I have always had trouble watching horror movies as my imagination goes into overdrive for weeks after, disrupting my sleep and hampering my work as I often find myself alone in creepy places in the course of my workday. I am on the other hand addicted to running or playing horror rpg and try to work some horror angles into most of my campaigns. The absurdity of this contradiction is not lost on me but this fascination with horror roleplaying games and how to evoke the feelings associated has in my own opinion sharpened my storytelling wits more than any other genre.
A good way to start any horror adventure is to set the mood right. This can be accomplished in many ways but the most common are to facilitate player immersion by building some sort of soundscape with music and use softer lighting than usually for your games. You would be amazed how playing by candlelight while listening to appropriately gothic sounds gets people ready for horror quickly.
Along with this it’s a very good rule to enforce some sort of communal pact banning the use of mobile devices while the game is in effect as the harsh lights from screens and the division of attention kills immersion faster then Jason kills a sorority girl. While these things are important for any successful roleplaying experience they are doubly so during horror sessions if they are to have the impact you desire.
I must also stress the importance of detailed descriptions and the full use of the theatre of the mind in these games as few things take away from a good horror encounter like models on a map.
But what are the feelings we associate with horror and how do we invoke them to horrify our players?
Right in the Feels
Weirdness is often the best way to lead into a horror game but is not always that easy to produce. Often it’s easiest to portray abnormal behaviour by the NPC’s in the story, such as creepy stares, repetitive actions or intense voice acting by the storyteller with a trick I call “The Wickerman” after the 1973 movie (not the awful Nicolas Cage remake). This is best used when the players are new to an area or in some sort of fish out of water scenario.
Strange customs and information lost in translation are excellent tools to raise the stakes in a scenario that relies heavily on weirdness to get its horror across. This is also very good as a foreshadowing tool to build up to some greater danger later down the line. Another method is what I call “The Frayed Ends of Sanity” as the storyteller describes horrible things being seen one second and then returning to normal.
This is ideal after the players encounter some unspeakable horror and relies on them believing that even their own senses cannot be completely trusted. Maggots crawling from the eyes or mouths of people they talk to only to disappear instantly or certain occult phrases being muttered under the breath of every person they pass on the street can freak players out and keep up a mood between the encounters that truly influence the progression of the story.
Hitting the wall
Despair is one of the easiest feelings to evoke in roleplaying and often has a place outside of classic horror. Players often get a sense of it while fighting tough encounters that come down to the last die roll but it can also be produced in a more sophisticated manner, such as keeping the group’s resources low or keeping them from gaining the benefits of rest.
One common trick used in fantasy and sci-fi games when you want to invoke a little despair is called “Hitting the Wall” and can best be described as a long series of easy encounters with no chance of respite between them and then ending with a hard encounter when the group has spent a lot of resources frivolously in the easier encounters.
This tricks the players into a false sense of security while they trash the easier encounters and leaves them less than ideally prepared when the real danger arrives. For a more classic horror game despair could come from being stuck in a town full of zombies with only a broken stick for protection or seeing your ammo deplete rapidly while the alien menace swarms all around you.
Loneliness or a sense of isolation is an important tool in the armory of a good storyteller. Removing the chance of help from an outside agent is often the first thing I look to when I construct a horror story of any kind. It is so early on my list of priorities that it is most often the deciding factor in the setting itself and if I can’t make use of it I often drop the idea altogether if some sort of isolation is not achievable in telling the story.
That being said isolation can be achieved in many ways, in physical, mental and/or social levels. I am working on a horror story set in a prison with the players as inmates. In that instance they are not physically removed from a possibly helpful authority but are socially restricted in getting help as no one will believe the prisoners over their corrupt prison guard adversaries.
Revulsion is the last thing I want to discuss as I think it is both the least important and also the easiest to get wrong. This is, for me, a category that encompasses both the concepts of body horror and the more overt manifestations of Lovecraftian horror along with gory descriptions of brutal murder scenes.
For the first part I want to stress something that can not be said too many times and is based on this quote from H.P. Lovecraft in the book Supernatural Horror in Literature “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” that I take to heart as advice to not show your hand too early in the story. There is a movie adaptation of one of Stephen King’s works called Dreamcatcher that I think embodies this philosophy to the fullest.
The movie starts off being very interesting and suspenseful but about the midway through the first act it manages to spoil the horror of the monster with a rather laughable and sad scene that shows off way too much of what should be reserved for the final act.
This leads to the movie being rather boring and it struck me how easily this could have been avoided with correct storytelling techniques. So by all means keep your spider-limbed monster with sixteen eyes and the voice of a screaming angel in the story, just don’t open with it. Also take care that evoking revulsion can often stray into more adult themes and your table might not be ready for that. Tread softly as this might cost you some players if preformed tactlessly.
The most important thing in a good horror story is the end. Has evil triumphed and slain the protagonists to a man or have they overcome their trials and emerged stronger into a new dawn? No matter what the answer is to that question, your players should feel relieved that the hardship is over and relief should be what they walk away from the table feeling if you want them to return.
Because no matter what horrors we face it is the end of that horror we should be striving for in our stories, be they the ones that end badly for the characters or even the world itself or the few that end with grim folk overcoming their fears and terrors to oppose whatever horrid beings you have conjured into their imaginations. And remember that it’s always darkest right before the dawn.