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.

Of course, out-of-character (OOC) jokes can ruin the immersion and obliterate tension so encourage them to make any jokes as their character. Humor can promote bonding between the characters themselves and create a little relief against a background of tension that makes things scarier later on. So it’s okay so long as the characters take the situation seriously and are the ones making the jokes.

Players will naturally attempt to analyse the enemy. This is a natural reaction to fear. Figure out how to categorise the unknown in order to gain power over it! But predictable beasties and well-known stat blocks aren’t as scary as half-formed fears from our imagination. This is another reason why it’s best to keep the full on monster reveal to the last possible moment.

If you are using known creatures, be ambiguous. Change the physical description but keep the stat block, or make it hard for the players to identify the critter in the first place by using supplements they haven’t read yet.

Alternatively you can take a fairly well-known creature, such as a kobold, and use it in an unexpected way that works by making the familiar seem strange.

Or you grab something known to be far more powerful than the PCs because then the players realise that the predictable “fight them” option is off the table. That will encourage them to see the creature more as an environmental threat and encourage them to avoid them at all costs. If playing games that typically scale with the character, you may want to reduce the creature’s perception skills to a much lower level creature to keep this from becoming a complete party wipe.

Ratchet up the tension by having the players fail in stages, so that there’s not a simple “one failed roll means the Tarrasque finds you,” situation is a good plan. Perhaps it gets closer to them each time. Perhaps they have a limited number of distraction devices to “undo” the results of a failure roll.

If people make the right Knowledge check to identify the creatures, give them information based on anecdotes and a name that matches the mythology (and is ideally distinct from the well-read bestiary ones). Give them a story regarding someone using silver to bypass its regeneration so you can enrich the story world’s history, build immersion AND retain a level of ambiguity about your monsters.

Encourage lateral thinking. Each time they don’t resort to fisticuffs against an aberration is a time to celebrate. It keeps the situation unpredictable and makes the players have think hard to survive. Plus folks tend to be proud of their characters when they pull off something cool and unique, which makes them want to keep them alive.

Play up the desire to not get hurt. Descriptions can help with this. Make damage brutal. Give them a vivid description they can really latch onto. Then remember that injury afterwards so you can reference the pain as they stagger to the next location. Even if there is no in-game effect to any damage given, no broken bones or damaged tendons to slow them, reinforcing the pain is often enough to encourage the players to avoid combat.

Avoid having every monster outright charge them in battle. If the monsters make every encounter a straight up combat, then the anticipation is gone. Certain threats might toy with the characters, attack property, ambush and run, or simply stalk the characters. Keep the enemy unpredictable and not only do you leave the players guessing, but you can build tension in the moments between the release of definitive action.

So, hopefully all of that will help you scare your players through the monsters’ threatening nature. If you have any other advice to give (or if you just really like this article), include it in the comments below. If you’d like to check out other articles in the series, go over to 10 Balancing Acts of Horror for more ideas.

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