How to Scare your Players' Pants Off
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  1. #1

    How to Scare your Players' Pants Off

    Okay, let’s face it. Any GM with any common sense knows that trying to scare their players is something like trying to rob Fort Knox: doomed to failure and almost guaranteeing future ridicule. However, it is certainly possible to use elements of fear to enhance the fun of the game. Most players show up to have fun, not to be scared of a guy rolling plastic dice and talking to himself. This article will outline a few tips and tricks you can use to—well—not scare your players—but use fear to enhance the game, and (with luck) scare their pants off.

    Kill off Henchmen: Nothing says ‘this is supposed to be a scary adventure’ like killing off a half a dozen unimportant people accompanying the group. Sometimes it helps if the people dying off just kicked the butt of the party and were sent with them to ‘keep track’ of the player characters. While no player is bound to sweat much if a peasant falls in a pit trap, if a trained warrior wanders off and screams—things are bound to get interesting.

    Split the Party: Normally, there’s nothing worse you can do than let the party split up. It’s tantamount to saying ‘I want this game to go down the tubes with random cut scenes’. However, separating just one cocky player from the group (and preferably his weapons, light source, and way back) can do loads to add to the drama in the game.

    Employ the ClichÚ GM Chuckle: Yes, it’s a clichÚ. Yes, you’re an experienced GM who never uses it. Yes, that’s why giving a heartfelt chuckle while rolling a load of dice will make your players virtually piddle their pants as they try to cover exits and bar the room.

    Hide the Mystery Monsters: Nothing kills the uncertainty and fear in a game like knowing what’s going on. If you say, “Ten orcs ambush you”, the only one liable to be scared is the guy walking past the cafeteria. Saying, “A 78 ft., oblong shadow with tentacles rips the thief in half before disappearing”, is bound to be a little more interesting.

    Try actual Danger: There are few things as scary as actual danger in a game. If your long-term campaign story is too precious to risk killing a single PC, you might want to run a one-shot and let the players know they might die. Then you can feel free to use actual danger without which fear is like peanut butter without the jam sandwich.

    Describe things Fearsomely: Players often take most of their cues about the game world from the GM’s descriptions. After all, it’s all they have to go on. If you start rambling on about how deadly, dangerous, mysterious, gloomy, magical, and purely insane a location would be to enter; the party will most likely think twice. However, think carefully before using this advice, or the group might just skip your adventure location completely.

    Remove Key Reference Points: This may sound like I’m advising you to destroy the party’s lecture notes. However, I’m actually suggesting knocking out their key lines of support and defense. A good party will often maintain several key elements for their survival such as: knowing their location, marking exits, maintaining light, keeping ready food and water supplies, maintaining equipment for the venture at hand, and so forth. You may have gotten into the habit of just letting them have this stuff and not worrying about it too much. A good way to make them sweat is to allow them to lose a couple key references. If the dungeon shifts like mad and makes them lose their bearings, their torches run low, monsters rip/steal their food and supplies, and the temperature suddenly (and unexpectedly) drops to -100 degrees Celsius; the party will probably have some trouble on its hands. Expect the group to complain loudly if you do this kind of stuff. Remember, you don’t have to take it all away to make them sweat. Any one thing should do nicely.

    Use Elaborate Magic: Otherwise known as ‘being cheap’ magic is there to be abused. Don’t just settle for teleporting the party to random locations. Have magical traps inflict bizarre forms of insanity, possession, or warp the laws of physics and reality. Endless corridors, reverse gravity rooms, and more are all options. Make sure you leave a way out and allow such afflictions to be cured eventually. In the meantime, unexpected magical effects can really mess with the party’s strategy.

    Allow the Party to make a mess of things: Opportunity to enhance the fear element of a game may be no farther off than the party’s next bogus maneuver. Instead of saying something unhelpful like, “That’s impossible” or, “Do you really want to do that?” consider letting the party try to dive to the ocean floor, swim across the lake, jump the chasm, or enter the storm at sea. When they’d normally die, you can invent something absolutely bonkers to get them in trouble and enhance the game. When the thief is swimming a sea monster drags him to the bottom and a secret chamber, the ship is destroyed but the party washes up on a deserted island, the fighter falls in the pit and breaks through fifty feet of fungus into a hidden chamber, etc.

    While it may not be realistic (this is a fantasy game, right?) it can sure add a whole new dimension to the game when you offer whacky solutions to otherwise certain death. When the party insists on taking on an army (and fails) consider having them sold into slavery or something else interesting rather than just killed or told off (by you).

    Strike at the Heart: Nothing strikes fear into the hearts of experienced players like the loss of their most prized possessions. If the magical turkey explodes any gold or gems he gets near, if the wraith drains 57 levels with a touch, or if the evil wizard can destroy magic items; the party will likely become very angry. It’s probably just to hide their fear, or maybe they just hate the GM for being so arbitrary towards them and destroying all their hard-earned spoils for no good reason.


    ***


    Like I said, most savvy GMs don’t try to actually scare their players. They just ‘set the mood’ and hope for the best. Oh, yes… “Heh…heh….heh.” *Rolls too many dice*.
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    Last edited by Morrus; Monday, 29th October, 2012 at 04:15 PM. Reason: Removed MS Office artifacts; set to size 3

  2. #2
    If possible, make sure each player sits with a dark opening behind him or her. This could be a window or a doorway into a dark room. As the DM, every so often glance over their shoulder into the darkness behind them, as if you see something.

