Truth be told, a horror game is very easy to run, in terms of making the PCs afraid. All it takes is for a player to say “My character’s scared,” or for the GM to inform someone “You’re terrified!” and bam, job well done there. Making a character scared is easy, and means nothing. The real trick to horror is instilling this fear in your players—making players afraid is worth unquantifiable amounts more than “terrifying” their characters.
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…
Quite simply, it’s not only possible, but quite rewarding, to scare your own players. It’s even more satisfying when they realize what a “call of Cthulhu” game really means, when they know they’re playing a horror game, and you manage to scare them anyways.
Obviously, playing on the players’ fear is the main point of the article series. But before I go on about utilizing complex words like “themes” and “tropes” and whatnot, let’s focus in on your audience—the players.
Most horror games have built-in mechanics, fear checks and whatnot. Deadlands comes to mind with its Guts checks; face something terrifying or supernatural, your mind can’t handle it, and you make a Guts roll. Failure indicates you can lose Wind, which knocks you out, gain phobias and fears, or even go batshit crazy. I should note that Guts continued on and still lives on Savage World’s skill list; if you played Deadlands at all, and your GM was on his game, you probably recall failing Guts checks. This is also a primary mechanic for Call of Cthulhu, where most games use sanity scores as a ticking bomb, counting down until the session ends. CthulhuTech has one of the best fear/madness tables, at least in terms of products still in print, something I consider an indicator of success for any horror game.
Other games don’t have a proper mechanic to replicate this, but can have them wrangled up pretty quick. In 3.5 we used a Fear (Will) save for the check, and continued into Pathfinder, which even has its own sanity/madness tables in the GMG. Clerics and druids are sure enough in their faith, preventing them from terror; monks have mastered a total control over emotions; fighters with their +4 to resist fear have seen plenty enough gore in their lives, so they’re not easily shaken. TORG had Willpower, which was fairly applicable, and Exalted had Integrity; both of these made for good “guts” checks against truly horrific foes. TORG has plenty of them, especially from its horror cosms (Orrosh and Tharkold), though Exalted uses horror much more sparingly.
I’ve heard it argued, from a number of sources, that such things impede on a player’s agency—their ability to control their character is taken into the hands of a GM demanding a die roll. To be honest, I look at the players I’ve had—great guys and gals, with a few (well-known) exceptions—and roughly half of them would willingly ask for or make a fear/sanity style roll, or would actually say their character was terrified. The other half is taken up with a variety of types: the guy who wouldn’t see their character getting scared by something like that, the guy who wouldn’t see it as the “proper place in the story” for their character to be scared, the guy who is just there to game the system (and usually failing). In the end, it’s up to you as a GM, but don’t forget that players usually don’t stop to think if seeing something terrible was truly scary or not.
Bringing it Home
Horror films have it comparatively easy; they know right well who their audiences are, and know the audience expects the film to pull out all the right stops. But the standard movie horror tricks don’t convert well into a roleplaying game. When you’re sitting in a dark, crowded theater, with a seventy-foot movie screen in front of you, the “random loud noise” and “sudden things jumping out of bushes”-style tricks work. Not so much when you’re describing them: single loud noises are just plain lame, and the “random things jump” out doesn’t work for a number of reasons. When a threat that jumps through the window, the players probably won’t be terrified by this sudden onslaught: it’s been done to death in the Resident Evil games, and besides, what’s to separate the Surprise! Zombie Crow Attack! from the hundreds of other surprise rounds the characters face in any given campaign? “Fake-out” jumps, like the obligatory stray cat, rarely work in a game session; it’s a visual trick more than a mental one, and describing it just wastes everyone’s time.
The other problems with horror films is in how they treat the audience. Things happen on-screen that the protagonists don’t see, but the audience knows full well about them—who killed Jack Black in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, for example. (Uncredited spoiler alert.) Depending on your players, you could pull this trick with “ingame FMVs,” but it usually doesn’t go over as well as a GM would like. Obviously YMMV depending on your players, but for most horror games, information should be the cards you hold tightest to your chest.
Take, for example, this basic trope: something bad happening to relatives/loved ones. A protagonist’s girlfriend has been replaced by some nefarious source, said protagonist doesn’t know, and they’re heading off for a dinner-date. Having an FMV where the real girlfriend falls out of the closet, bound, and gagged with duct-tape will set the dating PC on edge; something is wrong here, this is not the real NPC. Any potential tension you could build with the situation has just been killed off. And the player has open-access to metagame knowledge; knowing some players I’ve had, they’re just as likely to gun down the imposter in the middle of a crowded Olive Garden as they are to interrogate her.
