Horror in roleplaying games can be an incredibly rewarding experience, but it’s sometimes tough for people to fully deliver on. It’s shockingly simple for a session that was intended to deliver plenty of spooks to become incredibly dull. However, with careful planning and a few simple tricks, the terror can be real and can shake your players’ nerves in incredibly ways.
Here are some tips that have worked for me.
The Exorcist wasn’t built in a day…
The most important step is also the first: Planning. Horror requires a lot of steps be taken to prepare for choices and decisions the group could make, so careful and intense planning is KEY. Many of the things that are required to really keep the players on edge are not things that are easy to improvise. Not saying they’re necessarily impossible, but they are definitely tough to just manifest on a whim. Take plenty of time to prep and really think about your plan as it develops. Does it cause you tension thinking about it? Does it seem scary? Most importantly, have you prepped alternatives for different decisions the players could make? Never just assume a group will follow along with a predetermined path. As any GM will tell you, they rarely do, so have things in place to motivate them into the situations or directions you want them to go or have other options available in case they miss something altogether.
The demons are in the details
In any horror story, it’s important to have some sort of focal point, whether it be the locale or the antagonist, that is fleshed out in extreme detail. You want to be able to describe anything that is central to your story in extreme, microscopic detail. The more detail, the more the focal points of your story are gonna feel real and truly grounded in the minds of the players. Suddenly, an unreachable fantasy becomes realistic in all its sights and smells. Having plenty of details is absolutely critical to all the following stages and is the best way to lend credibility to the places and things that are central to your story. However, don’t overly detail every single thing. Mundane items or unimportant NPCs can be more generic and less involved, that’s okay. The point is you want there to be things that stand out in the mind of the player. Granted, this is a valuable tip for any sort of story-building, but it is absolutely vital here.
Tension trumps entrails
One common pitfall in horror campaigns, and really horror stories in general, is to immediately rely on shock over tension or fear. Gore, excessive swearing, taboo topics, etc. are all often used to incite gasps of distress instead of any lasting dread. As such, you want to focus on tools that will allow you to build a world that generally feels dangerous. Using the planning and details from earlier, you want to build a world that lacks comfort and safety, wherein the players have no choice but to keep moving unless some horrid monstrosity find them cowering in a corner. The goal needs to be building a haunting anxiety over just quick throwaway scares. Things like jumpscares or gory scenarios can add flavor and excitement, but they should not be the focus. Also, completely avoid diving into anything too horribly triggering like rape or harm to children unless it’s used to add a layer of tragedy to the antagonist or the setting. Don’t use them simply for shock, as they can completely tear away immersion. As for excessive swearing, avoid it. Something I’ve noticed when reading amateur horror stories online or watching indie horror movies is people seem to think getting into a scary situation and having a character drop a few hundred f-bombs is a great way of expressing how scared someone is. In my opinion it just seems forced and less natural. Protect the player’s immersion and avoid it.
Death around every corner
As I said, we want the players to feel unsafe. As such, don’t be afraid to have something that is unbeatable in your campaign. A random creature, the main antagonist, a trap of some kind, whatever fits the bill. Give the players ample hints that this is NOT something they want to fight. Truthfully, in most of these games, there will always be players that default to combat 99.99% of the time. For that reason, having something they can’t wail on until it stops moving will help remove the more skeptically immersed player. One time in a Star Wars campaign, I had a character that was supposed to be an “Oh God, who the hell is that, ruuuuuuuun!” kinda guy. He was the brainwashed enforcer of a chaos-worshiping cultist and he wore a mask that looked like a Rancor. He rolls in, starts deftly cutting down heavily armed dudes and easily sidesteps an explosion. Everyone on the PC team was all for running…. except one. So, we rolled initiative and I padded his dice pool a bit. He struck, luckily activating a crit, which I random rolled on the chart as a lost limb. So essentially, one PC is all “we can take this guy” and then instantly lost a leg (which was more luck than anything). They went straight back to running. Granted, I did not make this guy unbeatable, he was just a higher level than they were, but the lucky roll of him easily slicing her limb off created the unbeatable feel that amped up the stress of the situation. Do not be afraid to make something indestructible or at least highly damaging. Some players may feel it’s unfair, but if you give them ample opportunity to see that it could easily tear through them, and they still choose to fight it, then they can only blame themselves.
Tick Tock, Clarice.
When in doubt, put a timer on decision making or skill checks. Monster right behind them and they have two path options? Give them 30 seconds to tell you which they choose. If different players choose different routes, so be it. Some of the most panicked I’ve seen players is when I’m telling them they have only a handful of seconds to decide if picking a lock or climbing out a window is the right way to go. This is admittedly a concept stolen right out of video games, such as Until Dawn or Resident Evil, where a quicktime event will demand a choice be made in a short amount of time or the result will be instant death. It’s an effective tool that drums up tension in particularly quick moments. When PCs are running away or something is trying to get into a room. When there is a sense of panic, essentially, you don’t want to sacrifice the adrenaline on waiting for a PC to weigh their options. Tell them they have a limited amount of time and let them go with their gut. You’re welcome to tell them the exact amount or just infer that they only have a certain amount. It’s to the point now that at my table, all I have to do is fiddle with my phone during panic moments and they know exactly what is coming. Just make sure you stick to it. If you tell them they have a minute to get out of a room and they falter, then something negative happens. I wouldn’t insta-kill them all, but they may have to fight something they aren’t prepared for they may take damage, they may lose something they need. Also, be sure to compensate for dice rolling when timing. It’s not fair to lose seconds because you’re waiting for someone to grab a d20, roll said d20, look at d20, wait for eyes to focus on small numbers, interpret those numbers, state those numbers, GM cross-reference those numbers to the DC, and then GM narrates the failure. Have some padding in place for stuff like that, or start and stop the timer. However you prefer.
A true spooky tale is only as good as the immersion the players feel, so do what you can to make the outside of the game feel as spooky as the inside. I have known a lot of GMs who disagree with me on the atmosphere of the world outside the game, opting to reuse the same music for combat and non-combat whereas I pick specific songs to loop during specific environments and encounters. First time I ran a horror game, we actually turned all the lights out and played by candle and small lantern light. I tend to wear black when I run horror campaigns, and I pick particularly spooky music. I also utilize loops of horror sound effects, which are all over youtube and fairly easily found. Again, it’s about making sure the PCs have as little reprieve from the scary as they can, so really make the world outside less of an escape as well. Go as crazy with it as you like, invest in Halloween decorations, hold the session in an ACTUAL haunted house, pay someone to jump out of a closet at a random point dressed like the spooky antagonist. Whatever gets the spooks into the physical plane.
Trial and Terror
Ultimately, with anything in this hobby, the first time may not go well. So, try again and adapt. Start off with very specifically horror campaigns or settings. I HIGHLY recommend getting your hands on a physical or PDF copy of Dread, which has some wonderfully detailed tips on creating and running a horror game. It also does a generally great job with keeping the tension going by eschewing dice for a Jenga tower. Absolutely great horror system and worth experiencing at least once.
In the end, while it can take a lot of preparation, it all boils down to trying it and seeing what works with you and your group. Give it a go and see what sticks. Horror campaigns are incredibly rewarding, often have some of the best narrative moments and are just generally tons of fun. Whether it’s a one off session, a rules-light system or a full on adventure, I highly recommend everyone try to add some horror to their gaming table at some point.
And hopefully the scariest thing WON’T be the dice rolls….