Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Horror Games: Why I Think I'm (Mostly) Done

 Last time, I mentioned that I think I'm done with horror RPGs, and, since then, I've spent some time thinking and percolating and trying to figure out how to say what I'm going to say here.

To explain my issues with horror gaming, I first need to talk a bit about Player Agency, Railroads, and Sandboxes.

Player Agency is the ability of the players (and their characters) to influence the story being told at the table. A lot of this is mechanical - AD&D, for example, didn't have any "Story Points" that players could spend to influence die rolls (or anything else). But a lot of it was the available adventure template(s), too - players are unlikely to negotiate with mindless undead in a dungeon. Even when adventures moved out of the dungeon, things mechanically didn't work well unless the players followed the path laid out for them by the GM. It's a style of play often referred to as a "railroad" - players must follow a set path in order to meet the adventure's goals.

Fast-thinking or flexible GMs were able to tweak this, allowing players to head in pretty much any direction. But, if you (for example) ignore that small-time necromancer a few towns over, he's going to get more powerful and be a bigger problem by the time your players decide to deal with him. But players can go anywhere they want. This is more of a "sandbox" game. A good GM either knows what's going on in various parts of the world )or can fake it well) - and players can do pretty much anything in the world.

Railroad vs. Sandbox is a lot like the Lord of the Rings series. Sam and Frodo are players in a railroad campaign. The rest of the party is playing a sandbox game.  Had they not split the party up early, we might not have seen the battle of Helm's Deep, and Wyrmtongue might still be the effective ruler of Rohan. Gondor would still be ruled by the Steward. Even after the (full-strength) party got to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring, I don't know that Sauron's influence would be immediately dissipated in some of those places. It'd still be an interesting story, but it'd be very different. And readers wouldn't know nearly as much about Middle Earth and its residents. 

Mechanically, there have been a lot of innovations that support Sandbox play. The clocks in Blades in the Dark, for example, are spectacular. And can serve as a reminder to players - "Do that petty crime all you want - the Big Bad's scheme is still advancing until you stop them."

Sandbox games tend to give the players more agency, because players decide the paths they take.

Many recent games have given players tools to help define their setting (and even frame and re-frame current scenes).  13th Age, for example, lets players do a bit of worldbuilding via their skills and One Unique Things. Other games let players establish facts about the scene by spending points - Cortex Prime lets players create Assets that they can use for the scene ("We're fighting in a cave? I'm going to break off a stalactite and use it as a club!"). Scenes can also have Distinctions that players can use to their advantage.

But horror gaming throws all of that out. Horror games nearly all rush players in the direction of predetermined outcomes. "By the end of this adventure, most (if not all) of your player's characters will be dead or insane" is a not uncommon fact of horror gaming. Even the good ones push players in the direction of insanity. And in many of those games, that insanity removes the player's ability to control the character.

I try to be a sandbox GM. I'm not perfect, but I try. And I'm a more traditional GM - my players are players, and I'm the GM. But the line I don't like crossing is "Players control their characters, the GM controls the rest of the world."  In horror games, that line is all too easy to cross. Because horror often has a pre-determined end point.

There are exceptions. Dread, for example, is an excellent horror game with little railroading, and where players control their own fates (although the game's survivability does favor dexterous players).

But, all in all, when I sit down to play a game, I want my players to (mostly) control what happens to their characters. And that's super-hard to do in a horror game without a lot of railroading. And I'm not a conductor.