Discomfort, Fear, Terror, and Vast Cosmic Horror, on a dime a day

A blog I have been reading regularly since I started using WordPress (The Black Campbell), mentioned in passing the difficulty of running horror games and that, plus listening to some podcasts of actual games got me thinking about the skills it takes, and the effort that is required to set specific moods in a game session. I struggle with light, heroic action, but seem to  have a pretty good grip on evoking darker, more fearful moods in roleplay sessions…

In this first version of this entry, I am going to record some of the things which I think are important for a horror session. Without a doubt, most if not all of these will have been in some ‘renaissance of gaming’ blurb in a variety of horror games’ core and splat books. I list these methods here because they form the foundation of how I run my horror games and ‘world of angst’ games. Maybe you, the reader, will have read them all before. Still… like horror games in general, I have to wonder if these tools are things many like to read about, but rarely actually do.  If I had the titular dime for every person I have met that loves, yet has never or rarely played Call of Cthulhu, I could afford to scare people every day.

The core concept behind all of this is one that is often expressed as ‘tools to targets’ in the martial arts: knowing what your skills do, and using the right one for the job. Definitely set things up to play to your strengths, but never stop trying to develop your skills as a Keeper, or Storyteller, GM or whatever appellation turns your crank.

The following items are a checklist to run through… sort of like a pre-flight to horror. As you prepare an idea, and then as you plot that idea, and then as you mentally review that plot with your players’ characters’ likely responses in mind, and then ultimately as you sit down to actually work with the players to tell the tale, it is necessary to keep these things before you to make sure you are never heard to utter something so banal as: “The Hunting Horror descends from the sky and scares the sh*t out of you. It’s awful. Roll your SAN.”

1. Know your players.

  • Know what they like, what makes them uncomfortable, and in what vein they themselves would like to frighten others if they were able~
  • Pay attention to the films, books, and real life situations that they comment upon and make notes to which you can refer later.

2. Never tell them what they feel. Imply, Imply, Imply

  • If you find yourself saying, “The thing rises out of the darkness menacingly, and its horrible, twisted mouth opens in a wide slash to envelop you. It’s terrifying. Roll your SAN/Horror Factor/other fear mechanic,” then you are doing yourself, your game, and especially your players a disservice.
  • Fear and uneasiness are born in the minds of your players. Plant a seed and let it grow there. In the above situation, you can do this by stating what is occurring with far fewer spoken details:  “Something in the shadows ahead of you is… moving (on the word moving you might shift your body awkwardly, just a slight suggestion of movement, of a shambling, awkward form). How big is it? (here, as you ask how big it is instead of telling, you might cast your gaze far to the left, and far to the right, quickly, and subtly – as though darting a look into the dark corners of the room, or taking in the full width of a massive and amorphous creature in the darkness). Is that a mouth…? (and here you might look up) Is that slash of colour in the darkness a mouth…?  etc.    You have basically said nothing, except the important details (something with a large mouth is approaching from the darkness). The players fill in all the other details in their own minds – far more horrific details – all by themselves.

3.  Never tell them what they see… exactly

  • Even in cases where they are encountering a creature or vile force for a second or subsequent time, never tell them what it looks like, or what its name is – even if they know it
  • Remind them where they saw it last, or what it did in a previous encounter
  • Compare the following:  “You see a ghoul at the end of the street,”  to “Something like what devoured your friend Pickford… you remember? The thing you found with Pickford’s gnawed thigh in its maw? Something like that is shambling away from you toward the end of the street.”
  • In that same situation, consider the difference between: “It is shambling away from you toward the end of the street,” to “It is shambling through the shadows between the weak pools of illumination cast by the dirty and flickering street lamps, pausing now and again, before dragging itself deeper into the blackness gathered at the end of the street… isn’t the cemetery in that direction…?

4. Facilitate, don’t force

  • It is important to remember that players scare themselves. (That’s why I keep repeating it)
  • As described above, subtle suggestion, vague description, and implication, plus a good poker face, can create more hints and devastating attacks on their collective calm than a million heavy-handed tricks or stunts.
  • Listen to them talk, go with what will agitate them, and above all, let them have time to scare themselves.
  • Don’t force them into anything. Let them work themselves up to open that door, or enter that basement… let them enjoy the worry about what THEIR decision will end up inflicting on their characters. Don’t have the monsters just show up and start monstering….  allow the characters ample opportunity to avoid them, but choose – for plot and character reasons – to encounter terrible, wet, and hungry things.

