I’ve been in two games where lackluster atmosphere killed any attempt at horror. Atmosphere is what makes or breaks horror; without it, there’s nothing to be afraid of.
The first one was in my ex-roommate’s Shadowrun game. Our run was to infiltrate some old “mortuary” in the Projects, only we spent over half the session trying to get into the damn place. We showed up to its location only to find two smokestacks jutting out from a lawn in-between some apartment buildings; any attempt to get into what’s now obviously a crematorium were dashed. (Apparently it wasn’t connected to the city grid—in the projects—at all.)
That game (and session) can be a poster-child for weak GMing, but the capstone was when it turned into a horror adventure. In his description the GM casually threw out that a line about the “bumpy unevenness” of the pitch-black wall. I immediately went, “Oh, so it’s a wall made of skulls covered in crematorium soot,” which got me a scowl. It’s an interesting idea—a stock horror motif—but it’s too predictable, as I proved. A better way would have been for the lights to go out, and have some character feel their way along the walls, describe the texture, and when the group finally turned on a flashlight they’d see the bones now that the PC’s hand had wiped the char away.
Or something. It ended up turning into rock-em sock-em zombies with two necromancers—the GM had been reading Shadowrun: Augmentation—and that was pretty short and easy (due to time constraints). Never mind that the horror mood was lost after a frustrating hour trying to find sewer mains, electrical outlets, water pipes, ducts, crawlways, service hatches, or anything else we could use as a point of egress. (The “real entrance” was found by one of our NPCs, which was a secret tunnel in the basement of one of the three apartments.)
The other was one of Keving’s Dark Heresy games. After a bad roll on a random warp feedback chart, we found ourselves pursued by a Greater Unbound Demon; abandoning ship, Keving merged us into a space hulk, an abandoned tech ship in the void of space. For the first ten minutes or so, he layered the details on thick, of flickering hazard lights and darkened corridors, but suddenly stopped the description. When several previously missing players showed up next session, they figured the ship was in new and pristine condition—they’d missed the description.
Things went downhill, again due to some mistakes in GM-player communication. Only half the group showed up, which was problematic; without a driving focus, we just sat around on the bridge. What made things worse—and broke Keving’s otherwise fine description—was telling us that the ship’s engines and power systems were “off;” Rich attempted to turn them on, which led to an argument on semantics (“off” versus “non-functional”) which lasted on and off for over two hours. Keving was frustrated by the griefing, Matt was bored, and I gave up and started my German homework.
The next session was pure botched horror. Keving didn’t bother repeating any description from the last session, so the two players who’d missed out imagined they were in some ultra-sterile, ultra-clean, brightly lit spaceship. The loss of atmosphere was a major blow; if Keving had expanded on his description, and painted a picture of a rusting, dilapidated, lights-flickering-silently space hulk, it could have been salvageable.
Next, things broke down into horribly predictable pacing. Eventually, the group split up, with me (the Tech Priest) and Matt’s Guardsman into the ship to the hold to jump-start the engines. Here it broke down into the atypical haunted house: we’d see blood leaking out from under a door or section of wall, and take aim at it, just before the obligatory weird horror jumped out. That was it: we’d see blood, or hear something, and then something would jump out suddenly, and we’d shoot it dead. Little to no description, too much foresight; the illogical design was worst, like this space hulk was some haunted house carnival ride. (Some Doom III/Half-Life style “corpses pulled into crawlspaces moments would have helped.) Horror’s biggest strength is the unknown, knowing that there is a threat but not where it is or how to counter it. Predictability kills all of that.
There are dozens of good ways to handle this situation; the first thing that comes to my mind is using other tactile senses. Hearing some scuttling off in the dark, the occasional noise heard only by one person, the feeling that something is watching you… that would have been fantastic. Having two characters walk down a winding corridor, killing everything that jumps out at them isn’t scary; unlike in a movie, yelling “Surprise!” doesn’t work in a game. Instead, Keving should have worked on atmosphere and the isolation of leaving the group: make us wonder what’s out there, why it’s following us, how to get rid of it, rather than assume it’s just more of the things we’ve been killing every couple of corridors.
Interesting to note, both examples involved things breaking down before the horror mode is turned on. Handling players is a critical skill, as is thinking on your feet; some improv would have killed either of the two examples rather than make them into horrible memories and some of our group’s memes.
The Shadowrun example was a perfect horror set-piece setup, but too much time was spent finding its single illogical point of access. (The only other thing we could think of was to rappel down the smokestacks, only we didn’t have any rope or climb skills.) If the GM had allowed one of the many “use a common access point” options we’d thought up, I don’t think we would have been as frustrated and uncaring as we were: if this building is so janky that it’s in the middle of the city-funded Projects, but not connected to the city grid, that we need an NPC to hand-wave us into the building, I’m preparing for GM railroading, not serious horror.
Dark Heresy could have been handled much, much better. I’ve had semantics issues between myself and players every now and then—the picture in the GM’s mind is always clearer than what the GM can tell the players in words and maps. This was the worst example I’d ever heard. A simple correction would have worked, but instead, Keving and Rich dug in their heels, which left everyone else bored. The second half of the space hulk session (and final session of that game) didn’t improve our investment, and Keving didn’t try to hook the players who’d missed the previous game. Atmosphere could have made up for the poorly designed “haunted house” feel that the session had, and having all the players interested would have worked wonders.