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How do you do personal horror?

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  • How do you do personal horror?

    Personal horror is also something I love but there's a simple fact: some players have no idea what it means and the STs aren't much better. However, I had this conversation with a friend and I thought I'd share it.

    "So, what does personal horror mean?" A friend of mine asked.

    After thinking about it, I said, "It's Dragon Age and Mass Effect roleplaying."

    "Excuse me?"

    "Personal horror gaming is where you're confronted with two incredibly bad choices and you have to make a choice between them. Like in Dragon Age where you have the noble Knights Templar who lock up mages to keep them from frying humans or being demon-possessed but the mages are abused there and treated as slaves. You can side with one or the other but not both."

    "I don't understand. What does that have to do with vampires?"

    "Let me use another example. You are Dave the 13th Generation Neonate. I am the Storyteller. I introduce your mortal years girfriend to you. She's smoking hot and really devoted to you."


    "She's dying now. Cancer from a Pentex plant in her area. She wants to just live well before she dies an dthat involves being your girlfriend. You can make her a ghoul and fuck up her mind, embrace her and risk the Prince's wrath, or let her die."

    "Okay, a bit clearer. Isn't it better to do the latter and make her happy?"

    "Maybe, except she figures out you're a vampire and demands you save her life. Now you have a problem you have to deal with, especially as she's a bit hysterical about the whole thing and possibly dangerous."

    "I'm getting you a bit better now."

    "But that's a bit too situational. A better example, you're dancing at the Succubus Club and you find a guy roofies a woman there. Do you intervene?"

    "Fuck yes!"

    "Awesome. Here's the thing, the dude is a regular and will just do it again. The vamps in the club don't care if he does it. The kid is the son of a Senator."

    "So, what I should kill him?"

    "MAYBE! Maybe you do and find out he still has parents and she's going to drag the cops down here to investigate it. You may have to pay a fine or do a favor for body disposal or get rid of it yourself. You could also scare the shit out of him by making it clear you're a vampire or, hey, Dave has Dominate. Tell him to turn himself into the police or reveal it on social media that he's a rapist."

    "That last one sounds good."

    "You're getting the point now. I see vampire personal horror as trying to navigate the various moral choices that will always have some sort of downside but may be one your character can live with. Say you frenzy and kill that guy. Maybe the girl sees it and is traumatized for life--but one of his other victims loves you now and wants to become your servant. Then there's my favorite way of doing personal horror."

    "Which is?"

    "Where I don't do it to you but you do it yourself."


    "I give you permission right now to describe something truly horrifying happening to your character either now or in the past. I want you to be the one to torture your character and roleplay their bloody revenge or survival. You were locked in a cellar with a little girl for a week by the Sheriff, the Prince has enslaved your sister and is keeping her as his sex slave, you killed your parents during your first frenzy but Dominated it out, and you actually aren't who you think you are are all good. I want you to feel like it's less something the ST does to your character than an opportunity for you to make your character more dramatic."

    (These are all things players have come up with before)

    "Okay, this sounds good."

    "Welcome to 5E."

    So, how do you handle personal horror.

    Author of Cthulhu Armageddon, I was a Teenage Weredeer, Straight Outta Fangton, Lucifer's Star, and the Supervillainy Saga.

  • #2
    I deal with it in a similar way, in that I have my players inflict horror upon themselves. But instead of putting impossible choices in their path, I put possible but hard ones.

    A recent one in my All-Tremere campaign:

    The Regent told them he required three fresh human corpses. He gave them a deadline of two nights, and sent them on their way.

    What to do?
    They could devote extensive time and resources into robbing a morgue, hiding their paper trail, and making sure the bodies they got weren't too old.
    They can whack three people over the head with a crowbar.

    One is considerably easier than the other, right? They chose the latter.

    The kicker? This was a test from their Regent. The bodies were taken out back and burned after inspection. This added an extra gut-punch, as they chose to murder three people for no reason.

    The key is that THEY chose what to do. And when they look back, as more and more of these situations appear, they will ask themselves again and again, "Have I become this person, who chooses evil because doing good is too much work?"

    That's personal horror to me. Looking back at yourself and being horrified at your own actions.

