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:

 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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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.

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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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