LESSON The Horror Genre: Why it can't stand alone and how to make it work


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Fantasy is my #1; I will give almost anything a chance if it has strong fantasy elements. Post apocalyptic, superhero, alternate history, science fantasy, some supernatural, romance, and a few fandoms (especially Game of Thrones) are also likely to catch my eye.
In belated honor of Halloween (and because @Malkuthe Highwind suggested horror themed workshops for today, because honestly I hadn't even thought of doing one before he brought it up), I've decided to share my thoughts about the horror genre with the good people of Iwaku. In honor of my own curmudgeonly nature, it's going to be about what some people do wrong with horror roleplays and why they're so wrong. Enjoy.

Horror Is Not A Good Standalone Roleplay Genre

Some horror fans might balk at that little section title, but bear with me. What is the goal of horror as a genre? The simplest explanation is that horror aims to evoke negative emotional reactions like fear and dread from the reader/watcher/whatever. That's it, nothing more to it: horror is about making people feel negative things. Other genres want you to feel hyped or happy or triumphant, but horror is kind of a dick and wants you to feel bad.

This odd goal is the reason horror can't really stand by itself effectively in roleplays. Action can stand alone because you can easily keep players hyped up and ready for the next awesome chase or fight or explosion; comedy can stand along because you just have to keep the funny coming and it's all good; drama can stand alone because you just need to make the characters go through struggles and it's all good. Horror by itself means you have to try to keep the players spooked as much as possible or they'll likely get bored and stop caring. This is a problem because of human nature: we're generally very good at adapting to negative things and clamping down on our negative emotional responses.

Movies and such can get away with playing horror pretty much straight by using visuals and sounds to keep you on the edge of your seat even when nothing horrific is actually happening at the moment. Others make use of frequent jump scares to keep you spooked, because things popping up at us very suddenly freaks us out even if we're expecting it. Unfortunately, you just don't have the toolkit to make this work well in writing. Reading something is a more drawn out and usually more detached experience than watching a film, so trying to maintain a sense of fear or dread is made much harder even if you ignore the lack of easy visuals and sounds. This goes double for roleplays, because the time delay between posts means the sense of fear will dissipate during that wait and it'll take some work to get people back into spooked mode with each post. You might be able to manage to keep up the scares in a chat roleplay or very fast paced play-by-post setup, but as soon as a large pause happens it's going to kill that tension you've built up. You've got to have something more to make a horror roleplay really work in the long term.

How To Make Horror Roleplays Work

The good news is that most people mix non-horror elements into their horror roleplays just because of the premise they want to use, though some might not even realize they've strayed from pure horror in the process. Zombie stuff is a perfect example: horror is present, but it's kept afloat by action so you can get away with not having your mobile horror factories present in all scenes. Other action-packed horror, such as things where the players are actively fighting horrifying enemies rather than just running away and trying to survive, works for the same reasons. You can mix in pretty much any other major genre with horror to end up with something that has scary stuff and other things to keep plays invested in what's going on.

What you want to avoid is the kind of horror premise that has nothing but scary stuff going for it. "The player characters are in a haunted mansion and it's super spooky" sounds like something that'll die quick, especially if it's just the players wandering around while the GM throws scary things at them. Change it instead to "the player characters were invited to a haunted mansion and have to solve a mystery before they're all killed" and you've got some mystery and probably drama to work with. Don't just leave it up to players to build up drama for their characters to keep the roleplay going once the horror bits lose their charm, build more into the plot in the first place and things should work out much better for all involved. Just trying to scare your players with freaky stuff isn't enough: you've got to give them more to latch onto if you want the roleplay to survive.

That's really all there is to it. Now get out there and https://youtu.be/XTgFtxHhCQ0?t=1m35s people with your greater understanding of the limitations of the horror genre.


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Well said, excellent read!