by Sarah Richardson
Horror is personal, and many women have a complicated relationship with it. In horror movies, we’re often cast as the first to fall—usually in the guise of the promiscuous hot babe who always trips while running away—yet we’re also the final girl—the last survivor with the gender-neutral name who gives the baddie some sorely needed comeuppance. Horror from a feminine perspective usually involves powerlessness, taking place on and inside of our bodies, and in spaces that are supposed to be free from danger. It’s also frequently used as an object lesson to teach us that we are at least partly to blame for what is done to us.
A lot of the horror women experience in real life takes place in our homes and workplaces, perpetrated by people we know: our homes, partners, coworkers, even our children can be dangerous. A good GM can reproduce that horrific intimacy at the table by subverting common roleplaying tropes and introducting feminine horror. For example, many games assume the players will be exceptional people in the foreground, and they tend to ignore the unexceptional people in the background. However, our domestic spaces are ripe for terror, and the main roles are filled with people we can identify with—servant, teacher, nanny, cook, parent, babysitter, daughter, secretary, wife. Feminine horror deals with things that should be familiar and comforting, but instead are full of terror.
In this article, I discuss how to bring the uniquely feminine horror themes of the onset of menstruation, women’s sexuality, and pregnancy to your gaming table, including aspects you can use to drive home specific themes, stunts for the players to cope with the terror, and example set ups to get your table right into the horror.
Player vs. Player Horror
One feature I emphasize throughout this piece is a player vs. player mechanic where players can spend a fate point to give another player a thematic consequence, spreading the horror around and encouraging the kind of selfish behavior you often see in horror movies; each person tries to survive at the expense of everyone else. In the player vs. player feature, players can spend a fate point to give each other consequences, which can later be compelled with another fate point. These consequences fill the moderate consequence slot, as they weaken the character and make them more susceptible to the horror around them.
Characters can only start to recover from the consequence by resolving the fiction around it, and then it will be gone at the next session. For example, if you are given the Infected consequence, you could resolve it by surrendering yourself to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention so that they could make a vaccine. These consequences stay with the original carrier even when they give it to another character, so you can watch the horror spread throughout the group—and it means most of the PCs will have aspects the GM and other players can compel to make the game that much creepier.
Before We Begin...
Playing horror games can be really intense, so make sure both your players and yourself are comfortable. A good horror game manages to terrify and make players uncomfortable without crossing their boundaries, just pushing them right up to that edge. Here are a few methods to help you do that:
Above all else, make sure your players know that horror is on the table; it’s not fun to get surprised with horror when you were expecting a light-hearted comedy!
For many young women, their own maturing bodies can be confusing, or even something to be feared. Even if you’ve been told about the process, actually experiencing the blood, cramps, and mood swings can be terrifying. It can feel like your own body has turned against you, and it’s even worse for young women who aren’t prepared. Blood is a scary thing that means injury in most cases, but it also symbolizes life and transformation, especially in the transition from childhood to adulthood. The changing body of a teenager is a perfect canvas for horror.
Teenagers with newly developed powers is a popular game concept, but it can turn to horror when you focus more explicitly on body horror and a dawning sense of being different, even dangerous. Players can still pick what type of talent their character has, but it should manifest in unexpected or disturbing ways. Powers sound cool, but not if you can’t control them, or are unprepared for the new things you can do and how you may be viewed, in a similar manner to how a young girl may look like a physical adult and be viewed in some ways—particularly sexually—as an adult, but is still emotionally a child. Focus on how the changes in the PCs’ bodies make them feel different from their peers and even different from their concept of themselves, as well as the harm they unwillingly cause. This can be compounded by the normal teenage struggle to be treated as an adult by their parents, especially if their emotions got ahead of their control.
The School: a secluded boarding school might have Forbidden Rooms and Sadistic Teachers.
Rock Bottom: this private treatment center is a Front for Scientific Experiments and is a place where No One Will Help You.
Doing Time: a juvenile penal colony with the expectation of Hard Work, No Play and Predatory Guards.
Facecrime: a sanitized city where there are Cameras Everywhere and Strictly Enforced Behavioral Norms.
Moon’s Blood: a magic user’s school with Tomes of Dark Knowledge and Clueless Adults.
Drawing Down the Moon: a rural village with Violent Bigotry and a Room of Correction.
