Running a horror campaign is one of the most challenging undertakings a GM can attempt. Populating your game with ghosts and monsters is easy, but making your players care is hard. In other mediums, horror depends on control that GMs simply do not have. Filmmakers calibrate every element of their work to achieve maximum scare factor, while authors depend on pacing and well worded descriptions. Those tools are largely out of a GM’s reach, because they’re playing with other human beings in real time. Players will make jokes at inappropriate moments, need to use the bathroom in the middle of a scene, or just get distracted at the wrong time.
Fortunately, there are tools GMs can use to maintain the horror in their game, and a good thing too. Horror games are a lot of fun when done correctly, because deep down, who doesn’t want to huddle in terror while creatures not of this world stalk the land?
Get Your Players’ Cooperation
This advice applies to all roleplaying games, but doubly so for horror. No matter how good a GM you are, you need the players on your side. That’s the very nature of roleplaying – a collaborative storytelling process. GMs who aren’t interested in what their players want should go write a novel.
Make it clear that you’re running a horror game from the moment you start inviting people to play. Even if the system you’re using implies horror, be explicit. Many a game has fallen apart because of PCs who saw shoggoths as nothing more than medieval tar monsters. The bottom line is, you can’t scare players who don’t want to be scared, and trying will only lead to aggravation all around.
On the other hand, many players are specifically looking for a horror experience, and will jump at the chance. People to whom hack and slash power fantasies hold no interest, may have an itch that only unearthly dread can scratch. If you build a good horror game, they will beat a path to your door. Then you’ll be working together, and your combined love of horror will be unstoppable.
This is make or break advice. If by some chance you don’t know any players who are into horror, then it’s time to run something else. There will be other opportunities, and running a bad horror game may put you off the idea entirely.
Isolate the PCs
Once you’ve got your group of horror loving players, it’s time to bust out the psychological manipulation! No seriously, horror games are all about playing on the player’s psyche,* and the first step is to get them away from each other. Threats that might get laughed off when the PCs are all together will become much more serious when faced alone.
To some extent, this is because of mechanics. In most role playing games, it’s easier to overcome challenges if you have help. Combat certainly falls into this category. A monster that outmatches one PC could be easily defeated by two. Horror requires a credible threat. If the entire party gangs up on it, it will lose its credibility.
However, this tactic is useful even when the party can’t overwhelm the monsters. There’s a reason Jason Vorhees doesn’t strike at large groups of victims in broad daylight, even though he’s an invincible killing machine. Our brains associate other members of a group with safety, even when greater numbers don’t make you any safer.
Players will feel the horror more keenly when they are on their own or in a very small group, and GMs should take advantage of that. On a practical level, this means that horror campaigns should have fewer players than a traditional game, as splitting up a six member party takes a long time.
GMs must also be careful how they split the group. If they’re too blatant about it, the players may rebel. The last thing you want is for the players to start quoting Scooby Doo. It’s ok to occasionally split the party by force, with a sudden cave in or what-have-you, but it’s better to let them do it themselves. The important thing is to present a compelling reason. Put two important objectives in separate locations, make it clear there’s not enough time to reach both without splitting up, and watch the party scurry off in separate directions.
Use Sound Effects Carefully
Scary music and sound effects can add a new level to your horror game, but you must be precise in how you use them. Unlike a movie, you can’t control every sound in the game, and the last thing you want is for your spooky noises to become comical or mundane. That said, there’s a host of simple noises you can use to focus everyone on the horrifying story at hand.
Use nonverbal sounds to get the group’s attention. If they’ve wandered off topic and started discussing the latest Mythcreants article, a heavy knocking on the table is a great way to get them back on track. Scrabbling your fingernails under the table without warning (and then acting like you have no idea what that sound was) will make them wonder what’s hiding in the imaginary shadows around them. These simple effects can be as good as an elaborate soundscape, and they’re a lot less work.
Once you’ve got some experience with the basics, there are more advanced options available. Some free sound editing software, plus a bit of time, and you can create the grinding of an ax dragging along pavement or the crunching of heavy footfalls. You know, fun and happy noises. These can be effective, but the trick is not to get carried away. It’s still your job to tell a story, and spending all your time creating new sound effects will see the rest of the game suffer.
If all this talk of sound effects is making your voice feel under appreciated, then fear not! Leaning over and whispering in one player’s ear is a great way to get everyone focused. They’ll wonder what you said, why they didn’t get to hear it, and if the player you whispered to is in on your plans. Of course, you have to be understood in order for that to work, so maybe practice a few times before the game starts.
Different voices and accents are also great, if you can actually pull them off. If you’re not sure, better to err on the side of caution. Nothing takes the tension out of a scene like a bad accent. On the other hand, if you have the voice actor’s gift, then have at! The soul devouring demon will be even more terrifying with a booming voice that shakes the room.
Play on PC Backstory
Character history is a great tool for the horror GM. Players get connected to their characters, even if they don’t express it through grand speeches or moving soliloquies. If you personalize the horror so it resonates with the character’s life, the player will feel it all the more keenly.*
This approach requires knowing the PCs, so you should encourage the players to tell you about them. Find out what they did before the campaign started, ask about the people they know, and discover what’s important to them. Some games have this step built into the character creation process, which can be a big help. If the game you’re using doesn’t have an equivalent, draw up some info sheets and have the players fill them out. Nothing too elaborate, just basic information to get your brain turning.
Once you have this information, generating horror is easy. If the character’s a veteran, then plan a session around the horrors of war. If they’re a parent, use terrifying children. You can take it a step further by threatening things the character holds dear, but use this sparingly. A PC’s brother getting attacked by vampires is scary and compelling the first time; less so the next three or four times.
Mix It Up
When something works, it’s tempting to use it again. And again. Overusing a story element is bad in any work, but it goes double for horror roleplaying. The more familiar something is, the less unnerving it becomes, until an unspeakable Elder God becomes an adorable plushy you can buy on Etsy.
Fear of the unknown is what drives horror, and with good reason. The unknown is scary, because you don’t know what it is! As something becomes more familiar, its ability to frighten dissipates. There’s a reason the best Supernatural episodes are one-offs with monsters you’ll never see again. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a long running horror game; just that you must allow for variety.
In horror roleplaying, it’s important to change up the general theme, not just the specifics. If your group dealt with a ghost last week, don’t make them fight a wraith this week. Those might technically be different monsters, but the emotions attached to them are pretty much the same. On the other hand, you can sometimes leave the specifics alone and change only the themes. After dealing with a vengeful spirit, the PCs could come across a benign shade that is itself the victim of something far more dangerous.
It’s also important to allow for non-horror. No matter how great you are with scary voices or how devoted your players are, something will eventually have to give. True horror is emotionally draining, and everyone needs a break from time to time. Just do it in a way that fits with the rest of the game. If you’re playing Hunter, have one session where the players can really cut loose with all their monster killing gear. If Call of Cthulhu tickles your fancy, give the players time to laugh at the absurdity of their own existence before plunging back into the abyss.
Even with all the advice in the world, horror is difficult. Because it depends on the desire to be scared, it’s particularly challenging in roleplaying games. Zooming out from all the individual tips and tricks, the best advice is to use a light touch. Let the players come to you when they want to be scared, and respect them when they aren’t interested. Keep this rule in mind, and soon your game will echo with the despairing howls of those foolish enough to put dice in hand.
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.