Part 2 of 2: by Ferret Baudoin
Your verbal presentation as a story-teller matters a lot for horror. I try to play it very level – almost Blair Witch style. I’m a scientist describing the scene to you. I speak softly and I never go for the cheap laugh. I try to get a little frightened myself. Some of the best horror moments come from GM improv, I find, in the moment I’ll think of something and throw it in. But some GMs work better being fully prepared.
But back to the adventure…
So the mood is there and it’s time for the monster or “object of horror” to start making his/her/its presence felt. I prefer to keep the monster under wraps until I absolutely can’t any more. So mess with the players indirectly. Maybe it throws a severed head. Maybe it kills the lights. Maybe it hits somebody with something virulent. Lots of possibilities. It can be all right for the monster to interact directly – but no one should get a clear look. If you have NPCs along with the PCs, maybe mess with them more drastically – disappear one of them. If there are red shirt NPCs with you, then feel free to kill one of them horribly. I highly recommend having at least some NPCs with the PC for horror segments because they can lend human voice to the mood, and allow you to participate.
After building the horror, then you need the release. The big bad monster comes out. It should have a couple of ghastly tricks up its sleeve. Also, in those sorts of segments I feel all right with not playing entirely fair. Creepy monsters should have abilities that aren’t in any book. Sometimes on the fly I’ll nudge it’s abilities to provide more drama. As long as it’s consistent with previously established evidence, it my not be Queensbury Rules – but it’s fair game.
At the end of the day the heroes are triumphant, and perhaps still a little scared. Sometimes it’s all right to throw in another beat. A surprise. It comes back. But that is clichéd. I occasionally go with it, but it works best after establishing a track record of really killing monsters the first time. So that when this time it lunges back out, people are in for a shock.
I like horror in pen and paper, and I find every now and then I throw in some tiny elements of it on the fly. It makes the world feel more uncertain, that scary things could happen if the players drift off the beaten path. That not everything is explained in the Monster Manual. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t go as planned. After an embarrassing number of years GMing I’d say I get a 50% batting average for actually pulling horror off. But even the failures break up the standard session. If your players are willing to work with you a bit, I bet you’ll find it rewarding regardless.
Oh, and boo.
Ferret Baudoin is a lead designer at BioWare. He’s worked as a designer at Cyberlore, Black Isle, and Obsidian. His plan is not to take over the world. So don’t pay attention to the silently encroaching mustelid army. Bwahaha.