Supernatural Horror in Roleplaying – Playing the Players

In your standard roleplaying game, it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep the group unified and working together. That changes in a horror game. As a GM in a horror game, sowing the seeds of dissension and fracturing the group bonds is a must. You want your players to be suspicious of each other; you want them wondering where Bob the Cleric wanders off to every night, who Rutger the Street Samurai is always getting vid-calls from.

In the horror game, information is a commodity, even within the group. So is trust. Knowledge and trust build security, and you can’t rightly build an atmosphere of dread when people feel secure. Your job, as a GM, is to fragment the distribution of both of these: instead of security and help, players should find paranoia and cautious glances.

This series is meant to give a deeper look at using horror and terror in roleplaying games. Ghost stories and horror tales have been enthusing people for time immemorial; people like to feel a constructed sense of emotional fear. Things work different in a roleplaying game, but horror is still enjoyable, it’s still an ancient and established trope. Obviously, as a GM, you must want to incorporate horror, and your players won’t necessarily want the horror included. But for those who do…

Today, we’re looking at two separate techniques: putting players on a “need to know” basis for information, and undermining party unity. They’re separate ideas, but have the same general goal: increase confusion.  Limiting information is a good technique in general. Keeping information compartmentalized puts the knowledge out there, but doesn’t align everything into a clearly defined “we should go there and do that” goal.

Second is the theme of internal fragmentation. Conflicting needs or motives within a party can be a major story element, an obstacle to overcome by roleplaying. It can be as simple or complex as the GM devises it to be, but it all comes down to fragmenting the party. Furthering the technique includes having a PC (or PCs) acting in wildly different motives, not necessarily against the party, but certainly not the same motives other party members are working toward.

Limiting the Flow of Information

In horror, information is a necessity, a tightly controlled commodity. The general theme of the unknown is a topic for another post; obviously, keeping things a secret is important, so your PCs won’t immediately go “oh, it’s a troll, burn it with fire.” But in terms of players, fragmenting information is a worthwhile technique; not only does it sow discord, it creates a filter between the GM and the group as a whole.

Many GMs already know the old trick about passing note cards. Besides the political intrigue game, horror is the best use for this trick. Make sure everyone’s passing at least one note per session, and pass out plenty of them yourself. Some will be blank, others will make no sense. On some, you can put a dire prophecy or strange dream the character had, maybe something that they’ll keep to their chests for fear of it damning their reputation. On others, simply write “Hi. How do you like things so far?” or “Did you see the big game on Saturday?” Or even just keep it blank, letting the PC assume either nothing is happening, or things are progressing as previously described.

As a further step, take characters out into the hall to inform them of info, behind closed doors, away from the rest of the group. Notecards are a good cheat sheet; players can just read them out loud to the rest of the group, or just pick up a card meant for someone else, getting the info out there. The out-in-the-hall system is a fine thing. Players have to regurgitate the info you’ve given them, which they usually spice up, either by forgetting something they didn’t deem important, over-emphasizing something, or even adding stuff. Memory is a touchy thing; use it to your advantage. One good trick is to stay out in the hall for ten minutes after giving a short bit of info, talking about something relevant with the player. This further distances the info from memory, and makes the other characters suspicious about what’s going on. When you’re out in the hall for twenty minutes, only to come back with a single line of information, people will assume something else is up.

Some of my old GMs did this constantly, even when it wasn’t necessary, so I adapted the policy. When I pulled it on some new players, they looked around skeptically, until Reuben informed them I’d pulled someone out into the hall so “he could retell us what the GM said after forgetting half of it.” In short: it creates a filter. The info is out there, but not always remembered, and it’s fascinating to see players retell it, and others react to the retelling. (Tip: try to be short, otherwise your players will get bored and lose interest, lowering the tension. Many one-on-one sessions I’ve seen had the non-involved players going home after a few hours because the GM was only halfway done. Do one-on-one sessions outside of normal game time.)

Here’s an interesting, and somewhat cruel, trick to play on your players: simply give the PCs different pieces of the puzzle. Combined, the information is obvious, while piecemeal it’s just a little gobbledegook and minor footnote. Let one PC overhear a whispered conversation, while another reads a letter or diary they’ve found, while yet another PC finds the item that everything is centered around. If they don’t consider their piece valuable—or complete—enough to share, they’re in for a rude awakening when they realize what the full puzzle looks like. Heck, I’ve seen a single PC hold all of the puzzle pieces in his hand, aligning everything up perfectly to prevent a catastrophe, only to be surprised (and a bit disgusted) when he realizes, after the fact, that the things he set in motion set off the catastrophe he tried to avoid.

Divide and Conquer

All of this is to create a system of tension in the group. Inter-party conflict isn’t exactly what horror wants, but it does want paranoia. Among other things, it distracts PCs’ attention from the GM, and if there is something going on between the party, it amps up the feeling of isolation. If the players can’t trust each other, horror is winning. Divide and conquer: a good horror game needs enough unity for the players to keep working together along the plot, but enough seeds of mistrust to complicate things and amp up the feeling of isolation.

Your standard game assumes collaboration is the norm; the horror game, makes collaboration into a story element and a roleplaying challenge. Someone wants to do something, other people disagree, and your players must work toward a compromise of some sort. Obviously you don’t want to get bogged down into games where every action requires a compromise; try to construct options where one group will say yes, and another will furtively try to prevent it. The only real limitations are imagination, and how cruel you’ll be as a GM.

