Your fingers poke through the wallpaper that was hiding a worn, wooden door that doesn’t match the rest of the house. The iron skeleton key that was wedged between two bricks out in the backyard fits tightly in the keyhole, giving a satisfying click as it is turned. Up to this point, the house has been completely void of any strange noises or unexplained events that were described by the landlord, but you can hear a faint sob coming from the other side of the door. Bracing yourself, you open the door that releases a blast of cold air that extinguishes your lantern, leaving you in pitch black darkness until you have a chance to strike a match and relight it. From the constant draft, you can sense the new opening leads down into a cellar. The sobbing immediately stops, but a few familiar sounds are heard in the darkness down there. A glass bottle rolling across the floor, a few small pieces of metal falling onto the floor, and repeated water droplets into a pool are all that’s heard. By now, the lantern is relit, and you confirm the stairs lead down….much farther than your imagination had perceived.
Movies have ruined the ability of being scared by entertainment. I know that is a bold statement many would disagree with, but it is in a sense very true. Simply compare a horror movie of the 1920s to a movie that came out in the last 10 years and you will see the obvious difference. No adult living today would find the 1941 The Wolf Man to be scary in the least bit. In fact, it would be nearly comical in some aspects. Movies today have considerably different approaches to horror, and it’s not as if filmmakers are becoming more attuned to scarier subjects. We are all becoming immune to horror. Our minds adapt to situations, and given a situation long enough, we either completely shut down our minds to suppress it, or we adapt to the situation and learn on how to not let it bother us. Over time, we become accustomed to horror movies of the past and they affect us less. Can you imagine how someone would feel if they saw a movie from today back in the 1930s? They might become physically ill from the overwhelming sensation of the extreme horror on the screen, yet today we would casually watch it on our couches at home.
Now having said all that, bring that theory over to role playing games. Our minds fuel our fears. However, most role playing games, even the horror-themed systems, are played with a sense of safety both in-game and out. We are typically sitting around a table or in a living room, eating foods, drinking beverages, maybe even having the TV playing in the background. We are among friends, which gives everyone a sense of safety being in numbers. The typical atmosphere we play role playing games in is the same atmosphere as when we watch our favorite TV show on Thursday nights. Even when we attempt to change that atmosphere a bit, turning the lights down low, turning up eerie music, etc., we still are among friends and have the sense that we are still in our home and relatively safe. We can also tack onto this situation with our adult knowledge that monsters don’t exist.
So it may be nearly impossible to create a mood among players to bring out a sense of fear or dread that reflects their game play. I enjoy running Call of Cthulhu games whenever I can because I enjoy the creepy feeling I can force my mind into experiencing whenever I play. However, it is because I want to be scared while playing the game that allows me to feel that way. When I run a horror-based game at a convention, it really is a challenge to give players that experience that sets that genre from any other. There are a few obvious tips that can enhance and encourage them to get into the mood, but going the extra mile with some not-so-obvious methods can really make a difference.
Turn off all lights in the entire house. For your light source, use the smallest electric or battery-powered lantern you can find. The best is using electric candles unless you want to go the route of actual candles, which can be a little cheaper. Don’t go overboard. The goal with illumination is for you to be able to glance at your character sheet and not have to wait for your eyes to adjust to looking at the paper. Keep the shadows thick in the room.
Use background music. Not the campy crap we used to hear playing in the bushes during Halloween. Select orchestrate music that is specifically written for horror that is not easily recognized. If it has sound effects, use them sparingly. Repetition that is recognized or picked up by our ears will lose mood because it becomes familiar to us, which then removes the unknown fear of what’s going to happen next. Instead, consider using music that is not understandable, perhaps songs that are on an extreme end of a particular obscure genre that sounds alien to the untrained ear. If the song makes you feel uncomfortable hearing it, you’ll be more on edge during game play.
Drink adult beverages before gameplay. This is to be taken within consideration because of the obvious subject. However, when we have had alcohol introduced into the blood stream, it affects our senses, and it can sometimes heighten them a bit. We begin to focus more closely to things we typically ignore, and we ignore just about everything else during that point. It does have the potential to lower our fears by increasing our courage level, so it is not recommended for everyone.
The Not-So Obvious
And maybe all of these are obvious to you. Some of these are beyond the effort that a typical GM wishes to put forth.
Use Bluetooth to create random sounds throughout the house/venue. Keeping in mind that repetition is bad, station speakers throughout the house, even in the game room, that can be triggered by a computer, phone, or software program to create a sound at a specific time. Control it from the GM’s fingertips or use a timer program to play them at certain moments, but don’t play them on loop! You don’t even have to use creepy sound effects. One year I ran a Cthulhu game at a convention, they put us in the hotel’s kitchen because they were overbooked on space. The huge fridge made people jump when it kicked in (but only the first couple of times until we got used to it).
Have a mole in the group. This is only a one-shot occurrence, but you can have the group experience a moment of fear by having one of the players excuse themselves to use the restroom. However, have the individual sneak out the backdoor or even through a window, or simply hide in another place of the house. After a while, someone checks the bathroom to find no one there. Ultimately the group begins exploring the house to find their friend, who can then slip back to the game table, slightly hunched over, in the dark motionless. When they return to the room, since the lights are off, they will see the dark figure, and although it’s clearly their friend, it still gives them a moment of fright. Even more, although they may laugh it off afterwards, it remains in their mind and possibly can leave them on edge.
When it comes to turning off the lights, flip the breaker, don’t manually turn every light off in the house. It takes too long, and the breaker prevents anyone chickening out when they go to the bathroom and turn the light on. Those who need to use the restroom must take a single candle with them. Think about the last time the power went out and you had to navigate throughout the house with a small light source. We know we are safe, but our imagination still tries to battle with our senses and gives us wonder if we saw or heard something just over there in the shadows.
Your words as a GM are also more important in a horror themed game. Choose your words more carefully. Do research and read portions (or all) of different horror authors. See the differences in their descriptions and find a style that fits you best. Don’t be afraid to change your tempo of speaking either. Listen to a recording of Vincent Price as he reads, say, The Raven. Compared to an interview, he deliberately slows his words down to sound more methodic and sinister. Draw out some words as if in pain as you speak.
Running a proper horror role playing game takes a bit of practice and some preparation. It shouldn’t be approached like a typical fantasy-based game because different emotions are played into it. Expose yourself to things that scare you and take note with how you feel, your breathing, heart rate, etc. Know your players and their fears. If they are afraid in real life of spiders, throw those in the game. Their characters may not have the fears, but good luck role playing that when the GM planted the seed in your mind of one of your darkest fears.
Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with. Thanks for stopping by.