure? I wrote up some long rant, recorded it, and sent it to them. I figured that, for my trouble, I might as well post that rant (somewhat edited) here too.

The Need for Horror Mechanics

First, I think Scott and Keith did a great job recommending games that are out of the beaten path, so to speak (A Town Called Malice, Kids on Bike, Ten Candles, Liminal, and so on… listen to their show!). But the fact that half the games they recommended are games that don’t have any so-called “horror mechanics” is kind of a give away in my opinion that the answer to the original question is an emphatic “yes”.

In fact, I think you don’t need mechanics for a lot of things: horror or investigation or conspiracy or comedy don’t need mechanics because they are less a type of game as they are a collection of tropes or a style of storytelling that you can put on top of any system. Is there a difference between a horror game and a game with horror-themed adventures? I don’t think so. And even then, frankly, who cares? As long as players are scared of opening the cellar door, as long as the players are shocked by some corruption taking over a beloved NPC, as long as the players are frightened or stressed or horrified, it’s a horror game, right?

You don’t need mechanics to manifest an emotional response, you can do that purely by storytelling. That’s what books and radio shows and TV and movies do. Sure, special game mechanics might help. Or they might not. Or they might get in the way. Who cares? Do we want to go find who’s killing people in that village every new moon, or do we want to argue about rules for the next 3 hours? Oh, you said “let’s argue”? Sure! I’m down with that too. I’m French and a software engineer. I love arguing.

Horror Genres vs. Cthulhu

There are many types of horror genres. Helplessness and loss of control is only one of many emotions that can underpin the horror elements of a story, but somehow those represent the majority of the horror mechanics we find in horror games so far. I think there are two reasons for that.

First, it’s important to note that the most influential horror game, Call of Cthulhu, is not meant to be a generic horror game. It’s meant to be an emulation of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror genre in particular. This is a genre where stories typically feature a narrator or protagonist going crazy, sometimes right in the middle of writing a sentence on paper. This is a genre where stories also feature creatures and books that can shatter your mind in an instant. So the Sanity mechanics of Call of Cthulhu are emulating that on purpose. This kind of created a precedent, in my opinion, for what horror games are supposed to look like, even when they don’t necessarily have to. And it didn’t help that the SAN rules are a brilliant bit of game design.

Second, role-playing games have the particularity, compared to books and movies, of being interactive. While helplessness and losing control is only one of many horror tropes, like I said, it’s the one that is possibly most effective in this case because the whole point of RPGs is to control a character. Having your character go mad or act without your control, or having the threat of that happening, can have a pretty big emotional impact. It is also the simplest horror element to achieve in game because it just needs a dice roll followed by the GM grabbing the character sheet. In comparison, other horror elements such as fear, disgust, or terror, mostly rely on a certain level of storytelling skill on the part of the GM and, possibly, the players. Well, I guess you could find mechanics that help with it, the same way SAN help with helplessness. For instance, Dread uses Jenga to induce stress. You could imagine a game where you have to put your hands in a jar of worms or spiders to get numbered tokens as a replacement for dice rolls. That would be a game based on disgust as its core horror trope. But good luck figuring out shipping for that Kickstarter!

Player vs Character

Let’s say we gave up on that Kickstarter, and we defaulted to a game where helplessness and loss of control (or the threat thereof) is one of the main mechanics after all. The first thing to differentiate is loss of agency for the character, and loss of agency for the player.

Both combined happen all the time, the most common being when you get hit one time too many in combat and both the character and player have to sit the rest of the combat out while the character is unconscious. Fantasy worlds also typically have spells that confuse the mind, make you attack your friends, make you forget who your enemies are, and so on, all of which (rightfully) encroach on agency. Some games even have personality mechanics (Pendragon), advantages and disadvantages (GURPS), edges and hindrances (Savage Worlds) or whatever they’re called in your system of choice, that model a character’s loyalty, sense of duty, addiction, phobia, honesty, or other trait that “makes” them act one way or another. Sometimes you can resist that by paying some meta currency or rolling something or losing some points somewhere, so there is definitely a difference between mandatory loss of control and optional loss of control, but my point here is that there’s nothing new about loss of agency that is specific to horror games.

There is also the matter of buy-in: when you start playing Call of Cthulhu or Alien, you know what kind of horror genre you’re getting yourself into, because it’s right there not only in the source material but also in the mechanics. It’s not really a horror-wide “take it or lose it” kind of deal. You can play some horror games and avoid others you don’t like, the same way you may avoid torture porn horror movies but enjoy psychological horror or light-hearted slasher movies. And unlike movies, you can actually change games and play them to your own tastes. As the casino slogans go: know your limits, play within it.

A Closer Look at Sanity Mechanics

Let’s look at some specific games with so-called horror mechanics.

First, of course, is Call of Cthulhu. The 7th edition rules say this about bouts of madness:

It is up to the Keeper whether this control takes the form of dictating specific actions or if it means giving the player guidelines on how to play out the madness for however long it may last.

The rules also suggest either rolling on the madness and phobia tables or choosing something appropriate. I don’t know any Call of Cthulhu Keeper who just rolls on the table and picks the result without further thinking about it, because when you do that you not only often get something stupid, but it sometimes gets so comically stupid that it actually undermines the gravitas of the scene. Everybody I know has a quick discussion where the Keeper and player both agree on how the character reacts, which means that player agency (as opposed to character agency) is mostly preserved.

In fact, previous editions of the rules didn’t even have tables to roll on, they just had a list of suggestions. And when those were turned into tables, the 5th edition rules had this interesting bit in them:

To remain active in the game the character’s insanity must be of a sort that can be effectively roleplayed. If time is of the essence, the Keeper may roll on one of the temporary insanity tables, but as a matter of course the Keeper should choose the insanity to match the situation which prompted it, and attempt to characterize the insanity in concert with the player and the investigator.

The Alien RPG is more prescriptive about this however: the GM is supposed to roll on the Panic table and apply the result. But I think the Stress & Panic mechanic is so cool and so well adapted to the Alien franchise that it works super well. This is because, unlike Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity mechanics, Alien’s Stress is also positive, because adrenaline boosts your abilities… that is, until you crash and start panicking. So it’s a “push your luck” kind of game.

Of note, it only takes someone succeeding a Command roll to snap you out of it. This makes it manageable to some degree, at least as a group… which is the point: only by acting as a team do you have a chance to survive against the xenomorphs!


So there it is I guess:

  1. You don’t need so-called horror mechanics in my opinion to have a horror game. Just put scary stuff in your adventures. Maybe play spooky background music.
  2. Most of these so-called horror mechanics are only emulating a very specific horror genre. Dread is an example of a horror mechanic that emulates a different genre.
  3. Horror mechanics specifically meant to emulate loss of control usually have provisions in them for managing that around the table. Some don’t, but that’s on purpose. It’s OK to not like those, or to modify them to your liking.

Anyway, happy (belated) Halloween, and don’t read that book out loud! You don’t know where it’s been!