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RPT Newsletter #1,177 | 3 Quick Horror Tips For Your Halloween Game

Stephan Hornick

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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.

For example:
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
We've changed the player experience from bright lights and safe passage to presenting a scary situation with limited information. And we've denied players facts that would give them certainty and confidence via great adventure design, not cheap tricks.

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!"

Instead:

"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.

For example:

"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."

Versus:

"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?
 
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Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Thank you Johnn, this is again a newsletter that is right on time.
My next session will be a horror scenario. I am eager to see how your tips will work out.

Obviously you could also add tense background music. But don't overdo it. Again, the contrast to normal scenes is important.
For contrast, I tend to add humorous act, that are suddenly cut short before they reach complete relieve.
Also, it works great in your favor if the group splits during the session due to several objectives, either by splitting them physically, splitting their light sources, or splitting their knowledge. Each of them feels thus more vulnerable and you can shift attention in those bitter-sweet moments that are the most scary ones.

Again, thanks for the tips above.
 

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Reader Tips
I received some great tips from my Halloween newsletter to share with you today.
But first, a nice story on teaching with RPGs.


One GM's Using RPGs to Teach Their Kids
From RPT GM Paul

I'm interested in educational DnD stuff mostly. I run a few games with my kids and neighbors, and I find it's an easy way to bake in math, history, mythology, the scientific method, etc.
We had a family trip to Ireland a while back, so beforehand I ran a campaign based on Irish folktales and mythology so that the kids would find a little more magic.
It worked wonderfully, and they were telling tales of fey, fomorians and St. Patrick the whole trip.
I've made them calculate the area of a field to stop a blight, tie knots quickly to save their ship from a kraken.
They once had to raid a temple constructed by ancient mathematicians filled with grade-appropriate math puzzles (though on that one they just allied with a demon and killed the math professors; still, points for creativity).
 
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Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Build & Release Tension
From Wizard of Adventure Tim S

My main horror tip is to not TRY and be scary and then get mad when your players fool around and make jokes, but to remember that building tension and releasing that tension (for it to be built up again) is at the heart of all horror.
The samurai had a saying that I believe reads like this, "Only a fool goes out in the rain and expects not to get wet."
They meant that you have to accept that if you are going to get into a sword fight you're probably going to die.

But to paraphrase in this instance I'd say, "Only a fool plays an RPG and expects that their players won't be silly."
When we play this game, it's to have fun and relax, enjoy the company of other human beings, and use our imaginations.

When playing a horror game, those things are still true, so let your friends make jokes and be silly like normal.
Then slowly get serious and paint a horrific, impossible mindscape and compared to the lighthearted moments, it will make it all the more disturbing.

Your players will be put off.
They will feel uncomfortable.
The tension will be high.
Then someone will make a Monty Python/fart/Monty Python-fart joke and the tension will be released (pun definitely intended).

That ebb and flow of tension is true in the horror genre in general.
That's why the best horror movies have plenty of humor (i.e. Ghostbusters), so I'd say don't fight against it while playing a horror RPG - use it to your advantage, and allow the contrast to make the horror all the more impactful.

That was a long answer, but I hope that helps somebody. I appreciate all you do, Johnn!
 

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Keep Health Secret
From RPT GM Tom G

When I run a horror themed session, I usually start tracking the hit points of my players.
I then only explain the damage they take and let them decide if they should continue fighting or not.
This works pretty good. :)

Greetings from Germany.
P.S. and thanks a ton for your newsletter.
 

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Fridge Horror
From Mark of the Pixie

Horror is hard.
A lot of movies go for gore and splatter, but I feel that's more "disgust" than "horror".
Similarly, many use shock and jump scares, but again I feel this is "startling" more than "scary".
One of the key things about horror is "powerlessness".

If there is a curse, it is not one the characters can just cast "remove curse" on.
If there is an undead it is not one the heroes can just turn.
But you don't want to frustrate your players or take away their agency.
It is a tricky balance.

Personally, I like to go for a sort of in-game "fridge horror", the sudden realisation of just how terrifying or horrible something really is.

One of my tools is the 4 classic horror icons; Dracula, Frankenstein, Werewolf and Cthulhu.

Dracula = "I am cursed and the curse spreads to those I love."
Frankenstein = "What I create kills those I love."
Werewolf = "Sometimes I lose control and kill those I love."
Cthulhu = "Who I am, and those I love, are insignificant."

These give you a choice of tools to inflict horror on your characters.

Here are some examples:


Dracula
A person is cursed with constantly unending hunger (whether a witches curse or a curse from an ancient item or whatever).
Eating eases the hunger pains, but only for a while.
Soon they will be eating whatever they can find; coins, rocks, sticks.
Eventually they will succumb and start eating human flesh (their own if nothing else is available).
But until the curse is broken they can't die. Worst of all is that the curse spreads to anyone who feeds them.
At first the PCs may think this is a simple zombie outbreak, with people being eaten.
But then they realise that the victim was a cook for an important person.
The important person is the real first victim.
Then they realise the third victim is one of their friends, who they shared a meal with...


Frankenstein
A group of PC mages are brought in to hunt a simple monster, but the area is brimming with wild chaotic magic.
Anyone who casts a spell finds it more powerful, with strange lingering effects.
Too late they discover the lingering effects have started twisting out of control, snowballing to the point where they are now causing more problems than the monster.
Dare they try using more magic to try to fix the new problems they have caused?


Werewolf
PCs are investigating what seems to be a case of possession.
To make things harder, the ghost or demon or whatever seems to be jumping between family members.
Too late they discover it is not possession, it is a curse which releases the dark side of the person.
And now it has them as well.
Can they find the cure before their own dark sides wreak havoc on their lives?


Cthulhu
A PC is promoted to a position of power, only to find they are required to sacrifice someone they love to serve shadowy masters.
Do they resign, at the cost of the very wealth, power and influence they need to defend their loved ones?
Or do they accept the trappings of power, sacrifice their loved ones, and fall further and further into the rabbit hole of dark powers?
Either way their loved ones are going to be sacrificed, because the PC choices are really insignificant in the schemes of the dark powers.
 
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