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Horror GMing by The Weirding

Posted on February 20, 2012 by Flames

The “How to run Horror RPGs” series continues today at Flames Rising with an essay from About C. Harris Lynn from

Go for eerie, not scary or frightening…

    Horror roleplaying games are among the most difficult tabletop RPG to run for several reasons. The most important of these are the GM’s relationship to the players and characters, and the general hopelessness of the characters’ situation in many scenarios. Horror PCs are outclassed from the start and often remain so to the end, and this can make horror RPG difficult to play as well as run.

    But there are a lot of tips for the budding horror GM, as well as the player (though this article does not offer tips for players). You do not have to incorporate all of these into every session or campaign – just being aware of them can help you in your process.

    Preparation is the most important element to running a solid tabletop horror game. While preparation is important to all games, it is most important to the horror genre because the GM has to know everything before it happens so he can effectively leave clues and red herrings, and surprise the PCs. Do not try to outsmart the players, simply list the information available, place clues in key locations, and have an outline of the points (including encounters) to be covered during the session. The depth of your preparation is up to you, but don’t waste your time over-planning.

    Go for eerie, not scary or frightening. Chances are that you will not be able to truly scare your players. Part of it has to do with the nature of gaming itself, as interrupting the narrative is necessary to play. Frightening people depends largely on timing, pacing, and surprise – three elements that are hard to control in a gaming situation – and is fleeting; creating a creepy atmosphere, environment, and campaign world works better for horror RPG. Your job is to scare their characters – this is what I was referring to when I mentioned the peculiar relationship between GM, players, and their characters in horror RPG. Players’ fear will come from knowing their character is in peril.

    Few players actually know how to properly play horror games, where their characters are usually the underdogs; they are accustomed to heroic characters who begin the game with an advantage over their foes and have a more direct influence on their in-game surroundings. As a horror GM, putting the PCs on the defensive is crucial. There are a number of ways to do this, but an early encounter with the Supernatural, or an overwhelming Supernatural foe, should give them plenty to think about. Before the game begins, you might inform the players that, in horror RPG, heroes are usually the first to drop, but find a way to put them on the defensive once play begins and work to keep them there.

    Every little bit of security you can suck from the PCs helps keep them on their toes. Phones without service, abandoned locales far away from civilized areas, strained communications with important NPCs (such as those who don’t believe the PCs’ story), and similar situations further isolate the PCs, and fear breeds in isolation. The more isolated and frightened the characters get, the more excited the players will become, fueling the game despite any lack of action. This is key, since the creatures involved can usually make quick work of any character, so direct confrontations are avoided, and horror RPG have been criticized for not having enough combat and action.

    Use soundtracks but not audio clips or sound effects. Avoid accents unless you can do them well and they have a purpose, even if that purpose is simply to distinguish the speaker from others. Horror games often have large casts of NPCs as victims, suspects, and more, so don’t play them all the same and give each one a feature or characteristic players will remember to make them easy to identify.

    End every session and adventure with a cliffhanger, no matter how subtle. At the end of the movie, just before the credits roll, the monster’s eyes always open, leaving the door open for its return in the sequel. This is not just a staple in the horror genre, but also a good tip for general gaming. Cliffhangers give players something to look forward to, and keeps characters in active state between adventures.

    Whatever devices you use, it is equally important to not oppress the players or characters. Do not hide information they should be able to access, or limit their abilities or reactions to stimuli, just to intensify the game. Do not force them into storylines or encounters, and do not place them against an implacable foe. PCs have to have some hope or players will lose interest in the game, and rightfully so. Read voraciously and watch horror movies to improve your grasp of the genre and storytelling, and don’t rely entirely on plot devices and gimmicks.

    Horror games are harder to run than games in other genres because their effect is so easily lost in a gaming environment. Preparation is the most important step, but the other tips help provide a more amenable environment to horror gaming. Know the genre and keep these ideas in mind when planning your next adventure.

    About C. Harris Lynn
    C. Harris Lynn runs Chill (Mayfair, 1990) regularly and has for over 20 years. He also runs horror tabletop games like Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium) and Dark Conspiracy (1990), as well as a slew of other RPG from the Golden Age of gaming. He also runs The Weirding website, which is dedicated to tabletop RPG, at

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    One Response to “Horror GMing by The Weirding”

    1. Brendan says:

      This was a great article. I wrote a blog entry on the subject that covers slightly different ground for those who are interested:

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