Peregrine's Nest: Unsettling Times

It's horror game season, so you may be wondering how to make your game a little creepier. Putting the player characters on edge is the first step in building a horror atmosphere and there are several ways you can make things a little more unsettling, without suggesting there is a monster on the loose. A disconcerting atmosphere is foundational to running a horror game. The players will need to be on edge before anything actually frightening starts happening or everything will fall flat. Fear of the unknown is the most primal of our fears, as it makes us expect the worst. So the essence of setting up a horror atmosphere is taking away the things that make the player characters feel comfortable and safe. If they can’t trust things they usually take for granted, the familiar starts to become the unknown.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

The following ideas are simple things the GM can improvise into any description, and will quickly put the player characters on their guard. They are also minor enough that if they start making a fuss they will look like they are losing their minds. Pulling a sword because someone “looked at them funny” or “lied about the price of ale” will swiftly get the town guards called.

Odd Looks

We generally expect most people to be polite and respectful most of the time, especially if they are strangers or serving staff. It’s one of the rules of good society not to be rude to people who have given you no cause to treat them that badly. So when you do get a surly attitude, or it looks like people are pointing you out, it is unsettling. Have you done something wrong? Is there a tradition this close knit town hasn’t told you about?

The GM needs to be subtle in their descriptions here, as too much will be seen as an NPC making a challenge. So a group of farmhands at the next table who keep looking their way and muttering is creepy. But if they are glaring and muttering insulting things it is a challenge. It is important that whatever the NPC reaction, it is just not quite rude enough to warrant taking them to task for their behaviour.

Fear in others also work well here. If the player characters do give the farmhands a glare in return, they all down their beers and leave, clearly nervous. It seems they are frightened of the PCs. This might actually because they are all heavily armed adventurers. But it tends to appear that they are already frightened of strangers, so something may be going on in this town.

The same goes for people they might want to help. If the waitress serving their drinks looks scared, and laughs off any offers of help, there is also something clearly wrong here. She might have perfectly mundane worries, like where her boyfriend is tonight or if she locked the door at home. Such things would be embarrassing for a bunch of strangers to ride to the rescue over. But her reticence to accept help makes it appear something here makes her frightened to talk. In fact she just doesn’t want to share her personal worries with a group of strangers.

Missing Items

Anything can easily go missing, no matter how important. No one carries all their most precious items around all the time every hour of the day. So it is reasonable for important things to go missing now and again. People lose important things like wallets, keys, engagement rings and the like every day, at least for a while. Not only is it unsettling to misplace something you really need, but it can look like someone or something stole it. This is especially likely when magic might be used to take something from someone.

The GM needs to be careful with this as the loss should be mundane. Making the player character think something is out to get them is different to there actually being something out to get them! The loss also needs to be reasonable and possible. Items can get knocked over and fall into cracks. But if the player has specified the character is being particularly careful with a certain item you can’t just randomly remove it. It’s also harder to misplace large items like suits of armour. But anything usually stored in a backpack might be lost, as might small items like jewellery.

When the item does turn up, have someone other than the owner be the one to find it. This will make it appear like they had something to do with the theft.

Unexplained Differences

While very few things stay the same forever, change is still disorienting. This is especially true when something the player characters know well is suddenly different. Change can become extra creepy if it no one seems to remember how things were before. Doubly so if the player characters have a connection to it. Let’s say it’s been a little while since they were at their favourite tavern. In the meantime it changed hands, but the new owners never met the old ones. The old owners suddenly fell into debt from a gambling issue and had to sell up and leave town, leaving the place empty until a new buyer was found to take over a couple of weeks later. They didn’t have much money to make improvements so they have left things as they are. So when the player characters visit a few weeks later, the place looks the same. However, all the staff are different, and have no recollection of the previous owners. The new owners also avoid saying they are new, insisting they have been running the place for a while as they don’t want new customers to think they don’t know what they are doing. If the player characters ask the locals what is going on, they will be told the new owners are telling the truth. They’ll have to ask the right questions for anyone to think this perfectly normal state of affairs needs a fuller explanation. In the meantime the player characters are wondering if they are in the right town or how many other people have ‘been replaced’.

This trick can work with any business and the more the player characters have used it in the past, the more it will concern them. If they come back to a place often, there is something there they use a lot. Not having it available anymore might make them think someone is trying to deprive them of it for some nefarious reason. On the whole it is not hard to convince player characters it is all about them rather than just a coincidence.

Different Memories

A step further in this is people having different memories of the same event. It is not as strange as that might sound. Witness statements in criminal cases are notoriously unreliable. The brain is very good at filling in gaps to help us believe we have a complete picture. But when two people fill in the gaps in different ways confusion sets in. While this is a bit of a stretch, people from the same culture, with the same references might fill in these gaps in a similar way. This might lead to a player character to remember something one way, and a group from elsewhere all remembering it differently but in the same way.

There is a lot of fun to be had deciding the player character’s recollection of an event is a little different from anyone else. People remember different aspects depending on what is more important anyway. A fashionista might pay more attention to what someone wore; a warrior to how they were armed etc.

What you can’t do is insist a player character has misremembered an aspect they would have payed particular attention to. If they made a point of checking the time, they will probably be right about that (as long as the clock they are using is reliable…). But you don’t need to confuse their entire recollection of an event. If it becomes clear they have misremembered even the smallest detail, it will naturally make them wonder if anything else is wrong. Once they can no longer trust their senses they will be truly unsettled.

The GM does need to be careful with this, as it is important to remember that the player characters only experience any adventure through the Gamemaster. They have to trust that the GM is describing what is really going on. It’s unfair to screw with this too much, as its part of the social contract between players and GMs. But perceptions can reasonably become cloudy especially when under enchantment or if a character’s sanity is questionable. In such a case the GM might secretly apply a modifier to the perception checks of a character losing their mind. This variance might mean they spot things the others don’t, and miss things the others do. Basically they may get different information, but as they don’t know the modifier the player will think they have passed or failed the roll when the opposite may be true. This can be very unsettling for the group. Is that player character seeing differently because they are not seeing the truth, or because they are the only one who does?

Easy Does It​

Using some of these techniques can help you start the right atmosphere of fear and paranoia that you can build on for a chilling horror game. But they can just as easily be used to keep the player characters on edge. However, they are very manipulative, so should be used sparingly. If it becomes clear that nothing the player characters see or know can be relied upon they will just ignore everything. This lack of information then leads to a lack of agency which is also very bad. So you can only use enough to make the player characters doubt, not disbelieve their senses and memories. The certainty that most of what they see and know is correct is what will really lead them into madness.

Your Turn: How do you create a tense atmosphere for your horror games?
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

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