Balancing Act VI: Threatening Nature

All good horror games should plumb the depths of the human psyche and examine the issues that keep us awake at night. They should make us doubt ourselves, our fellow humans, and consider – if only for a moment – what it would be like if such horrors visited us.

Of course, fear is generally an unpleasant feeling and humans have built many defenses to ward against it. So let’s talk about how to up the ante, deal with those defense mechanisms, and keep the monsters scary in spite of the player’s attempts to keep themselves calm.

Laughter is the best medicine for negative emotions. If you can make someone else laugh, you can probably defuse (or at least reduce) their anger, fear, or sadness. Cracking a joke can also alleviate your own negative feelings. So if your horror game tactics are working, you might be annoyed to find your players cracking jokes and making movie references to break the tension.

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Balancing Act V: Playing Environment

The typical image of a gaming group is of a group of friends dressed in casual wear, sitting around a well-lit dining table or a card table on comfortable chairs, drinking Mountain Dew and eating doritoes. This comforting scene of friendship and domesticity doesn’t really lend itself to immersion in a horror game. So, what can you do about it?

Physical Location.
Change it up. You could game in a cramped and leaky shed during a rain storm (who needs audio files?) or in a musty old garage in the dead of winter with nothing but a space heater and some blankets. You could game outside under the stars by the river on a picnic blanket. You can gather around an old desk, seated on uncomfortable chairs or overturned milk crates. You could even just change around your usual room so people are sitting in different spots or the tables are arranged in a new configuration.

Don’t let them get too comfortable. Dining tables and chairs will keep them far more focused and worried than comfortable couches. Don’t take this too far, however, as you don’t want players distracted by real world pain.

Never let there be television! Television’s flashing lights are a real immersion killer and attention drain. If a housemate must watch TV, try to game in a different space. The exception to this is if you’re using a TV broadcast as a prop.

Use an out of the way place. Horror is not a genre that can be easily played in a main thoroughfare. Avoid playing in a space shared by flatmates, kids and partners watching TV.

Lighting.Think about the lighting. Remember that the players shouldn’t have to squint to see their dice so if it’s too dark, give them flashlights. Don’t rely on candles to read your sheets by as they rarely provide enough light to be useful.

  • Bright lights work for daylight scenes and cheery preludes (to provide contrast).
  • Turn off the lights and provide flash lights to help them get into the spirit of a torch lit investigation.
  • Use lamps to give a Noir feel.
  • Use fire – candles, lanterns, fireplaces – to give an old world or otherwise primeval feel. You might want to invest in LEDs if your players are clumsy enough to knock things over.
  • Coloured lights can also work a treat but save them for special occasions or else they’ll lose their flavor. Green can give a real alien glow, blue could be good for peaceful or underwater locations, and red has a real emergency lighting feel.

Let there be music! Music can provide a terrifically moody edge in any game and can really assist with transitions between locations and moods. It can also help differentiate between switches between two sides of a split party – simply switch from the Nightclub soundtrack to the Creepy soundtrack to really give the players an idea of whose turn it is.

Remember that you can also use sound files to represent what the characters are actually hearing, such as storm sounds, creaking ships, sibilant whispers or the screams of the damned. If the players become particularly curious about a sound effect included within, go with it. I’ve once played a creaky haunted house ambient music where there was the sound of glass shattering halfway through. The players queried the sound and I let them investigate and find a broken glass bottle in an earlier room. So you can take inspiration from surprise effects as well and look very well-prepared!

Physical Props.  If you’re describing the object, you can’t help but draw attention to the most important part. If you provide the object, the players must draw their own conclusions. Plus props give a certain story weight to the object, in question, making it appear more important. You can also use those props to add to the game itself such as by having the players root around in your ash-filled fireplace looking for special coins and find prop teeth instead. The surprise will feel more real if the players themselves encounter it through action rather than description.

Scents. Be careful of folk’s allergies and intolerances in terms of smell, and keep an open dialogue with your players both before and during game. Not everyone knows if they’ll be bothered by a particular smell until they first experience it so you may need to douse that incense or air out the room if it becomes an issue. However, it’s yet another way to give a certain vibe to a location.

So how have you engaged the senses to improve the ambience of a room? Do you have any advice on how to create a location conducive to horror? Also if you’d like to read more related articles, check out the 10 Balancing Acts of Horror!