Part 1 of 2: by Ferret Baudoin
Horror in pen and paper games is hard. It’s like math. But both are worth mastering. Especially mathematical horror. Some systems are centered firmly on horror, but this meandering blog is more for the gamemaster out there that wants to add some scary spice to his traditional fantasy campaign. The techniques outlined below aren’t the only way, but they are a way and it seems to have worked for me. On with the blog.
The number one key ingredient to running a good horror session is the same ingredient necessary for running any good session in my book: the players. Really good players can have an entertaining evening fighting their way out of a paper bag. But sadly, even a good gaming group may have troubles with horror. Why? Because horror requires mood and patience. Combat-focused players might very well find a well-executed horror segment to be boring. Or players that are more focused on rules. Role-players like horror the best. And even if your play group is up for the challenge a stray Monty Python reference can derail everything.
So all those caveats aside, how do you do it? I’m a great believer in Alfred Hitchcock’s style of horror. A monster is much scarier when you never see it. So if you hear the monster’s ominous heavy breathing, when you see the torn apart remains of a once valiant hero, or when the monster skitters around out of sight (a la Aliens) that’s scary. That philosophy flavors everything below.
So step one for me is setting the stage. It helps me when beginning to visit the dark spooky places in my own head – how I felt at 10 watching Poltergeist late at night, the boogeyman that lived under the stairs, or other stuff that unnerved me. Then I try and think of way to steal those techniques or ways to invoke fear and bring it into a game. Ideally, your own idea is something that you could get a little frightened of, too, when playing – fear is contagious, after all. So an eerie old town. Or trapped in some confined space. I ran a recent session where the PCs were locked inside a dwarvish tunnel – because every dwarven warparty that went in to investigate the mineshaft hadn’t returned, and they didn’t want whatever was in there getting out.
So you have the physical locale, great. The next stage is planning on how you’ll build up tension. It’s best to start small and build. Economy of words in your description can really help, because you’re really judo-ing your players into making them scare themselves. So give enough description to carry the mood and make sure everyone is roughly on the same page and then stop. Briefly describe the bloody trail ending up with a severed hand. Intone the words written with a bloody shaky hand on the wall, “Lord protect me, Lord protect me…” written over and over. Just find creepy things.
Be careful about throwing in enemies to fight at this stage, because a good battle will really change the emotional mood of the session. It’ll feel comfortable and normal. So you’ll have to build up the tension again afterwards. That being said, for a long stretch of horror a good fight or two is critical to give the players an emotional break. For the timing on that it works best to have a fight during or right after a big spooky reveal.
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.