Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Setting the Mood - Doing Horror Right

No, not THAT mood. Playing horror games is all about the atmosphere to me. The right GM and roleplaying can create atmosphere even in the busy atmosphere of a Con. Here are some tips, tricks and items you can use to help with your next horror game. Some of these I even use in horror board games like Arkham Horror, Last Night on Earth and Betrayal at House on the Hill.


At Halloween I was always afraid of the houses that played creepy music, so my first focus on creating atmosphere was to find some appropriate music. The right music can really help set the tone of a game. Sometimes I want games where the focus is more serious and music can really help with this goal. Midnight Syndicate is my go to music choice. I bought my first Midnight CD on ebay pretty cheap, but have made it a priority to buy CDs from them in person at GenCon. These purchases are worth paying a little more since it helps fund new CDs. I have three of their fine discs so far and will continue to buy more. Of course, now I am the one playing this creepy music when the kids come trick or treating at my house.


Sometimes dim lighting is the best for horror games. Sometimes I use complete dark except for small, battery operated tea lights so that players can only see their sheets and maybe each other. (Flashlights can also work for this effect). If I am playing Cthulhu in the 1920s, I have a few lanterns that can be very useful. I don't use candles since most gaming materials are flammable, but I could see putting some on shelves or countertops near the table.


Tons of pictures are available on the internet that can be easily introduced into games. If you have a type of monster, simply search for it and grab the best picture. I also make sure to only show the monster to those people with characters that actually see it. Often the unknown combined with player reactions can add to the mood better than actually seeing the monster/beast.


The environment can work against he characters confidence. Is it cold, raining, humid, oppressively dark? Bring the environment up often. The rain keeps pelting at the characters faces, soaking their clothes and perhaps slowing them down. Sight is reduced to only a few yards when suddenly the intensity increases and pieces of hail start pelting the characters. A dark, unidentified shape looms in the distance. Maybe it is a red herring janitor or maybe it is the big bad. Try not to use red herrings too often, but a fake scare can be very useful. Next time or next game the characters may assume a fake when the real monster presents itself.

Check out your favorite horror movies or stories for some good descriptive tools. Personally, I like Silent Hill (movie or video game) for atmospheric horror. The cell phone (movie) or radio (game) that increases static when something bad is about to happen really amps up the horror factor. You can get a small radio and find a static station before hand to add noise at certain times when horror will show up.

Other props

Is there a chest that the characters will be forced to confront containing some secret book, snakes or skull? This time of year is great for finding inexpensive horror props. Use a small chest and really up the description before it is opened. Add some fake spider webs or blood and warn about the chest. Maybe even have something pop out at the players like the old peanut brittle in a can gag. Items like these props can add a different kind of anticipatory fear to a game.

Anyone else have some good ideas for running horror games? I am always looking for more tips and tools.

1 comment:

  1. For me, horror has always been about making the normal, the mundane seem abnormal, strange or foreign. Something as simple as "a day at the waterpark" can seem horrific if portrayed correctly. When framed as a situation in which the PCs have lost control of the situation--perhaps some massive breakdown is about to occur, or some bestial entity is stealing lone swimmers in the wave pool--that creates tension. Tension, in turn, breeds horror.

    The key, though, is to work towards scaring the PCs and not the players. The players will follow suit, if placed in a situation that truly keys on the mood. That means using description carefully: too much or too little can kill the mood like a bullet.

    As for a more "concrete" tip? Inversion is key. The best way to put a real scare into someone is to take something that the PCs believe to be safe or secure, and make that into the new nightmare. That hard-ass CO who's seen it all and has bailed them out time and again? Now he's infected with lycanthropy, or read one book too many. The PCs' home-base, which is warded with sigils and Elder Signs? Something's knocking on the proverbial 'door'...and it wants through...


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