November marks NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Last year I met the goal to write 50,000 words of a story by the end of the month and this year I hope to do it again (although that doesn’t seem likely as this point). This year my focus is on a short story, maybe two as time allows. At the moment I am on the edit stage of the first, a supernatural horror about a young girl who made friends with the monsters haunting her in the night. Not wanting to ignore my Nerdarchist work for all of November I decided this would be a great opportunity to write an article about how to apply horror to your game.
For the sake of this article I chose a specific vocabulary to relay my advice. You may not agree with my word choice but the heart of the message is still there. The English language offers a plethora of descriptive words that imply slight variations in meaning that can be debated all day long. I chose key words simply to classify specific ideas but they are not limited to a single interpretation. Feel free to reword my categorical terms however you want. Onward to the article!
An atmosphere of horror
Lets talk horror. Sustaining suspense through a game session is one of the hardest tasks a Game Master can accomplish. It takes careful insight into the world you have created and a steady hand on atmosphere. Also you need to know your players and their characters. The more you know the more you can manipulate. Without visual aids to make your horror you have to rely on the group’s collective imagination. However, if you do it well your game could be far more frightening than any horror movie.
Atmosphere is described as the prevailing mood or tone of a place, situation or work of art.
People often think of atmosphere as simply lighting candles, turning down the lights and putting on a spooky soundtrack but it is so much more than that. It is everything in your game. To maintain a sense of dread there are four things you should consider: environment, tone, pacing, and description. Thoughtful manipulation of these four elements will create atmosphere. Your physical environment can be enhanced with music, lighting, props and more. These enhancements help to set the tone of the game, as does your pace and description. Through well maintained pacing the game will travel deeper into terror while in-depth details will create a real world full of danger. Applying all of your elements with a deft hand will immerse your players in fear.
You enter a room illuminated by a single light, its dim bulb flickering. The heat of the room burrows into you immediately. You pull off your coat as you feel your shirt dampen with sweat. A sound like wind through an empty tunnel fills the room. You assume it is coming from outside, then you notice the set of speakers on a bookshelf, a prop you have never seen before. Out of them spills a soundtrack of drips, creaks and groans, the kind of noises you expect to hear in crumbling old house. The table is mostly empty. This is odd- usually game books rest in piles that threatens to topple off the table edge. Snacks and drink, which typically leave little space to roll dice, are absent tonight. At this time the GM normally hides behind his screen pouring over the encounters he has prepared. Instead he sit quietly, observing you, waiting for the question that has likely been asked many times already.
“What is going on?” You ask as your attention is drawn to the only thing on the table. A wobbling tower made of rectangular blocks.
Setting up a place where the real world slightly resembles your in-game world is an easy way to pull in players. Environment is all about immersion and there is no better way to make something real than to use the five senses. Introduce subtle smells. Play low ambient music. Dim the lights. Give them small objects representing things the characters find in the game. Hell, bake them a cake.
Implement as many of these elements as you need. The environment is a tool to bring life to your game. Use it as you will. You do not have to change the physical world to run an immerse game, but just a little tweak can go a long way.
Save time by creating an environment that mirrors tone or allows for easier description. When your players step into a dark room and you hand them each a flashlight, this tells them that the game will likely be in a place where the only light they have are these cheap flashlights. If your game takes place in a cave find a soundtrack of cave noises. You can even use the table and game books as props. Be creative, look at your environment and see how it can serve your needs.
Enthusiasm is great but it is possible to do too much. Knowing your players is key because your attempt to change the environment could turn wrong fast. If they are easily distracted, don’t give them props. Music should be subtle or your run the risk of players listening to it more than they listen to you. Consider fears and health risks as well. Someone with asthma probably shouldn’t have to breath in incense and a player with a crippling fear of spiders won’t appreciate the appearance of your pet tarantula. Environment is about immersion, not distraction, so use it with care. If you notice something becoming a problem remove it. However it is better to leave a potential distraction out of the game than it is to take it away. I must state the importance of safety and awareness of health risks. Nothing ruins a game faster than a trip to the hospital.
The doors creek open revealing a massive hallway. Daylight pours into the building chasing away the shadows, revealing rotting wood and moldering carpet. The entrance hall is sparsely varnished. A few pictures hang on tilted frames, their contents brown and difficult to make out. Cracked vases sit on wobbly desks, their contents nothing but dried husks that may have once been flowers.
