A Primer on Fear

Writing horror for a commercial roleplaying game (RPG) is a tough proposition. Most of the material isn’t fiction, so you can’t use the traditional devices to frighten the reader. This is why a lot of horror-based roleplaying starts off with a story, incorporates a bit of fiction-text now and then, or is told from an in-character point of view. It lets the writer get across atmosphere while still conveying dry information. It isn’t that your job directly is to scare the game master (GM), of course; it’s to help him scare his players. But if you don’t get the atmosphere across, if you don’t let the GM feel the least stirring of suspense or terror, he probably won’t be impressed with what he sees. Getting the atmosphere across to the GM also makes it easier for him to get it across to his players.

It doesn’t help that every group of players will find something different to be frightening. I’ve written material for White Wolf that left some people sleepless and made others yawn. Since RPGs mostly concentrate on useful in-game material, they don’t give writers lots of space to expound on how to scare your group, rather than what to scare them with.

This is why I’m focusing on method here rather than on giving you a story or group or some other sort of in-game example of horror. So without further ado, on to part 3 of 3 on running a horror roleplaying game: How to frighten your gaming group, and how to avoid that unintentional slide from horror into horror-comedy.

Horror Fodder

We all have our moments of horror and potential horror. I have a certain lobster story, a beetle story from the first article in this series, a certain maggot story, and the spider the size of the back of my hand that was on the back of my hand. Living creatures you can’t communicate with make particularly useful horror fodder. What’s your horror fodder? There’s animals and insects, natural disasters, weird things that happen to our bodies, the unexplained and the unknown, injury, death, darkness, the supernatural, the loss of something drastically important, and on and on. Almost anything can be frightening under the right circumstances.


First let’s talk about an issue that once again relates horror and the concept of distance. Is it your players you’re trying to scare, or their characters? You’re trying to scare the characters in a terror/panic way, and you’re trying to scare the players in a fear/excitement way. The characters get scared the way the characters in a horror movie get scared, and your players get scared the way the audience gets scared; except that since they’re sitting closer than the audience does, it’ll probably feel a little more intense.

This is an important distinction for several reasons, which is why I bring it up even though it’s probably self-evident. First, it means that you need to take two different things into account when planning your scary scenes: what scares your players, and what scares their characters? You probably won’t be entirely satisfied with only scaring one of them if the other is entirely blase about the thing. So you need to remember both.

Second, you want to make sure that you never step over the line into panicking the players.

What Frightens Them?

Once you’ve determined that your players are up for it (from Part I) and you’ve thought about the levels of fear you want to convey (from Part II), you’ll need to find out what frightens your group. If you enjoy horror movies or books then you probably have some idea of the techniques that are used. This is also another place where that “what do you consider horror to be” question (from Part I) will come in handy. Knowing what your players consider horrifying will give you a great place to start from.

Types of Horror


Oftentimes suspense creeps people out more than outright gore. You might scare your group more effectively by allowing odd things to happen around them that make them think they’re being followed. They can never quite prove it’s happening, and they never quite see who it is who’s following them. This can make even the players get a little twitchy when an NPC steps around the corner; in the brief moment before they realize it’s someone entirely trustworthy, they’re terrified. And then they’ll start to wonder whether their friend really is trustworthy after all.

Suspense is a part of most if not all horror, but may be considered a genre unto itself. The line between the two is very thin. Suspense is what makes you grip your seat worrying about what’s going to happen next; horror is the emotion that the suspense hopefully creates and leaves behind. Suspense comes into play any time there’s an unknown that frightens the party. Until the unknown becomes known, you’re in a state of suspense. The party doesn’t know who the killer is, which leaves him opportunity to kill again until they figure it out; that’s suspense. Mysterious sounds within the wall don’t quite match anything the party has heard before? Until they figure out whether it’s rats or a deadly supernatural creature, that’s suspense. Whether it frightens or not depends on how much reason the party has to think that it might not just be rats.