4. Raise the level of verisimilitude and realia in the game

  • Use props, pay attention to them, treat them like they are real, use real items as often as possible
  • lower the light level, or reduce the light to small, individual sources which allow notes and character sheets to be used, but leave the rest of the room in shadow
  • avoid music – especially with lyrics. Use sound effects, or if necessary, surreal or ambient music to fill in certain scenes, or to provide a droning backdrop against which the players can increase their worry, and personal insanity. Seriously, if you listen to Peter Gabriel’s The Last Temptation of Christ long enough, insanity seems like a viable option.

5. Adjust the complexity of your descriptions to match your audience

  • While we love Lovecraft precisely because he thought everyone was conversant with terms like rugose, it is imperative that one’s players know what your every word means.
  • Earlier I offered a comparison between how to describe a lovecraftian ghoul at the end of a street. In the latter description, I have a choice between using light, pool of light, weak pool of light, and weak pool of illumination. I opted for the latter, because unlike light, illumination carries with it a sense of darkness – it is light in action. In the mind’s eye, we can see that flickering patch of illumination cast through the dim and dirty glass of a street lamp, barely able to penetrate the black much more clearly and atmospherically than if I were to have just used the word light… which really, carries few if any connotations of darkness with it at all.
  • You will want to use the word tenebrous, and its various misspellings and mispronunciations. Avoid it if you can – especially if you learned it during a Lasombraphile phase.
  • Let silence be an assistant. Let the players have time to digest the description and allow their own imagination and group rapport make themselves afraid or nervous.
  • Fear likes company… you want them to want others in their group to ‘go first’
  • Build toward the mood you want. Take your time. Remember to go with the players, help them to create the mood you all want…. but what is that exactly?
  • Know the difference between unease, fear, terror, and horror… these are not just words for the same thing. There are distinct stages, causes, and flavours of phobic reactions, and each one can be a goal toward which you can build.

How do you work toward building a specific mood in your horror games? Leave a comment and let me know~

If you found any of this useful, you might also like to read my entry on maintaining a long-term Call of Cthulhu campaign:  >> Here<<

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7 Responses to “Discomfort, Fear, Terror, and Vast Cosmic Horror, on a dime a day”
  1. Brian says:

    Excellent advice all around, sir. For a similar take I would refer you to an article by John Tynes:

    http://johntynes.com/revland2000/rl_mofo.html

    For me, running a horror game is an event that I like to plan for. Haunted house? I have a rain and thunderstorm CD for the occasion. PC’s plane crashed in the amazon rainforest? I have an ambient jungle sounds CD for that. And if I just need some spooky music in the background I have several CD’s of dark ambient that fits the bill nicely. What I would like to do next is use an Ipod hooked up to a mini speaker set for one off sounds, such as doors creaking, screams, growls, and whatever else is needed. I bought a couple of those cheap Halloween sound effects CD’s to sample.

    The forums at http://www.yog-sothoth.com have a lot of clever advice along similar lines. One guy gave candles to his players and told them the person whose candle goes out first will have somethign bad happen to his character. Prior to the game, the GM actually cut the candles in half, shortened the wicks appropriately, and then melted the candles back together. The players think it’s all happenstance… but the GM is in control.

    Brian

  2. Murderbunny says:

    In general, I agree with what you have said. Horror movies make the most out of darkness, smoke, masks, cloaks and other… things… to make sure that the audience never fully sees the beast. Our imaginations fill in the blanks and produces something far scarier. As soon as something is well-lit, we start seeing the zippers in the costume or the conspicuous CGI and the atmosphere comes crashing down.

    In a role-playing game, sometimes the lack of information becomes extremely frustrating and takes the player out of the zone as they start interrogating the GM/Storyteller/Keeper on things that their character ought to know (“How far away is it, how big is it, is it moving towards or away from me, what exactly does the sound of wailing damnation sound like anyway?”) If you (as the Keeper) drop in the implicit description of “How big is it?” and shift suggestively in your chair, my first response as a player is likely to be, “I don’t know, you’re the Keeper: you tell me.”

    I’m going to draw on a video game for an example here: Silent Hill. Silent Hill and Silent Hill 2 are wonderful horror games, very creepy, very atmospheric, and use an excellent combination of explicit and implicit images, sounds and dialogue to scare the living crap out of the player. One of the most frightening rooms in Silent Hill was an empty bathroom in a dark abandoned school, where I heard this heart-wrenching sobbing moan emit from… where? I could never find its source. I ran all over the place looking for it, wondering if it was another of those eviscerated zombie children, anticipating being attacked and horribly maimed by their blade-hands everywhere I went.

