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Halloween Horror: Building Fear

Hopefully you are gearing up for a horror game this festive season. Here’s how I do it.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Having previously discussed safety tools, it’s time to look at the other side of the coin, making the game scarier. I should add that this doesn’t mean these articles conflict with each other. All of the following can be applied without any compromises to any of my previous advice. You can run a perfectly terrifying horror game with all manner of safety tools in play, which brings me to the first piece of advice…

Set Expectations​

Ironically, part of a good scare is knowing that it is coming. Otherwise you may as well just jump out and surprise people. It’s the build up that is key and that starts the moment the players sit at the table. Knowing you are about to play a horror game puts you on edge a little as the scare might come from anywhere, and you know it will at some point.

But there are many types of horror, and what is scary for some is seriously lame or just gross for others. If you don’t build the right atmosphere for your group, they won’t find it remotely scary. The following offers a few broad categories, although some examples might fit in multiple sections:
  • Slasher Horror (Halloween, Friday 13th): Someone with a big knife is coming for all of you.
  • Gore/Splatterpunk (Saw, Hostel): People are going to get cut to pieces, possibly by themselves, and there will be a lot of blood.
  • Body Horror (The Thing, Videodrome): Your body is mutable and not your own.
  • Ghost Story (The Conjuring, Haunting of Hill House): The spirit world is closer than you think and it wants something from you.
  • Slow Burn (Paranormal Activity): It doesn’t look like anything is happening, but things are gradually getting worse and worse.
  • Dark Fantasy (Hellraiser): There is a mythology and history to the monsters, and a little dark magic in the setting.
  • J-Horror (The Grudge, Audition, Ring): It doesn’t matter that you didn’t do anything wrong. You picked up the coin, opened the box, or went into the house, and now you are going to die.
You need not stick to just one either. You can tell the group "I want to run a J-hororr slasher game" and that’s all they need to know. But if you just say "horror" they may expect wildly different styles, any of the above in fact. A slow burn will just be boring to a slasher fan, and a splatterpunk adventure may just seem messy and gratuitous to a ghost story fan. But if they know the style they are getting the players can adjust their expectations to match and help build the atmosphere you are working towards. Putting everyone on the same page also puts you all on the same team.

This also applies in terms of safety tools. A chat about what the GM wants to run is a chance to get everyone on board. A nervous player assured that their fear of spiders will not be tested can relax and get into the spirit of the game, instead of just worrying about what they will do if spiders get mentioned.

Pace​

You don’t need to jump right in to run a horror game, even with a gory slasher adventure. Take some time to build an atmosphere that suggests something is wrong. In Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis spends a lot of the movie just checking outside as while she can’t see anything, she’s sure something is going on. Master the slow burn, intimating something is on the way, and that it is going to be bad.

How the horror arrives will depend on the style. It may be a masked man suddenly stepping into the room with the severed head of the camp supervisor, or something more subtle like a mysterious voice whispering a character’s name. But until there is some sort of reveal, the fact the player character spend some time looking over their shoulder (because the players at least know something is on the way) will build up the atmosphere. A mystery is always scarier than a known quantity, and anything you haven’t fully revealed yet is a mystery.

The Familiar is No Longer Safe​

One way to make something creepier is to remove the basic things the characters can rely on. We feel safer when we can rely on the authority figures, or we are confident we know our way around our home town, or even just that ice cream tastes nice. If you take those things away, you shake the foundations of the character’s faith in the predictability of reality. If ice cream doesn’t taste nice or for some reason Henderson Road doesn’t lead to the park anymore, what else is wrong? The more basic and mundane the thing that’s affected is, the worse it is. We expect strange artifacts to by evil and cursed, but your television? If there is a spirit in that, they can get into anything.

