How do you keep your horror games scary?

Pathfinder First Edition General Discussion

So I started a Strange Aeons game the other week and I was just wondering how do other people keep their games scary?

This is what I did. First my players woke up in cells at half HP in damage and half HP -1 in nonlethal damage. So they were all one hit KO’s. Then I made them improvise and adapt as they fought their way to reclaim their equipment from a made up storage room before making them fight the washroom encounter. It was a very tense or “clutching” experience as one of the players put it.

So I was just wondering / looking for ideas on how to keep or preferably improve that same level of intensity and fear.

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^Your players woke up in cells? That IS scary . . . .

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Im glad you all enjoyed the snacks and beverages. They were poisoned, and I have the antidote. You must solve todays encounters to obtain it.

I started to think how to do it successfuly (i.e. without the players wrestling you..etc) and I guess hiding the antidote in a safe witha code you dont know that is generated by solving the encounters....complicated.

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The big problem with horror scenarios is that you can only keep them scary if ALL players play along.
As soon as one player don't want to play "Horror" and is joking around, it's done.

Helpfull for the mood is also music, especailly in this genre, and ambience (light etc.).

The Concordance RPG Superstar 2008 Top 32

Anyone have suggestions of low-level background music/sound to use? Hopefully something that isn't expensive....

I have found that the use of sanity points has heightened my players' sense of bad/horror. I have good players though, so YMMV.

The secret to creating horror is to 1) have characters that people care about so they feel anxiety when they are threatened and 2) learn to create a sense of impending dread through atmosphere or harrowing encounters.

My suggestion would be to throw in a couple "run away" encounters where the PCs will have no choice but to retreat or come up with another non-combat solution. Seeing something coming that is well beyond their CR range is always a good way to set people on edge.

Build the background through in game stories such as sharing urban legends about "the girl who died on this road" or something to that effect.

Berni Wrightson once told me that horror is like telling a good joke.

"Daddy, why do I keep walking in a circle?"

"Because I nailed your foot to the floor."

Or you see a clean shaven man in a nicely pressed suit. As you get closer, you notice a spot of blood on his collar.

There are many tools that one can keep in their horror toolbox. Pull out what you need and experiment. Horror Adventures is full of great suggestions.

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If you can, try to remove the character sheets as much as possible. Roleplay as much as you can and only have skill rolls/combat when absolutely necessary. When not rolling against something, ask your players to put the sheets away.

Try to keep the tempo control of the tempo and tone of your voice, start very slowly and if possible in a lower register, and build from there as the story unfolds, if you have a section where the players need to make a quick decision, don't allow them time to discuss it, rush them, disorient them, then if a decision isn't made have a contingency for a minor failure (at least at the start) until they understand that this is a different type of game.

These are the kind of things I have done in Call of Cthulhu.

Horror (for the PCs)
Rule 1: You are not in control.
-Your abilities might not always be reliable.
-Your information might not always be accurate.
---(Stat blocks are not sacrosanct.)
-You might well be out of you depth.
---(Nor is Challenge Rating)
---Maybe, this time, the best you can hope for is survival.
-----Maybe, the best you can hope for is dying with dignity.
-Things are rarely as they seem.
-It can Always get worse.

Summom tarrasque. Let your team banish it.

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"Yes, class, please comment on Mr. Hellatze's statement. Mr. Perkins?"

"The Terrasque is too big a threat to be a definite presence. It's presence actually removes uncertainty, and, perhaps counterintuitively, actually lowers the levels of horror."

"Excellent, now, can this idea be modified to work in the horror genre? Ms, Salt?"

"Call into question whether the Tarrasque is actually real. Give hints that it exists. Unverifiable mass destruction. Far off glimpses, movement in the darkness..."

"Very good, you have something to add, Miss River?"

"Who might have summoned the Terrasque? Was there a purpose for the summoning? Was there a purpose Beyond the summoning?"

"Very good, very good, now we will explore ........"

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I used to run a game called Chill many moons ago. One of my most satisfying moments as a GM was when the players left as a group because none of them wanted to go out alone. That said, here is some advise:

1) The unknown is scarier than the known. As long as the players don't know what is going on, their imagination does the work for you. Once they know what they face, they can figure out how to defeat it. Hold off as long as you can.

2) To the pain! Once a character is dead, they can no longer be scared. Death also causes a release of tension in the game, as the player now knows nothing else can happen to them. Instead, let them figure out that there are worse things than death...

