Splatterpunk horror is a title that tends to set eyes rolling. Viewed as the lowest form of horror, splatterpunk lives up to its name. The genre is often derided as ‘gore for gore’s sake’ or ‘just going for shock factor’. Well…yes. But it’s more than that. So take a deep breath, we’re going to search the entrails for the escape key and attempt to find a red diamond in the rough. It’s likely to be a controversial stance but just like splatterpunk, I’m going for a reaction.
Exploitation or Exploration?
Splatterpunk is a genre that takes all things you’ve heard about horror and focus on making them true. Embracing the graphic content, the genre delights in making it’s audience uncomfortable. The lowest grade elements of the genre as bad as you imagine but watched with a critical lens, the more intellectual offerings ask the questions some are afraid to ask. They goes the places we aren’t always comfortable with exploring. This Grand Guignol exaggerates the violence and horrors of real life to such an absurd level that it allows us to recontextualise them. It makes us switch off the emotional part of our brains. Then we can examine true horror without anyone getting hurt for real.
Horror’s meant to be taboo, right? How taboo? Where’s your limit? The problem with creating challenging work that horrifies is some people are going to have a higher ‘challenge me’ threshold than others. Horror is an examination of our darker sides and we can logically conclude that the same questions need to be asked at different levels for different people.
Examples in RPG
While Horror RPG’s are fairly common, few lean over into true unfettered splatterpunk. Most horror games settle into Gming advice about mood or how to go against the ‘throw all of the gore in’ playstyles. It’s harder to find things that embrace that unrelenting gut-destroying horror.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse: While almost of the White Wolf lines embrace body horror and visceral description as much as they can, werewolf perhaps toes closest to that line. With a combination of ruinous combat moves, often dirty chemical damage and a group of adversaries that revel in an adoption of the new flesh, it can easily be a cavalcade of suffering. Freak Legion, a supplement that has rules for playing the mutant Formori, is perhaps the perfection of the form.
Trauma: Radical Approach games sourcebook isn’t an RPG on it’s own. But it is a brilliant RPG accessory. Essentially a big collection of medically researched ways a body can fail when exposed to violence, it’s not one to read anywhere near bedtime. But it is a great one to look at for really showing the frailty of the body: a core tenet of splatterpunk. It’s also easy to use with other systems.
SLA Industries: For those that want a dose of Cyber in their Splatter, this game can be a nasty mix of horror and neon. Throwing together horrible monsters with over the top cyberweaponry set against a grim backdrop of uncaring corporations, SLA is wide open for gory glory.
Painting It Red
These are the techniques of Splatterpunk. Remember you need to be using the horror techniques from last time, too.
Above All, Safety
Before we go any further, we need to be clear: splatterpunk/full on horror is NOT for some groups. You need to know what buttons NOT to push and when to stop. My suggestion is to be clear at the start of the game that you’ll be heading in the direction and tell everyone to type out anything they really don’t want touched on a nondescript sheet of a4 paper. They can the hand you the sheets and you can shuffle them in front of everyone without looking at them before taking them home and reading them. That way you have confidential way of knowing what to avoid. Also put a safeword in place so you can stop if someone wants to. Also, it’s a cruel trick, but if you have a safeword, it feels like you might need it, which puts people on edge, which does some of the work for you.
Now, that’s out of the way, let’s cast our mind back to the Grimdark column. Remember when I said to exercise restraint? Yeah. Ignore that. Throw it out the window. As dark as you can go. As long as you think they can take it.
Description, Description, Description – Then push it.
It’s all about this. Where as most columns and advice on horror will say ‘don’t describe, leave it up to imagination, there’s the horror, don’t do that. Hold their faces to the fire, so to speak. You have attention and they can’t turn away. Make sure your villains are entrail-drenched maniacs who you can describe as physically horrid. Don’t just describe the monster described a horrific monster dressed up as a fluffy mascot, or it’s dripping gore, define ta semi-dressed child it has on a leash. Roar in it’s voice. Pushing the envelope with a group prepared for it can be very powerful.
This Too Too Solid Flesh WILL Melt
A core tenement of the horror of splatterpunk is the fragility of the human body. We’re pretty breakable really. That’s really scary. Describe the snapping of bone, the tearing of skin from muscle, research exactly the sort of damage acid will do to a person, then show it. Invent complex wound tables, inflict damage on players. Set those expectations of ruin. If you have to do a torture scene, don’t just run it. Explain to the players before that if they don’t break early on, they will have made a choice to permanently scar characters. Then start removing limbs.
You need to break the mood so it’s not one long unremitting pain bath. Once it looks like people can’t take it, that’s when you break out the Malkavian playing showtunes. Or whatever. You can still stay in genre by keeping the humour pretty dark or weirdly juxtaposed with odd moments. A perfect example of this is the boxing scene in Friday The 13th Jason Takes Manhattan where Jason just straight ridiculously punches some guys head clean off. It’s so stupid and over the top and played for laughs you can’t help but find it funny.
Stick a chainsaw in. Design rules for fumbling. Let that bit write itself.
Next time, we’ll round out the horror trilogy with perhaps the most overused subgenre in the history of horror and why I’m a gatekeeping purist idiot. Until then, I’m off to build a dungeon with rooms entirely ripped off of the Saw films.
What are your thoughts? Strike up a discussion and leave a comment below.