Balancing Act X: Scaring the Players

In a horror game, your goal is to scare the players as much as the characters. First it’s best to create a check-list of what taboos and issues the players are happy / unhappy about dealing with in-game is always a good idea to determine sensibilities before creating the plots. If you upset a player, they’re likely to leave. Besides which, the list of things that affect them but which they are happy for you to include can be great inspiration.

Anyway, here are a number of different horror-related emotions you can evoke:

Anticipation.
 This is an easy one. Let them know what’s about to happen and then draw out the time it takes to see the revelation. A PC with a family comes home to find the front door open and a slight smear of blood on the carpet that leads into the bathroom. You can bet he’ll be worried about what’s in the bathroom. When he comes across his wife’s corpse in the bathtub and a photograph of his son at the playground with the words: ‘Come find me’ written on it, you just know he’ll be anticipating the worst as he heads to the playground.

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Balancing Act IX: Death vs Continuity

Horror games are scariest when the risks are high and the odds of success are low. It thrives against backdrops of overwhelming odds, tragic losses, and bittersweet endings. Of course, the regular death of player characters has its downsides. It can erode their attachment to the game and lead to frustration, boredom or humour when they die – die – die again. Plus when the character dies, all that tension, all that connection, all that possibility dies with them and the player must craft it all anew.

So how do you make the risks terrifying without a high character turnover? Well, there’s a number of ways:

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Balancing Act VI: Props

Props have numerous purposes. They assist with immersion, provide additional information, make for fascinating clues, and keep players interested. It’s one thing to be told about the journal that you find, it’s another thing to have an excerpt to read and hold.

Taste.  Food can increase immersion if it fits with with the theme or mood of the game. Tea and cucumber sandwiches provide a mood different from Mountain Dew and Salt & Vinegar crisps. One would work well for a 1920s investigation game, the others would be perfect for a cyberpunk meetup at a hacker’s home. You could even hand out the treats in game as your NPC. It’s a great way to get the player’s to drop their guard and potentially partake of poisoned drink so long as you point out that what is drunk out of character is also drunk in character.

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Balancing Act VII: Flow of Information

When running a horror game, the Storyteller must also pay attention to the flow of information as there’s generally some form of mystery that needs investigating. If you err on the side of caution in giving out information, your players may feel like investigation is akin to pulling teeth. Others play too fast and loose with their clues and the investigation might as well boil down to rolling a dice and waiting for the inevitable information dump.

Too much information can be terrible for tension because shining a light on a monster weakens its fear factor. Too little information can just lead to confusion and boredom. So ask yourself whether certain information needs to be known and, if the answer is yes, give the information piecemeal so that the player’s suspicions start whirring into gear as they fill in the gaps.

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