I got a chance to play in a cool, very Halloween themed Pathfinder game over the weekend. It was fun, run by a great GM, with a table full of people I love playing beside. I got to try out a new class (my first Pathfinder sorcerer), and got to play as a twin to my wife’s self-doubting tiefling Cleric. All good, though even the parts that were successful brought some general issues to light.

Bright Lights and Ambient Sound

Setting the mood is important, as any Luther Vandross fan can tell you. There’s a reason that Vampire’s Storyteller book sections repeatedly stressed the importance of setting atmosphere with lighting, sound, and as many atmospheric tricks as you can comfortably manage: because it gets people halfway to the scene in their mind. Our GM, Jack, had to fight ambient happy noise in a bright lit room. We were creeped out by several scenes and events– which was truly impressive given the effort he had to put in to overcoming the ambient conditions.

Ask Your Players for Help

If you want to run a game in a specific style, let your players know. Jack was clear that he wanted flawed and broken characters, with real weaknesses, doubts, and messed up backgrounds. Having such specific direction really helped us make characters out of the norm–including Jennifer’s decision to build in a little self-sabotage. (Fittingly, her self-sabotage triggered at the worst possible time, exactly as if the dice understood our dramatic needs.)

Manage Expectations

We assemble our attitude and approach as gamers from a field of cues. Some cues are explicit (the GM telling you this is a splatterpunk adventure or picking Amber as the setting), system provides a lot of guidance (playing a game with an insanity mechanic versus one with hero points, playing traditional BRP Call of Cthulhu vs. D20 Call of Cthulhu vs. Trail of Cthulhu), while social reinforcement is arguably the biggest influence (players one upping each other to make the most screwed up heroes–or the most combat effective).

The group’s initial approach alters from the background trajectory as the table’s influences come to bear. Dark and brooding character emoting won’t survive more than a few catchy pop songs, youtube videos, interruptions by happy children, or mom coming home and flipping on the lights. Similarly, energetic games like Wushu can be a struggle when everyone’s mentally wiped from challenging work weeks.

Set the Scene Early

Providing background material can give players a great idea of what you’re aiming for in terms of mood, and lets you build complexity. Working characters into the setting’s background, and interweaving PCs with NPCs before the game begins can feel appropriately intimate. While it’s a lot to ask of back story, you can wring more horror and angst out of mangling characters that the players have been thinking about for week than ones they met just 15 minutes ago.

The first scenes need particularly strong atmosphere. If you plan on box text anywhere, the first scene is the most fitting and powerful place to bring it in. If you’re using aspects, bullets, or other notes, spend extra time on your first scene. The scenes that come later will build on and contrast with the initial scene, so spend extra effort early and reap its benefits throughout.

Our adventure kicked off with our characters trapped in a horrific dream. When we woke, sharply, it was to find that we’d awoken in a court room, surrounded by strangers…

Horror Strikes!

Once the first scene is set, the next locations should reinforce the feel you worked so hard to set. That said, letting the players feel a little more in control, and shifting the feel to generally oppressive (rather than overwhelming and dripping with descriptors) allows the GM to “save her descriptive ammunition” for when it’s critical–and helps the players maintain the atmosphere without it breaking due to overuse. You’re not really going easy on them–you’re just letting them catch their breath and lower their defenses a little.

Eventually, it’ll be time for your attack–whether it’s actually an NPC attacking, the realm of nightmare turning against them, or whatever horror they’ve provoked. Drag out your strongest creepy, evocative descriptors–probably with slow growing menace, unless you’re actually emphasizing the contrast, how quickly things turn upside down as the foe strikes like lightning. Part of the reason this works so well is because the players were getting comfortable, feeling like the world was somewhat comprehensible. Mechanics can back you up at this point; if the foe’s attack can isolate a victim or two, or take a few defenders out of commission for even a short time, the few who can still act know that their scent is in the pack’s snouts…

The See-Saw

From here, it’s up to everyone to buy in to the horror. As players, surviving the confrontation may only embolden them–make them feel like they have the pattern and rules of this place/this adventure understood. Repeated shocks are hard to keep amped to the same level, and trying to continually one-up yourself in terms of descriptions (or villainous powers) can feel strained. It’s better to go for uncertainty from here–some rooms are banal, with the players’ minds looking for the trap or corner soon to sprout a shadowy hound (but nothing manifests on their schedule), others have creepy materials/descriptions that set a mood but aren’t inherently dangerous, while still others look innocent but have something dangerous. Since building ever more intense moods is very difficult (and probably impossible if you’re subject to interruptions at all), keep them on their toes with uncertainty.

Is Horror Your Strong Suit?

Despite loving the World of Darkness and other atmospheric games, I rarely develop and sustain a horrific atmosphere. How are you at stoking horror? Are there any important tips that I missed? Help your fellow ghoul-masters in comments.