Friday, August 13, 2010

Running a Horror Session - Friday the 13th Special Edition!

Well, being as today is Friday the 13th, I figured I'd pick something thematically appropriate and talk about running "Horror" sessions in your table top game. Now, I am not specifically talking about horror games like All Flesh Must Be Eaten or Call of Cthulu where the players are fighting to survive against classic horror elements. I'm not specifically not talking about those either however, so whatever your game of choice is hopefully you'll find something you like in here. Something that'll get you thinking about how to create a horror feeling around your table and go with it. So read on, and lets see if we can't help each other get a better feeling of dread and horror at our respective tables.

So, the first thing anyone who has tried to run a horror game at an RPG table will notice is how hard it is to actually scare the players. This is ok, I mean, it is a total uphill battle when you think about it. For one, the players aren't actually in the situation. For two, there generally speaking is no mood music or dark lighting for the game (being as people need to be able to read their dice and sheets). Finally, when ever someone is not engaged by the GM they can talk to other people, get up and walk around, or otherwise do something that breaks their personal tension and suspense of disbelief. Two you can do something about it, but it can also be counter-productive to do, and 1 and 3 there is jack all you can do. So right off the bat understand that actually scaring your players might be hard, but that doesn't mean you're powerless. Also, even if you can't scare your players you can up the tension. So what are some tricks for doing that?

Step 1: Isolation is your Ally
One of the first things you need to do in order to go forward with this is to isolate your players. Specifically you want to isolate them in a place where they shouldn't be isolated. In a major city center, on a large star ship, their home village. Somewhere where they would expect to find people, but there is no one around. This is often a great way to intro the session - or game - as it also immediately brings with it a mystery. Where did the people go? Now, you don't have to isolate the players in a normally population dense area, but in my experience it works better for games to do so. It's just more...tense and scary in a city than say out in the middle of the desert.

Now, assuming you did choose to do a major city area you want to play up the isolation. How did the people leave? Was it sudden? Are there still meals sitting out on tables? Is there any sign of life? Have the answers to that ready ahead of time. You can use it to channel the tension down paths. No sign of life at all, but dishes and such still out like they were being used will give a much different sensation than torn and discarded bodies lying everywhere on the ground. One is more mystery in the lines of "Where did everyone go?" where the other will get the players looking for the assailant, as their mind wonders "Who/What did this?". Neither is worse or better, you just want to control it from the beginning.

As a final note on isolation, you need to trap your players in the area. This means destroying their escape craft (or moving the threat onto it) in a space/high seas derelict game. And somehow removing transportation anywhere else. If you don't want to blow up their way out, you need to find some way to stop th eplayers from just getting in and leaving. Otherwise, they will do just that once they realize how bad the situation is. You'd be amazed how many infested derelicts can be taken out by simply going back to the ship, and nuking it from far away.

Step 2: Be Vivid, But Not Too Descriptive
So, you've isolated your party no what? Now you need to be vivid in your descriptions. You need to convey the strangeness of what is going on here. If the players are finding mutilated bodies, you need to go into detail on some of them, more than just "they've been mutilated." However, there is a problem here. Go too descriptive and you will begin to remove the players from the scene, and possibly lose some attention as you go into a long winded and overly detailed description (this is just true in general). So what you need to do is be efficient with your descriptions, maximum punch for minimum word usage. Trust your players' imaginations. They're creative people, just give them some references, some sensory data (don't forget smell, smell is a VERY powerful sense that isn't used enough imo) and let their imaginations run wild with it. It doesn't matter if the details are different from player to player, as long as you have firmly established/set the important details out for them.

What you are really aiming for here is atmosphere. You've removed the NPCs from the scene,so now you need to make the environment itself an NPC in its own right. The players need to be able to feel it and sense it almost like a living thing. This is a big part of why horror sessions can take longer to prep than almost any other type of session, because you need to give inanimate things a life of their own, and one that the players will feel and put put off a little by.

For those needing help with being short but vivid, use shortcuts. If you know everyone has seen a horror move (or even most)) just use the reference. "The hand is floating in a puddle of blood kind of like in KillSlasher XXV" You don't want to go crazy with references, but a few here and there work well. Especially as by drawing on player memory of something specific you'll also draw on the emotions involved. So if the example was scary, you get to jack that emotion for impact on your player.

Step 3: Hint At What Is Coming
This could also be called 'control the tension' but really you do that by hinting at what is coming. You have something set up, and you need to hint at it, that it is coming. Bodies moving when the players aren't looking, scuttling in the rafters above them, dead bodies here and there, a hallway that has had a heavy machine gun emplacement dropped into it, the gun's barrel melted from over-firing. These are all hints that work with the description to build the tension up. You are specifically going for the tension from the unknown threat and something looming.