3) The tense roller coaster: Speaking of tension, while you want the tension to continue to rise throughout the session, there needs to be peaks and valleys. A small break let's the players catch their breath and lets the adrenaline gland refill before you empty it again.

4) Every choice is important, or at least seems to be. "You are going to open the door to the basement. Do you open it with your right hand, or your left hand." The player is now asking themselves why you would ask them that. Use this carefully, or it can lose impact after a while.

5) "Why is there a toad in the middle of the hotel lobby? Why is it staring at us?" Many times, it's the small, subtle things that raises the most fear. Something is wrong with the world, and nothing is going to be right again.

6) Failure is always an option. Without a real possibility of loss, it is hard to create that feeling of terror. There are always consequences to their actions... or non-actions. If they fail, follow through on these consequences.

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Dilvias wrote:
5) "Why is there a toad in the middle of the hotel lobby? Why is it staring at us?" Many times, it's the small, subtle things that raises the most fear. Something is wrong with the world, and nothing is going to be right again.

I put this technique to good use in a short-lived Cthulhu game set in modern-day Boston. I and my players all lived in or near the city at the time, so I regularly used a lot of local color to set the scene. Then I added elements that turned the familiar into the weird--like a bunch of rats dragging an old book along the subway tracks. That scene worked so well that my girlfriend refused to get off the train at that station for years afterward!

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Over the years I've learned what most of my friends dislike and fear the most; spiders, snakes, etc. I make sure to include such things from time to time just to make the squirm.

Shadow Lodge

UnArcaneElection wrote:
^Your players woke up in cells? That IS scary . . . .

That wasn't the scary part. Being beaten half to death was the scary part.

catdragon wrote:

Anyone have suggestions of low-level background music/sound to use? Hopefully something that isn't expensive....

I have found that the use of sanity points has heightened my players' sense of bad/horror. I have good players though, so YMMV.

Some ambient stuff and follow associated links or similar named searches.

Movie/game soundtracks are good too though sometimes hard to filter out the tracks you want. Try Dead By Daylight.

There is plenty of info about how to run a scary game out there. Most of it will be targeted at horror RPGs like Call of Cthulhu or such, but a lot of it is fairly general and can be applied to any game system.

That said, while a lot of it is in setting up the ambience of your playing environment (lighting, music, etc) and the way you describe what is happening, there are some things that make setting an appropriate mood difficult if not impossible (as Tryn said, as soon as the level of humor rises above the occasional tension breaking Aliens quote, you're done).

Unfortunately, what you probably don't want to hear is "Don't use Pathfinder. It has nothing in it as a system that helps or enhances running a horror game, and a bunch of things that will hinder you", but that would be my general stance. It's not impossible to run a horror game with Pathfinder, but you aren't doing yourself any favors.

I'm currently using several approaches (even though it's not specifically horror):

* Unsettling events: An npc carved the heart out of another to solve a puzzle for the (mostly lawful good) party while their back was turned. This establishes that some of the npcs are entirely unpredictable and that distasteful acts may be required to get from A to B.

* The Enemy Within: Deception is a key part of not only most good story-telling, but to horror in general. NPCs that seem good may be bad, or seem good even though they're connected to events that make them look bad. This introduces less trust in the game.

* Additionally, when it comes to my plot, NPCs (driven mad) will probably attack in unexpected areas (such as town shortly after talking with you cordially and seeming sane but being a little off/sick.)

* Claustrophobia: Getting your party into sewers/dungeons/etc.. is good for a reason, building it so they are single file, sometimes hunched over, climbing a ladder to a lit area they hear voices in, etc.. can put them in bad (or potentially bad) situations and causes them to consider it.

* "Impossible" Encounters: Occasionally you should be throwing these at your party. This combines best with the above, where they are already in a space that is not nice to travel in, but happens to give them ways to get away from the encounter. If you then have portions of the area fall apart or give way as the monster tries to find ways to get to them, you can make the party unsure of how to get by. Using this combined with a tight space that provokes AoO's (possibly nerfed) is a decent approach as well, where the PC's have to either have one brave PC stand up while the others run passed, or they have to run and hope whoever gets hit is alright.

* Play the monsters right: Grab, Trip, pull, etc.. especially in the "almost get away" areas, or where they can't comfortably maneuver can make a more simple encounter seem worse.

