Horror is not my particular genre of choice. I enjoy my sleep, and I dislike anything that might give me nightmares and keep me awake. Moreover, my style of GMing is to empower the players to tell their characters’ stories and allow the possibility of success in everything that they try.
But just like every other type of story, there is a time and place to make things scary. Characters can have powerful moments when they are helpless. The world can seem more real when it is twisted. And you really do find out who you are and what you are willing to sacrifice when death stalks the character that you have put 3 years of love and development into.
So for those of you that want to have some scary moments in your campaign, or a scary campaign as a whole, here are our 3 tips to make your roleplaying game scary.
Start With Normalcy
If you want to build up something as terrifying, don’t start by having a monster kick down the door. Instead, paint the world as normal and as mundane as your setting allows. Then throw just a little hint that something is off. Not a big thing. Just a tiny something that a rational person can explain away.
A goblin in a D&D campaign is not really scary to most adventurers, especially by the time they encounter their second one. There are many monsters that are much stranger, stronger, and more terrifying in the world. But if you or I ran into a goblin, we would probably freak out. Even if we ran into it with our car. Why? Because goblins do not belong in our world, and everything else about our day made sense. Encountering a goblin does not.
If you really want to push this, make your monster look human until it gets scary. If you are unfamiliar with the Uncanny Valley hypothesis, it is basically the theory that something that is mostly human but a little off elicits our fear of death. This is why we often act with so much fear and revulsion towards zombies, possessed humans, and aliens that look like people until weird stuff starts popping out of them.
Make The Monster Impossible to Kill
It is hard to be afraid of something that you can fight and defeat. If you take a whack at something, or burn a 5th level spell, and the creature is unfazed…well, that would be a good time to run. And why are you running? Because you don’t’ want to die. And that thing will probably kill you if it catches up to you.
This is one of the big points that a lot of horror game attempts fail on. Cthulu is not all that scary if you find a tank that can kill him in a couple of shots. The big bad monster should not just be very hard to kill. It should be impossible. Getting away from it should be what is very hard to do.
Some players (and GMs) may struggle with what to do if you cannot kill a monster. After all, constantly rolling Athletics (run) and Stealth (hide) checks will make for a boring adventure, and clearly the same PCs are going to succeed at those checks every time. So how do you keep the game interesting?
The balance you want to play with here is the circumstances of escaping with the desire to learn. Encourage players to try different things to see what they can learn from the monster. Don’t punish them for taking the first swing if it doesn’t work because they need to learn from that. Then let them try other weapons like fire or electricity. Let them see if they can hide behind holy symbols or salted doorways. Push them to figure out if the creature is attracted to blood or sin or something else.
While they are figuring out if the monster is intelligent or just instinctual, they also need to learn to flee from it. Spice up the fleeing checks with environment and obstacles. Jump over holes in the floor, escape the government agents trying to cover everything up, or pick that lock and then try to lock the door behind you. When combat won’t work, clever thinking needs to be dedicated towards escaping. Otherwise the game will end.
Let Evil Become Infectious
Speaking of zombies, one of the most horrifying things about them is their bite. It doesn’t do much damage, really. But everyone knows that the moment you are bit your life is over. Why? Because you are infected, and that means you are about to become one of the things you fear.
The same is true for vampires, werewolves, and several other classic and less classic monsters. The idea of their evil turning you into something evil yourself is a primal fear. Characters will often want to be extra cautious around a monster that could turn them, and extra paranoid about fellow party members that receive a bite from such a creature.
The infection does not have to transform either. It could just be a slow death sentence. A poison that will rot you away, or a chemical that will eventually make your blood explode. It could even be a slow subtle creeping taint that eats at your soul the more time you spend in the cursed location. Maybe it just starts stacking penalties on your checks, making you feel like you are getting more and more helpless as time goes on.
If you want the party to be paranoid of each other, go for a transformative infection. If you want a long campaign of corruption, go for the slow death sentence. Either way, knowing that even if the run from the creature they are not safe will keep that fear real when the bad thing is not around.
Even if you don’t want a long horror campaign, these ideas can still be used to add a little drama into your adventures. Making the party’s first encounter with a monster/alien seem terrifying is a good way to start a campaign and keep it real. Introducing a high-level monster that your party has to run from now can inspire them to level up and return for revenge. And making something evil infectious can drive a quest to find a cure.
I am sure that actual fans of horror have even better ideas about how to make your game scary and fun. So please share those ideas with us. I am always eager to learn.