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Stygian Jim’s Horror Game Advice

Posted on February 17, 2012 by Flames

Flames Rising recently put an open call for essays and articles on the topic of “How to run Horror RPGs” and we received several great submissions (hint you can still send yours in too). We’re starting off with this post from Stygian Jim…

Jill crept through the abandoned house slowly, her flash light illuminating the years of detritus piled upon the floor and spilling out of broken cabinetry. They had tracked the disappearances to this site, a row of dilapidated brick homes in a now abandoned neighborhood of Detroit. Usually gangs moved into these areas and brought with them all of the vices that made the Motor City the hell hole it was becoming. At first the residents in the surrounding neighborhoods had breathed a sigh of relief, but then the children started to go missing. She was musing on this when she heard the noise coming from the basement, it sounded like sobbing.

“Hello?” The others were spread out throughout the house. They had split up to cover more ground, but now she was wondering if that was such a good idea. The sobbing continued though, and it sounded like a child. She steeled her nerve and approached the basement door. She pulled the door open slowly shinning her flashlight into the darkness below. “Is anybody there? It’s alright we’re here to help you.”

“Help us please, we’re so cold, it’s so dark down here…”

“I’m coming down, where are you? Come into the light if you can.” Jill almost made it into the basement when a cold hand clamped upon her ankle with an iron grip.

“Please help, we’re so cold and so hungry…”

On the floor above the others heard her scream for a moment, and then there was only silence.

Horror is the genre of fear…

    …fear of the unknown, fear of the monster lurking just out of sight, fear of the dead rising again with a hunger for human flesh. Fear is very personal, and horror can be as much an internal struggle as a reaction to an external source. Fear is a huge motivator, in gaming it can be a great motivator for heroes and villains alike, but how does one cultivate it at the table? Horror games can be much harder to craft than your standard sword & sorcery delve. Also, it can be difficult to inculcate your players to the kind of thinking that the genre entails, when they’re used to kicking down doors and busting heads. There are some advanced techniques as well that you can use to build a sense of tension in your players, and make the story an even more eerie experience. Lastly of course you can use props, sound effects and lighting to set the mood for your own tales of horror.

    All mortal creatures know fear, it’s an integral part of survival instincts. Fight or flight, and too often in RPG’s players resort to the fight response in order to accomplish their goals. Part of this comes from RPG’s roots in war gaming and the old school method of gaining XP by slaying monsters. In horror, it doesn’t work that way. Experience in horror games is earned by surviving, by clever outwitting, and flat out running away from unspeakable antagonists. It’s more about the struggle, than the win. Let your players know that from the beginning, either by demonstrating that no one is safe, killing off important NPCs for example, or by flat out telling them if you want to be kind. Players who are aware that their characters may not make it through the game might take bigger risks, or do things they would never allow a cherished PC to endure. By encouraging them to let go of this attachment, they’ll have more fun, and you’ll be able to twist the screws that much tighter when the going gets tough.

    Crafting a horror game can be tough. If you really want to scare your players, you have to do the unexpected. Knowing what makes the player squirm can help with that. I’m not saying that you should throw giant spiders at a player with arachnophobia, but being more subtle you can add spider-like traits to your antagonist, venom dripping mandibles, multifaceted eyes or long spindly limbs. Subtlety in my opinion is always scarier, and the imagination will always add more details than you can, to quote Game of Thrones, “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” Know your limits however don’t go beyond what your players are comfortable with. Some people can put on a brave face in games, but phobias are irrational, and it’s not worth ruining friendships to put some real fear in your players. I have a mother of two in one of my games, and I know that putting children at risk is a good way to invoke horror in the player, but we’ve discussed that graphic descriptions of violence toward children is going too far, and so I hint and suggest, but never depict.

    Pacing in horror games tends to be slower. It’s hard to build up tension when someone shouts “Get ‘em!” and kicks in a door, holy sword blazing. Horror takes time to build it takes finesse, and a really good understanding of pacing. Hints, clues and red herrings, eyewitnesses driven to gibbering madness, rooms with grisly trophies, or the constant feeling of being watched. Draw it out until the players are biting their nails wondering when the villain will strike. Chase them with things they can’t defeat, let them chase things they can’t quite catch, play with them, but only until you feel their anxiety is high, then strike. Just don’t take too long, otherwise you could have a problem.

    I have a regular player in most of my games who’s a great guy, and a really good friend, but he hates it when the game gets slow. While I’m trying to build tension, he’s contemplating the best way to get C4 onto the load bearing walls of the villain’s lair. I don’t want to block his efforts and frustration can kill the mood, but I don’t want to watch the climactic scene I’ve crafted to go up in smoke. If you’ve allowed the players access to that sort of thing, just be aware of it and do what every good horror story does, introduce the unexpected. Maybe the lair still contains living victims or perhaps a more subtle approach is required, lest the PCs get themselves arrested. The best thing to do is craft a dilemma that doesn’t have an easy answer, something that the players and characters will agonize over before making a decision that ultimately will cost them something either way. Think like a villain, always have a contingency.

    One of the things that you can always do with horror is to break the rules. Foreshadowing is a nice way to build tension, and a good advanced technique for your mature group. Let them play out the parts of adversaries discussing their plans, have them play the victims that were captured or killed before the PCs showed up to save the day. Imagine it like an episode of X-Files, Fringe, or Criminal Minds, where the victims get nabbed before we ever see the intrepid investigators. This way the PCs know a little bit of what they’re up against before they actually get to test their mettle against it. To build tension you can break one of the cardinal rules of adventure gaming, split the party. Going back to X-Files, think of all the times that Agents Mulder and Scully got split up, think of the tension that grew as you knew one of them was being stalked by the monster of the week while the other was trying to call them on their cell.

    Some books that I’ve read swear that setting the right ambience can help your game. I will admit, I’d always rather run a horror game at night than during the day. Lighting can help a lot when trying to set the mood. It’s hard to be scared when every corner is light by the sunlight or fluorescents. Dim the lights if you can, use indirect lighting as long as you can still read by it. Some GMs will use music or sound effects to heighten the impact of certain scenes. In the past one would have to use Halloween sound effects, or maybe some Midnight Syndicate CDs, but now there are numerous companies coming up with zombie mood music punctuated by sorrowful moans and apps designed to allow you to insert your own sound effects and mood music. All of these things are just props though, and really all you should need is a good story, eager players, and fear in your heart. Good luck.

    About Stygian Jim
    Native to the swampy nether regions of the Florida Keys, Stygian Jim can often be found hiding in his cave-like domicile planning the horrible demise of those he holds near and dear. At the age of ten he was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons, and has never recovered. He lives with his wife, cat, and 10 sugar gliders.

    Follow him on Twitter: @stygianjim

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