Mixing Fantasy and Horror in Tabletop Roleplaying Games

Someone once asked me how to mix fantasy and horror in a roleplaying game. More specifically, they wanted to know how to invoke feelings of fear, terror, and a healthy respect for the things that go bump in the night in player characters (PCs) already jaded by goblins, orcs, necromancers, and so on. How could they take the focus off of treasure acquisition and killing monsters while maintaining that familiar fantasy feel?

Look for Pre-Made Material

First, check out some of the other roleplaying games that you haven’t looked at yet. There are a number of odd little RPGs here and there that might have elements you can use in your campaign, even if you don’t want to use them wholesale. And you just might find a pre-made game that perfectly fills your need, thus saving you a whole lot of work. Thanks in part to the various open game licenses there are now quite a few products out there that provide adventures, monsters, and so on to fit a variety of moods, atmospheres, and genres.

In particular, however, you’ll want to collect frightening monsters, spells, and plots that your players know nothing about. As we’ll get to in a minute, mystery is the key to much horror.

Read fiction books that combine fantasy and horror and see how they do it. Take notes on the parts of the books that are most frightening. Find a world that has a flavor you like and work elements of it into your game.

Remember Mystery

As the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. When your players can catalogue your monsters and all of their abilities and weaknesses, they will not fear them. When your magic items are generic and found on every street corner, they will have no appeal beyond the powers they lend. The unknown is a powerful ingredient in horror. I’d venture to say that the unknown is an ingredient that cannot be left out in a horror campaign without seriously undermining the horror aspect of it.

Make Monsters New Again

If your players are familiar with orcs and kobolds, then you have two choices:

#1. Don’t use them in your game. I believe that this option is best, because it avoids the problem altogether. Use monsters of your own devising, monsters from frightening fiction, and monsters from games and supplements your players haven’t read.

#2. Alter them in ways that make them new again. Change the familiar monsters in ways that make them unfamiliar. Give them new abilities. Make them more or less intelligent. Change the way they look. Change their strengths and weaknesses. Meld one monster with another. Keep your players on their toes and surprise them.

Either way, here are a few things to keep in mind when playing with monsters in a fantasy/horror game:

  • Give glimpses of your monsters rather than revealing them wholesale. This helps to maintain the mystery.
  • Allow your monsters to be individuals. Don’t make all members of a monster race carbon copies of each other; give them different abilities, desires, tactics, appearances, and so on. (Unless, of course, the source of the horror for this race of monsters comes from its members’ terrifying conformity.)
  • Remember that some monsters are intelligent. A monster that schemes can be terrifying indeed, particularly if he doesn’t think in a human manner. Think about what your monsters would want and how they would go about getting it.
  • Don’t use monsters simply as vehicles for treasure and items which your PCs are supposed to acquire by killing the monsters. If you do this you turn monsters into banks on legs, and this certainly doesn’t make them frightening.
  • Make monsters a little rare. They shouldn’t occupy every abandoned farmstead and dark copse of trees, except in specific instances. (Familiarity breeds contempt, once again.)
  • Put the emphasis on the results of the monsters’ handiwork rather than on the monsters themselves. The devastation a monster has wreaked on a village can be more frightening than the monster itself.
  • Remember atmosphere. Don’t present your monsters with minimal detail in a sunny and non-frightening setting. Use your details to make them scary.
  • Don’t give your players too much information about your monsters, and particularly not all at once. Keep your monsters mysterious.

Re-Value Treasure

If you don’t want the focus to be on the acquisition of items and treasure, then you need to make these things either more or less valuable.

De-Value Money

Characters won’t stop counting gold coins and paying close attention to the money they collect until those coins lose some of their significance to the players. Coins have significance because they’re needed to buy cool stuff. If the players have to count out coins for every purchase the PCs make then coins will be important to them. The more the game revolves around coinage, the more important money will be. You can’t expect the players to spend half their time dealing with money in one form or another yet not care about that money.

There are ways to handle this. First, use some or all of the following suggestions to help make money less important. Sure, some of them will mean that details get fudged here or there. But they will help to take the emphasis off of cash:

  • Try to make sure that plots cannot be solved through the simple application of money. Obviously you can’t guarantee this, but you can make it less likely.
  • Try to make sure that PCs cannot simply buy any really spiffy item they want (particularly in the case of magic items or other great treasures).
  • Try to make sure that the PCs can always afford general equipment without having to worry about whether or not they have enough money.
  • Instead of having the PCs count out money for each individual piece of equipment or meal that they buy, you might say, “yeah, sure, you can get all that for 100 gold pieces.” Work with nice, round numbers that are quick to add and subtract, and group purchases together so that they take less time to deal with.
  • Don’t allow forms of money found in treasures to occupy too much of the players’ time and attention. For instance, instead of listing 20 individual gemstones, simply lump them together (“20 amethysts worth a total of 4,000 gp”). Work with those nice, round numbers.
  • Don’t go overboard making the players list out every pound of coinage they’re carrying and every sack they’re using to carry it.Again, the more game-time the players spend concentrating on money, the more value it will have to them.
  • Find ways to reward plot successes that don’t necessarily involve money or magic items.

