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3 Quick Horror Tips For Your Halloween Game
From Johnn Four | Published October 26, 2021, updated October 28, 2021
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1,177
RPT GM Bruce M. asked me for tips on how to scare players during a special Halloween one-shot he's prepping.
Alas, I don't have a ton of experience running games specifically meant to scare players. However, the tips below have worked well for me in the past when I've tried. If you've successfully scared your players in a horror or Halloween game, I would love to hear your GMing tips! Please hit reply and I'll share them with Bruce to help him out.
Tip #1: Deny Them Confidence of Detail
When you have fidelity of information you feel confident. And confidence is the last thing we want our players to feel when trying to scare them. First though, please let me caveat what scaring players means to me for a moment.
We can employ cheap tricks here, such as learning player phobias and wielding those, or leaving the room and jumping out a minute later while popping a paper bag or slamming books together. Approaches like these aren't cool in my books (pun intended!) because they are mean. While I enjoy a good prank, we want players to have fun, not to have heart attacks or deep feelings of fear. The context is just wrong.
So I aim for surface level scares. And I feel good gamesmanship and good craftsmanship as GMs compel us to scare players via the fiction and great storytelling. With that in mind, we want to deny information to players so they feel FUD => Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.
If you know and understand everything that's happening in a situation, you are much more confident. Deny detail to foster uncertainty.
But here's where many GMs stumble. When creeping player Fog of War closer to occlude details, we do this at the encounter level, not at the player level. Do share with players what their characters see, smell, taste, touch, hear, and depending on your GM style, intuit. It's not fair to deny players details their characters can access. So what we do instead is construct our adventure, situations, and encounters to obscure instead.
Instead of giving players clear line of sight to the danger, we draw our map with turns, obstacles, and baffles. Rather than a wide, well-lit, and straight corridor leading to Room IV in your 5 Room Dungeon, you add:
- A 90° turn to block sight
- A weird door at the end
- A creepy magic mouth on the ceiling saying alarming things
- Disturbing noises coming from behind the portal
- Graffiti along the walls that turns out to be arterial spray
As another quick example, the NPC with a golden exclamation mark over their head doesn't have or give the party everything they need to know to tackle and solve the quest.
"Just go over there to that cave. Take this giant lantern to light it up. And don't worry about the smells of sulphur and coal. It's just a fake brimstone machine the wizard uses. And he's not even a real wizard. Piece of cake!"
"You've got to help us! Please! Our children are missing. The tracks lead into the darkest part of the forest no one has ever come back from with their sanity. We hear screams at night and fear the worst. The gods won't answer us. And the Baron's guard refuse to enter the weald because it's so dangerous. Even the witch tells us that what dwells within the dark wood's heart throbs with a fiendish power too strong to overcome."
We've given the players nothing but worry here, while staying true to good storytelling principles. So put on your storytelling hat and create fear by causing Fog of War to encroach through murky details at the encounter level.
Tip 2: Seek Contrast
We evolved to notice patterns and differences. Alert! That weird movement in the tall grass...is it the wind or something dangerous?
We can hack this by seeking opportunities mid-game to deploy bad things through great contrast. This will trigger an instinctive fear response in our players.
"The corridor ahead has blood on the walls. The door at the end has scratches. And a magic mouth on the ceiling is warning you to stay away."
"Ok, is everybody ready to continue? Great. The corridor turns up ahead and your torches reveal nothing out of the ordinary. Little Phingers, your sharp eyes detect nothing unusual. Clarke, during the rest you just had, what spells did you memorize?"
Here I'm creating an effect of "ho hum, everything is normal, there's nothing to worry about." I am purposely bottoming things out so players are comfortable and confident. Then I do this:
"Ok, you're walking along in your usual order and turn the corner…… And a terrible scene confronts you! Blood spray covers the walls. There's a mouth on the ceiling. Yes! An actual mouth! With split tongue… Drooling blood-flecked spit… And it starts screaming at you! You see a door at the end. It's covered in scratches. Like someone was clawing for entry… Or escape! Screams suddenly erupt from behind the portal! What do you do!?!"
I hope you can see how I ramp things up abruptly here. I go from a normal, boring corridor to a horrifying scene. Implied threats come from the blood spray and presence of a magic creature mouth-thing. My sentences got shorter, quickening the narrative pace. And all the exclamation marks were to indicate how my voice, body language, and overall excitement went from ho-hum to manic. This contrast will cause an emotional spike for sure.
And nothing's changed from our encounter plans. Nor am I withholding information the players should have via their PCs' senses. It's how we introduce and frame things, and then transition quick from normal to extreme in description and energy, that creates the fear affect we're after. And this is the key to the whole tip. As scary storytellers, we aim for abrupt transitions in energy. We combine contrast in-game with contrast in our delivery. A calm voice would soothe. A slow and level demeanour would relax. Mundane details would calm. Then we drive forward with sudden energy. We convey quick details about creepy or dangerous stuff happening. We go from one energy level to another in a context of horror and players will scream at best and get startled at worst.
This works in both directions. We can go from visceral combat or intense roleplay to calm and creepy waters to achieve the same thing. It's not the energy direction that matters. It's the contrast effect we seek to achieve. When possible, stage things at one level of energy and situation. Then plunge into the opposite with speed. That's scary.
Tip 3: It Gets Worse
To make your Halloween adventure scary, pile on the threat. Keep stacking. Build that tension. The party enters the mansion cautious but confident because they're rested and fully capable. Then we start a resource depletion game (rpt #1,148). We wick away spell slots, health, ammunition. We provide no safe place to recuperate.
And we ramp up the threat level from minor to challenging, from challenging to dangerous, from dangerous to dire.
At the same time, we run a tension meter (rpt #1,166) at the mechanics level by attacking and depleting their character sheets. We ramp up the danger and detail at the story level. The stakes increase. Complications arise. Consequences get worse.
And then we stack on even more at the setting level! Visibility gets worse. Spaces get tighter. Dots between points of Lore get connected for horrifying aha! moments in players.
We attack player confidence and certainty by increasing drama along three fronts at the same time: System, Story, and Setting. This makes our job so much easier. We can try to just make one aspect more dramatic and let that carry the whole weight of our fear factor. But it's far easier to increase tension a bit across three aspects of the game to garner a big fear effect.
Does that make sense? Erode the characters' power. Then add a small constraint or two. Then have minor implications of previously earned rumours and knowledge blossom come to full realization. Each chips away at players. Each increases tension a little. And each adds up to a dice bag of jangling nerves and fantastic rising tension within our players.
Over To You
As I mentioned, I don't run much horror. These three tips, from my experience, work well. And none depend on the players. You have control over execution and you don't need players to make this choice or that. You have sway over how you stage encounters, pace adventures, and deliver details. And you have influence over how close player Fog of War encroaches. This is fantastic news for us as storytellers.
How about you? What do you do to make sessions scary?