Friday, April 24, 2009

D&D is a Horror Game

Undead, curses, ancient tombs, forgotten civilizations, demons, devils, fell magic, bizarre monsters that turn you to stone or paralyze you or spirit you off for a year or kill you just by viewing them, etc.

Sudden death potentially behind every door.

Of course the players don't get scared, but if they don't get worried for their characters, I'm thinking that's a classic and true case of a referee not doing it right.

I consider most of the classic fantasy, and certainly the pulpy stuff, to effectively be horror as well. Or at least it would be if you remove the plot immunity of the protagonists. Lord of the Rings becomes quite the macabre tale if the Riders catch Frodo before he leaves the shire. Or the hobbits don't trust Aragorn at the Prancing Pony and are murdered in their sleep. Or if the Watcher eats Frodo before the door of Moria. Or if the Balrog snuffs everyone out. (or if Gollum just murders Bilbo on contact several years earlier...) Or... Or... Or...

Never mind The Frost Giant's Daughter if Conan had been any less a swordsman. Black Colossus? Iron Shadows in the Moon? Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser could have easily ended up as bloody stains on walls in Jewels in the Forest, Goodwin and O'Keefe and the rest might not have been as cordially received in Muria.

But if you're playing the scenario out without any prodding or predestined conclusion or narrative immunity, as if it's really happening, all of these things would be very possible outcomes to the situations encountered. In a game, you don't know whether you're playing the daring rogue in an adventure story who snatches riches from the jaws of death, or a victim destined to rot unburied in a morbid tale of greed gone bad and evil powers run amok.

nd even when the situation isn't horrific, it's tragic. King Arthur, Elric of Melniboné, Skafloc...

Every character who goes on any adventure worthy of the name risks an end such as Liane the Wayfarer suffered. Every treasure-seeking expedition risks the fate of Satampra Zeiros and Tirouv Ompallios.

I remember this when creating my adventures, my situations, my encounters. Exploration is one classic part of the game, but the discovery of the Dark and the Deadly is invariably the outcome of this exploration.

Adventurers in role-playing games aren't special because they are gifted, they are special because they are fools who have no regard for their own lives - else they'd do something far more sensible with their lives.


  1. This thought never occurred to me when I was younger and playing. In my mind, the dungeons were all clean and well-lit and monsters there for slaying. But having come back to old-school D&D, this idea suddenly makes perfect sense to me. I think the first time I saw it was a post on when Paul Elliott mentioned playing a dungeon-crawl with some kids and how scary it was.

    The dungeon I'm running right now is working out even better than I hoped in this way. The characters are running scared and haven't had anything more than a minor annoyance fight. They are terrified of being caught in the dark and of getting lost without even considering the monsters.

  2. Why do you think it took a horror movie director to finally make a blockbuster fantasy film (Peter Jackson, Lords of the Rings)

    I remember coming out of Fellowship of the Ring pumped up and wondering why this film worked when so many didn't.

    Because in someways was a horror film set in fantasy trappings.

    Of course the newer fantasy tv and film production are taking the wrong lessons. Instead they focus on the sweeping landscapes and vistas. They need to look at how Jackson incorporated elements of horror film-making as well.

  3. I like it. It puts everyone on the same page, and frankly, it's arguably the best way to think about it. I rarely hear reports that the deadliness of (say) Call of Cthulhu just leads players to make cardboard characters they don't care about, but I do hear of it happening in D&D. I rarely hear about people reacting very poorly to their character's death in CoC, but I do hear about it in D&D. Why? I think part of it is right there: expectations. If you think classic D&D is a heroic fantasy game and you start with 1st level characters, you're in for a surprise. A horror game? Now that's a different story.

  4. >Never mind The Frost Giant's Daughter if Conan had been any less a swordsman<

    Would have been pretty horrorshow if the Ice Maid's giant brothers haden't shown up. Conan was obviously going to rape the living hell out of her if he caught her.

  5. My games are always approached as horror games because you are absolutely right and D&D breaks down to survival against weird monsters and nearly impossible odds.

    I live to see the frightened looks on my player's faces as they are in a state of panic over a set of numbers on a character sheet.

  6. Exactly. I never liked high fantasy settings where adventurers were basically privileged explorers, cinematic swashbucklers or chosen ones.

    Even in 4e where the power levels are pumped up somewhat I make sure to do the same with the setting and its many dangers. So far we are four sessions in on my 4e sandbox game and the players have been extraordinarily lucky and clever about avoiding near death in the last two sessions. They now know best to steer clear of yellow mold and giant demon toads.

  7. So, lemme get this right: D&D is a horrific (JER4) heist (SuperNecro) war movie (JER4 again) co-written by Jack Vance and Horatio Alger. Wow, no wonder there's confusion over this crazy game of ours.

    PS: Green Dragon Face 1+2 arrived in the post this morning. My evil DM laughter didn't stop for about half-an-hour. GJ lads!

  8. >>Green Dragon Face 1+2 arrived in the post this morning.

    That was quick!

    What does "GJ" mean?