If this isn’t enough, it might help to institute a system whereby the PCs have no need to count out coins whatsoever. In White Wolf’s Storyteller system, for example, character wealth is generally designated by a rating of 1 to 5. This gives a rough measure of wealth, and you have a pretty good idea of the size of purchase you can make given a certain rating. It becomes a judgment call on the part of the game master (GM) whether a certain rating allows a certain purchase, and what size treasure it takes for someone to move up in rank.

You could also put together a ranking system of your own. If you want a little more detail than 1-5, try a 10-point scale:

  1. In debt up to your eyeballs
  2. Somewhat in debt
  3. Broke
  4. Subsistence living
  5. Small savings
  6. Merchant doing a decent business
  7. Small inheritance and a decent job, or large inheritance, or bustling merchant business
  8. Nobility with large income from family holdings
  9. Great coffers of wealth
  10. Undreamt-of riches

You can adjust the scale based on the type of game you want to run. If you want to focus on the plight of the poor, then make more of the numbers on the list measures of lack of money. If you want to play pretty, high fantasy with not an un-scrubbed face in sight, then move poverty off the scale and finely detail measures of wealth.

Give Magic Items Significance

You need to bring the mystery and wonder back to magic items. This does partially mean making them rarer. But more importantly, it means making them unusual and giving them back-story and detail that will interest your players. In a way, this means making them more valuable.

You want PCs saying, “Wow! The broadsword of cleaving that the great King Barnabas wielded when he united the land and created the Kingdom of Havelorn!” rather than, “oh, cool, another broadsword of cleaving. How much money is that worth, anyway?” How can you do this?

  • Make magic items harder to obtain. If every monster is carrying another long sword +1, then those magic items seem pretty mundane and ordinary. (If your PCs start selling off magic items like any other piece of loot, you’re probably in trouble.) Do remember, however, that if your PCs have fewer magic items you may also need to tone down the strength of their opponents a bit as well.
  • Make the powers that magic items possess more unusual. Instead of simple combat plusses, create interesting and unusual powers for your items.
  • If possible, give your items powers that don’t match up with spells
    and abilities that are common within your game. Otherwise, what’s so special about the items?
  • Give special magic items a bit of special description to go with them. Make them visually interesting and unusual. Present them in awe-inspiring circumstances. Use your words.
  • Make magic items a part of your plots. Give them significance within your world, and try to relate that significance to the PCs.

If you need a little help making these items new and unusual, a couple of our Twilight Time articles might help:

Make Spells Unique and Interesting

If your players can catalogue and understand every spell and magical ability in your world, then those abilities are unlikely to inspire much fear or horror in their characters. Even in a system which has clearly-delineated powers there are things you can do to make them new and interesting. The articles referenced above will again be useful here; there are also a few general principles you can make use of:

  • Once again, use your words. Employ descriptions. Don’t use the name of the spell when it’s used – describe its effects.
  • If you’re limited to a very specific collection of abilities, then try to find uses for the powers that people don’t generally use. Or try to find new and unusual uses for familiar spells.
  • Many games allow characters to research new and unusual spells. Make use of that! If you feel you can’t come up with interesting and balanced ones on your own, then make use of the resources available to you. Use spells from other games (for instance, if you’re playing D&D third edition, use spells from HackMaster, or vice versa). Pick up supplements from odd little roleplaying games your players haven’t tried. Peruse web sites for player-created spells and abilities.

It’s All About Atmosphere

The key to horror is atmosphere – and this is something that endless piles of gold coins, common magic items, and easily catalogued monsters detract and distract from. Use your details. Describe things. Make things unusual, suspenseful, and frightening. Pay attention to what seems to work on your group and what doesn’t. Read horror books and watch horror movies – pay attention to the tricks that are used in them. When something frightens you or makes your heart race, ask yourself why and take notes. Adapt that to your game.

There’s no reason why fantasy and horror can’t be merged; they certainly have been in some books. (Garth Nix’s Sabriel and its sequels are a good example of this merging of genres, as is Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels trilogy.) It just takes a shift in perspective to accomplish.

Thanks to Chor Kun Xin for the questions!

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