You step through the threshold. The sound of your footsteps disappears quickly, swallowed by the house for daring to venture too deep. You look back at your friends to see your uncertainty mirrored on their faces. With what looks like resignation to their final fate your friends began to enter, one by one. Once everyone is inside the doors creak and then slam shut. The daylight fades into a sliver before it is shut out and the house plunges into darkness.
With a little adjustment to environment you hint at the tone of the game. Tone splits itself into two distinct points, story and scene. The tone of the story is an overarching theme that directs the feel of the game. It may be a single word: helplessness, darkness, solitude. Or it could be a concept or phrase: the end of the world, what happens behind closed doors.
Expand your theme with questions, each question becoming a scene. Use scenes to highlight and possibly shift the over all tone. This is the time to experiment with different elements of the same tone. How do you convey helplessness a little bit differently in each scene? How does the balance of power change as the story goes on?
Impart a sense of helplessness with a single scene early in the game. Perhaps a mentor, sheriff or archmage is murdered while the characters can only watch. If this character, who should represent the safety of the rational mind, can’t stop the threat, then what hope do they have? As the story comes to a close they find themselves able to encounter their mentor’s murderer. Through the power of plot they are able to render the creature powerless, leaving the character to deal with it however they want. The monster squeals and writhes as they bludgeon it to death. Helplessness has shifted from the creature to the characters. The game closes with a final question “who is the real monster?”
Each scene should reflect the overall tone while highlighting minor changes. This is still horror so no matter how the tone shifts the characters should spend most of the game in a place of fear. The threat of their impending death should linger around every corner. Not every game will end with the characters overcoming the danger, but each should end with a question, not an answer. Cliffhangers are a staple in horror, and for good reason. Even with the story closed, have the characters really overcome the threat? How have things changed? Can they return to a normal life? Was it all worth the sacrifice?
Game systems do a lot to inform tone. It is hard to convince players not to battle the ghoul in a game like Dungeons & Dragons. As well, it is difficult to convey the threat of a single creature when the characters are a walking arsenal. If the goal is the struggle to survive then consider your game system. If the characters have a bunch of spells at the ready they will feel like the threat cannot touch them. Either limit their resources, or use a different game. The latter is prudent; it is always easier to add things to the game then it is to take things away. That being said it is not impossible to run a horror game in D&D or other character-empowered systems. You need to do plenty of homework. Understanding the ins and outs of rules allows you to shape them to meet your needs. The more you know a game the easier it is to break it.
Tone shapes expectation. Actions have consequences and proper foreshadowing will help players anticipate the risk. Danger should have a precursor and power should have a cost. When characters are confronted with the mist outside their door or the book made of human flesh they should be wondering “is it dangerous, is it worth the risk?” Solid description is key. Proper pacing and descriptive imagery will set the tone in effective way. In short tone is wrapped up in everything you do. With every decision you make be mindful of how it enhances, or undercuts, your tone.
Shattering glass comes from the floor below as you and your companion dive around a corner. You dare a glance back. A black mass leaps over the banister, crashing into a wall. Splinters of wood shower the air, unnoticed by your pursuer. It sets glowing yellow eyes on you and charges.
You grab your friend and run. He breathes heavily, trying to keep up. His hand slips from your grasp and before you know it you have outpaced him. You look back to see him, several feet behind you, the black mass looming over him. Before you can react your friend lets out a horrifying shriek. A mass of fur swarms around him, his shriek reduced to a single muffled note before it ends. The only sound is a ripping sound, and a liquid gurgle.
Hot tears streak your face as you flee. Your muscles burn but you dare not stop. Your friend died so you could live, best not waste his sacrifice. A door stands open just ahead and heavy stomping comes from behind. Ducking inside, you shut the door quickly but quietly. You move a bookshelf in front of it for good measure. Hopefully that will be enough.
With your back against the bookshelf you try to calm your nerves. Steadying your breathing helps a little. After a few seconds you have yourself under control, but if your breaths are small and shallow then who is panting so heavily?