    Furthermore, I believe Carthage should be destroyed.


    • #3
      Interesting question.

      The examples you present are valid and interesting, but to many of my players they'd pose as little more than conundrums, I'm afraid. And that is often the problem about defining 'personal horror'; in many cases they end up being problematic to the situation at best, as the players either adopt a depraved morality (since we're playing Vampire) or they focus on the conundrum itself rather than on the effect it may have on their character.

      In my experience, the best way to present 'em with (personal) horror is to take out the vampire of the equation, so to speak:

      I'm running a Victorian Age Vampire game in which I introduced the baby farmer Amelia Dyer, who was responsible for killing hundreds of infants, she'd been paid by unfortunate young women to adopt. It is a real case which is so horrifying that it needs no supernatural monster to give the players chills. And one of 'em found it truly disturbing to swim through countless bodies of infants in the Themes, hold down by weights on the bottom of the river ... somehow the Vampire no longer was relevant to the situation.

      So, my best results come from depicting the depravity of mortal men ... but one could argue that I'm missing the scope then.


      "They do say, Mrs. M, that verbal insults hurt more than physical pain. They are of course wrong, as you will soon discover when I stick this toasting fork into your head."

      --E. Blackadder


      • #4
        Along similar lines to what Vincent stated, personal horror is subjective and at times a non-issue for some players.

        I have seen many types of gamers in my years and dozens of ways to break them down by type. Each type of player requires a different type of thing to make them feel that horror. For the sake of simplicity let us boil all the different player types down to three templates. Killers, Role Players, and Planners.

        Killers are often players who have spent a lot of time playing D&D or online MMOs which are kill based XP grinds. As long as their levels go up, their abilities get better, and their sense of empowerment gets sated, there aren't enough moral quandaries in the world to make them blink. Personal Horror for a Killer type is loss of power. Level drain, Dominate by a lower generation, facing thaumaturgy when they have no skill in it, etc. The tricky part is that applying this has to be done ever so delicately otherwise it just feels heavy handed or punishing.

        Role Players are the ones who wallow in the moral quandaries like those mentioned in the original post. In truth these types of players will torture themselves if given half a chance and some dramatic inspiration. For these players I would suggest treating them like George R.R. Martin treats his characters from game of thrones, destroy the defining concept of a given character and allow the player to role play out picking up the pieces or let them role play out the dramatic spiral of doom. It could be argued that the true "Personal Horror" for these types of players is a lack of drama or situations then can role play in. Essentially if they survive to be the best, destroyed all their enemies and conquered the entire world, they would then immediately go into drama mode about existential emptiness about being the best and surviving. I suggest writing up a table of random horrible fates, telling the player to roll on the table four times and write up how it affects their character and what they go through because of it. You then go out for pizza while they self torture, who knows, they might roll that table a couple extra times just to make it really over the top.

        Planners are the tricky ones to deal with. Chances are they know the rules better than you do. They conceived this character with a plan in mind. From the first game the player already knows where they want their character to go, to learn, to do almost up the end game. If you as the ST put an immovable object in front of them, the Planner will use it as a point of leverage rather than an impediment. Throw an unstoppable force at them and they will use it as a power source. Every choice, every battle, every minor plan, is just one more brick they are laying in the foundation of their master plan for their characters and possibly the setting itself. Unlike a Killer, if you level drain a Planner, chances are they have a backup plan for just such an occasion to get back on their feet, not to mention ramp up their time tables because you as the ST have caught on to what they represent to the story and setting. Personal Horror for this type of player is the sensation of utter helplessness, the kind where they didn't see this possibility, didn't plan for it, couldn't conceive of a counter for it. The only catch is that if you manage to find such a thing and deploy it, it will only work once.

        As you can see the type of player you are dealing with vastly changes what "Personal Horror" means in game play options. So when I really want to get a Personal Horror game that hits all the buttons, leaves no space in the players psyche untouched, and most of all completely side steps playing style, I go for a play your self game.

        In a play your self game you lack the psychological shield of your character. You only know what you personally know, you only have what ever real life training you actually have, and your stats mirror your real life abilities. Now you can go for a planned embrace setup or completely random. We as players rarely want to play certain clans, but having that choice taken away as well can really add the horror.

