Levels of Fear

Length of Game

Is yours a single horrific roleplaying game plot, that will then give way to your usual fare after a few weeks? Is it just one night of horror? Is it a long and terrifying story-arc? Or is it entirely a horrific game, that you plan to play with for a long time to come?

Short Games

For a single night of horror start with a few small scares first. They might well turn out to be false alarms. This gets people a little jumpy, but leaves them vulnerable to later scares. If you pour it on all at once they’ll get hardened to it too quickly. If you really want to start with a high level of fear and keep it up, then make sure that you throw in lots of other emotions too. Some guilt, a little love, and some hatred (among other things) can help keep people from becoming exhausted by their fear. In other words, even though emotions stay high, people still get a “break” from the fear itself.

Fear (especially of dying) can spur characters on to say and do things they might not say and do under other circumstances. If this single night is part of a longer campaign, you might also bring some other plot to a head on your night of horror, something that involves high levels of emotion between characters. This may be one way to liven up a plot (or an NPC!) that seems to have become predictable or stale.

If this single night is a one-shot, your players are unlikely to play complex, detailed characters. This means you’ll have to deal with “generic” horror, rather than horror that’s targeted at the characters. This usually means dealing with physical threats, suspense, and the fear of death.

For a horrific story that you expect to take a few weeks, start slow and build up. The first episode might seem entirely mundane, with a few small unexplained details to get people thinking. The players might not even realize for a game run or two that they’re “in a horror movie.” If you want to avoid tipping them off, then ask them the suggested pre-game questions about horror (from the last article) a month or two in advance, and wait until they’ve forgotten all about it before beginning the actual plot.

Long Games

For a long and terrifying story-arc, you might do the same thing as for the several-week story. Or you might try a slightly different method. Do something to set the mood right off. Have a good spooky scene, several unexplained events, etc. Then back off a bit. Bring things back down to a more “normal” level. Let people breathe a sigh of relief and convince themselves that they were imagining things, or that things have gotten better. Then either slowly build up again, or make their world take a sudden step sideways later in the game. This is like the horror movie (or book) that starts off with the single scary scene in some remote part of the world, then moves on to the protagonists doing something entirely normal. It gets your heart racing without giving you a chance to become immune to the fear.

You can do this like the horror movie, by narrating a scene the characters would have no reason to be involved in. As long as you can trust them to “firewall” (or ignore) the information they aren’t supposed to have (or you find a way to not include any such information), this can be an interesting occasional way to set mood or to convey interesting parts of the story that the characters don’t see. You might instead give each player a paragraph description on paper of their temporary character, and let them play the opening scene. This gets them more involved in the scene, but you need to be sure you can make your opening scene come off as you want it to. (This is comparatively easy to do with a single scene.)

You could have that opening frightening scene happen to the PCs. Movies use different characters for one of two reasons. Either because it lets the movie fit in background information that the protagonists shouldn’t know (but the audience needs), or because it lets the movie kill people off without putting the protagonists on guard. If you don’t care about either of these goals, then you can involve the PCs in this opening scene. There’s no separate audience to need the back-story, after all.

A purely horrific long-term game requires a slightly different approach, and that hinges on one thing: variation. You cannot keep up a high level of fear without either exhausting the characters into not caring, or driving them into not finding anything frightening any more. Even the scariest movies have their jokes, love plots, and light-hearted moments. The fear becomes all the more frightening for the moments of relaxing contrast. Don’t worry about maintaining a constantly frightening mood. Instead, engineer horrific moments. You’ll also want to make sure you occasionally have a non-horrific plot to change the mood a bit.