* Time Passes: TheAngryGM gives a system (which I somewhat use) to track and pass time. I think, in time, this system will give the players dread as bad things occur.

* Unexpected events: Going through your standard dungeon, the environment happens. Flooding, earthquake, etc.. Split the party with a huge stone? A porticulis? A trap in the floor takes a member to a lower level, and they're being attacked. You get the idea.

* Most of all: Keep them moving. Via disease (a punishment for resting), being hunted by a threat too powerful, a timed event that will kill them if they don't find a way out. Being unable to rest not only engages them, but causes them to *have* to solve it. This is what horror often is.

* Also, slow speed can be menacing. Have a creature they can't beat very well? Having it squeeze through a tight space as the PCs try to climb a wall, get through a lock, etc.. and then bar the door before it gets to them not only creates a very real "do or die" scenario, but makes them use skills they may not be great with.

* PEOPLE HAVE TO BE ABLE TO DIE: Establish that your game is willing to kill a PC that fails to do X. My first PC kill was someone who, after everyone checked for traps, ran ahead and got munched by a mimic (he was the caster..) and died in about a turn. This was sad/funny/etc.., but it sets a tone. "You goof..? you poof."

This is where GMing becomes difficult. You have to do it fairly, and you have to find ways of not abusing the power, but if you want it to be horror; their backstory, their stats, their gear, it has to be on the line.

Not "you're always being chased and you're always 5 hp" on the line; but "you injured the enemy, it now burrows away" on the line. Why is this odd? because they *know* it can come back. More-over, that it could come back while they're durdling with this door, while they're fighting this piddly monster. Also the "Tag and Release" way of doing it allows them to fight meaner monsters by effectively lowering the monster's HP (so their success is no longer killing it, but surviving it for a round or two.)

* Non-humanoid monsters; I run lots of Aberrations, Oozes, vermin, and generally strange (self made) monsters that help to make them less understood upon their first encounter. A mass of mouths that screeches to confuse you while spewing acid or whatnot, much more unsettling and unknowable than a Big Guy with Sword #27. An ooze that gets inside of your body to kill you from the inside out?

* Harassment encounters: Put archers on the other side of a pit; maybe in cover. Remember that garbage in dark souls? Now every time you walk through the area you have to be conscious of arrows flying, or you have to deal with an annoying encounter; maybe in view of this is a problem melee creature that will engage if they move on the archers. (say, the pit contains a Roper-like creature that will drag them in.)

Cattleman wrote:

* Harassment encounters: Put archers on the other side of a pit; maybe in cover. Remember that garbage in dark souls? Now every time you walk through the area you have to be conscious of arrows flying, or you have to deal with an annoying encounter; maybe in view of this is a problem melee creature that will engage if they move on the archers. (say, the pit contains a Roper-like creature that will drag them in.)

I'd like to note that then making the archers "missing" at a later time could also be an invaluable tool for a horror campaign.

Lots of great suggestions popping up on this thread.

catdragon wrote:

Anyone have suggestions of low-level background music/sound to use? Hopefully something that isn't expensive....

I have found that the use of sanity points has heightened my players' sense of bad/horror. I have good players though, so YMMV.

Syrinscape is really good. The app is free and includes some free packages, but otherwise there is a small monthly fee or single package purchase.

Music-wise, for horror any melancholy classical will do. "Serenade for the Dead" by Leaether Strip would be my go to.

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Honestly: Read the "Running a Horror Campaign" section of Horror Adventures. There is very good advice there.

For a similar but not identical perspective, read the "Running a Horror Game" section of the 2005 3.5 book Heroes of Horror from WotC. (Out of print, but available for purchase on PDF from DriveThruRPG.)

The major take-away from my experiences running horror games is that you absolutely need player buy-in to make horror work.

Once your players start breaking the tension by cracking jokes, you're done. You might as well just call it a night.


Oh, and this is a total gimmick, but I've used it to great effect to build tension...

I have an oversized d20 counter die. (It's about the size of a baseball.)

Sometimes, I'll plop the die on the other side of the GM screen, with a specific number facing up. After every round (or non-combat action if we're out of combat), I'll decrement the die by 1, counting down. And if the players start arguing with each other, I'll just decrement it every minute or so of real time.

I usually don't say what we're counting down to or what will happen if we get to "zero"... but the implication is that it will not be good...