Instead, use alternatives. One of the other PCs received a frantic call from her right before the date; lacking anything better to do, the PCs who don’t get to go for dinner and a movie can show up at her apartment, find it eerily immaculate, with her bound up in the closet. The PC actually interacting with her can find some strange anomalies in her behavior; keep up a friendly, casual demeanor, but change any and all details the player has assigned to their relationship: if they’re going out for an anniversary, she asks for cake, since they’re going out for her birthday, after all. Conversation should drift erratically, and she’ll ask random questions about the PC’s line of work (especially if it’s anything interesting, like homicide, military, scientific research, governmental, anything experimental or top-secret). In short, follow the basic tenant of writing: show, don’t tell, that something is wrong here.
The game’s atmosphere is a big topic, one that deserves its own post one of these days. Instead, I’m thinking about the atmosphere in which the game takes place. For example. Those amazing conference rooms in the campus rec center, with their bright florescent lights, and wide expanse of tables surrounding the whiteboard, become terrible settings for a horror game.
For starters, ask your players nicely to turn off their music, get off their laptops, turn off their DS’s and Zunes. Or if you’d prefer, just yell at them. In any case, get rid of distractions. (If you, the GM, find yourself distracted, it’s a good sign to stop and reevaluate things, because it’s never a good sign.) Music is a big one here, especially if you’re going to play some of your own; there is nothing worse than trying to play a game—any game… in fact, most of our games—to the soundtrack of post-rock ambient electronic noisecore. I happen to like post-rock ambient electronic noisecore, and while it comes close, it is neither the soundtrack for D&D nor any proper Cthulhu game.
Lighting is a crucial component. Dim the lights, if possible, and cut out any unnecessary lighting. Gaming in the dark is a pain, but you’ll want things more on the ‘ambient lighting’ side; if it’s bright enough to take pictures with your camera, it’s probably too bright for a horror game. Space is another one. Ram some tables and chairs together to make a smaller, more confined space; sticking a half-dozen other people in someone’s living room is the kind of small, confined space I’m thinking of. Section off part of a room or something if you have to, but the last thing you want is for your players to be spread out in a brightly lit environment. (And no, doing stupid crap like gaming in the woods after dark, or gaming in the campus’s steam tunnels, are not good settings for horror games.)
Our regular joke about these are “props to make up for your lack of plot” due to some prop-heavy GMs. Again, don’t go overboard on these, but a good prop or two can really spice up a game. Making an oven-baked map or parchment can make a decent prop, especially if you spill leftover coffee and tea on it to get extra stains and smells. One of my many ripoff games involved making an entire oven-baked diary, held together with binder clips, and one of the players actually read it (instead of watching as the game crashed, burned, and died).
Call of Cthulhu tournaments usually pull out all the stops on lighting. Some of the basic ones are fairly effective: players are each given a lit candle, and extinguish them when their character has gone insane or died. Not only does it create some very tangible isolation—if you’re unlucky enough to have the last lit candle—but as the game progresses, it literally becomes darker, from all the lights going out. A brilliant metaphor right there. Another slightly more subtle technique was for the Cthulhu storyteller to have a lit crystal of some kind on the table, with a hidden toggle which made it flicker crazily; the storyteller would do this whenever the “monster” would show up. Players usually don’t grasp this at first, but make the connection fairly quickly.
One of the very basic props, which is sadly under-utilized, is music. There’s a wide expanse of options here, and it’s pervasive without being invasive; it’s not what everyone would consider “listening music,” but it works great for building atmosphere in a horror game. Start out with videogame and movie soundtracks—the orchestral, film score, low-key ones. Sorcerer wasn’t particularly great as a film, but it had a creepy score; other examples include House on Haunted Hill, Sleepy Hollow, John Carpenter’s Vampires, and the Blair Witch soundtracks. Philip Glass made a fantastic retroactive soundtrack for the 1931 Dracula film.
If you want to go for truly horrific, start going for deep-cut ambient-electronic-industrial albums: Black Tape For A Blue Girl, Scorn, Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts set. Try anything associated with John Bergin (pilfer the music archive), who also created a hellishly fantastic soundtrack for Warhammer 40k (Music for Hammering, watch this link dammit), as well as a soundtrack for The Crow comics (Trust Obey’s Fear and Bullets).