Levels of Fear

Fear and horror are kissing cousins. They overlap strongly, and where you’ll find one you’ll often find the other. I think this is one of the reasons that the word “horror” means different things to different people; it gets confused with fear. One definition of horror (thanks to a tattered and worn American College Dictionary) is: “a shuddering fear or abhorrence; a painful emotion excited by something frightful or shocking…something considered atrocious or bad.” So, any story that evokes fear might be called horror, but many people believe that an element of the “shocking…atrocious or bad” must be present as well. Luckily, almost everything we’ll talk about in these issues can be made to apply to both stories of fear and stories of horror, whatever your definitions. For the moment though, lets talk about fear, since it’s obvious that a horror story without an element of fear would probably not be considered horror.

Fear ranges all over the scale from mild worry to all-out terror. It ranges from fear of other people to fear of death to fear of spiders to fear of pain to fear of losing money to fear of the unknown to fear of…well, almost anything. Fear and horror are not all-or-nothing things. As I said above, variation is the key to most horror stories.

There’s that mild bit of worry when you realize you might have left the oven on when you left for work this morning. You know that leaving the oven on is unlikely to cause a fire, especially if you have a decent modern oven. But what if your house is old? The oven leaks a lot of heat, and there are curtains nearby. It takes you a few minutes to decide whether it’s worth going home early, being late to work, or calling a neighbor. This is a small kind of fear, the kind that worries you but might not even affect your actions. The passenger in your car might not notice anything more than a momentary crease in your brow. This is the sort of fear that makes a great lead-in to larger fears. It might start the mood, or it might build up with other little fears to create an atmosphere of larger fear, even though nothing terrible has happened.

Then there’s the kind of fear that comes when you’re walking home late at night and there’s someone walking along about a block behind you. They’ve taken the same turns as you twice. They aren’t hurrying, and they aren’t trying to catch up. But this isn’t like the oven, where you know logically that there’s no point to worrying as nothing will really happen. It’s nighttime, it’s the action-filled world of an RPG, and the odds of getting mugged or shot are a bit higher than the odds of an oven starting a fire. On top of this, there’s probably no easy solution to this sort of problem, unlike the oven. You might reach home, but what if the person behind you just wants to know where you live so he can break in later? You could stop at a friend’s house, but you’d feel awful if this guy broke into her house instead. The only police station is at least ten blocks away — probably too far to be of help — but you head in that direction anyway. You could knock on a stranger’s door, but there’s no guarantee that one stranger would be better than another, and you’d feel dumb if you got some unknowing guy on his way home from work arrested for nothing.

This is a worse fear. There’s the worry of imminent danger coupled with the fear created by uncertainty, and the confusion of action this uncertainty creates. It’s easy to do a lot with this sort of fear. Your follower might disappear, causing you to breathe a sigh of relief, only to come back later. Or he could start moving faster, as though to catch up with you, but he just runs past when he reaches you (the “false alarm” terror can be incredibly effective, particularly if followed up with a more real danger). He could break off at some point as though just turning away home, but smile at you as he does so, or say something enigmatic that could be threatening — or not. Or he could be exactly what you fear.

Then there’s the immediate terror of physical attack. This is the monster that lunges out of the shadows, chasing and slashing at the character. In some ways this might be considered the worst of the fears, but the issue is more complicated than that. If you pay attention to the really scary horror movies, most of them present a web of false alarms, worries, and building terrors that culminate in the physical threat to one’s life. That physical threat wouldn’t be nearly so frightening without all that came before. Movies that consist simply of physical threats tend to be far less frightening than others.

Which combinations of threats and fears you use is your choice. Remember to vary both the type and intensity. The more horror you GM, the more you’ll want to muck with your patterns. Try writing up a simple guideline ahead of time. It can be as easy as “small worry, building fear, false alarm, physical attack that fails, mild fear, mild fear, building fear, threat to life.” Check things off as you go; circle things that seem to work particularly well. The next time you want to frighten your players, write out another, different guideline. It’s one way to keep things from getting repetitive, and to keep your players on their toes. You’ll find over time that certain combinations work better than others, and that certain players may be particularly vulnerable to certain patterns. Make use of this.

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