Dreadful Solicitations: Bringing Players to the Darkness
Horror roleplay is certainly a niche within a niche within a niche. Even in the era before Roll20 and actual play broadcasts, it was certainly a challenge to sustain a horror theme in any dedicated campaign. It seemed like you could cajole your gaming group into trying a one-shot or even a few sessions of excursion from the traditional game systems and settings of the group. If you were ever frustrated that you couldn't find like-minded devotees of the genre, this article is for us.
The RPG boom has come, right? With remote gaming technology improvements, a pandemic, and the emergence of professional GM as a career option, it should be easy to use all of the above to find those kindred spirits who want a little more bleak despair in their role-playing games. After all, enough people like the genre to keep buying content. Surely, we can come together and manifest outstanding horror content in play, yes? This article offers techniques to entice the willing among us to find each other and play.
Our first challenges relate to the niche nature of horror role-playing games. We're calling out to a sea of role-playing gamers across a variety of platforms, social media, and websites to try and find those kindred spirits who want to play with us. This is a marketing problem, as our first goal should be targeting our consumers (RPG players who want to play horror games soon) with a call to action (join my group) on which they follow through (show up and play).
Targeting Would-Be Horror RPG Gamers
So the most common mistake I've made and see repeatedly is assuming the game system (Call of Cthulhu, 2e or 3e Ravenloft, etc.) sufficiently sells the experience to be had to the prospective player. I assure you it does not.
In this regard, I think of the game system like a restaurant franchise. Not to pick on anyone, but we can all agree on what the most likely experience of eating at a McDonalds or Burger King is like. Yet if you've ever eaten at an unusually bad one, despite the corporation's best efforts to ensure the experience is always the same, from that point forward you no longer equate the brand with the experience. You may still eat at a specific franchise location, but you and I probably no longer assume that they're all equivalent in taste, service, etc.
As most of us in the RPG community have at least dabbled in horror RPG's, or even horror elements within non-horror-focused RPG's, our experiences have varied and been formative. More so with the niche within a niche that is horror RPG game systems. Unlike McDonalds or Burger King, the better analogy might be much smaller chains like Whataburger, Hardee's, or White Castle. Many players may have only ever had one taste and moved on to something else or returned to the tried and true experiences they know well.
So recruiting to a specific game system is like telling would-be players whether burgers or tacos are on the menu. It's helpful but not sufficient. Even posting your specific campaign setting, one-shot idea, or even the big-bad (Strahd) is merely equivalent to posting the menu online. Again, it's helpful but not sufficient. Why not?
The niche of horror, be it books, movies, or in this context, role-playing games, is filled with bad examples we've all experienced. Even well-intending creators (and GM's) can fail in execution even if all the building blocks for a great session (the right rule system, the right premise, etc.) are present. To combat dampened enthusiasm, we must talk to the experience we're offering.
Though we may not necessarily know what our RPG consumers specifically want in a play session, we can use the game system as a shorthand for the type of horror we're offering (Call of Cthulhu for cosmic horror, Ravenloft D&D for power fantasy with gothic themes, Fear Itself for visceral character-focused horror, etc.). Next, the (mis)adventure hook or premise works just like a new show description on your favorite streaming service. It's a deciding factor if you have lots of options and very much less important if you're the only horror game around.
(Don't get cocky, kid, and skimp on the hook just because there aren't a lot of games around. Your campaign or session premise of veiled antebellum commentary as expressed by infiltrating jackalope mummies in 1926 Raleigh is competing not only versus other horror offerings, but non-horror RPG offerings and, even worse, non-RPG activities. Our niche demands nothing less.)
The experience, though, is the "how" in addition to the "what". It's critical because it has the best chance of distinguishing the proposed game session from similar ones we may have experienced in the past. My offer includes what I'll bring to the session as GM as well as what we can elicit together at the table. For example:
I will both use and subvert common tropes and conventions to give you players new thrills and surprises.
I will describe our shared game world with lurid and evocative descriptions.
We'll align as a group whether we expect to win, survive, or die gloriously, and I will ensure all options delight the group.
I'll create as deep and interesting characters as my players expect and want but avoid cardboard or stock characters as we make the game experience our own.
By setting out what I'm bringing to the party, I communicate thoughtful intention and commitment that likely resonates with horror RPG aficionados as necessary for great horror gaming sessions. If I leave these out, then any prospective players get no such assurances and rely on any previous experiences that didn't include me.
This then tackles the marketing message with a clearer offer: If you join this session, you can expect to play by these specific rules to experience this scenario...and this approach should make it delightful for us all.
While prospective players may want something different and scroll past this call for players, adding the experiential details creates a stronger offer for those interested. Subsequent articles guide how to fulfill on these aspirational goals, but first we have to elevate the pitch if we're going to better invite players to the table.