Make them Squirm…
If you can physically manipulate your players… do it. One of the old standbys is for a “crawling hand attack” to occur, at which point you grab the leg of whatever player is casually reclining in their chair; if you can do it without being noticed, this kind of trick can make people jump. Similarly, I’ve known people to hit furniture people are sitting in to simulate noises or things bumping characters, which also causes people to jump; in other cases, a player absent-mindedly tapping on a table has caused an entire game to stop, with people looking around, concerned, for where the rhythmic tapping came from.
As with all horror tricks, use with moderation; if you’re constantly grabbing people or knocking on tables, nobody’s going to get scared after a while. In fact, you’ll look kind of desperate for re-using one-use horror tricks.
…Then Take The Initiative
Once you’ve got them squirming is the point when you look around to see who’s reacting the most, and hammer them with fear checks. If a player acts disgusted, or nervous, or despondent… start amping up the game mechanics, trying to translate it to the character. Most players have obvious tells: a groan, a saying (“Oh, good.”), a noise that can be summarized as “Ugh,” any kind of movement in general. After getting called on them enough times in horror games, I realized the technique, and run with it when I GM. You can consciously try to avoid being a target by changing choice of words, trying to keep silent, looking away, and whatnot—the same tricks you used in elementary school so you didn’t have to do long division—but eventually, you’ll slip, and do something that correlates to a fear roll.
Death and Dying
In most games, I don’t usually go out of my way to kill characters, unless their players been a huge nuisance, or the player does something incredibly stupid. In a horror game, the attitude about killing PCs is more cavalier. It may be hard to work in new characters, and nobody likes losing an established PC, but horror worlds are nasty and brutish. At the very least, let the dice fall where they may; many horror games already stack the deck against the heroes’ favor to begin with. Even in a horror game, you don’t necessarily want to be gunning for PC blood—the GM shouldn’t be the adversary, without good reason and lots of GM experience—but that doesn’t mean that the kiddie gloves stay on.
Quite simply, in a horror game, you’re going to do horrible things to people that you normally wouldn’t. Not only does it include killing PCs, but mangling them body and soul—a proud justicier has a crisis of faith after accidentally killing a child, a soldier fighting to defend earth from invasion grows despondent and depressive. Characters will lose limbs, suffer phobias and mental breakdowns, and skirt between sanity and madness. Again, outright crushing them and saddling players with nothing but misery shouldn’t happen full-time, but you should be willing to make some tough calls on otherwise decent characters. PCs will end up in places they don’t want to go, and players will look toward the GM with blame in their eyes to see how they got there.
Consider corruption: a PC becomes a vampire, deals with the devil, commits sacrifices to gain power or prestige. Any corrupting influence ends up doing something the player never expected, making it fun to pull on would-be powergamers. It’s less harsh than killing them outright, and opens up the avenue to make it a tale of redemption; a little stereotypical, but it allows them to keep on truckin.’ Pulling a character out of a miserable downward spiral and putting them atop the heroic pedestal is actually and achievement; it’s a hallmark of Reuben Games. While the PCs are always “heroic,” facing (and overcoming) issues creating in the game itself develops the PCs and makes them more heroic at the same time. It isn’t always fun… but then again, work usually isn’t.
This is a tricky task; in most cases, the suggestion is to keep it short and sweet, to play on the players’ imaginations, but uniquely descriptive, so it stays in their heads for a while. People usually have this idea that “horror games” translates into “overly described gorenography,” up to and including pre-written, multiple-page entries to be read aloud. I’ve never been a huge fan of the “reading a novel to your players” part, and it works even worse with gore, which comes across as one of three things: 1.) Boring. 2.) Gross. 3.) Did I Mention The Boring? One GM I had thought that a logical, orderly, ten-minute description of every finite detail about gross things equaled “gross,” but the longer he described gore and torture that way, the duller it grew. (He also had a fifteen-minute Aristocrats joke that was summarily unfunny, and as more and more socially-unacceptable grossness kicked in, it became an overinflated cartoon parody instead of actually offensive.)
Describing gore, or anything for that matter, can be boiled down to two things, neither of which is “length.” (Unless we’re thinking brevity here.) First is vocabulary. The second would be the uniqueness of it. Regardless of what the “gory parts” are, making it stick in the minds of your players is crucial; finding “a small pile of bloody fingers” is just kind of dull, gross-wise, while a “slurry of digits” is not only shorter but more interesting. Truth be told, it’s okay to gross-out your players, but only if you’re making it memorable, though that’s getting harder and harder to do with the increase in gorenography films (Hostel, Saw).
