This guest post by Patrick Benson (AKA VV_GM) is the third in our new Genre Advice for GMs series. In this post, Patrick reminds us that little things can be scary, too.
– – – – –
Horror in RPGs is a lot like horror in the movies. The first time you set up a good horror scenario it is scary, the second time it might be scary, and by the third time the formula is boring.

Go past three times with the same gimmick and your players will begin joking about how silly the whole scenario is.

Ever watched a horror movie with a monster that just scared the pants off of you? When a sequel was announced with even more monsters, did you run out and see it right away only to be a little disappointed, but still pretty scared? Did a third part come out, again with more monsters, and after waiting a few weeks to see it, you were bored instead of scared?

When part four come out (with even more monsters, and a chainsaw wielding maniac), did you wait for the DVD and then watch it just for a chuckle? If they were to announce a part five — and not to give away any surprises, but it will have even more monsters — would you maybe wait for it to come to TV, and then watch it in the hopes of getting a good laugh?

Horror requires that a person feel a primal instinct, and that instinct is fear. Fear has been a key ingredient in our survival as a species. Fear kept your ancestors from poking a saber-tooth tiger with a stick while it was sleeping no matter how curious they may have been. The guy who did pick up that stick and poke the tiger? Well, he never had any descendants due to a sudden and violent dismissal of his DNA from the gene pool. You get the picture. Sometimes it is good to be afraid.

Yet fear is something that is hard to bring about in your players when you are all sitting comfortably around a table, eating pizza and playing a game. What might usually scare a person in real life:

  • GM outside of the game: “Dude, a bee just landed on your shoulder.”
  • Player : “WHAT?! Get it off of me! Sweet +1 elven armor! Don’t just stand there! Help me!”

…is just a minor inconvenience in the game:

  • GM in the game: “A bee lands on your character’s shoulder.”
  • Player: “Oh. Is it a magic bee?”
  • GM: “No, it appears to be a normal bee.”
  • Player: “I ignore it.”
  • GM: “Um, it might sting your character!”
  • Player: “I feel like attacking the dragon’s lair.”

This is why most horror games have tons and tons of monsters. Creepy, disgusting and bloodthirsty monsters to keep your PCs on their toes.

When the real world isn’t scary enough we make things up to scare ourselves with (don’t ask why, but we do). Vampires, werewolves, and ghosts are all common elements to many cultures mythologies. Horror stories are told in every language of the world, and often some sort of monster is at the center of those stories.

The problem with monsters is that we also have a second survival instinct that over time counters our fear — we all have a strong desire to learn. We take the scary and unfamiliar and analyze it until we understand it.

Your players will do the same thing in your horror game. The first time their characters face a monster they may be scared, the second time they will try to analyze its behavior, and on the third meeting the players will attack it if they have the incentive to do so. That is a great pattern for the survival of the human race, but a lousy pattern for the GM of a horror RPG.

So how do you counter this phenomenon in your horror games? Well, nothing beats a well-designed scene that takes the mundane and makes it terrifying. Let’s use that bee example again:

  • GM in the game: “A bee lands on your character’s shoulder.”
  • Player: “Oh. Is it a magic bee?”
  • GM: “No, it appears to be a normal bee.”
  • Player: “I ignore it.”
  • GM: “Two more bees have landed next to the first bee.”
  • Player: “I thought you said these were normal bees?”
  • GM: “Yes, at least they appear to be normal bees. About a dozen bees are on your shoulder now. You don’t know where they’re coming from. You can feel them beginning to crawl up your neck. How tight is your character’s shirt collar?”
  • Player: “Uh, really tight! Are they stinging me? Is there water nearby that I can submerge myself in? Why are they landing on me?”
  • GM: “No they aren’t stinging you, and there’s no obvious reason for this swarm to be covering you. The bees are beginning to crawl up to your scalp and onto your face. Their buzzing is filling your ears.

There must be fifty of them now covering your upper back. Doesn’t appear to be any water nearby. You can feel their tiny little legs gripping your skin. The hair on the back of your neck rises as those stingers hover millimeters above your flesh.”
Player: “Dude! Quit it! You’re freaking me out!”

By making the bees scary you create tension, and the way to make the bees scary is to take their familiar behavior and twist it. You have to remove the player’s understanding of how bees operate. You have to ignore everything that you and the player have learned about the nature of bees. To put it bluntly, you have to make the bugs scary again.

This can work with even harmless bugs like cockroaches. When the PCs enter an apartment, describe an odd scratching noise — the source of which they just can’t quite pinpoint. After several attempts to locate the source of the noise, the PCs realize it is coming from the ceiling.

One PC grabs a broom and taps the spot on the the ceiling where the noise seems to be centered. The drywall cracks and gives away. Suddenly there are hundreds of cockroaches falling down upon the PCs! A whole nest of filthy and disgusting (but most likely harmless) cockroaches falls right on top of the PCs!

And you as the GM are not just limited to bugs. Shadows, noises, pets behaving oddly, children saying things that children just shouldn’t know about, little old ladies asking the PCs if they would like some cookies made with “cherry juice” and a whole slew of mundane things can be made creepy with a slight twist.

Spend some of the scene turning the creepy into the horrifying, and you will be building up tension to the point that when you finally do reveal your monster to the PCs, they will be genuinely scared!

So by all means, keep those monsters a-coming! Let those zombies stalk the countryside and those werewolves hunt on the outskirts of town! Just don’t forget to take the time to make the simple scenes scary as well. After all, we all love a good scare now and then!
– – – – –
Thanks, Patrick!

Patrick’s advice is sound, especially for horror games where the power differential is solidly in favor of the monsters. Call of Cthulhu is the classic example — anything unknown is almost always bad for the PCs, so everything unknown becomes creepy and threatening.

To complement Patrick’s post, here are some tips from Robin Laws on victim horror, as well as a quick TT tip about using props in horror RPGs.

What do you do to creep out your players? What’s your favorite set-piece encounter with something non-threatening (like bees) that was scary for the players?