Horror roleplaying is a tough beast to tame. In fact, once you tame it, it isn’t horror any longer.
In other genres—fantasy, sci-fi, westerns, modern combat, and so on—heroes are bold sorts who go out seeking adventure. It’s only natural, then, that their lives should become a string of such events. This is what makes a roleplaying campaign possible.
In horror stories, however, the protagonists are usually innocents who find themselves targeted by dangers they never sought out. Chances are, even if they survive, they will be forever scarred—whether physically or psychically. This is what makes horror horror. Survivors certainly won’t go seeking more such encounters. On the other hand, roleplayers need a sense of continuation and growth from session to session. This makes running a true horror campaign very difficult.
Many “horror” roleplaying games over the years have sought to solve the problem by inventing some sort of organization to which the protagonists belong. This serves the purpose of getting the characters involved in the events of each adventure, and it gives them support for surviving it. Unfortunately, the result feels all too often like a Scooby Doo mystery: It may be fun; it may even be spooky; but it isn’t horror.
Granted, some other games have gained success by focusing on a particular sub-genre of horror. The Call of Cthulhu game has long been respected, for example, in part because characters are often retired due to sanity loss. The World of Darkness setting has also enjoyed considerable success, in this case by casting the player characters in the roles of monsters themselves, creatures attempting to retain some semblance of humanity. Even my own Dark Conspiracy game has survived across the years (having been licensed and re-released by three different publishers, at last count), partly due to its focus on environmental horror, and partly due to a strategy of “hurt the player characters early, then let them return with big guns for revenge.”
My desire, however, has long been to create a roleplaying game capable of encompassing any horror tale, from ancient Beowulf to alien bughunt, without pulling the monsters’ teeth; a game in which innocent people are drawn into terrible events, perhaps to sacrifice themselves for the good of humankind; one in which the referee can maim or kill player characters, if necessary; and yet a setting in which players possess a sense of connection and growth from adventure to adventure. Further, I wanted an approach that would not do violence (so to speak) to any story idea the referee wanted to import from books, movies, personal nightmares, or even other roleplaying games. And as always, I also wanted to invent a catchy dice mechanic—in this case with poker cards, as well.
The result of those desires, along with several years of work, is the When Shadows Rise™ d13™ horror storytelling system. Let me know how well you believe I’ve accomplished my goals.