        One game I ran like this had the PCs out at a bar on a Friday night once college classes were finished. It was a camarilla feeding ground, but that night the sabbat rolled on through. All the mortals got hosed down with automatic weapons fire and dropped where they were, the vampires then went fangs out. With all the vitae flying about, a few mortals got enough blood in their mouths to turn once they bled out from their wounds. Of course the PC now have to figure out what they are, not get killed as part of the cover up, hide their condition from their families, and also try not blow the masquerade.

        Just learning how to feed properly routinely almost got the coterie killed on many occasions during the first in game week. Hunger, frenzy and family make for a bad combination. The Brujah clan weakness is a lot more problematic with this sort of game than most others. When the brujah frenzies, rips open their family members for blood, yeah you get to deal with that characters personal horror, but so does the player who "lucked out" and rolled a Ventrue with Dominate three and gets to clean up the mess by trying to cover up the blood bath with the neighbors and any extended family or friends.

        Of course when you are playing this style of game there is always the potential problem that a Player might become the source of Personal Horror for the group. There are a lot of personal quirks that when given free reign in a game like vampire can become rather..... disturbing. One of the female gamers was a bit of an anime/hentai/fanfic enthusiast IRL and the random roll for her character was clan Tzimisce. Things went a bit more Bible Black than Bram Stoker as a result. This in turn gave the other players an interesting form of social permission to go darker as well. By the end of that chronicle, everyone just kind of looked at each other with this confused look on their faces trying to figure out how their characters who are undeniably them became what they did.

        In the end it was a good game, emotionally draining and a little eye opening, but good all the same. With that said I wouldn't suggest trying this with randoms, since you kind of need a higher level of trust and enough familiarity with each other to ensure honest role play.


        • #5
          Grey morality and making the decisions of the players count isnt something exclusive of personal horror or V5 is something typical of vampire games (requiem and masquerade) and the mark of a great storyteller.

          Now answering your question personal horror is about love.

          I am not talking about love in the carnal or platonic sense I am talking about caring over something it can be a person , an animal , an ideal , a project or yourself.

          You donĀ“t fear the inevitable becuase you can do nothing against it neither do you fear what has a solution becuase you can solve it But when you care about something there is when you start fearing to lose it or to not being able to success.The preasure of failure due to your own choices is where the personal horror shines you could have done better but you were weak or took to wrong choice and now you are tormented by your conscience becuase you care or used to care.

          So to attain personal horror you must make your players love the world you have build make them empatize with something and then show them it can be destroyed by their own choices.What they care or not depends of the type of player they are as suggested above and the type of storyteller you are everyone has their forte.My recomendation to make the players care is a good sesion 0 and the use of invisible tutorials to make everything fluid and natural.Hope is also important , the fact that some kind of satisfaying end is attainable makes the failure more bitter and the success more sweet.

          Originally posted by Thoth View Post
          Of course when you are playing this style of game there is always the potential problem that a Player might become the source of Personal Horror for the group. There are a lot of personal quirks that when given free reign in a game like vampire can become rather..... disturbing. One of the female gamers was a bit of an anime/hentai/fanfic enthusiast IRL and the random roll for her character was clan Tzimisce. Things went a bit more Bible Black than Bram Stoker as a result. This in turn gave the other players an interesting form of social permission to go darker as well. By the end of that chronicle, everyone just kind of looked at each other with this confused look on their faces trying to figure out how their characters who are undeniably them became what they did.
          I will only say that protean 4 in my desk can generate tentacles among other things and all my group of friends/players included me is into manga an anime so the joke is there

          The girl in the group can also transform in a Giant Octopus from the pacific.
          Last edited by Leandro16; 11-08-2018, 09:51 AM.

          Hunger pool


          • #6
            I go "Boo! Wooga wooga wooga!"

            Personal horror.

            I may come back to this thread with a serious answer.

            Matthew Dawkins
            In-House Developer for Onyx Path Publishing

            ~Hapax Legomenon~


            • #7
              I think players are all naturally sadistic psychopaths to their characters. I recall one time when I let them off on their leash--the player character said his first frenzy resulted in killing his parents and then drinking from his sister. The drinking was heavily implied to be sexual and then he tried to ghoul her to save her life--so she is in love with him now so he keeps her locked up in his spare house with paid ghouled guards.

