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.

Discomfort. NPCs with unpleasant mannerisms, confrontational body language, and worrying back stories can create a sense of discomfort in those who interact with them. As can locations that embody certain moods and themes designed to unsettle the players, such as taking a typically cheerful place and adding peeling paint and sagging doorways.

Threat to Significant Others.  Have unpleasant things happen to the protagonist’s friends, family, possessions, and important locations. Be cautious with how you target those significant to the protagonist as the player might grow callous if it’s guaranteed that anything they value will be damaged. Generally, you’re better off using this option sparingly and giving the protagonist the opportunity to save the loved one. That way it’s so much more impactful if they fail.

Pain. It’s easy for the players to feel disconnected from any pain that the protagonist experiences. However, good descriptions and audio cues can help combat this. Don’t merely describe health points. Describe how the arrow strikes home. You could try hiding their hit points and only telling them the result, but only do this if you can do so quickly and seamlessly. Also, props are your friend here as always. Rather than just describe their leg snapping, snap a twig!

Disgust. Vivid descriptions of inventive uses and appearances of bodily fluids and body bits can promote disgust. Strangely enough a few key descriptions are often better than a lengthy rundown. Those single lines can really stick in their memory. Props are amazing for this so long as your players are okay with visual FX.

The Surreal. Where nothing can be predicted, the players will desperately try to make sense of things. The key to the surreal is for them to feel that they could understand it if somehow they could squint hard enough. Therefore it should seem *almost* predictable, and often only if you apply different rules than the usual. Perhaps they head outside and find only people’s clothing and belongings on the streets and in their cars, left lying on the floor as if the person wearing them had simply disappeared.

Body Horror. A mixture of pain, dread, and disgust can be evoked through showcasing mutilations to themselves and the people around them. To make it as scary as possible, make it slow (to build dread), painful and gross. Often times small details will be the most effective. More players can comprehend a finger nail being ripped out than a massive chest wound.

Paranoia. Describe a location to one player and then pass notes to all of the others. During a party split, separate the players into two rooms and then have one set of players behave strangely when they return to meet the others. Have the players show you how they would open a door or a chest. Take one player aside during a Zombie Apocalypse and have a character return with a suspicious cut that could be a bite mark. When evoking paranoia, the players should never be too sure about what they’re facing or who they can trust.

Shock.  These are the scary events that happen suddenly and unexpectedly. Videogames and movies have the benefit of a sudden visual shock with their jump scares, but due to the slower pace of verbal descriptions, you’re left with a sudden rise in volume and perhaps a quick slap of the table at the right point. You can also set up a milder form of shock by having something sudden and unexpected happen, such as a mild-mannered NPC pull a gun and shoot someone in the middle of a peaceful scene.

So that should hopefully give you something to think about. What other emotions could be evoked in a horror game? And what are some cool ways to evoke them?

If you want to learn more horror tips and tricks, check out our 10 Balancing Acts of Horror.

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