This one is the briefest, because it is also the simplest. Just hint at what is coming without ever giving the players a clear cut answer. Make there be multiple possible answers for why something is that way, and let their own imaginations work against them. Trust me, it can work wonders.

Step 4: Hit Them Hard
So, you've done everything up until now and you have the characters - even if not the players - sitting at the edge of their seat wondering just what is going on. Now it's time to hit them with the baddy, with the threat. That's fine, it's good, it's even necessary however just keep in mind that you need to hit them hard, hit them fast, and leave them wondering what the hell just happened.

See, as soon as you reveal the bad guy, be it zombies or cthulu himself, you are trading in all that tension you built in. There is no longer the fear of the unknown, there is no longer the wondering of what did this, it is all gone. As such, you need to replace it with fear of what IS going on. They know it, but it is still scary. Survival should be the first question on their mind, as in "how the hell am I going to live through this?". Now depending on what you have chosen for the big bad monster will depend on how you do this. With things like Zombies you need to be unrelenting. Moments of rest need to be few and far between (at least at first). Zombies themselves are weak, but they work with numbers so use those numbers. Make the players run, make them run low on ammunition. Exhaust them as they have to keep fleeing the zombie threat. For something like cthulu, hit them with the hopelessness of their situation. They can run and they can hide all the want, but they'll never escape, never get out alive. Let that work for you.

Step 5: Tension Breakers
We've talked a lot about building the tension, so let me just point out that too much tension is a bad thing. So be sure to give time for tension breakers. Give them time to rest, to recover. Make a few jokes. Call a break if you have to. Tension is fun, but too much will ruin the fun for everyone. So be sure to give the players a chance to break the tension and recover a little. Trust me, they'll need it when you do this right.

Step 6: People Die
This is less a step than something you need to be aware of. Running a horror situation, well, people are going to die most likely. You need to be aware of that, you need to be brutal with it. Don't go out to wipe the party, but if someone makes a bad decision punish them for it. If someone runs in alone against the zombie hoard or cthulu, by all means roll it out but you need to pull the trigger on them if they fail. Horror works by openly setting the stakes as high as possible, and then tilting the board in the monster's favor. You need to do that too, but you also need to leave the way out open for the players to escape these bad situations they are ending up in.

Those are really all you need. Now obviously, depending on your situation you'll need more but the core steps to the horror session are in there. Just remember to control the tension, give them time to breathe but then ramp it up with the next scene. You want to build up and up until at last you let it hit the crest and just go racing down into the climax of the game/session. Have fun with it, plan it out, and execute it smoothly

Did I miss anything? Got any stories of playing in/running a horror session? Why not discuss it below with us!


  1. I love horror games. But I've found I prefer them to be more in the horror-action genre (Aliens) as opposed to 'true' horror (Cthulu). What this has meant in my own games is that I follow your 'rules' up to step 4, then things kind of get turned on its ear (depending on how the players react). One of my favorite horror genres (not game systems) is Dark Conspiracy. I love the idea of a 'dark near future' world menaced by supernatural threats. That game, however, focused on people being able to fight back. I know to true horror enthusiasts this may be a 'cop out', but its what I prefer.

    Isolation is totally the key, however. I have one prime example of this. A friend of mine was running a sci-fi campaign and found an adventure about a 'spooky spaceship wreck'. So we were (for whatever reason) going to investigate it. Of course there was a Lurking Alien Menace (tm) inside. The adventure (as it was written) called for the party to 'camp out' on the spaceship as they investigate (it was a big ship)- thus leaving themselves open to all manner of nastiness. We took a different approach. We had flown to the crash site in our shuttle. So, as it started to get dark (and we found signs of creepy critters in the ship), we backed out, jumped onto the shuttle and flew to the other side of the planet to relax in a hotel. The plan was to return the next day, fresh and rested, and continue our explorations. Needless to say, this kind of ruined the mood of the adventure. We had an 'out' and we used it- as any sane person would.

  2. I'm all for the PCs being able to fight back, and you can still have a good game with that. I think there is still a need for tension breaking, even if it is just "holy crap, we whooped the crap out of that group of zombies! Yeah!"

    The other story you have is exactly why I advocate blowing up the ship or cutting the players off from it. If the players can escape your spooky ghost ship for the local 5 star hotel, it's not very scary or engrossing. Still, good head on the PCs there.

  3. Yeah, it was one of those things where I was a player. I was thinking to myself (in my GM voice) that surely the guy running this adventure must have thought of some way to keep us on the spooky ghost ship. But when he didn't, well.. we took advantage of the situation ;).

    On the flip side, I had another friend who was tinkering with a '50's Science Fiction B-Movie' rpg, where you got experience points for doing the stupid things they did in those movies. You know "Lets split up!" and "I'm sure this house is safe to sleep in for the night..." and throwing your empty gun at the monster, even after it has proven to be impervious to bullets. We only did one adventure, and it was very comical.