Friday, October 23, 2015

Discussion: Have You Ever Scared Your Players At The Table?

First, a clarification: when I say "scare" your players I don't mean startle them, or make them feel unsafe. I mean in character. I mean has the atmosphere and tension in your game ever gotten to the point where the players can pick up on the feeling of dread and horror that is going on in the game?

If so, how did you do it? What was the situation? Were you running a horror game, or was it just a particular adventure that had a horror element to it?

I think I've done it twice, both times doing the same shtick. Once in the beginning of a super hero game where the premise was the characters would get frozen in a generic Tony Stark's basement, then wake up in a distant future where they had to lead a resistance movement with their own various power armors, and once in a Star Wars game.

In both games the trick used was to not have anything happen. Something had happened, clearly. The place was empty. Doors were shut. There was some evidence of struggle. However, there were no bodies, no blood, and none of the real evidence of a fight most people would pick up on. The longer it went with nothing happening the more edgy and wary the players became.

I never did get to cap off the Star Wars game to see what the pay off would be. The game just kind of fizzled out and ended with the end of the semester. The Hero game wasn't meant to be scary, so it just kind of moved on. Still, it was fun while it lasted.

How about you?


  1. Ravenloft game. The party was trying to protect a mother and her young children in a farmhouse. The father had been killed by a werewolf, and she was helpless. Night falls. Regular wolves come from the forrest and attempt to assault the house. (The party can see shadowy hints of the werewolf talking around in the dark.) The party runs to the back door as wolves try to break it in (by throwing their bodies against the door.) They open up the door to fight, only to have the wolves retreat. They turn around, and down the hall they see that the front door is hanging wide open. The players panic.

    1. and then what happened? Can't just leave the story there :D

  2. I ran a Cthulhu game that takes place in a huge villa and after a while, the floors and rooms starts to change place. The first time the players noticed that was when they wanted to go up again from the basement and found only a concrete floor instead of the door. Adding to that a Kabuki mask and a statue of Pan that change place, only ever seen from the corner of their eye and the players were pretty freaked out.

    I also played that setting myself at a con, in one room with a couple of other groups, but it worked flawlessly there, too. We didn't even hear or see a thing from our surroundings after a while. I have rarely had that kind of immersion.

    And then there was the Dread game we incorporated into our running Shadowrun campaign, as a Matrxi adventure. I set it on the Gustloff, gave everyone pre-made characters and their goal was to get on the ship and then achive different objectives. The main 'villain' was an SS officer, a doctor, and the players were so afraid of him that they were close to freaking out when he was as much as walking past them. I'm not 100% sure how I managed that, but it was part out-game knowledge (we had introduced the doctor before, as part of an AI) and part the fact that their characters all had secrets and the doctor was the single greatest danger for all of them. Also, everyone else on board was afraid of him.

  3. As alluded to in your post, I think the all-time champ for making your players at least uncomfortable, if not anxious, is the unknown.

    For that reason, among others, I try hard to keep all descriptions in-character and non-mechanical. If a player asks how long their fellow PC will be "stunned" by that last blow, I respond with how their character views the stunned PC in question. The player is undoubtedly interested in how many rounds the group's sniper is going to be out of the fight, and indirectly my response is that he has no idea. (Through private chat, the player of the stunned PC *does* know how long they're out for.)

    We all work hard at making the known unsettling, but I find the unknown is the more consistent performer.