Example Set Up
The PCs are fresh-faced new recruits to a magic user’s school, excited to be away from parental supervision. An older girl shows them the ropes, and volunteers to room with one of the girls. She gives the PC the Bleed with Me consequence, triggering the girl’s destructive power. The girl can spend a fate point to pass Bleed with Me along to another female character or the Boys Have It Easier consequence to a male character. The Boys Have It Easier consequence can be compelled for obsessive, jealous, and violent behavior.
Goddamned Force of Nature: A character with this aspect revels in their power, but is always on the edge of losing control and hurting the ones closest to them.
Mama’s Little Girl: A character with this aspect is torn between their family’s teachings and their true nature, and tragedy is always be a possible consequence.
Blood Sisters: When you use Rapport to create an advantage on a friendly NPC, gain an additional free invoke on the aspect you create, even on a tie.
The Devil Has Come Home: Whenever you are in your own home, gain +2 to overcome fear or terror using Will.
Women carry the bulk of sexual consequences in the form of STIs, pregnancy, and a disproportionate amount of violence, as well as the strain of a sexual double standard and the conflicting media messages between whore and good girl, slut and prude. It’s almost like we think female sexuality is contagious, infecting unwary men and innocent women alike, and society tries to control it through these labels and reminders of possible dire consequences. However, many women also find power in their sexuality and how they express it; frequently society deals with this empowerment by portraying them as predatory and obsessive.
To incorporate the trope of dangerously contagious sexuality, you can either go with the literal embodiment of frightening female sexuality—gorgons, maenads, furies, and so forth—or you can take a fear and turn it into a supernatural force. If there’s a sexually transmitted marker that attracts death, do the players try to stop it—or do they seduce anyone bent on punishing their licentious ways, thus turning the tables? You can enact a social stigma for promiscuous PCs that follows those they spread their infection to, apply it to those who aren’t sexually active—or both! Focus on the juxtaposition between sexuality and contagion.
Key Party: a wife-swapping soiree in a cheesy 70s ranch that contains a Skeezy Play Room as well as some Dangerous Partners.
Drop Your Pants: A cold and impersonal STI clinic with an Incompetent Doctor and Defective Condoms.
Tight Quarters: living on a space ship means Nothing But Time to Kill and an Unwelcome Stowaway.
The Excessive Machine: a planet dedicated to Hedonistic Pleasure contains a Hidden Dark Side.
Beautiful But Deadly: a training school for courtesans who double as spies might Push You to the Breaking Point as well as have Easy Access to Weapons.
The Woods are Lovely, Dark and Deep: a forest filled with Seductive Fairies who may have Deadly Intentions.
Example Set Up
The PCs are all normal people in an STI clinic, making small talk in the reception room. The lights flicker overhead, making the receptionist appear undead, and everything smells of bleach. One by one they’re called in to see the doctor, and one player is told they now have the Infected consequence. When they share a moment of intimacy with another character, they can spend a fate point to pass it on to that character. While they have the consequence, you can compel them to act on their baser impulses.
Virgin Next Door: PCs who aren’t sexually active might be safe from being Infected, but it also means they’re building up a lot of steam without an outlet.
Creature of Legend: A PC could be any number of mythological creatures that kill through sex or touch. This comes at a cost, as even casual physical intimacy could harm or possibly kill friends and family. In extreme cases, this could be something passed on to others, much like an STI without a cure.
Latin for Teeth: Once per conflict, you can spend a fate point to add the aspect Terrified to anyone touching you by causing them pain. Terrified disappears if someone successfully inflicts stress on your character.
Stranger in a Crowd: People can feel your eyes boring into their backs. Add+2 to Provoke attempts to inspire vague fear in someone in your line of sight.
From Aliens to Rosemary’s Baby, horror often features a strong fear of being invaded, of harboring something wrong inside your own body. Take Rosemary’s Baby, for example—yes, Rosemary’s horrified that her baby might be the son of Satan, but first she experiences the horror of being out of control of her own body, of things not being what she thought. It’s an outside fear that the protagonists face, something beyond comprehension that has found its way inside.
There are obvious parallels to sexual assault that you should make sure your players are okay with before introducing this kind of material. It’s perfectly fine to hand wave or choose a different route to show how their character was “impregnated,” as the focus here is on the aftermath, not the inciting event. Movies frequently use dream sequences that are fragmented and non-linear; you can do the same. It may also have been an innocuous interaction with an alien or supernatural force that infected the PC; no bodily stuff required.