Suspense usually involves elements of anticipated danger and time pressure. It involves a question of “will I get hurt?” and “will I get there (or do it) in time?” There are variations on these themes, of course; for instance, the anticipated danger could be a danger to someone else. These are important ingredients in the pressure-cooker that is suspense, and should not be forgotten.

Suspense is what really gets people tense, makes them grip the arms of their chairs, and gets their hearts pumping. Suspense is about adrenaline, at whatever level. Suspense is also often much more acceptable to people than blood and gore, so it’s an invaluable tool in the GM’s toolkit. Test your players. Play with a small suspenseful plot and see how they react. Does it get them sitting on the edge of their seats? Do they comment on how fast the run went by, or how much seemed to happen? Does it make anyone uncomfortable in a bad way, such that you should ease off?

Either way, you’ll have learned something valuable that will help you deal with horror much more effectively in your game.

Blood and Guts

Some people find blood and gore more frightening. Blood and gore, of course, come in different degrees.

Will it frighten your group more to have something disturbing and terrible happen explicitly with full detail to a party member? Warning: this may push the line from exciting to panicking. It’s also the sort of thing that loses its effect on people quickly, and so is best used in small doses. I also believe it’s the reason why many GMs have said that blood and gore don’t work in roleplaying games; they just describe the ickiness, and surprise, surprise, it doesn’t have much of an effect.

You have two options that tend to work better than this; these options work particularly well when used together (and even better when used together with suspense). Let the really bad things happen to NPCs the characters care about. This brings in an element of love or caring to strengthen the fear and distress.

The other option (and this works well whether the victim of violence is a PC or an NPC) is to be partial about your detail. For those of you who’ve seen “Dusk Till Dawn,” there’s one scene I particularly appreciated in that movie. Early on a door is opened on a bloody scene. We never see the scene in its entirety; we see flashes, glimpses, partial shots, and the evolving expression on the face of the man who views the scene. That scene is far more disturbing for what it allows us to fill in with our own imaginations than for what it shows us. Use this same method when you detail the gore in your game. Give a detail here, a detail there. Show your players just enough to let them fill in the rest themselves. This tends to evoke a much more horrified response than a full description does.

Of course, even this can lose its effect if done too often, and for some people it’s still too much detail, particularly if any of your players have a tendency to giggle or laugh when faced with anything disturbing. In these cases, describe the set-up and no more. Think of it as the scene in a movie where the camera rushes up to the character (from the point of view of the unseen “monster”) and then the lights go down, or we switch to another scene. We know exactly what’s going on, and there’s just no need to see it detail-for-detail. Each viewer will fill in the details with things that specifically affect them.

Experiment a bit. Try different things. Try techniques from movies, stories, and TV series that call themselves horror or suspense. Take notes on your players’ reactions. Play with the parts that seem to frighten people more, then move on to another technique before people get used to the one that worked. You can always bring it back later, but don’t wear it out.

Scaring the Characters

All of this so far has been oriented at evoking an audience-level reaction from your players. Usually this inherently means you’re scaring the characters, so you don’t have to worry all that much about the characters themselves. Sometimes, however, you want to pay a little more attention to the characters. The more you frighten the characters, the stronger a reaction you evoke in the players.

There’s a two-step process that comes in handy here. First, you need to have players who come up with characters that are more than just numbers on paper. Characters need to have personalities in order to get scared of more than just the sorts of things that scare everyone. In fact, it really helps if they have background and history. Bad past events in their lives may provide the basis for future fears.

That provides the second step: pay attention to those personalities, those histories, those backgrounds. If you have the kind of players who write up character backgrounds, get copies of these papers. These notes should give you an idea of how to frighten the characters. Also make note of anything traumatic that happens to characters during the course of your game, and let things come back to haunt them later. It may help to commission one of your players to take time, ask him to type up a quick synopsis for you. It doesn’t have to be detailed; a two-page bullet-list will do. This can refresh your memory any time you want to pull on a character’s experiences.

