A Horror Role Playing Primer

It’s late September, and that means October is right around the corner.  Or, in other

words, it’s the perfect time to begin preparing those give-your-players-nightmares

games on Halloween Night.  Horror RPGs are filled with.. well.. horror stories of how

the whole thing went wrong.  Players feel railroaded into the plot.  Characters die or

become unplayably insane far too easily, or the opposite occurs and the characters blow

through the horrors of the scenario and never feel any sense of danger.  Of all the

various genres of roleplaying, Horror is one of the most tricky to master.  Today, I’ll

share a few of the techniques I’ve learned over the years and hopefully help you give

your player’s sleepless nights jumping at shadows.

I like to use a cinematic approach to horror roleplaying.  That is, I study scary

movies.  What’s more, I’ve tried to study *why* these movies are scary.  Players, like

the audience in a dark theatre will experience the story (and thus, the terror) through

the characters they are invested in. And that becomes my first point.

#1 – Invest Your Players in the Game
This one is a simple goal, and often easily overlooked.  Whether it is in a Role-

Playing-Game, Novel, or Movie, if your audience doesn’t connect with the characters,

then they could very easily dismiss the events around them, and could end up very bored

over the course of the evening.  So, make sure everyone involved with the game is in

agreement as to the type of game being presented.  Establish that this is a horror

game, and more importantly, what style of horror is being presented.  Creating Colonial

Space Marines for an Aliens Scenario takes a different mindset than creating a team of

investigators snooping around a decaying New England town or a troupe of Vampire

Hunters stalking a centuries-old horror.  It’s ok at this point to reveal the setting,

if not the plot.  But the important thing here is to work with the players in creating

characters they want to play, and characters that the players will care about, even if

everyone understands that these characters could very well be doomed.

#2 – It’s all about the journey, not the destination
Which is a fancy way of saying that the fun of a horror role-playing game is not

necessarily succeeding, but the fun lies in experiencing the story.  This requires some

preparation work on the GM’s part.  Actually, it requires a LOT of preparation on the

GM’s part.  Antagonists in Horror stories are often so overpowering that they could

snuff the life out of the protagonists without much effort.  But that makes for a short

and very unsatisfying story.  As GM it’s your job to draw the characters in.  Lead them

along a path of mystery until the characters are in way over their heads, but won’t

realize it until it’s too late.    The pacing of the game is critical.  Build the

dramatic tension, raise the stakes continually.  Give the characters early challenges

that they can overcome before giving them a humbling encounter.  Leave clues, tease the

players with glimpses of the prize they could earn should they succeed, as well as the

consequences which await failure.

#3 – Isolation
This is very important to increasing the dramatic tension in the game.  The characters

have to be separated from their support network as well as be forced to rely only on

each other.  This can be accomplished in various ways, but my favorites are Physical

and Social Isolation.  With Physical Isolation, the characters are physically removed

from any help they can ask for.  Maybe they’re on a distant world, light-years from

anyone, except for the terrors creeping up on them.  Or maybe they’re all trapped in a

mansion, and the bridge is washed out.  Physical Isolation provides two very powerful

fear effects; being helpless, and being trapped.  Social Isolation can be much more

subtle.  In this case the characters are isolated because they are “outsiders”.  Maybe

they don’t speak the language, maybe they’re shunned because the locals don’t trust or

like people different from themselves.  Social Isolation can really stir up feelings of

alienation and ultimately paranoia, especially if it is perceived that the entire

community could possibly be working with the antagonist(s), or worse.. turn out to BE

the antagonists themselves.  Social Isolation also caters to an excellent technique of

presenting a single NPC as sympathetic.  This NPC is someone the characters can quickly

come to care about, and feel responsible for.  And ultimately, become someone the GM

can threaten, kill, or turn to increase the tension in the game.

#4 – Play to your characters’ weaknesses
Be careful interpreting this point.  Players don’t often enjoy feeling like their

characters are useless, or worse hopeless.  In this case, GMs need to avoid allowing

the characters strengths to dominate the story.  Or most importantly, GMs must avoid

allowing a single character’s strength to dominate the story.  The characters’

strengths shoud take them only so far.  At some point the characters will have to rely

on and overcome their weaknesses to survive.  Which builds dramatic tension as the

players understand that their character’s fate is unsure at best.

#5 – Mise en Scène
It’s a theatre term!  It’s French!  Including French theatre terms makes the blog look

classy!  Simply put, Mise en Scène describes all of the elements placed in the

character’s perception.  When setting a scene for your players, think about evertything

they can perceive.  The environment, lighting, sights, sounds and smells.  Extend this

to NPCs, and how they look, smell and sound.  Describe it all in detail.  A trick I

like to use is to describe a scene with audio and visual descriptors last.  Leading off

a scene description with smell, or taste, or feel gets your players’ imaginations

running, and the ability of people to scare themselves is far more effective than any

outside stimulus.

#6 Don’t tell them everything at first
Leave a lot of mystery in your descriptions.  Let the players’ own imagination fill in

the details.  It’s never “the Necronomicon”, it’s “an ancient stack of crumbling

papers, bound in rough leather, bearing dark stains and smelling of decay and mold”.

The first description tells too much (because even if the players don’t know what a

Necronomicon is, they have a name for it and that breeds a comforting familiarity), the

second description invites the players to examine the item further, drawing their

characters in to the mystery.  Don’t describe monsters by their common names.  Describe

the monster, let the players “see” it in their minds, rather than think about an entry

in a Bestiary.

There are other tricks and tips, of course.  But these six should help get an aspiring

GM started on running excursions into the Weird and Mysterious.  As of today (September

21, 2012) Summer is ending, and Autumn is starting.  The nights will grow longer, and

shadows grow deeper.  Now, grab some dice, turn down the lights and scare someone at

the game table!


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