It may involve working with the PCs to come up with characters and backgrounds which don’t work well together, or which have natural fracture lines. Consider two groups of soldiers, two opposing sides, who suddenly have to work together against a common threat. It can be anything from dwarves against elves to American Civil War Yanks and Rebs to some futuristic humans and aliens, just as long as there’s some vague connection between the two sides, and as long as the common enemy is more horrific than the two original foes.

Tension rises and the technique gets even better when there’s something for the PC to hide. Corruption or madness will eventually show up, but it’s something players are more likely to hide so the rest of the group doesn’t turn on them. If a player is growing unsatisfied with their character, turn it into a vampire or werewolf before it’s written off; have the player keep going another few sessions with a goal to disrupt the party. Those are more “redeemable” monster types, which can theoretically be cured. If the player wants the character gone, have him make a new one for you to bring in as an NPC, and make him play his old character as a doppelganger or mind-controlled minion acting against the party. For a hat trick, talk each player individually into working against the party, without telling them that they’re all working, independently, to screw each other over. There’s a lot you can do here, and with talented and motivated players, the deception can be fairly long and involved.


Going off that last part is the theme of dissension. In a horror game, putting someone at odds with the group, or putting the entire group at-odds, is a great tactic: players are supposed to feel secure and comfortable with their companions. Taking that away makes them isolated and unsure within the group, paranoid about motives and actions; instead of working towards common goals, the PCs are unwilling to open themselves up to their companions.

There are plenty of examples in horror films of groups with some kind of internal friction: Deep Rising, Night of the Living Dead, the duplicitous androids and corporate interests in the Alien series, the bitten and slowly-transforming Daniel Baldwin and Sheryl Lee in  John Carpenter’s Vampires, pretty much any of the characters in The Thing.

There are plenty of ways to keep the players against each other: mind control from external sources, hallucinations, dream sequences, finding incriminating evidence pointing towards one or more PCs… it’s even better when the evidence is real, but only a small part of the larger picture. A player bargaining with an evil power for the benefit of the group isn’t going to look very good when someone reveals their dark deeds, regardless of the intent or benefits.

The simplest option is to make a PC into an adversary: a doppelganger, an enemy operative, someone on the corporate payroll, a dominated thrall. Playing the bad guy is an interesting option that rarely comes up, made even more interesting when you’re working for the group (to survive) as well as against it (to get paid, or to fulfill a binding contract). All the while, the rest of the group is forced to assume the deceiver is a true friend; as a GM, it’s in your best interest to keep them thinking that way, so don’t be a moron and throw your “bad guy on the inside” under a bus.

Another strong option is to create rifts along like-minded people: say, a split in the party’s opinion on whether to align with a person some perceive as evil, or fulfilling reprehensible tasks in order to achieve goals that others in the group want nothing to do with. Give the players multiple options, prompt a few of them to take sides, and watch the results. Remember to make party divides like this marginalized somehow, or live with the expected slow and tedious results. In one Exalted game, a party divide led us to put a PC on trial for some of his actions; between the trial and nitpicking details of the binding oath assigned as his punishment, we ate up an entire session, accomplished nothing, and got jack for XP.

The point is not to control the PCs; instead, you want them uncontrollable and uncooperative. At the same time, making them too uncooperative will break down any established plots; I’ve had several games with time-/event-sensitive plots collapse because the groups had weird internal friction issues.  It’s a tricky task, balancing their paranoia with their need to work together, and can work well as a short-term challenge so it won’t disrupt the entire campaign. You want your PCs to follow the plot, and keep the action going; what you don’t want is for them to be a bastion of hope and unity in a world of horrors.

For the Supporting Cast

You’ll want to apply these themes to the NPCs, too. Trust and comfort are commodities, the antithesis to the fear and dread of a horror world, and its inhabitants should give them sparingly. After a few “kind, friendly” NPCs turn on them at inopportune times—the kindly old innkeeper attacking sleeping PCs in the dead of night, the town sheriff trapping them in the town jail—the players won’t be very trusting of the locals. One trick I’ve always wanted to play is to make the villain the PCs are after show up to save the PCs from an even worse fate: compared to aberrant horrors, the tyrannical baron is still human, after all.

Give your NPCs odd mannerisms, make them a bit strange, and get the PCs wondering about them. Obviously, some will be red herrings; come up with a good side-story or background reason which pins them as very close, but not quite, the threat. And the ones that are threats should be NPCs the party trusts, people in whose hands the PCs put their lives occasionally. A corrupted sibling, lover, or friend is a staple trope of the genre.

For some reason, players tend to hate NPCs because of the realization that those NPCs are only really there to be a hindrance. A sibling, lover, or friend is easily captured or held hostage, merely another resource to be lost. Others are only there to ingratiate themselves to the PCs, only to turn on them at the last minute. Usually we have players fill out a short questionnaire for any modern/sf game, asking about close family members, relationships, pets, and the like. Most of the players wise up and heavily metagame their backgrounds, having their parents die in horrible accidents, girlfriends go clinically insane, husbands die in war, and pets are nonexistant; the number of Rich’s war orphan characters we’ve processed is legion.

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