Ready to host a horror night? Well, invite your friends over, pop in your scariest DVD, turn off the sound, turn on all of the lights, put the baseball game on the radio, and prepare to… thoroughly underwhelm them.
Without the proper mood, this tragic fate can befall your horror adventure too. Though disturbing nightmares lurk in the adventure’s pages and spine-chilling events poise to strike, a horror adventure falls flat without the proper presentation. Fortunately, a few candles flicker in the darkness. With a little preparation, you can set the mood, sink the adventure’s claws into your players, and run a horror session that will truly get under their skin. Here’s how. [More…]
Choose Your Adventure
An unforgettable horror session starts with an unforgettable horror adventure. Take time to hunt one down. Unless an adventure touts itself as a horror, pass it by like a sci-fi novel in the fantasy section. While that adventure may present a sinister villain and a compelling tale, it will surely lack the story-length tension, pacing, and mood that are so crucial to terror. Instead, select an adventure whose author carved horror into its very bones.
Once you have candidate adventures in hand, page through them. A good horror adventure contains no extraneous encounters or events. Everything in it either builds tension or it works release and reclaim it. If you read three random encounters in an adventure and none of them presents a disturbing scene, a shocking revelation, or a dark moment, shelve it.
The adventure you seek speaks with evocative imagery. It curls around you in dark whispers and takes your imagination by the throat. If after a short read you begin to feel the story and mood dragging you in, you may channel those feelings to your players. Find an adventure that makes you want to go over the top with the creepy.
Turn to the adventure hooks. Does at least one hook seize the adventurers in a personal way? If so, pay the hobby store clerk, and mask your evil grin. Horror night is about to be born.
A successful horror adventure requires extra GM diligence and preparation. Even if you plan to use the adventure as a single session change-up, take time to plumb the adventure’s depths ahead of time. Crawl inside it. Learn it. Feel it.
Know the NPCs well enough to remember their names, their appearances, and their motives. Endeavor to roleplay them without referring to their read-aloud dialog. Breathe life into them by inventing distinctive mannerisms and voices for each. Give them presence. A medium who channels in a spirit’s voice adds a frightening dimension to a séance.
Don’t be afraid to desecrate the adventure with notes scribbled in the margins. Underline key events. Pencil in mood changes. Note where you may want to slow the pace for best effect.
Pay particular attention to combat events. Unless a battle cripples the heroes, combat tends to release tension rather than create it. Jot down how you will reclaim that tension and mystery after the battle ends. If your horror adventure does not immediately reveal a disturbing clue, foreshadow an imminent threat, shrink the heroes’ deadline, or otherwise promise nightmares to come, insert some of your own creep to the page or remove the combat entirely.
If your players typically kick in doors and take the creatures’ stuff, consider warning them that tonight is different. In a horror adventure, a hero—any hero—could die. Overpowering aberrations writhe behind bedroom doors and friends’ eyes. Unexpected events catch brave souls flat-footed and under-prepared. In a horror adventure, the Reaper capitalizes on foolish bravado.
Sooner or later, the players need to know that the wise adventurer nurtures fear rather than courage to keep his heart beating. Fear and dread bury daring deeds in the emotional landscape. The question is: Should you let them learn it the hard way?
To accomplished roleplayers, you might simply divulge the adventure’s horrific theme up front. By knowing what to expect, they can help you create the mood, carry the tension, and enjoy the thrill of a shared horror story through roleplay.
If you would rather grab the players from the dark, consider confessing only that combat may not be their best option. This will slow them down. They will consider risks. They will doubt themselves and worry more—but not so much that they’ll poke every 5’ space with a 10’ pole. A slower, tenser game is exactly what you want. If you manage the pace well, the players will want to move more slowly, and you can usher them into horrific events with momentum.
Sight and Sound
Hollywood churns the audience’s guts in horror movies. While you are unlikely to have an IMAX screen at your disposal, those movie methods can hold your players down and inject terror into their veins.