              I was like, "Damn. That's some Gothic horror Martin there."

              The character was previously described as a Friendly Doctor Vampire and the player had mostly done Changeling: The Dreaming adorable characters.
              Last edited by CTPhipps; 11-08-2018, 05:19 PM.

              Author of Cthulhu Armageddon, I was a Teenage Weredeer, Straight Outta Fangton, Lucifer's Star, and the Supervillainy Saga.


              • #8
                BTW, here's an adventure my PCs ran with V20 that I think is very good for 5E.

                "Knowledge too terrible to possess"

                The player characters are contacted by Anita Wainwright, who is their friend, and she asked them to investigate her friend Ashley. Ashley has just frenzied and killed a couple of mortals and has done it again, injuring a couple more. She's also abandoned her entire mortal life, which bothers Anita because Ashley is one of the kindest, sweetest, nicest vampires you'll ever meet. She's also a Thin Blood so that isn't just hyperbole.

                I'll spare you the rest of the story but the short version is the PCs eventually track her down but not before they're contacted by (of all people) Bobby Weatherbottom who says "Whatever you do, DON'T try to figure this out. Just bring her to me and I'll pay you. No questions asked, I'll make it better." The PCs eventually figure out why after investigating her house and following up leads.

                Ashley was turned into a Thin Blood and tried to continue her suburban existence with her dhampyr child that she absolutely loved. However, her husband was eventually disgusted by her existence and attacked her with a knife. Her escaped and then she was driven mad by the smell of the blood and fed on her own 6 month old baby (she botched on the self-control roll, so to speak). She tried to kill herself, failed, and then Bobby Weatherbottom erased it from her memory with a fake memory.

                She's now remembering and believes her husband killed their child and is hunting him (he having fled town and changed his name), in a VERY dangerous mental state.

                The PCs must decide what to do with her, the husband, and so on.

                My PCs let her kill her (comparatively) innocent husband so they could patch up her brain properly.

                Author of Cthulhu Armageddon, I was a Teenage Weredeer, Straight Outta Fangton, Lucifer's Star, and the Supervillainy Saga.


                • #9
                  Love this question - needs more responses! Being as this is billed as a game of personal Horror, getting this right is sort of the most important aspect of the game. In general, i'd say i agree with most of the above responses, but it's also an area that changes depending on the game at that moment - i try and make it scary whatever is happening.

                  Description is important - People tend to see combat as scary as there is a chance they could die (as in even more dead), but being as most characters believe in a certain amount of Plot Armour, adding description really helps unnerve them. Do they hit that ghoul with a Shotgun or does the blast blow his lungs out of back like a pair of gory wings? Does the Celerity enhanced stab them with a blade a few times, or do they slice them quickly, precisely, and in places known to hurt, do they do this with a manic smile on their face or with a face as blank as if they were reading a book.

                  Another thing is making it personal - and i don't mean using Phobias of your players or being just a creep. The touchstones and Convictions are great for that - we've essentially got a map of the soul of each character, and what's better they're each unique! Sending them into a haunted mansion? Great, the spectre takes the form of someone from their past - now that confrontation involves them slaying a part of themselves. Performing a job for the Prince or Baron to earn prestige in your territory? Perfect, whilst it's not immediately obvious, when you're almost done, the only way to get your hard work and sacrifces to pay off is to break a conviction or two - and in a big way.

                  The final thing relates to something i typed earlier - Plot Armour, So many players think they're immune and won't get killed in random combat. To be honest, I sort of agree - whats the point in all thier hard work creating a character and my hard work building a workd for them to live in, only for them to die at the hands of pack or bloodthirsty Werewolves - sure it might make for a tense set of dice rolls in that session, but then it ends. I prefer to attack them in another way - Humanity. I play the Beast - i want them to join me, i want to bring them to my level. The Slow erosion of their humanity - at their choice, is the best form of horror, especially when they do something ultra Horrific and there are no repercussions. Then they see how far they've fallen.