Proper pacing keeps the game moving forward. Pace goes hand in hand with tone to inform you players about the world and how to respond to it. Danger should be represented in a way that forces them to think, plan and act. How they approach the threat, when to make a rash decision and when to plan, when to run and when to hide are all cued by your pacing. By plotting the pace of the game you will discover the proper moment for the reveal, which is an extremely important tool in your horror toolbox.
Like tone, pace is split into multiple parts. Story has its own pacing, but so do the individual scenes. Horror stories often follows a formulaic pattern and work perfectly for three act storytelling. Act one is where we introduce our characters, get to know them and hopefully like them. Also there is the thing they are doing, which eventually leads to the threat. If we are headed to a haunted house, this is where we see it. The first act is usually pretty light but full of sinister undertones and foreshadowing.
Moving into act two we reveal that something weird is going on. This is when the characters discover the book bound in human flesh. We are only hinting at the threat here. Maybe some characters are in danger (depending on the type of story we are telling) but usually this is where there is a lot of running and screaming.
Act three starts with the reveal. This is when we truly see the face of danger. The characters are forced to confront the real threat and will succeed or die trying, leading to the conclusion of the story.
You do not need to follow this formula by any means but splitting your game into acts will help you structure the pacing so that you know what should appear when. Feel free to play with these elements, lengthen act two, or cut it out completely, put your reveal at the beginning and make an action packed fear fest. No matter the route you approach to your narrative direction everything should work to build tension, drama and ultimately dread.
Scenes should also have their own pacing. A chase should be told quickly, with a sense of urgency. Describe the things around them, but don’t give them time to react. A moment of perceived safety will slow down, giving the character and the player time to process what has happened. Let the players know what is present. Let them explore, ask questions and gather information. Then, when they feel like they are safe and they have everything worked out, drop into a whisper as you describe the creaking of the floorboards behind them. Then a face appears from the darkness and a hand reaches out grasping one of them before it pulls them into the darkness, never to be seen again. Scenes should be a roller coaster with tense or dramatics moments cut with short moments of perceived safety.
There should be a few moments throughout the game where the actions slows down. The threat seems to abate and the characters can breath. These lulls are for the players’ benefit as well as yours. Tensions will be high and everyone needs a moment to think. A game run on pure adrenaline might be fun, but it is not sustainable for hours at a time. Take out of game breaks as needed so the players can process the information they have been given in a stress free environment. Allow the characters to do the same, except they should never truly be safe. Every in-game moment should drip with dread.
You kneel over the crumpled form of a girl whose name you can’t even recall. Her once blonde hair sticks to her face, matted with red liquid that only darkens with each passing second. Her skin is almost luminescent in the dark room, growing paler each second. When your small group entered the house only a few hours ago she smelled of a sweet perfume you couldn’t identify. The stench of iron and festering meat consumes that mysterious aroma. Each time you try to pull her bloody hair from her face she whimpers. The creaking of floor boards and heavy footfalls outside the room convince you to give up and inspect her other wounds.
The darkness abates as your eyes adjust. Her slender profile stands out against the rotting wood. She wears a puffy pink jacket, torn at the left shoulder, blood covering that side of her body. Taking in her thin legs, cute jacket and half covered face you realize she hadn’t stood a chance from the start. This poor girl, someone you barely knew, a friend of a friend really, should never have been here. Your eyes sharpen as they fall on her face. One green eye stares at you from the mess of hair. It fixes you, firm, aware, imploring. Her face twitches as if she is trying to speak. Your head lowers to her ear where the faint whisper of her breath tickles your neck. She tells you to run.
You pull back. How can you leave her here? Reaching down to pick her up you accidentally push back the bloody mats, revealing her injured face. The sound of tissue tearing free of her skin invades your mind as the stench of rot redoubles. Three red lines separate the skin. Underneath muscles twitch with painful movement. White bone shines in the deepest crevasses. She howls her agony, her freshly revealed eye glaring at you, a yellowish green lamp in the darkness.
A hand clasps around your throat. Sharp nails burrow into your flesh. You feel wetness run down your neck as her howl is answered somewhere deeper in the house. Then there is another, closer this time; another, just outside the door.
As a GM it is your job to create a defined starting and stopping point for the story, game session and scene and then hide those beats in clever descriptions. The world hinges on your words. Everything that comes out of your mouth is the reality these characters live in. The real world environment will help inform the in-game world, but they are nothing compared to immersive description. Everything from what you describe to how you describe it engages the players in the fantasy of terror.