(I stole this idea from a Wes Schneider seminar on horror gaming from a few PaizoCons ago... Thanks, Know Direction Podcast!)

RPG Superstar 2015 Top 32

This is going to seem counterintuitive at it's face, but hear me out.

Provide a safety line, and a way out. For the player, not the character.

I use the concept of the X-Card whenever I run a true horror game. It's just a simple index card with a black X drawn on one side. There's one placed in plain view within arm's reach of every player. Whenever things get too real for them, and they can't handle the fear or the pressure and the emotions get too high, all they have to do is touch the card, and the game stops, immediately. I will and have stopped mid-sentence because someone reached for the card. After about 10 minutes of not playing, where emotions are calming down and everyone is leveling themselves out, I'll ask them what in particular bothered them, we'll edit that slightly so it's less difficult, and we'll go back to the game.

The goal of this is straightforward, even if the method is not. The players can now feel safe enough to allow themselves to become immersed in real fear. Where typically they as people would allow themselves a small amount of emotional distance between themselves and their characters so that they don't feel as their characters feel, and don't fear what their characters fear, you can now collapse that boundary and begin to get the player to feel that connection more strongly. It will take time. They have to realize that they can slide into that mindset. But I find that it works similarly to how people will watch horror movies, knowing that they can always turn them off. They don't, but knowing that they can is enough a comfort.

However, it is absolutely vital that you never ignore someone reaching for the X-Card. Once you have cut the safety line, and broken their trust in that way, you are unlikely to get it back. They will not immerse themselves like that with you again, and may have a hard time doing so with any GM.

Once you have built this foundation of trust, and they know that you can be relied on in this way, you can press further than you would normally. Allowing you to push not only the character's, but the player's fears and buttons. I have had players willingly tell me their greatest fears and phobias so that we could incorporate them into games in this way, because over time it became a safe way of examining and confronting those fears.

Over time, as my players came to place more trust in the ability to back out of a difficult situation using the card, they used it less and less. They wanted to see how far they could go against that horrible thing, how scary could it really be, knowing that they could stop this scenario with their real, lifelong fear at any moment. That it was entirely within their power to make it stop, but that they could see that fear for the worst thing that it could be, and feel all of the fear that it could have, and still have that way to be safe made them far more willing to be afraid in the first place.

I have some stories about this in more detail, as well as some other tricks that I like to use, but this was the big game changer for horror.

I have more of list of don'ts rather than do's. I have rarely managed to make it work myself nor often seen it done all that well. But I can give you some things that are almost guaranteed to make it fail.

First, make sure that all your players like and want the 'Horror' genre. I know of at least 2 GM's in my rather small circle that are huge fans of horror movies and novels. They always want to GM another horror campaign when it is their turn. However, only a few players in their groups are also fans of the genre. The others try to play along, but it is really tough to keep the atmosphere going when some are rolling their eyes or getting bored with the gruesome descriptions.

Second, don't get too carried away with the gory details. When you spend 3/4's of the gaming session describing the blood and guts in each and every room... Well let's just say a little bit of that goes along way.

Third, don't assume that all the players have been through all the same movies and novels that you have enjoyed. I had a GM that made most of the encounters give clues to tell the players that it was just like the kool scene in 'X' movie or novel. So you're supposed to solve it like they did in the movie or novel. Unfortunately, none of the players had read the novel, watched the movie, didn't remember it that well, or didn't recognize it from the description. It was just frustrating.

Fourth, even though it is the horror genre things have to make at least a little bit of sense or it tends to interfere with our willing suspension of disbelief. "Wait, it doesn't have any magical insanity aura or anything? My 8th level vampire hunter (who has been fighting various undead for years) just went insane because this is the first time he's seen a flaming zombie?!?" OR "So you're telling me we all died and failed because the only way to stop that thing was to take the only weapon that could hurt it, throw it on a dirt road, and trick it into jumping over it?" How in the world were we ever supposed to guess that? We could trial-and-error for a year and I don't think that would ever have even been suggested.

Fifth, giving me a headache with strobe lighting, a mist machine, and loud haunted house sound effects doesn't help. It just makes me want to go home and take a nap. We had to keep leaving the room to read our own character sheets. Couldn't see the dice. And we constantly had to have repeat half of what he said, because we couldn't hear him over the sound effects.

