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Good horror implicates the watcher/reader, at least in drama. There is always moment when the audience should cry out, "no, stop, don't!" but of course we don't because we're a well-behaved audience, so we end up co-conspirators instead. MacBeth, is a great example of this. We should cry out for it to stop, but we don't, and instead we're implicated in perhaps one of the most ghastly crime-spree possible.

How can I capture this feeling in my games? How can I make my players feel they are implicated in something horrible but they don't dare turn away? To make them feel like they should leave the gaming table now before something horrible happens but they don't dare turn away?

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6 Answers 6

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One way to implicate the players is to offer them horrific, impossible choices. (Let me go back a bit to explain this.)

Conventionally, in horror games, we present players with horror. We show them something horrific, usually a monster, and expect them to respond.

Instead, try giving choices. For example, do you kill the person who's trapped inside the monster, or leave them to be slowly digested? Do you rescue your comrade, risking your life, or escape yourself? Do you give your life to save the town? Or, to take an example from Jason Morningstar's The Black Drop: one of you must be sacrificed. Who will it be?

That way, the players are implicated. Damn right they're implicated: they chose the horror.

You need to make sure it's horrific either way. It's not hard. Usually, it involves a choice between human horror ("If I don't kill/torture/blind someone...") and supernatural horror ("...then this monster grows stronger/wreaks havoc/does horrible stuff to people I care about"). And you need to make sure it's a real choice, too, and you're not railroading them into one option.

I like to put choices like this at the end of scenarios. Often, players/characters will fight over them, and that's a great thing. One character wants to perform a sacrifice, so another turns a gun on them. Often, you'll end up with a bloodbath, and all you have to do, as a GM, is sit back and watch.

There are other techniques too. Most obviously you can make horror scenarios actually creepy. It sounds obvious, but so many horror scenarios aren't: they recycle tentacles and zombies, which we've seen many times before. Put a zombie child in there. Put a river of running bile. Put something that you find unpleasant and, often, the players will find it unpleasant too.

Another technique comes from improv: be obvious, without self-censoring. This is particularly effective in horror. For example, I recently wrote a scenario about Daoloth, a god who helps you "see the world clearly". Daoloth sent one of my NPCs mad. I decided that, to see the world clearly, my NPC had carefully removed his eyes with a dinner knife (they were getting in the way). This seems obvious, to me, but it's clearly horrific.

Honestly, though, offering choices is the best technique I know. And it's the one that actually implicates players in the horror.

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+1: Evocative of William Styron's novel "Sophie's Choice" (1979), wherein a sadistic Nazi doctor makes the protagonist choose which of her two children would die by gassing and which would live. She chooses to sacrifice her 7-YO daughter in a heart-wrenching decision that's filled her with insurmountable guilt and left her a hopelessly depressed alcoholic. –  A. N. Other Oct 25 '10 at 1:12
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Don't know if this is appropriate to a horror setting... but, one of my favorite GM techniques to shake up the players is to humanize the NPCs and extra characters by giving them to an extra player.

Example 1:

A Lord of the Rings game I played at a convention. The party scout is sneaking around the outskirts of a battle, on an important mission.

GM: Up on the hill ahead of you, you see a fellow human, a ranger, fighting for his life. There are two orcs flanking him.

Player: I don't want to get involved, I have to keep moving.

GM: (to a random bystander, who is standing next to the table watching the game) Want to step in and play for a few minutes?

Bystander: Sure!

GM: Okay, you're a ranger out ahead of the battle line, fighting for your life. The first orc howls and charges you, his ax swinging high....

Player: Aww, now I feel bad.

GM: You shouldn't feel any differently for an NPC than for a player, they're both human beings in the game.

The player didn't intervene, because his mission was more important; so, he got to watch the stand-in player's character die.

Example 2:

A Shadowrun game I ran online. A new player (Jeff, a friend and good RPer) wanted to join. I told him privately that I had a pre-made character I wanted him to play for the first session, and he could make his own next session.

I kicked the new player out of the room for a minute. The rest of the party was hired for a job: raid this company, with a new guy brought onto the team, and get the new guy shot and killed by the guards. The object was to make the security company protecting the site look good, so their stock would go up, and their competitor would go out of business.

