How to Scare Your Players — and Make Them Like It

In this, my second Halloween post of 2013, I wanted to talk some about RPGs — not video game RPGs, not this time, but pen and paper RPGs. Specifically, I wanted to talk about how horror works in one of these games. It’s not as straightforward as it seems, really.

Yeah, fair warning, it’s simple this week because I’ll probably wander from idea to idea. Don’t say you were unprepared.

Horror the genre works at trying to elicit three emotions: horror, terror, and dread. So I’ll try to be clear about which I’m talking about. All three feelings involve fear, but fear of different things. Horror (the feeling) is a fear of something disgusting and visceral, such as a rotting corpse, a skull, or a grotesque (that’s my own little bit added to what is, essentially, a theory that dates at least as far back as Ann Radcliffe). Terror, on the other hand, is fear of the unknown, and often the unknown conditions after one’s own death. So if you are terrified of death, it is because (traditionally) you don’t know if you are going to heaven or hell. Or, at least, you don’t know if there’s anything or not, and you want to continue the thing you’ve got going on here. Simple enough, right?
Dread is the complicated one. It consists of terror and horror, as well as mystery. So it is a fear that is, by its nature, partly about the unknown, but about trying to fill in that gap. The terror of death is shrill and beckoning because there is no way to answer the question other than to succumb to the thing you fear. Dread is just as unknown, but could become known at any second. So around that corner could be nothing, or a fucking zombie. Dread is what horror (the genre) books are best at, when they’re good, because they can create an atmosphere. Movies tend to gravitate toward horror (the feeling) because they can visually show this stuff.

And since we are basically reared by movies here in the post-post modern era, we can tend to think in terms of movies. So when we want to do horror in a place where we’re not used to seeing it, we can tend toward the stuff we’ve seen, not the stuff we’ve read. But pen and paper RPGs are closer to reading books than watching movies.

Now, that’s a warning that might be useless to a lot of you, because you already know this. I warned you about the wandering, didn’t I?

Anyway. I ran two whole sessions (I know, pro over here) of a horror game several years ago. I culled the good stuff out of a Victorian Ravenloft game, used 3rd edition DnD rules, and bodged together a horror check system from Call of Cthulhu, Ravenloft, and wherever I could steal something from. The first session had it all — traditional horror trappings, threats, and spooky shit, with ghosts and curses everywhere in a castle in the middle of rural France. Pretty good, right?

But here’s the thing — though I was not too surprised to see it — when players came across a vampire or a curse, they viewed it as a challenge to overcome. So there was no mystery, because there was a clear goal (killing the thing, usually).

There were three things that actually got to the players a bit (and the characters a lot, of course). The first was the specific curse. The plot hook that I kept from the original module was that a nobleman had been cursed by the Red Death, one of the evil gods of the Ravenloft setting. He finds out about Poe’s short story and throws a masquerade in exactly the way the story describes — because part of the curse was that neither he nor his servants could ever utter the Red Death’s name, but the noble finds he can talk about the story. I had to work in hints (not very subtle ones, I’m afraid) that the servants were wincing when they talked about the story, which successfully pointed the players to the entity in question. This set up the basic mystery through character interaction rather than exposition (because remember, even terse, utilitarian descriptions of a room are exposition in this case — as in a video game, interaction is king).

The second actually dreadful thing was the boss of the module, an ebony clock that spawns automatons until you destroy the clock itself — which cannot be destroyed physically. Players must work out how it functions and stop it from functioning, rather than just bashing it until it dies. It sent one player mad (failed his madness check in a big way) and nearly killed the party. In this case, the clock was dreadful because how to stop it was a mystery, but its threat was very present and very real. They knew, because it was a game with win conditions, that there was some way to stop the clock. But for a few rounds they couldn’t figure it out — just long enough to realize the automatons were spawning every round. So just as they realize what they need to do, the perceived threat level rose.

But the third thing, the thing that was remarkable and shaped the course of the series, was the Red Death. There was a ghost encounter in the module that I left in (like the vampire I mentioned earlier, which wasn’t horrifying so much as funny, as everyone blanked on ways to permanently kill vampires. So they stood around and bashed him when he got up every few rounds for, well, longer than they should have). The ghost is written as having no combat stats. It cannot be engaged in combat because it is incorporeal. It watches the PCs, amused, and walks away through a wall, it’s apparently-made-of-skin cloak fluttering insubstantially behind it. I dutifully went through the description.

My players freaked the fuck out. They decided quickly that it must have been the Red Death itself, come to check on its operation as it came to a close for another century.

It wasn’t. But of course it was. Because this shit is interactive fiction. Next game I inserted the bastard, making him once again sit and watch and look menacing. Someone used evil-detecting goggles on him and I nearly drove him entirely mad right there, telling him he saw the entire city spread out behind the Red Death dripping in blood and pus while people wept for no discernible reason (I never said I was above using the good old fashioned stuff at the right time). It worked. Oh it worked. The ever-present, always-mysterious threat is the best dreadful thing in a game, because it appears to stalk you. It chases you calmly. Wherever you go it can be there, because as the Game Master you can put it there, but make it seem natural. Letting the players figure out it’s the threat mimics the puzzle they worked out with the clock — let them figure out how dangerous the thing is, over time. That makes each progressing turn, each progressing session, worse and worse. They don’t know how to beat it, they don’t know what it’s going to do, but they know it’s there, always. And maybe this time it’s ready to fuck up their Christmas.

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