Characters That Don’t Feel Fear

If you know you’re going to play around with horror when you start a campaign or chronicle, then pay attention to the characters your players create. Don’t let anyone state up front that their character isn’t afraid of anything (explicitly or implicitly). It’s really going to break your mood to have someone acting completely normal in the middle of your scare-fest. And since it’s much easier for a player to play someone who isn’t frightened of anything than it is for anyone to actually be unafraid of everything, it’s an unfair advantage anyway.

You have a few options. You can talk to the player about the concept of “not afraid of anything” being a relative thing. Make sure they understand that this simply means their character has yet to find anything he’s afraid of, or that he won’t admit it when things frighten him. It’s best to do this with a player you know and trust to roleplay well. It can be amazing to run a story in which even the big, strong guy is slowly and inexorably forced to face his hidden terrors.

You can instead introduce a mechanic into the game that pushes fear reactions on a character. Some players handle this better than others; some games come with such things built in. This starts to muck with the free will issue though, so be careful with it.

Or you could simply tell your player that it’s unrealistic for a character to be defined as being unafraid of anything, and tell them to rewrite that paragraph of their background. I’m not a big fan of dictating people’s character choices, but the entire concept of horror rests upon the assumption that people can be frightened. Otherwise it just doesn’t work. If someone’s big on keeping their no-fear character, maybe you should talk to them a little more about whether they’re really willing to play in a horror game; they seem to be trying awfully hard to take the horror out of your horror, after all.

The “B-Movie” Syndrome

Unfortunately it’s all-too-easy for horror to slide into unwanted comedy. This happens when some aspect of the horror or the way in which it’s presented strikes a player as ridiculous. You crafted a scene to draw out gasps of terror, and instead it elicits guffaws or giggles. This is what with movies we often call a “B Movie”–a horror movie where something (the special effects, the dialogue, the costumes, the acting) is so overdone (or in other ways ridiculous), presumably because of a low budget, that we can’t help but laugh at it, even though the movie-makers obviously didn’t expect a laugh.

This is a tough one, as everyone has a different idea of where horror slides over into the ridiculous. My first bit of advice is to ramp up slowly when you decide to play with horror. Don’t jump headfirst into full-blown fear plots. Don’t immediately drape the entire room in black, turn the creepy music on, and hold a flashlight under your face. Introduce elements one at a time into your game or gaming room. Move slowly and carefully. If someone giggles when they aren’t supposed to, ease back a bit. Try to figure out whether it was what you were presenting or the way in which you presented it that made them laugh.

Be comfortable with what you’re presenting. Don’t push yourself to delve into matters that embarrass you; the players will most likely pick up on it. Whether they’re amused at your embarrassment or simply picking up a little of it themselves, it’ll make the giggles worse.

Sometimes players just can’t handle serious subject matter. They feel it necessary to break any serious mood with a joke or wisecrack. If you have someone like this in your group, you might be better off not running a horror campaign with them in it. Otherwise you’ll almost inevitably feel like you’re directing a very “B” movie. You might try talking with them one-on-one about it, however. If after that you really think they can handle it, then give it a try. Be ready to back off if it doesn’t work out.

Remember, though, that not every laugh is a bad one, not every joke breaks the mood, and not everyone who cracks a smile is ruining your campaign or just “not getting it.” Many people joke and laugh when faced with fear, horror, or depression; it’s a natural way of handling a very intense mood that may be a little much for them. It’s a way to defuse the tension. If someone cracks a joke then smile, go along with it, and try to steer things gently back to where they should be. (Take it as a compliment, in fact — it means you’ve really made them tense!) You might take it as a sign that it’s time for a little break, and go to the kitchen for another slice of pizza (particularly if you have trouble getting things back on track). If you find that your players need to defuse the tension like this fairly often, then you should think about slipping some lighter moments into your horror now and then. It’s much better if the “break” can happen in-game rather than as a distraction.

Posted in Gaming, Writing

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