I think the hardest role playing game to run is a scary one. It’s Halloween and it has me thinking all sorts of dark and spooky thoughts which have evolved into pondering about role playing games and how difficult it can be to evoke and maintain a proper feeling of fear at the game table. So many other genres fit well into the role playing mold but what is it about horror that eludes us? We will be excited and thrilled and happy after a game session of thrilling heroics but how often after a game session are you a bit unsettled as you head home?
My first horror game was Pacesetter’s Chill. I have fond memories of that game but around the table it turned into a just another group of adventures going to kill a monster. I’m sure a large part of it was due to my, and my group’s, inexperience at storytelling at the time. The next step was Call of Cthulhu and though I did not own the game, I played in a small campaign run by a friend. It was good but I never felt scared or unnerved after a game. It was not until many years had passed that a friend ran a one shot Call of Cthulhu game that reset the bar for me. I think it was his emphasis on setting the scene. He had envisioned some truly startling scenes to unfold and he happily brought them out, regaling us with vivid, lurid descriptions. One by one our characters folded into insanity or fruitless attempts at defending ourselves against Lovecraftian horrors. It did not end well and while walking out to my car that evening I noticed that I was on edge and a bit spooked.
It was delicious.
Unfortunately, as a player, this was a singular occurrence for me. Most of the other horror games I’ve been a part of have all, eventually, turned into the RPG version of the angry mob with pitchforks. The desperate players confront the Evil Bad Thing and fight it off with whatever weapons are available. Though it may look different depending on the genre it really is no different than any other big boss battle.
What makes a good horror RPG session different?
Some key points I feel are important:
- Everyone should agree to the spirit of the game.
I think it stems back to my previous post about the contracts around the table. Everyone needs to be on board regarding what KIND of game they are getting ready to play. Everyone playing should understand death and insanity will come more easily, that control and power they take for granted in other games will not be present. Much like walking into a haunted house, you have to be willing to give up control and allow yourself to be scared. Most importantly, everyone needs to understand that reaching a solid level of scary is difficult to do around a RPG table. The odds of success will increase with everyone’s involvement.
- Limit the Distractions
Put away the cellphones and the off-topic banter about the latest Netflix series. Keep the out of character wisecracks to a minimum. Focus on the game and the story that is coming out of it.
A GM might want to invent a game mechanic that penalizes anyone who breaks the rule. Even better, the other players should be the ones who assign the penalties which the GM enforces. A player says something to break the spooky mood? The GM can assign a bit more “nasty” to the game. Or, perhaps, the player’s character receives a doom point which takes away one success at the GM’s discretion? The best version of this is something that builds up slowly over the game and gets used near the climax of the story.
- Embrace Death and Misfortune
As a player in a horror game it’s going to be better if you realize that your character will most likely die a gruesome death. If you embrace this aspect you can actually help the GM and the other players of the game build up the mounting apprehension of the game if the time comes. Go out with screaming style and it will notch up the atmosphere around the table.
GM hint – Don’t hesitate to take a character out at any time. Be merciless. However, remember that the players have come here to play the game, not sit around eating snacks after a gory death scene while the rest of the table plays on. Have back-up characters or things for the players to do after their first character meets an untimely end. Maybe running other NPC’s? Monsters? Don’t let a player who has given their all to increase the drama be out of the game for the rest of the night.
Also, remember as a GM, there are worse fates than dying!
- Hit the Senses
Enough emphasis cannot be placed on this one. Though it’s always important with role playing games it is doubly so with a good horror game. You need to lay on the descriptions. Not only tell your players what the creepy, abandoned sanitarium looks like but tell them what it smells like, what it feels like when they touch a wall or a door. What is the lighting like?
Reverse it on them as well. When they encounter some sort of viscous, mucus-like fluid they are expecting to hear what it feels like. Hit them with what it sounds like, what it smells like. Why go for all this florid descriptions? It’s because receiving sensory input can steer emotional reactions within the brain. Try this out with a fun experiment. Think of it as a writing exercise. What does fear smell like to you? What does dread taste like?
What did you come up with? Take those and use them in your game next time and see what kind of reaction you get. Pull from your real experiences and things that scare you. There is a good chance that if it unsettles you then it will definitely get to your players as well.
Pull no punches.