(I’m writing this knowing that it might be a little triggery for you if you’ve got issues with harmed or injured (or worse) kids in your stories. I know I do. So fair warning.)
It’s that time again! Time for horror and scares and shiver in your boots movies and stories to inspire our games and plunge them into the dark side. (Assuming you even take a break from horror inspired games, plenty don’t.)
So let’s talk about a very popular trope to drag into your horror game, and quickly, think about some angles to take when addressing that trope.
Kids. Babies. Demon Hell Spawn in Baby form. Innocent victims to threaten. Set dressing to be strewn about usually in pieces to heighten the ‘horror.’
Sometimes this can be AWESOME and just exactly the kind of motivation your characters need.
Many times it’s a lazy shortcut that can kill the mood at best or drive players from your table and your gaming group at worst.
Why? Because children are people. They are very small people, and sometime they can be rude, mean, uneducated, sticky, smelly, bity or just in the way, but they are still people. So just like tying a damsel to a rock and sending the players off to save her can be very shallow, putting a child up on a sacrificial altar is dull. People, interesting people have agency. Even little people. Yes, they’re smaller, and yes they’re considerably less likely to come up with a logical plan, have the strength to act out their plan, or any number of other hurdles in their way, but when you treat children as dolls waiting for doom, you’re underestimating the potential kids can bring to your horror.
I’m not going to meditate too heavily on this, but I do want to touch on it. If you’re using kids, NPC kids, in your game, if they are ‘on the table’ when it comes to death and mayhem, check with your players. Give them a heads up. Lay out an X card and let them know they never have to explain why they use it, just move on. If you don’t have kids, or don’t want to have kids, it may never occur to you that some people are wired to find violence against children very very hard to handle1. You don’t know the backstory of every PLAYER at your table, and while it might be a thing you don’t sweat, give people an out if it turns out to be something they do2.
THAT’S out of the way, here’s some tips for taking full advantage of using kids in your scary stories.
Give ‘em some agency! Kids are cunning, sometimes ruthless when it comes to surviving. Most have heard stories about heroes and standing up for yourself. Breaking into a villain’s lair to stop him before he brings harm to his would-be victim is cool. Breaking in to find the kid has already escaped, so now the characters have to stop the villain AND find the kid is even better.
Evil Kids. Yeah, I get it. Very scary. Possibly even comical if mishandled. Just remember, asking a group of adults to condone the murder of a child, even in a story, is kinda gross. Make it heavy. Or make it a terrible choice. Or make it clear the ‘kid’ isn’t a kid, or consider maybe not doing it at all3. Remember your X Card or X Card like methods. Remind your players.
Real Bad Stuff happening to your NPC kids. Implying is always better than describing. Players can fill in for themselves how much they can take from that implication4. I’m reminded of some good writing advice I once got. If you’re trying to scare, and you go for scary, you’ll miss the mark. Instead, aim for disquiet. If you can get to disquiet, your players will naturally carry it over into horror. Imply, hint, suggest, but never show, and suddenly it’s all about consent and how much the players want to buy in for. Yes, there are powerful stories that can be told about certain specific kinds of child exploitation, of course, but I don’t know if you can come at those stories from the right angle while also trying to tell a horror story. The approaches are different, and if you come at it from the horror end, you’re doing surgery with a machete instead of a scalpel. You don’t know what baggage players bring to the table, and you don’t want to carelessly cause a bag to burst, so to speak.
Kids are easy targets, I get that too. But consider, if your monster or villain can do to a healthy, capable grown person what he can do to a kid, isn’t he kinda a bigger threat?
Anyway, I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m saying do it well, think about it, and do it with people who are cool with what you’re doing. So with those words, go forth, and terrorize your players with my blessing. What do you do to make sure the kids in your horror aren’t lazy cliches?
- This is what makes movies like the Orphanage and even the Omen so powerful. ↩
- They might not know until it comes up, hence my mention of the X Card again. Sometimes a pre discussion isn’t enough because they don’t know ahead of time. ↩
- Oh, and for fuck’s sake, if you can reasonably, maybe give them the chance to help the kid? Not everything needs to be hopeless. Not every player loves hopeless. ↩
- They may also be able to scare themselves far better than you ever could. ↩