When I started both Era: Survival and Era: The Chosen, I asked myself one simple question very carefully:
What is the difference between Survival Horror and Horror?
I thought I would write about my thoughts on this today, and try to explain my answer to that question!
The Survival Horror genre is different from the action genre in terms of both the atmosphere and the events that befall the characters.
While the Action genre is about overcoming impossible odds and blowing away the bad guys, Survival Horror is about the suspense, the threat of danger.
Importantly, characters in Survival Horror stories have an inability to do much about the danger they face. Instead, the characters are explorers in a world which is designed to kill them: they have no choice but to work together with a shared strategy.
The feeling among the players that they are undergoing a descent into the unknown is what you are aiming for, whether literally, like exploring an underground Vault in Era: Survival, or figuratively, such as exploring a forest.
In order to build this feeling, there are a few simple techniques which can be applied.
Anticipation is a powerful tool in this genre, and is often more effective than the actual danger you are expecting to arrive. If you can build up the sense of danger without offering the chance to defeat the threat, you will create the sort of atmosphere you are looking for. Simple examples are things like characters seeing things put of the corner of their eye but checking proves them imaginary, a lack of light (causing characters to rely on torches).
In writing terms, I would recommend against the “minor character being picked off before anyone can react” trope, because it is perhaps slightly overused. The first character to die in the movie Alien (which I think is a good example of Survival Horror) was far from a minor character, in the form of Kane!).
Claustrophobic environments, like a closed-in building, or even a dense forest, can be used to great effect to make the characters feel that there is nowhere to run, adding to the tension. Their weapon is running out of ammunition and enemies are attacking from both sides with no obvious way to avoid them… what does the character do?
Eventually, the action will arrive. When it does, give the characters a necessity to perform complex actions which require attention while under pressure – lockpicking a door when unhurried may be easy for them, but when the entire group is watching a horde of zombies approach, it really builds the tension!
Weapons being unreliable is also a vital part of this genre – they have limited use before they de-nature and begin to fall apart. Ammunition will be scarce, with characters always wondering whether they should use their gun now, or risk it and save it for later.
Don’t forget to give the characters a chance to unwind! Constant tension will wear the reader out and reduce the reaction to these situations.
Let them slam the door in the face of the horde and declare that they won’t get through something that thick for a while. Let them have 10 minutes to rest, take stock of their supplies and figure out their strategy every so often. That makes the monster that bursts through the ceiling all the more unexpected!
Of course, these are just a few examples of how this genre can be expressed. What is the most important thing to you?
You can find out more about Era: Survival here: https://www.shadesofvengeance.com/product/era-survival-definitive-edition-rulebook-digital/
And there is an Audio Book version of the stories: https://www.audible.co.uk/pd/B07XVCTS4J/?source_code=AUKFrDlWS02231890H6-BK-ACX0-164475&ref=acx_bty_BK_ACX0_164475_rh_uk
Era: The Chosen, which edges on the side of plain Horror, can be found here: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/287797/Era-The-Chosen–Core-Rulebook