Isolation​

Being alone is innately scary, even if you are in a group. Essentially, cutting the characters off from either each other or the world at large sends the message that no one is coming to help them. Splitting the party is a good step but it’s actually not as good as you might think. It means the GM has to focus on one character at a time, leaving the others to lose focus or even get bored. So it is better to let them stay together and cut them off from everyone else. A sudden flood or snowstorm can make sure no one is leaving the town or the castle you are all in. In a modern day game, a power outage cutting off phones and internet access can be horrifying, especially for anyone born after 1996.

Character (Not Player!) Trauma​

While making a player relive their traumas should be off the table, it is not the same for characters. If a player has written a certain traumatic event into their character background they are practically begging you to hurt them with it. It may be that their abuser/bully returns to haunt them. An anniversary might make them relive the event in their memory all the time as little things keep reminding them of it. Focusing on a player created character trauma gives the player the option to lean into the horror. As their character is faced with trauma triggers they can role play the effect they have, which will also unnerve the other player characters.

Reward Character (Not Player!) Bad Behaviour​

In a realistic horror game, characters will panic, get selfish and make stupid decisions out of fear. We’d like to think we’d be the ones to step up in a crisis but it’s not always the case. You might be the one trying to open the airlock in a panic just to get out of the space station. So the GM should encourage the players to role play these sort of failures in their characters, rather than expect them to be heroes all the time. Usually, this sort of behaviour breaks parties apart and causes all manner of extra drama. But in a horror game that’s exactly what you want. Now the characters can’t even trust their allies to behave with sense all the time. However, do remind the players not to go overboard. Too much insanity will quickly derail the adventure as it devolves into panic. So, encourage the players to role play the affects of fear and isolation, but not so far as the characters lose their minds. Free League’s Alien RPG is a very good example of how to add panic and fear into a system.

Be Vague​

One of the ways the GM can create an atmosphere of fear and mistrust is simply by not being very specific. If a player makes a perception test don’t say "there isn’t anything there" instead say, "you can’t see anything." Essentially omit about 5-10% of the details of any description, in which the player’s imagination can go crazy. It is important to still describe what the character will definitely see and hear. If they hear a scream they’ll know which direction and how loud it was. But was it human or animal? This goes double for NPCs and their reactions. If the characters don’t quite know how anyone feels about them it is harder to know who to trust. Is the shopkeeper surly and difficult because he is part of a sinister cult or because the characters just tracked mud into his store? Essentially, just keep the player characters a little off balance, even over the simplest things.

Sound Effects​

Sound can be a very useful device in a horror game but it is one to be careful with. The right mood music can help build atmosphere, especially if it’s something the characters would be able to hear. Having some jazz on in the background when the characters are in a 1920s speakeasy can really help the setting. Soundscapes, like "wind on the moors" might also help the players imagine the setting and background, and there are many gaming sounds out there to choose from. If cued up carefully and timed well, an effect of a scream or door slam might also give the players a start at the right moment. But take care. It is very easy to overdo sound effects, and less is often more in most cases. If the players can’t hear the GM over the jazz or the wind effects it is just breaking the immersion rather than helping it. Too many jump scare sound effects will get clichéd and wearing very quickly too. So, limit yourself to only what you need and plan everything you will use and when ahead of time.

Don’t Overdo It​

Finally, to reiterate the last point with sound, don’t go too far with any of this advice. Too many props, too many special effects, and the players may become desensitized to it all. Essentially, anything you do too much will become something the players will start to expect, and anything they can expect and predict will not be scary. Remember that "little and often" is key, and the idea is to keep them on their toes rather than scare the life out of them with every scene. That way, when you really want to push the atmosphere up a notch the players will already be on the edge of their seats.
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine


Schmoe

Adventurer
I can't believe there haven't been more comments on this. Great article, thanks for writing it! It would be pretty cool to see you pick one of the horror styles and walk through a sample adventure and how/why you would construct it that way. Last year I transported my party to a haunted house in Ravenloft. I had a spooky soundtrack playing softly in the background, and I think it went really well. I'd love to be able to try another type of horror adventure, but it would have to be something different for my group.
 

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