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Subject: Horror aspects in games, how visceral game should be? rss

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Bojan Prakljacic
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Lately I have put some more serious thought and work into one of my old board game project which is based around horror.

It is a co-op game for 2-6 players set in the alternative 1918 Europe heavily influenced by the works of Mike Mignola and his comic book 'Lord Baltimore, Plague in Europe'. The first name that I gave to this game was actually 'Plague in Europe 1918' but I've changed it later to 'Europe Macabre 1918'.

Now, most games with horror themes doesn't manage to transfer correct mood to the tabletop, or they try to do that using mostly art as a medium. Horror is not just visceral imagery, but also a fear of the unknown. That fear usually deflates when the unknown is revealed and becomes known, even if it is a horrifically scary imagery of a monster.

My questions are:

Do you think that these horror imagery on cards, boards etc, can set a good enough mood of horror and fear, and are there any games that went over threshold and became 18+ rated?

Should you go 'completely dark' or stay accessible to larger player groups?

Is it possible to have fear of the unknown transferred correctly on the tabletop medium, and how would you do it?




I can write some summary of my game to elaborate what kind of game mechanics I have used to convey the aspects of horror, if anyone is interested...
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Hasturmind
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As you correctly pointed out, horror is a difficult medium to convey, especially in a game. Even RPGs which allow for more open ended description can't do a great job 'scaring' people. How scared are you in the comfort of your own game room, surrounded by friends and snacks?

But you hit on the one thing that I think does the best job to convey horror: the unknown. The only game I have recently played that conveyed a real sense of horror was Mansions of Madness, 2e. This game has the unknown in the tiles you put down (as you do not know where it is headed) or what creatures could possibly pop up.

As to the 18+ nature of the game or whether the elements should be adult, I think there is a need for a few more of those games out there but for game designers, that could be a difficult decision as you instantly take out some potential customers. Further, what is 18+ horror to some could be seen as tacky or tasteless as there are some topics that people find taboo in various ways or who are more jarring on a personal level than horror.

I would be curious to see what others think.
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Bojan Prakljacic
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That is why I'm tackling with possibility to make a Legacy horror game.

In that way players will not know what is going to happen as they progress further into the game, not knowing what kind of horrors awaits them as they plunge further into mystery which will branch depending what they have done so far.
With each layer of more horrific eventualities mixed with despair as game is turning into more difficult to survive, I think they would have actual fear and dread of opening additional boxes that are introducing those nasty things...
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Paradox Games
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I'm reminded of the card game POO, with the premise of primates throwing feces at each other. The artwork is expressive and the whole feeling is conveyed, yet no poop is depicted on any of the cards and it's family-friendly. Like you said, suspense is important to effective horror. If you can strike the players' primitive brain and convey the tension in the game as found in good horror, you'll have a winner.
 
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L S
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I'm going to contradict Hasturmind here, I think RPGs can convey the feeling of horror very well. Of course, as with all games, how atmospheric it becomes depends to a large part on the group, and that's where the horror genre is somewhat uniquely tricky: A funny Monty Python-quote won't break a light-hearted fantasy atmosphere (and the party may just go on with the game after the players had a laugh), but similar interruptions can seriously ruin a horror narrative.

I also don't entirely agree with the suggestion that most board games fail in creating a horror atmosphere. Rather, I think you have a very particular type of horror in mind - probably something close to what I would call "psychological horror" -, whereas games like Betrayal at House on the Hill or Eldritch Horror clearly go for a completely different type, namely the "pulp"/Hollywood Golden Age/B-movie type of horror (and I think those games are doing a pretty good job with this particular angle).

That said, if you're looking for inspiration at the (psychological) horror front, I'd recommend taking a look at RPGs like Kult (1st Edition) and My Life with Master. Especially the latter really transitions into board game territory (BGG lists it only as an RPG item, but you could debate that). Also, for board games that manage to convey a feeling of dread, check the upcoming This War of Mine: The Board Game (still in prototype status as of Essen 2016 but very atmospheric).

Last but not least, regarding the question how to transfer "fear of the unknown" into a game, I'd argue that this comes down to a well-polished narrative. Mechanics can't convey fear of the unknown and are even detrimental to that cause - because as soon as you quantify it for game mechanics, it isn't unknown anymore. I'd argue that this also goes for depicting horrors via game art; a certain vagueness and the players' imagination tends to be more scary than any picture (especially in a day and age where virtually everybody has already seen Lovecraft's moster compendium in one game or another).
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Greg
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We pulled no punches with the art in Escape the Nightmare.



On some levels it's worked really well and people have been excited to get their hands on something that's on seen in gaming a lot. On other levels there are people upset by it and shops that won't stock it for those reasons. In the reviews you'll find one that reads:

"Horrid horrid art on some cards. Cannot reccomend this ultra light party game due to inappropriate art on some of the better cards.

Not usually bothered by this but this will probably not hit the table ever."


We try to put the worst of it front and center in marketing materials so that nobody gets it expecting it to be something else, but it's never quite enough.

On a side note we tried to deliver the theme more through panic than horror. It's got a tough time limit (ten seconds per move) and a "put one foot wrong and make everyone lose" system so it can deliver on that pretty well.
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Bojan Prakljacic
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Thank you for that input.