  3. #3
    This happened to me while playing the movie board game called Nightmare. I got a card that told me if I screamed at the right time and scared some one I'd get a key. I screamed at this time, no one else knew it was coming, and I scared the crap out of them, like my dad was ready to take a swing at me. Freaking brillant.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ulrick View Post
    If possible, make sure each player sits with a dark opening behind him or her. This could be a window or a doorway into a dark room. As the DM, every so often glance over their shoulder into the darkness behind them, as if you see something.
    Oh man, that reminds me of a good story.

    We were in a cabin by the beach doing what was then our annual gaming and beach weekend. It was the second night and I was running an adventure about a shapeshifting monster called a "strigha" with tons of creep factor. For example, there was a shattered mirror the PCs found on the scene of the strigha's latest attack with a murky image of a red-haired woman burned into it - the woman's face was obscured by shadow but when the mirror shard was turned the woman's body language shifted to suggest she was turning to look at the PC.

    Anyhow, the PCs have a stakeout at the place where they think the strigha will strike next. As they established defenses, I described the sounds of dog barking outside. Outside, in real life, a dog barked. Then rain. And outside, in real life, it started to rain. The players looked at each other, but nervously laughed it off.

    Then, right when they were searching for a secret room, for some reason I looked up toward a wall of the cabin behind us. I saw a small attic door that would need to be accessed ladder in the cabin. So I said to the group, "And you see the faint traces of a secret door, much like that one up th--"

    Suddenly, a gust of wind shook the cabin and the attic door swung open and shut. I was stunned, but recovered quickly enough to catch the looks of terror on my players faces. Priceless.

  5. #5
    In our 3e D&D campaign we had a session where the pcs were walking into a Grimlock ambush and I had just announced that the door behind them slammed shut and everything went dark when we had a sudden power outage and we were sitting in the dark for real. What a weird coincidence!

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    My absolute favorite trick for setting the mood is to hand players notes.

    Some of them will be blank, or inconsequential. But not all of them.

    I once ran a dungeon where the line between the Feywild and the Prime was thinning, so the local vegetation was becoming sentient. An aboleth lurked in a pool in the depths, corrupting the Feywild's intrusion, turning the sentient plants into psychic monstrosities. I was handing out notes like "You hear the moss call your name. Just once, then silence", or "For a moment, you see the room in its former splendor, before it fades to ruin once more".

    When the players reached a large chamber dominated by a twisted, gnarled oak growing through the walls, I handed this to the rogue:

    Quote Originally Posted by The Handout
    You can only speak DEEP SPEECH. Please speak in character in the phrases listed below. Your cooperation is appreciated.

    adde parvum parvo magnus acervus erit
    castigat ridendo mores
    legum servi sumus ut liberi esse possimus
    dulce bellum inexpertis
    absentem laedit cum ebrio qui litigat
    aut viam inveniam aut faciam
    sane, paululum linguae latinae dico
    tibi gratias agimus quod nihil fumas.
    perfer et obdura; dolor hic tibi proderit olim
    durate et vosmet rebus servate secundis
    dimidium facti qui coepit habet
    bis vivit qui bene vivit
    ipsa scientia potestas est
    nil desperandum
    candor dat viribus alas
    It was epic.

  7. #7
    Most of those sort of seem like stuff that should be done all the time. Especially descriptions, random rolls, possible dying, players doing what they want and so forth. That should not be saved for unique times in my opinion. It seems like many of those are based around fear of losing something, doing something strange versus environmental fear. And sadly everything there we do on a daily basis as I don't really protect players, stop them from trying things or stop them from splitting up.

    If we are talking about Halloween style fear and not mechanical fear then I have found that actually making a place, environment scary takes a far different set of skills that just killing some people or taking away something.

    Randomly asking a player if their character locked a door, or some other safety environment question and then just nodding can work well. Especially if you do nothing with it. Lack of knowledge breeds fear pretty easily and does so even more easily if false cues are given for a bit of time.

    As well as describing small random things like disturbing smells or things that don't fit in mundane settings. Specific things rarely done during normal game-play helps. If you don't explain smells often, by doing so it can really cause the players to feel a freshness that is rare and you can then use that to your advantage.

    Also, though we do this all the time, I rarely talk in a way that causes me to say, "You hear a blank."

    Usually I just speak in a unique voice randomly or make a sound as often as possible with no narrative stuff clogging up the pipes. As often as I can I introduce an item, enemy, and so forth then if I want interaction I speak as them, make a sound as them, and so forth versus saying, "You hear a cat screech."

    In fact, if you aren't good at voices, or sounds, sometimes that can work in your advantage. Especially if you try to make a cat sound and it sounds weird. Players may say, "That doesn't sound like a normal damn cat to me." Mundane things that become alien are the things that true horror comes from.

    I try to never say the horrid lines of You see a, you hear a, you smell a, kind of things. Those break players out of the environment easily. Just changing the structure works to keep players invested in a 1st person kind of way. "A hint of copper and salt hits your nose." Is better than "You smell copper and salt." Other characters and NPC's can help with that by saying things aloud too, "Smells like...copper or something." From an NPC is better than "you smell copper." A dog sniffing at the corner of a room works better than, "You see something in the corner."
    Last edited by Karak; Monday, 29th October, 2012 at 06:27 PM.

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    After every minor player decision, ask "Are you sure?"

    Works wonders.

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    Great suggestions thus far: I've narrowed it down to two things mentioned earlier:
    1. Don't be afraid to kill of PCs..and make a point of it.
    2. Let the players muck things up. Don't you love it at the end of the game when they ask you, "Is there any way we could have survived that???" and you reply, "Yes, in the playtest, there were a few groups that found out how..."


    jh

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