I brought the new player back in. The party is hired to raid this company... steal the data, and do as much damage as possible.

Mid-way through the mission, the party wizard mind-tricked the new guy into staying behind and "covering the escape" for the rest of the team. The new guy fought valiantly, and managed to escape... badly wounded, and desparate... only to be met by the wizard, who mind-tricked him again, and sent him back into the fray.

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One technique which very much implicates the players in the horror is when the victim(s) actually deserve what they get. Think of the Showtime series Dexter.

By making the victims deserving, this technique implicates the viewer in the horror, for reasons nicely summed by the conservative activist group PTC, which lobbied to keep this show off broadcast TV, saying: "the series compels viewers to empathize with a serial killer, to root for him to prevail, to hope he doesn't get discovered."

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My interpretation is: when the victim deserves what they get, you sympathise when bad things happen to them, and hence you're implicit in the horror. Not a bad technique, I think. –  Graham Oct 24 '10 at 17:22
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Horror requires preparation and thorough set up: preliminary background and world building and PC-NPC relationship developemnt. Real tough choices (see Graham's answer) work best when they have to be made (with a time constraint) about people or things the PCs really do care about. Relative "facelessness" and "interpersonal distance" all take away their edge: if something terrible is about to happen to someone you barely know it's way more tolerable than when it's happening to someone you care about. The more complex the relationship to that someone you care about, the better, for it brings deeper involvement and, through the ambiguity, it makes the choice even tougher.

As a side-note, I wouldn't recommend making these choices either totally impossible or equally futile, for total helplessness in such a decisive gaming(!) situation makes most people not afraid but frustrated, in my experience. Set up all bad choices to have a slight silver lining, always give your players a bit of hope and a slight sense of accomplishment (yes, even/especially in horror games.) Keep these (hope and accomplishment) low, but don't take all their control away: that will keep them interested and prevent "player disengagement." ("It doesn't matter what I do, everything's going to end up badly anyway, my character has no real influence here at all.") Let choices be real.

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You could try playing using the Fate system, which allows you to compel a character to do a certain thing and (if the player does it) in return give him a fate point. That point will allow him to achieve success in some test or take some control over the game. This uses aspects, on which compels are based.

For example, if a character has the aspect virgin cheerleader from a slasher movie, you can compel the character to go to an empty house, where a serial killer is hiding and if she does so, she gets a fate point. Than at the end of the game session, when she is about to kill the serial killer with a hatchet, she can spend this fate point to use the hatchet much more effectively.

Fate is free, by the way.

A similar system is used in World of Darkness, but uses a Virtues/Vices system. For example, a character has the Justice virtue and decides to go to the vampire's lair to kill him and protect the innocent. This is madness and he knows it, and for his stupi– ehm, heroism, he gets all his willpower points restored. Thanks to that he can better wield his garage-made stake and try to kill the bloodsucker.

Basically, give characters some bonus points for doing stup.. I mean heroic things, acting according to the convention you used. If you are playing horror, you get some bonus if you go to the haunted house. If you play western, you get extra points for gambling all your money or going outside the saloon with Doc Holliday (you gonna need them). If these points let you do something really cool (like taking narration for even a short time or being able to perform some miraculous feats), they will go for it. I would.

Where is my damn hatchet?

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History can be a useful tool for the type of horror you're suggesting. Figure out the mostly likely path for the players, and provide hints, foreshadowing, and historical accounts of how such a well-meaning path went terribly wrong in the past.

A well-worn example: the investigators uncover a plot by the Cult of Knoph-Meh to once again summon the demon Mintjul-Hep. Through determined investigation they realize the Blasphemous Ritual of Vod Ka is the only way to dispel this menace. But as they track down the ritual, they start to get hints of the terrible sacrifices the ritual requires. Somewhere around the climax they read a tale of how five brave souls once attempted this ritual, and it all went irrevocably awry...

The trick is to time the information so that the players become invested in the horrible outcome. Too early and they'll look for plausible alternatives, too late and it will feel like an unfair switcheroo.

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