Balancing Act 1: Personal Investment

Horror is a delicate thing and it can only work if the players are willing and able to let it work. So first have a chat about the guiding principles of the game. Let them know that mobile phone distractions, out-of-character banter and chasing after the enemy to fight it headlong will kill the vibe. See if they have any ideas on how to help the horror grow.

If they’re not too sure about trying something so different, ask them to give it a session or two before making a decision and run them something designed to finish in a couple sessions. Most players are willing to try something new that their Game Master cares about, especially if they know they can always return to their favourite genre soon.

Second of all, help the players care. Because if the players aren’t personally invested in the story’s outcomes, your chance to scare them disappears. So it’s important to keep them engaged.

There are a number of ways to boost or reduce a player’s levels of personal investment.

Player investment tends to build over time as they grow more attached to their character and those around them. This is often why games like the World of Darkness encourage preludes so people can become attached to the world that was and therefore care about the losses that are about to hit their character.

A good prelude is also valuable for providing a picture of the mundane world to which the latter experiences will forever be compared (hence making use of the ‘corruption of innocence’ and the ‘subversion of the mundane’ themes common to horror).

The right protagonist choice is also very important. If the character is full of bravado, hates investigating and would rather charge at every shadow, then they’re not going to be conducive to your average horror game no matter how keen the player is. Guide your players into creating ordinary people, or at least vulnerable ones, who can react to the world in an interesting and dynamic way.

Players are notoriously curious creatures, which can cause them to bravely take careless risks rather than act with the caution of a nervous player frightened for their character’s ‘life’. Use this curiosity to create a personal plot arc for each character that intrigues the player so that they’re desperate to know the ending. This is especially true if the ending is contingent on their in-game actions (i.e. will they ever earn forgiveness?) rather than a simple secret that another player could discover for them.

It helps to create complex and interesting Non Player Characters (NPCs) as the depiction of NPCs and their reaction to surrounding events is a powerful tool. They can also help build a sense of living in a rich and compelling world which can heighten interest and build attachment. Threatening these attachments can be a source of tension but it can also be predictable. Be careful not to threaten them too much, or snuff them out too readily, or the players may grow jaded and find it hard to get attached again. A little threat can go a long way.

Also remember that a player knows that they will personally survive the character’s death so it’s not typically fear of “death” that can make them fear for their character. It’s empaphising with the character, and fearing the loss of . can simply create a new character so the loss of a character isn’t much of a threat. The real threat is the loss of that character’s story arc, their potential, and also — if they’ve had time to build up an attachment and come to care about the character themselves — how that character’s story ends.

So, how do you all boost personal investment in your games? 

Check here for more articles on the 10 Balancing Acts of Horror.

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