Now I'm sure I will chose a different path to convey horror atmosphere.
 
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Tom Gurganus
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You are tackling a difficult task. But I agree with the other posts that it is achievable. I like your idea of a Legacy horror game. Excellent idea. That is a very good model for a horror theme game. Paradox Games suggestion of looking at RPG's is good. I would suggest Dread (with the Jenga tower) and possibly Geist. PG is correct. Tension is what you want. You hit upon that when you mention wanting 'the unknown'. That drives your tension.
I think you have a very interesting idea and am looking forward to seeing how it goes for you.
Please keep us updated.
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Bojan Prakljacic
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Well, I can elaborate about some main aspects of the game I'm working on for some time.
There are four things I wish to convey in my game, but in a shorter streamlined form:

- RPG
- heavy theme of horror and dread
- story driven adventure
- legacy mechanic

Now, when I'm talking about RPG, I want to do it in a more mundane manner.
Players will be able to pick a class and agenda. Class will determine the selection of skills they can use (represented with cards and special actions or abilities), while agenda will determine some of their starting conditions (location from which they depart to adventure, guild or secret society they belong to, military regiment they are part of and so on...).
Since I want for players to have something that can define them, be their unique thing, but also be their downfall, I got an idea that each player, depending on his agenda could start a game with 'family' attachment. Meaning that player could have a wife and a child, at his home (location from where he starts) that could get involved in dark things which he has to fight, getting them in danger of retaliation from his enemies.

To give an example: Imagine that you have defeated a cult leader that was snatching children sacrificing them to some monstrous deity, and you have defeated him, you flip his Henchman card and find out that now that he is dead you have to open a Legacy deck. You open it and story changes, now all of his minions will hunt families of all the people (players) that were involved in that adventure (mystery, quest) to kill their loved ones. And if your family gets killed your character might became Alcoholic, or Opium smoker, or fall into Depression that will lead him to commit a suicide or rise all his stats making a Punisher type of a character out of him, setting him on the road of revenge...

This option to have other people, a family, attached to some characters was my first idea when I was starting to make this game since I can't remember that I saw something like that in any other games. To have a home to which you can return to heal your wounds, physical or mental wounds, by spending some time with your family or friends, or lover...
So, a soldier that just came from the Great War could have a wife and 2 children, which are his strength keeping his sanity high and giving him bonuses when he is fighting to preserve their security, but also his weakness if something ever happens to them, while gritty mercenary who came from the same war could have been without any family at all, but had a bad habit of gambling, so he could have bonus in resources through a game, always having more stuff he can buy, and then due to some unforeseen consequences gain a curse and lose everything on cards and be hunted by ppl he own money or get into despair and start drinking. Professor from the university that is studding the occult could have his prodigy that he's very fond of, but if she dies he might try to bring her back with some occult stuff and curse himself for the rest of the game...
Basically, strength or weaknesses if all goes south. Things that will stay with you to the end of the game.

Another thing that I want to use is: Minions - Obscured Henchmen - Hidden Villain hierarchy.

You know who the Minions are, and you will fight them all the time, as you brake plots set by the Hidden Villain, eventual you will find out who the main Henchmen are that are sending these minions to do these evil deeds throughout old Europe of 1918. As you topple the Henchmen you will find out who is the main villain of the story and eventually beat him too, or you will be late to stop his grand plot that will introduce some variable ending scenarios.

Mix of Henchmen will introduce various mix of subplots, and not all subplot would relay on 'go here and kill these enemies', but would have two or three possible ways to resolve them, using diplomacy, pure force or arcane abilities. Some of them would even have specific requirement asking from players to gather something to be able to resolve them.
As players pass or fail these quests they will add some tokens to the pool and that pool of tokens will determine which of several possible main villains is standing behind those Henchmen and his grand plan. SO, you never know from the start with what are you dealing here. Is it a tyrant from Belgium, a self proclaimed emperor of the Europe that is building his army of automatons to conquer the world, or is it an old god beyond space and time, setting his arrival to destroy everything.
You have to capture those Henchmen and gather info, but you have to be quick because time is ticking...

Of course, those who have read a 'Baltimore' comic from Mike Mignola knows that Europe of 1918 is still recovering from the Great War, that plague is ravaging the old continent (which you can contract btw!), that all kind of blood-thirsty creatures walk the countrysides, demons, vampires, werewolves and witches, undead and ghouls, but also brigands and gangs, cults and occult societies...

Now imagine your story in that setting as you build your character through good and evil and take traits and impediments after getting involved in horrific things your mind can't even comprehend.
I'm talking about heavy stuff that can brake mind and soul of your character as he trying to save the world, or just keep his family safe...
 
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Tom Gurganus
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Sounds like a good start.
 
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Bojan Prakljacic
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When I started, due to the large costs of the prototype if the game would be a strict board game (with lots of pieces and tokens) I have turned toward an idea that it should be a card game with one board. In that way only things I would have to produce would be cards, one board, some various tokens and a few of custom dices. This was my first idea for that board:



But, now I'm thinking to go back to my previous idea and make it more grand. It's not gonna be a small game, and might became quite heavy. :]
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