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!

Balancing Act IV: LARP Monsters

When running a LARP, your monster design is limited to your budget, craft skill, accessibility of online costume purchases and what behaviours are physically possible for your cast to perform. This means that you probably can’t field a legit flying creature and you certainly can’t do that stop-start “It’s here, no, it’s there,” creepy teleport thing that movie monsters do so well.

While the advice below focuses on LARPs, you can use them in your role play and descriptions of monsters in tabletop games as well.

So how do you make it work?

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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.

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Balancing Act II: Dealing with Dread

That sense of dread as you anticipate some horrible outcome that keeps you in suspense is a key part of horror. It’s that nervous tension that comes as you reach out to open a door, not knowing what may lay beyond…. That fear as you walk down the corridor toward the source of that strange noise…. Horror fans revel in that sense of dread, loving the anticipation of something wicked about to happen, but how does one evoke it in the first place?

1. Foreshadow with hints that something is subtly off. The room is strangely cold. The unseen floor feels kind of tacky. Something drips on their forehead and slides down their cheek. Each clue builds on the last one, creating a sense of unease and instilling the idea that something has gone terribly wrong. In a LARP or tabletop game where you’re using the five senses you could also do this with off-key music, a ringing phone in an abandoned location or flickering lights at the end of a long hallway where wet footprints lead around a corner.

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Balancing Act 1: Personal Investment

Horror is a delicate thing and it can only work if the players are willing and able to let it work. So first have a chat about the guiding principles of the game. Let them know that mobile phone distractions, out-of-character banter and chasing after the enemy to fight it headlong will kill the vibe. See if they have any ideas on how to help the horror grow.

If they’re not too sure about trying something so different, ask them to give it a session or two before making a decision and run them something designed to finish in a couple sessions. Most players are willing to try something new that their Game Master cares about, especially if they know they can always return to their favourite genre soon.

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The 10 Balancing Acts of Horror

I have always been fascinated with the horror genre. I think its the queer mix of humor in the face of adversity, the strain of watching others in jeopardy, the fright factor of scary concepts, and the grittier ker-thunk of wretched realism which takes a look at just how bad a certain something can be. Since I’ve always loved horror, I’ve always wanted to run it.

The trouble is that a horror game is bloody hard to run.

After all, a horror game is a tight rope walk between opposing concepts, some of them intrinsic to the genre and others to the format of role playing. So to help wrap my head around what to do and how to do it, I’ve written up a series of articles on how to deal with the issues of balancing the various needs of the game to bring out the most horror potential.

Please note that this series of weekly articles is focused on both LARP and tabletop games though the monster article has a focus on LARP.

Horror Tips 1: Personal Investment

Horror Tips 2: Dealing with Dread

Horror Tips 3: Pacing

Horror Tips 4: Monsters (focuses on LARP)

Horror Tips 5: Playing Environment

Horror Tips 6: Threatening Nature

Horror Tips 7: The Flow of Information

Horror Tips 8: Props

Horror Tips 9: Death vs Continuity

Horror Tips 10: Scaring the Players

Session Style Guides

When advertising your game, it can be a good idea to let your prospective players know what the session will be like. Heck, in a long-term campaign it can be useful to do so for each session if you know there’s a lot of variety in session styles. Especially in a game like a LARP.

Sure, players can find ways to involve more combat or social intrigue, but there’s limits to what the setting will allow. Folks who try to chit-chat a zombie outbreak where there’s a constant onslaught of zeds will find that out pretty quickly.

There’s a lot of different ways you can do this. You could break it down with different genres (like Horror or Fantasy themes) or different styles of combat (Survival Horror vs Action). Anything you’d like to prime your players with, really.

Or you could use a set of sliders like the Mixing Desk of LARP that show the frame, and not just the style, of game with information like the degree of transparency between players being visibly represented on a series of sliders.

So have you ever advertised the style of the session / campaign using a visual representation like a mixing desk or rating scale? How’d it go? And what did you use?


Limbo Run is a session that occurred midway through the Seekers Campaign. The events are set on a post-apocalyptic alien world where humans have been struggling to survive both zed infestations (living, fast “zombies”) and mutant psykers who are each driven to destroy sentient life.

Previous to this session: The player characters make contact with a group of refugees and fugitives from a machine cult that cybernetically augments its operatives who are currently living in an old radio station in the middle of nowhere.  Their communication happens online, and unfortunately something terrible lands in the chat room, causing irreparable damage to one of the fugitive’s neural augmentations, requiring immediate medical attention.  Being one of the few groups with air transportation (tiltjets), they fly over to visit and arrive just in the nick of time.

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Tech Hates LARP

The more complicated the tech, the more it hates LARP. I have a CD player. It’s an old CD player. Other than a few scratched CDs making it repeat itself creepily and unexpectedly, it works. I also have a Bluetooth Speaker with a USB plug. Sometimes it’ll let me switch between the two USBs. It requires a little fiddling around with. It will always eventually play from at least one USB (so long as the sound formats are correct). It’s not as quick, easy and safe to use as the CD player.

However if I decide to go even higher tech and try to use it through Bluetooth, it can be as snarly at the start as using a USB, but even once you get it running it will occasionally stop even though the mobile phone controlling it sitting on top of it.

So what’s the moral of the story?

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