Balancing Act III: Pacing

Pacing is a vital consideration in all genres, but especially so in horror games. Boredom, frustration and overconfidence are all the enemies of the horror genre but if you carelessly rush to avoid them you may end up with an action game with a horror aesthetic. Nothing wrong with that if that’s what you want to run, but it can be a real fear-killer if it’s not. In any case, even heavy action games benefit from attention paid to pacing.

When we talk about pacing we’re talking about the tension spikes and relaxing troughs, the action beats and the quiet time, that make up any game. Too much of the same energy level becomes boring and frustrating. Tension can only be maintained for so long before people become inured to it but if you make them feel safe, temporarily, that buzz of anticipation builds again, letting you amp up the tension once more.

So every so often the tension must be released (with a temporary win, some in-character humour, a safe place to hide) but in a high-tension genre like horror it should never go away completely. There must be some threat, some anticipation of more, that lurks in the background which you can later build to a new crescendo.

If the characters know their respite is temporary, if they know there is something waiting for them in the dark, than the well-lit room will maintain that little flame of anticipatory fear which can be later fanned into an inferno.

As the game progresses, the “safe areas” should become a little less safe, the “rest periods” a little less long. Don’t do so in a predictable way, of course. You might give a lengthier one towards the end because the players need the respite or have a really short one towards the start because no one expects it to get bad so fast. You want anticipation, but you don’t want predictability as the unknown is a source of tension on its own.

Remember you can also turn their assumptions on their head in terms of where it is safe. That house which is littered with bodies might become safe once the generator, and therefore lights, are back on and may provide an uncomfortable place to rest. On the other hand, that friendly clerk at the local brightly lit motel might follow the characters back to their car with bloodshed on his mind. Change things up. Be unpredictable.

When pacing an adventure, you need to have a gentle hand on the tiller compared to what you’d do when writing a story. Have several elements planned out, but give flexibility in terms of how the characters approach them and when. In a supernatural game, you can rely on omens, non-violent character conflicts and other signs of lurking dangers to keep characters (and players!) on their toes even as they go explore places you’d never considered. Therefore play with pacing around the players decisions. Don’t just force them to follow the rails.

If your players feel they’re being railroaded, they’ll feel that their fates are entirely in your hands and they’ll internally give up. What will be, will be. At best they’ll treat it like a movie. At worst they’ll grow frustrated and disruptive. This isn’t to say that your players shouldn’t do a little steering to keep their characters on track, only that you need to be flexible with the fair decisions that they make.

LARP Note: Pacing is a far more difficult thing to do with large numbers of people, which is partly why horror LARPs tends to work better with less than 20 participants. This also lets you gauge the tension levels with more ease as it’s easier to keep an eye on smaller groups.

You also don’t have as much control of pacing in a LARP as it’s harder to be reactive and throw in new things that you haven’t pre-pared. Therefore building levers that can influence pacing in a LARP such as monster movements and assaults, adjusting light levels, sending in new characters, adjust NPC behaviour (i.e. making an NPC behave in an off-key fashion), opening up new locations, sending in-game messages or even by out-of-character cues such as letting folks know they’ll be safe around meal breaks. These levers are best built before game but allow for adjustments during it.

So there’s some basic hints and tips regarding pacing in a horror game. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it! If you want to read more on the subject of horror games, check out the master list of articles.

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