Use selective language to set tone. If you want to convey paranoia then emphasize the important of eyes. Statues, pictures and graffiti are great ways of introducing the idea that someone is always watching, as are cameras, but those tend to give a “government is always watching feel” which might take away from the horror element. Explain how the eyes of the people in the painting seem to follow them around the room. They could have sworn the statue was facing the other way when they passed it in the hall. Imagery conveys emotion – use it to imply what is to come. Through foreshadowing you can give the players a hint at what they are in for. The townspeople’s hard-lined faces set in scowls as their cold eyes follow the character where ever they go. The layers are clearly unwelcome, possibly because the town hides an ancient secret. Misdirect them, like a magic trick. Use your description to keep them looking over here and then hit them with a curve ball.
What you don’t say is almost as important as what you do say. Leaving blank spots lets players draw their own conclusions. As you describe the decor of house the players realize not once have you shown them a room with a bed in it, or the kitchen is strangely bare. These are pretty blatant things to leave out of a scene, and it is hard to make a point that it is suspicious there is no refrigerator without saying, “you don’t see a refrigerator.” The trick is to leave whole in you description, not to describe what they don’t see. Showing the effect without revealing the cause is a better example of how to leave something out. In fact this is probably one of the most effective tools when it comes to the major threat.
The reveal is the most exciting part of a horror game. The GM can’t wait to show off his terrifying monster. The players are waiting the whole game for this moment. Whether it is a creature trying to feast on their flesh, a plague threatening to overcome the world, or an old god consuming the minds of those it touches, your reveal is the major catalyst. For that reason early description should hint at the threat without showing it. The characters might uncover the carnage left in a creature’s wake, or watch as their family members waste away, unaware of what is happening or how to stop it. Atmosphere builds up to the reveal but once the threat comes to light everything changes. Tone, pacing and description should reflect the change. Even the character motivation shifts from uncovering the danger to stopping it. Be deliberate about when the reveal happens because everything that follows will be a down hill slop to the resolution.
Tying horror atmosphere together
A few last minute notes before the subject is closed. Horror works best in small games simply because of the high mortality rate. It is tough to keep an adventuring party together when a character dies every week or so. Sustaining tension and suspense over a long running adventure is another challenge. Consider smaller story arcs. Either run one to two shots and then make a new group of characters. Alternatively, split your game into small chunks with a specific atmosphere and after that arc has run its course change up the type of terror. Talk with your group at the start and figure out how they want to handle the game. If everyone works together to make the game work then the difficulties will smooth out.
Keep in mind, you can’t keep the game in full swing the whole time. No matter how hard you try some players won’t bite. Make sure everyone knows what the game is beforehand, their buy-in is essential. Don’t worry if the game gets a little off track from time to time. When tension is high some players might change the tone with a joke – that is not a bad thing. Willingly subjecting ourselves to fear can be difficult and some times we need a little lightening up. If your atmosphere is well established then you will be able to fall back into it easily enough.
Horror deals with topics that may make others uncomfortable or reflect aspects of their own lives that they may not want to relive. A close group of friends might be able to navigate these waters but a group of strangers or loose acquaintances may have more trouble. Find a system that lets the GM know when you get uncomfortable. Everyone comes to the table to have a good time. It is the responsibility of every person at the game to make sure they do whatever they can to ensure maximum enjoyment for all. Be responsible and have a great game.
Horror is about how the players feel. Use your atmosphere to manipulate their emotions and draw them into the game. Subtle changes to the environment, a tone that keeps the players on their toes, pacing that moves everything forward while allowing time for reflection and descriptions that tie all these elements together will make your game memorable. Experience is what makes a great GM. Put my advice into action and let me know how is went in the comments below. Stay Nerdy.
This article has been a beast to write. Many hours of research went into these 4,000 words, so it only seems right I should thank those who helped me get this thing finished. First off is my gaming group: Valymir, Hornie, Ty, Shnoood and Ferico you were wonderful test subjects. A few loyal Nerdarchy fans in random live chats asked invaluable questions that got my mind working, thank you Comrade and Bethany. All those out there creating great D&D content on YouTube, I watched so many videos on this topic that it is impossible to name them all. Chances are if you made a video about horror at the game table I watched it. Lastly, thank you for reading this article.
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