A good in-game example came from our OWoD Werewolf game, where Keving (in prehistoric dire wolf form) latched on to the arm of an enemy with his mouth; the next round, he wanted to “keep biting.” To describe the sound, the GM described holding a handful of celery in both hands and violently twisting it, pantomiming the hand motions. And that was it. But it caught us players off-guard, and was such a memorable moment that it’s still a part of our gaming vernacular. It achieved legendary status when one player, who worked at a grocery store, actually tried it the next time he had to clear out old produce.
Gore should also be under-used: it has more value in small doses. A single puddle of blood in an otherwise orderly room is better than describing the walls dripping in clotting ichor, partly because it will intrigue the PCs—what caused such a small amount of blood?—and partly because the more gore you use, the less effective it is. Adding more and more horrific images isn’t scary; after a while, it becomes an overblown effigy, with characters desensitized to pointless slaughter. The only times I’ve seen gorenography-level buckets of blood used effectively was when the PCs were being framed for a brutal murder, with blood lining the walls and broken weapons everywhere, but no bodies. I’ve since adopted the scenario into my small stable of ripoff games, for when I can’t find any interest in my homebrew stuff.
Description really is like a spice: don’t use it enough and things are bland, use it too much and people no longer bite, use old and overused bits and people get the runs. To echo again, show, don’t tell, and don’t come up with lengthy pages of pre-written text to slowly read aloud to your players.
I started really hating the “prewritten novels” part after hearing one player retell someone else’s game… a game so bad that he dropped it in favor of the one I was running. The player’s story involved a GM running Unhallowed Metropolis, essentially a genre mashup combining the zombie apocalypse with Victoriana steampunk. The players, aboard a passenger train running across the zombified wastes of middle England, had to wade through (first) a description of the train, the other passengers, and the bartender, before a werewolf attacked. Next they were beset upon by another lengthy writeup, describing the werewolf clawing up the train and ultimately bursting inside. After spending roughly half an hour listening, the players were given another half an hour to figure out how they would prepare themselves, with all the NPCs mysteriously vanishing between writeups. What followed was a spectacularly inane battle, where none of the starting level characters could hit the werewolf (and the guy telling this wasn’t allowed to use his werewolf-fighting skills); after this, they received another half-hour of writeups about some necrosurgeon’s home, bristling with interesting details that they weren’t allowed to investigate. (A trail of blood, leading behind a set of surgical curtains, which nobody could walk towards; I speculate that if someone manged to pull back the curtains, they would reveal a brick wall with a sign saying “Work in Progress.”)
TL;DR: imagine reading this paragarph about ten times, and then having a really crappy boss fight, and then reading the paragraph five more times.
Instead, vocabulary, and description. Horror demands atmosphere, and you need to keep that atmosphere alive. If the area is surrounded by mist and will-o-the-wisp style flashing lights, don’t describe something walking out of the fog, clear and visible; describing a hulking figure slowly approaching. Letting the ball down here sinks an entire game; not only do you have to keep the ball in the air, you have to keep it from becoming overwrought and dull. Surprisingly enough, your players do have imaginations, and usually fill in things you don’t describe; most players will imagine things different from how they were described anyway. Throwing the descriptions out there is important, but so is keeping the narrative moving. You can’t forget about the descriptors you’ve already made; they need to show up consistently, but not overly frequently. And all of this balance is compared against player interest. Hey, nobody said running games was easy.
We have a saying about table-talk and joking: each game has “fifteen minutes of gaming for each forty-five minutes of bullshit.” While a large part of it is usually in-character, games sporadically generate table-talk, jokes, and other interruptions. It sucks to be in the middle of a tense scene, the final battle, only to realize the words that just flew out of your mouth were the perfect setup for a “Your Mother” or “That’s What She Said” or whatever. Just roll with it; this is a prime part of being a GM. You’ll get back on track eventually, especially if you laugh alongside, make a few jokes yourself, and push things back on track once everyone’s been used up; complaining to your players, scowling, or other forms of irritation will just incite more interruptions.
A note on a narrative trick that’s not only fairly obvious, but can be overused: saying things like “appears” or “seems to be,” giving a vague sense of “Hey, the GM’s trying to tell us something!” If you go for it, use it constantly, even when there’s no danger whatsoever, which will truly get the PCs wondering.
Knowing That They’re In A Horror Game
In short: don’t let your players know. It’s kind of hard to hide sometimes—“Ok, guys, we’re going to be playing a game this week where you’re all average joe private investigators looking into paranormal activity.” … “Oh, Call of Cthulhu you say.”—but you should do everything in your power to mask the game, and keep up the deception, until after all the players have realized that the game’s intent and focus is fear and dread.