Today’s guest article is by Gnome Stew reader Craig Dedrick, and it’s his third. (See Freedom Through Restraint and What Makes a Good Monster? for his previous two pieces.) Thanks, Craig! — Martin

Scare the S#!t out of your Players

I am a big fan of horror games. When all is said and done, horror is probably my favourite RPG genre. I have had many conversations with other game masters about how to frighten players, and they often tell me that it is a trouble spot for them. When you look to create a horror scene, you need to do a few things to set it up, and you need to identify exactly what kind of effect you are going for. When I set out to run a horrifying scenario, I find it helpful to think of the different elements that I will need in order to achieve the effect that I want.

  1. Atmosphere: lighting, music, a quiet and private gaming space. Like with any RPG, the scene is going to be more effective if your players are in the right headspace. You need to get the jokes out of the way and create a bit of atmosphere. Turning down the lights and putting on some spooky music are a couple of things that you can do to get players into the scene.
  2. Vulnerability: this is where the game system can either help or hinder you. The players have to feel vulnerable. If you are playing a horror game, the feeling of vulnerability is usually built in through the mechanics; the characters are often much weaker than most of the monsters, and death is a distinct possibility. If you are playing a high level D&D game, on the other hand, the characters are very difficult to harm, and the players will naturally feel confident in most situations. You need to put them into a situation where they feel vulnerable. Put them in an anti-magic zone, or split them up, if you think that this is going to be a problem.
  3. Surprise: this is the cheapest kind of scare, and the easiest to achieve. Once you have the right atmosphere, and the players feel a bit vulnerable, you can surprise them. Something jumps out at them from the dark, or something grabs their hand when they are reaching into a space that they cannot see. To get the jump-scare, you can bang the table, make a loud noise, or suddenly grab a player’s hand. This type of scare is momentarily effective, but it will often lead to players breaking the atmosphere directly after with a laugh and some jokes, so I like to use this sparingly.
  4. Suspense: when game masters talk about scaring players, this is usually what they are after. This is all about what has happened, and what is going to happen. If you want good suspense, you need to foreshadow what might happen. Have the characters come across signs that something is out there, or that something horrible has happened and might happen again to them. Dead bodies, ominous writings or sounds, creature tracks, far-off screaming in the dark, and destruction to the environment illustrating massive strength are all effective techniques. The players may or may not know what the threat is, but you should give them room to imagine the worst. If your atmosphere is working, and they are feeling vulnerable, then ominous foreshadowing will have them afraid to open the next door or look around the next corner.
  5. Terror: terror is the fear that one feels when encountering the threat, and if it is done properly, it will likely lead into a chase. This is Aliens after the creature has been encountered. This type of fear continues to play on PC vulnerability, and really comes from the feeling that they cannot defeat the threat (even if they can) and that it will cause them terrible harm. This is a difficult type of fear to convey in a game, and it really relies on an effective description of the threat. The players need to picture something terrifying in their mind in order to be terrified by it. If you are playing a game with well-known monsters, such as Pathfinder, D&D or Cthulhu, the system can work to your advantage here if you use a monster that is known to be particularly dangerous, our well beyond the power level of the PC’s.
  6. Horror: is a feeling of revulsion upon encountering something. It is easy to gross out your players with a graphic description of gore, and this can certainly help to establish your atmosphere, or to build suspense through foreshadowing. The key here is to get the players to imagine it happening to them, and to play on common fears (if you know that one of your players is afraid of spiders, use it!). Pictures and other visual aids can often be helpful if you feel that your descriptions are not getting the job done.
  7. Psychological Horror: is the creation of an emotional, intellectual, or even spiritual, conflict. This is most effective when characters are put in situations where they choose to do something awful that violates their own moral code. Sometimes this is because reality has become distorted due to hallucinations or madness, and the character is tricked into doing something awful, only later to discover what they did. Other times, the character is put into a no-win situation that involves doing something terrible in order to prevent a greater harm. For me, this is the most effective type of horror in a role-playing game because the player ends up doing and describing the action, which can be more effective than a description of an external threat by the game master.

In order to generate fear in your players during a horror scenario, try to incorporate as many of the seven elements that you can. For example:

The characters are exploring a dark, underground passage, searching for a missing child. The passage has many narrow twists and turns, limiting visibility from their lanterns (atmosphere). The ceiling is low, and the passage is narrow, limiting the types of weapons that they can use (vulnerability). They come across the body of someone who has died recently, a look of contorted horror on his face, but no obvious signs of death.

A character bends down to get a closer look, and he sees some sort of movement underneath the skin of the cheek of the dead body. A hairy, brown spider the size of a silver dollar crawls out of the mouth of the corpse (horror). The character regains her composure so that she can investigate the corpse further, and sees a puncture wound in the abdomen. As she looks at it, a dozen small spiders burst out of the wound (surprise/horror) and scuttle off into the darkness. The character theorizes that the puncture wound was how the spider eggs got into the body, and that when they hatched, they killed the man from the inside. Judging by the size of the wound, the spider who laid the eggs must be very large.

The characters continue on, and come to a large cavern covered in thick, sticky webs that further restrict vision (suspense). The characters move through the webs, surprised at how strong they are and how they restrict their movement (vulnerability). Eventually they see the child, cocooned in spider webs, but still alive. As they cut him down, a huge, hairy spider the size of a small car descends from the darkness above, its huge stinger dripping with poison (terror). One brave character attacks it, and while she does injure it, she is stuck with the stinger and collapses in pain. They grab the child and the incapacitated character and run desperately for the narrow passage (terror).

They barely escape, and the huge spider cannot follow. The child wakes up and begins to scream in pain. A quick look reveals a puncture wound and ominous movement under the skin around the site of the wound (horror). One of the characters pulls a knife and tries to cut the insects out of the child’s gut, and when she realizes that it is impossible, she kills the child to end his pain (psychological horror), the incapacitated character watching in horror, envisioning the same fate when the eggs in her own belly hatch in a few days (horror).

Because I love the horror genre, I am always keen to learn about other techniques or theories for creating effective horror. Do you have any ideas that I have missed? What are some of the common pitfalls that you encounter when trying to run a horrifying scenario?