Rather than going straight for demonspawn, start out by setting the scene for subtle body horror as the characters experience things about themselves that just don’t seem right. Some examples would be a feeling of shifting weight within their body, distorted reflections, clothes that no longer fit, and unusual cravings. They don’t have to be pregnant, or even biologically capable of such a thing, to be carrying some sort of alien parasite around, but pregnancy can serve as a model for the ways in which the PCs’ bodies seem to change.
Focus on the unnaturalness of the space that surrounds the characters and crawls inside them.
Creepy Neighbors: your neighbors seem to be There Every Time You Turn Around and they ask Intrusive Questions.
The Housewife Syndrome: trapped all day in an apartment means Time Seems to Stand Still, but there are Endless Chores as well.
Study in Contrasts: the spaceship is Sleek and Modern, except where Dripping Organic Matter intrudes.
Astronaut: the ship takes care of Just Your Basic Needs, but much of it is Unfriendly to Humans.
God Has Forsaken This Place: the abandoned living quarters of nuns contains Dark Secrets and Unvoiced Pain.
Goth As Fuck: a Gothic castle would have Servant’s Quarters as well as Ghostly Inhabitants.
Example Set Up
The PCs all live in a run down apartment building in a bad part of town. They can’t explain the noises they hear or the actions of that creepy old couple who live on the top floor, but one of the PCs has a horrible nightmare and wakes up with an Impregnated consequence. When they confess the alien pregnancy to another character, they can spend a fate point to give the other player the consequence of True Believer. While any of the PCs have this consequence, it can be compelled to make the PC take dangerous risks in order to figure out what’s going on.
Almost Human: This character will never be quite accepted or trusted by the rest of the PCs, and their lack of physical weaknesses may not make up for that. They also are unable to reproduce in traditional ways, which can parallel infertile women, and may complicate their feelings about harboring an alien parasite—or making sure someone else does.
Have My Father’s Eyes: If a character or NPC is descended from Elder Gods, the Devil, or something equally squicky, they may be powerful, yet unable to conceal their parentage and conflicted over their true nature. While stories like Rosemary’s Baby rely heavily on an assumption that the maternal urge will override all other factors, this could be an interesting exploration of the parent/child relationship, particularly from the monstrous child’s point of view.
Purity of Purpose: Survival is what you’re best at. Gain +2 to create an advantage using Crafts whenever you’re stranded in a hostile environment, like someone else’s body.
Get Away From Her, You Bitch: Treat any success where you are protecting your offspring as a success with style.
Bringing Horror to Your Table
I’ve found that the best way to unsettle your players is to use the things that you find horrifying and listen to their feedback. What scares you will scare your players, if you focus on how the thing or person makes you feel, rather than describing how it or they really are. When I run a horror game, I pay strict attention to my players. If I notice a nervous tick, like someone rubbing their earlobe, I know that means they’re feeling what I’m portraying. I also try to describe things using all the senses; for example, people really freak out when they touch something innocuous, like a couch, and find that it’s warm, slightly wet, and moving as if it were breathing. If you’re describing a bodily sensation, like the shifting weight from the Monstrous Pregnancy or the first cramps in a game about Menarche, trying standing up and showing with your posture and gestures how that feels. Lean in to your players and speak quietly to create that intimate atmosphere that makes up feminine horror.
Put your mind into the main villain’s brainspace and really poke around in there. If you figure out what they truly want and what motivates them, you’ll have a more convincing bad guy. All of your NPCs should take actions based on their fears, hopes, and dreams. The alien parasite in your Monstrous Pregnancy game has its own agenda—survival of the species. That’s a powerful drive, and it should be clear in all their actions. A punitive antagonist for a Contagious Sexuality game has their own reasons for hunting down and punishing those who have violated sexual norms. What specific incident sparked your villain’s design to take up this mantle? Specificity makes for a more compelling NPC, and a deep rooted belief makes for a threatening antagonist. Keep your players off balance by creating spaces that should be safe but aren’t, and people they should be able to trust but can’t.
Slow descriptions are also a great way to build dread—if you tell the players that it’s dark in the room, they’ll just try to figure out a way to get light in there. But if you tell them the light is dim and they think they see something in the corner—something big enough to be a person but it’s not moving—the player will first worry about what exactly is in the corner and whether they want to see it, rather than worrying about the mechanics of light.
But remember that no matter how much you build the horror in your game, there will always be someone you can’t creep out, and laughter is a common response to being uncomfortable or scared. Because horror is so personal, make sure to communicate with your players, and have fun terrifying each other!