Light holds incredible sway over the human subconscious. Control the lighting, and you puppet your audience’s mood in a fundamental and inescapable way. Gather some candles. Arrange your GM’s chair next to the room’s dimmer switch, and prepare to pull your players’ strings. Simple but effective.
You need not match the in-game illumination at every turn, but you can manipulate light to great effect by adding ambience to select moments. Whether spike candelabra welcome your players to a shadowy game table or the light level creeps down with each rung the adventurers descend into the old town well, lighting puts the players in their characters’ bodies.
Sound too strokes the brain and moves the spirit. Where would our favorite horror movies be without background music? Choosing the perfect chamber music, instrumental piece, or forgotten movie score to complement the mood and tension of a key horror scene is tricky, magical, and worth every internet-searching moment. Consider mood-inducing sound effects too—a rainstorm, distant thunder, the chinking of chimes, a muted scream. Choose quality over quantity. Merge the sound effects with the music, stand them alone, or juxtapose the two at widely different volumes.
As with lighting, don’t overdo audio accompaniment. Near-constant music and selection changes desensitize and distract players. Instead, choose one song or effect for each of three to six scenes in the adventure. The first horror scene of the adventure begs targeting. Overlaid music or sound effects will underscore the event and sweep the players into their characters’ horrific predicament.
Mood and Mystery
With lights dimmed and music queued, an immersive gaming environment awaits. But are the players ready? Your horror adventure has a real chance of falling flat, or worse, seeming silly if it is competing with a TV in the next room. Take no risks by minimizing distractions; kill the TV and the cell phones. Make sure all eyes are on you when you start the game, and work to keep the players’ attention for the length of the session. Eye contact works. Rope your fresh players in and keep them on the edge of their seat, not out of it.
To jump start the mood, plunge into the adventure personally. Drown in it. Let its chilling depths carry you away. Most players will happily follow your lead into the mood of the game, so push yourself. To those who remain behind, beckon with excited expressions, dramatic hand sweeps, whispers, unexpected yells, wide eyes, and body language that says, “Shhhh….Do you hear that? Oh my God, it’s coming!” If the GM isn’t into the mood of the game, the players won’t be either. Let the setting, NPCs, and disturbing events carry you, and call to the players from inside the game.
Whenever possible, avoid using monster names. Instead, describe the fetid smell of skinned prey that precedes the foul creature. Wonder at the monstrous, misshapen shadow thrown from distant torchlight; tell of the purposeful, ground shaking footfalls approaching from the mist. Once the players hear “ogre mage,” all mystery is gone, and no amount of secondary information is going to reclaim it. If the players ask for more visual detail, great! They are working up an image. Give it up bit by gritty bit. Never confirm suspicions. Let them attempt to figure out what fell beast wants to rip their faces off before it is too late to run away.
Likewise, maintain maximum tension and mystery by withholding direct visual descriptions of horrific objects and unnatural environments that the adventurer’s encounter. Instead, concentrate on the peripheral. What do the PCs hear, smell, and touch? Once the players build a mental image from secondary senses, throw in one or two primary visual attributes. Paint sweeping scenes around a single powerful image intended to evoke a visceral response in the players. Give evocative imagery, not technical information like the sizes of rooms, first shot at center stage.
In most action adventures, whisking the adventurers to the next scene helps keep the players interested and the story moving. Horror suffers under such treatment. Hurrying a horror adventure has the same effect as summarizing a horror story to a friend—minimal impact. Instead, embrace the slower pace of the horror adventure. Build and maintain tension, fear, and dread. Take the opportunity to keep the players guessing, wondering what fell thing pounds on the far side of the door at the hall’s end—whose face is stitched to the turning creature’s head.
If your group needs a break or the session is running out of time, stop when the tension is high. This horror equivalent to an action adventure cliffhanger will keep the fear fresh and your players hungry for more.
If you play it extremely well, their in-game fear may overflow and be hard to shake. A player may even want to sleep over. Offer him your attic.
Got tips for horror adventures? Share them in the KQ Forum.