Liberty's Edge

We are, if Lovecraft is to be believed, most readily and most strongly frightened by what we don't know. Identify what the characters don't know about what they're facing and make them cognizant of their ignorance.

To this, I'd add: reskin monsters to appear as things that don't have a Bestiary entry, I endorse the observations above regarding leaving evidence of a thing unseen. When the brains of the operation start trying to piece together what it is, provide physical details, but avoid giving a monster name. The more uncertainty you can introduce, the better.

Some of this starts to fall apart when PCs can blow through DC 30 Knowledge checks without a sweat, but that's the nature of the rules we're playing with. Breaking out my old Van Richten's guides, one option is to create a suite of "possible powers" for high-powered monsters, which means that the brainy PC lists all of these things it *could* do, without identifying what it actually can do until it does it.

Either way, all of the tips I've given are similar with horror and also difficult games; as horror is really a stress mechanism. If you can stress your players by snowballing problems onto them that are best solved by *avoiding* them, rather than confronting them; then you've robbed those players of their heroism; and that's key.

* As mentioned above: Gore isn't scary. Full stop. It is used in conjunction with scary fairly often, because if something makes you unsettled then you're more likely to be scared; but it actually has nothing to do with actual fear.

* Horror isn't about huge amounts of narrative and or cliches; it's about having to do things that are uncomfortable. Horror and difficulty are almost hand-in-hand. Running up the bridge against those Silver Archers in Dark Souls? You *really* don't want to waste 5-8 minutes getting back there for another attempt; so there's a lot riding on how you move and attack. Personally, I would often yelp or have my adrenaline going pretty well as I attempted some parts like that.

Betrayal at the House on the Hill (or w/e), for example, is more atmosphere and fun. It's a setting. There's nothing scary about it usually. Fright is tied to loss, and it's doubly tied to it when you *have* to make decisions that could cost you.

* Why is resident evil scary when it is? It's because you don't have the resources to expend (or you can't kill a thing), and so you have to run through danger.

A couple ideas I'll be using:
* A stray tentacle or hand that is under a doorway or hole in the wall can grab someone with a mediocre attack. This means the players will not kill the thing, know there's a thing that can grab them looking for them, and makes that hallway/area more stressful because they know they can be attacked and can't effectively fight back

* Poltergeists that are there to harass the party are interesting. They can escape with their life easily. They can do minor damage to people standing around. They regenerate X days later, so if it's a common place the party will grow weary of being there since they get stuff thrown at them and can't fight back.

* Slow, an extra toughness feat, and Grab on zombies. then they'll have a bite attack only usable when grappling that can deliver a poison. This makes avoiding them not only easier, but after you've been CON-Drained a time or two, you'll be very wary of being in a grapple. Additionally, being in said grapple makes your teammates very aware of needing to get you out of it. Ghouls are a failed attempt at creating an appropriate way to do this (because they are so dangerous, you can't prevent it, and they're quick; it's just a difficult encounter. If they had double HP, a movespeed of 15, and maybe staggered, it becomes much better to avoid them!) This isn't to say Ghouls are a bad creature, but using the above tips makes them much more Horror-esque, as Horror works better if the threat remains at large; barred behind a door, maybe clawing at it and being noticable through windows later in the dungeon.

Another benefit is this stretches that encounter out, giving you much more bang for your GM-designing buck.

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Pathfinder Adventure Path, Lost Omens, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

I don't worry too much about character status (beyond the obvious), I don't dial up the gore.

I do find that marathon sessions work for my group (both as a GM and as a player) because the longer you spend with these people in this situation, the more worried you can get about them- your mileage may vary, I've heard of some groups getting sick of their characters thanks to marathoning.

Focus on the story you're trying to tell- The Changeling is horror, Friday the 13th Part VIII- Jason Takes Manhattan really isn't- and keeping them guessing about what is about to happen. Don't immediately announce the results of your rolls when you make them. Have your players build vulnerabilities into their PCs- not necessarily stat-based (although hardcore systems mastery optimizers can be a bit of a challenge), but something that they will acknowledge as genuinely worrisome to their character. In my group, we know and trust each other enough that players often use real fears or even phobias when building characters for a horror game- I do not recommend this with people who aren't 100% on-deck with one another's comfort levels, though.

Be more open to maiming a PC than killing them- a dead PC is just another dead character- a defanged character is another thing entirely.

Also... threats that they cannot simply beat to death in combat with the resources they have are pretty essential.

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