A Final Horror

By | October 26, 2013

Welcome back. I’d like to wrap up our month-long look at horror gaming with some final thoughts on tricks at the table.

There are techniques a guide can use that bother some players. Fudging dice is a common example – the practice is fine at some tables and verboten at others. The same goes for the guide using spooky voices – the practice is loved and loathed by many players.

The guide’s voice can be a tool even when not used for voice acting. Speaking softly forces people to listen more carefully. If done gradually, the players will likely quiet down with you and lean in closer. That makes it easier to do “cheap” jump scares, such as suddenly talking loudly when it is not expected. Leaning over into someone’s personal space also can enforce feelings of being trapped.

Repeated cues also can help build atmosphere. A loud pounding at the door or the whistling of a nursery rhyme by the killer is a description that can be used each time danger is near. This helps build worry if the cue comes up when the players assume they are safe.

These cues don’t have to be so obvious, either. A few words that describe the threat – cold temperatures and earthy smells for the undead – can be used just like these other cues. Every cold house can make the players edgy without having to show them glimpses of any real threat.

Background music – either classical or something more Halloween-related – can build atmosphere even if music is not something normally used in your roleplaying games. Make sure to listen to the music tracks all the way through. A piece of music that sounds perfect at the beginning might include voiceovers or other distractions that can hurt the mood.

For those using music the first time, don’t worry about having a specific piece of music for every single NPC, place and situation in the game. The players will be talking and asking questions throughout the game, so making everyone wait for a particular music cue will just slow things down. Most movies use a few standard themes with some alterations by scene. Background music for a game doesn’t need as many tracks as a modern blockbuster.

Games can also benefit from handouts and props. I made a small newspaper with about five to 10 articles for each session of a pulp game that included horror overtones. Some of the articles were about future plot points and locales while others were just copied and slightly altered from 1920s newspapers. These lurid accounts of crimes and distant places built up anticipation in the players.

Receiving the physical handouts was a highlight of the session for the players each week. The articles and rumors also spurred the players to speculate at the table, giving me the chance to see what sorts of future encounters they would like as a group. In addition, the articles served as a signpost for more dangerous areas, which made the players more cautious going ahead and additionally served to foreshadow future encounters. Foreshadowing in horror games can be particularly effective and rewarding for both players and guides as players put together what you present with something that got mentioned in passing weeks ago.

When danger does come, the players can either fight or hide. I’ve gone over some ways scarcity can affect combat with limited ammunition or just a plain lack of weapons. Scarcity can be applied to stealth as well.

There are many ways to do this. Players might be required to use specific hiding places that cannot be shared. A horrible creature has the players cornered in a room. Only one of them can scurry under the bed; another can squeeze into the closet. That leaves the last two players fighting over who gets to hide behind the desk. Two people could try to share a spot, but that means they might be found.

For crunchier systems, a monster can slowly get better at finding the characters because it has learned their tracks or can smell their fear. This can be represented by an increase in tracking or perception abilities.

Another option is to have antagonists destroy hiding places as they search, leaving the players a dwindling number of places to take shelter. For games with magic or mental powers, the threats could simply scry or see through the characters’ eyes.

Don’t be afraid to physically show off these mechanical bonuses. Creatures can grow extra eyes, tear off limbs that then crawl into hiding places or just split into a swarm of creepy crawlies.

The idea of scarce hiding places fits in with movies and TV shows where the antagonists seem to gain more power over time. This usually is done to fit narrative structures (and make the eventual victory seem more impressive). Those kinds of rules don’t necessarily fit a roleplaying game, since enforcing an outcome can rob players of control. But for a one-shot, adding in a mechanism to force a confrontation can be an interesting choice.

As always, make sure there is some structure to any new rules to avoid trapping the players on a railroad they cannot escape. Difficult tasks are good and eventually impossible can be OK; but outright arbitrary outcomes are bad.

Another trick in horror games is to try scaring the players, not just the characters. This can be something as simple as using a dislike of spiders to get a quick spike of revulsion. Just be careful not to overdo it, since this can steal player agency. Don’t declare that a character hates snakes just because the player does. Just put snakes in a room and let the party deal with them.

One method to add worry is the ringer: A player who actually is working against the other players at the table. Sometimes this is in secret, usually as a result of the antagonist’s influence. Other times, it’s open because that is how players continue to take part in the game even after their character meets a gruesome demise.

Carolina Death Crawl from Bully Pulpit Games uses this mechanic. The card-based storytelling game can have only one survivor at the end. Those who fall along the way fill the ranks of the antagonists.  All the variations of Mafia and Werewolf are also structured with players at the table with hidden ulterior motives in an ostensibly cooperative game.

Adding a ringer changes the dynamic around the table, especially if it comes as a surprise partway through a game. More competitive players might become more obsessed with the “player vs. player” options than the regular game. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as it doesn’t ruin the fun of everyone else around the table.

As always, be careful when using new techniques because not all players want the same types of experiences. The standard warnings at a haunted house apply here: expect to be startled, loud noises are likely, and absolutely no touching whatsoever.

To wrap up this month, I’d like to share an example of how to tie character backgrounds into a horror scenario using Room 209 Gaming’s first module: Escape from Monthos Vil.

The main enemies in the demo scenario are the Turned – people from all walks of life who have been taken over by an outside force. They are easy to recognize because their skin and weapons are covered with desriden.

The main motivation of the Turned is simple: they don’t want to be alone. They make others into more of themselves, infecting and killing victims to swell their own ranks.

This tide of monsters already has destroyed the players’ battalion before the game begins. The players’ last orders were to flee and evacuate their hometown before the new Turned arrive.

The players are outnumbered from the start. Each new combat has more Turned than the last since the main bulk of the creatures are getting closer every hour.

On the personal front, the players don’t fit in anymore at Monthos Vil. The town was founded by religious pacifists. The player characters chose to go off to battle. Even the villagers who would fight to defend themselves haven’t gone through a war like the player characters.

In short, the players have lost their childhood ties to home and now war threatens their families and homes. The whole scenario is about the loss of self. The Turned are now part of a hivemind; the players’ actions isolate them more and more from their peaceful hometown and families.

Throughout all of this, many things remind the players that they are alone. Their military allies are gone. Any one of them can be infected and then Turn. And so far as some NPCs are concerned, the players are just as bad as the Turned since they are willing to kill.

The scenario adds in monsters that can come back from the dead, arguments over how to evacuate the town and hundreds of civilians who need help.

That can be a lot of stress for a level one party. But then, a good horror scenario should be difficult to win. I hope these columns will make them easier to run and enjoy.