    Obscuring the senses with darkness, fog, and sometimes bright lights and confusing sounds, worked very well. There was one problem, though: the fucking camera.

    The camera was perpetually at a downward angle and was extremely hard to control, which had the effect of limiting the player’s vision of the environment to a frustrating degree. Players complained about it, loudly. The developers insisted that they deliberately introduced the camera screw to prevent the players from seeing everything and thus making Silent Hill more scary. It didn’t work, though, because it made the player notice that the camera was screwing with them, drawing attention to the mechanic and away from the environment. It also limited the player/character in ways that were counter-immersive because the character was forced unnaturally to look away from things that were relevant and important to his survival (like the skinless hound charging from the left) and to look at the bloody (sometimes literally, bloody) pavement, something that a real person would never, never do. In other words, “I can lift my head and look around, why can’t my stupid video game avatar?”

    As soon as the player stops thinking, “What was that hideous shape in the fog? Where did that growl come from? Is it coming for me?” and starts thinking, “The camera blows, why do I keep looking at my feet?” the delicate horror atmosphere comes crashing down.

    The way this applies to tabletop is that as soon as the GM starts depriving the player of knowledge they reasonably ought to have in the situation, the player starts to notice in ways that are atmosphere-rending. Incomplete or misleading descriptions (barring elements such as darkness/fog/mind control/illusions/mental instability, etc) are the table-top equivalent of a camera/interface screw.

    I did have a question for you, though: Many horror games (and some fantasy) will include people or creatures with magical powers to induce fear in another, even in situations where the victim of such mind control has no apparent external motivation to be afraid. I’m thinking fairly specifically of the Nosferatu in Vampire: the Requiem, whose signature Discipline is Nightmare, a power all about inspiring sheer terror in victims which can cause them to flee, freeze or go shriekingly insane.

    A related, but lesser, example would be just straight-up non-magical social intimidation. The mob wants their money and sends the scariest “collections agent” they have after the player-character.

    It’s hard to resist simple, efficient descriptions like, “The vampire hisses at you and you run away,” but these are also deadly boring and can make the player feel cheated out of the ability to control their character. How would you handle things like that?

    • Runeslinger says:

      There is a fine line to walk between frustration, bad angles, and fear… practice, makes preternatural.

      It is hard to resist the simple description. In a case like the one you describe, the group has to accept certain realities about the setting in which they are playing. If they are unwilling to deal with effects like these, or if they only tolerate them in one direction (place this power toward enemy), then troubles other than this will be brewing somewhere as well.

      In the past, when using things like V:tM’s Dread Gaze, or other mind-affecting powers, I felt it was my responsibility to make the result of ‘running away’ seem like the right thing to do… to help the player take running away as a choice they had, rather than the result they had to bear. A GM has a lot of leeway with fear-inducing, or other emotion-inducing powers. It doesn’t have to be: Dude looks scary, you bolt. Dude can take on a menacing attitude, and a certain smirk that suggests he knows something you don’t… and then you notice the movement in the shadows and realize he didn’t come alone… he has a lot of help… hungry help…etc. The player still has to meet you half-way, and be at least cognizant of the difference between a roleplaying game and a tactical wargame. In the latter they need all the information they can gather in order to fight and position themselves properly, but in the latter, they just need to understand the scene and have enough details to create their actions and reactions in it.

      The collection agent is much harder, I think. If the player is running a person with no connections and no real flesh on their paper bones, the threat is always violence and death (see Maltese Falcon, Spade vs Gutman) and here the balance is much more on the part of the player to realize that no sane person would stand up to this thug, and recognize that if they have bothered to sit down at the table to play, that resisting every story element that comes down the pike, especially the obvious ones which have massive signposts on them reading ‘genre-appropriate scene transition + story development this way —>’ will lead to a rather pointless experience.

      • Murderbunny says:

        Personally, unless a given power explicitly induces hallucinations/illusions (such as Nightmare 4, various forms of Mind magic, some of the Autumn Court powers etc), I would not feel comfortable giving misleading information about what a character sees or hears in order to manipulate the player into making the choice that I think they ought to make. I suppose that a fear-inducing power like Dread Gaze could cause some sensory distortion, make the wielder seem more menacing and threatening than he actually is, but causing the victim to hallucinate a backup army is well beyond the scope of the power.

        Powers like those don’t necessarily confuse the senses, they trigger emotional responses and those responses are totally involuntary. The whole point of these powers is to remove choices from the characters, so why supply them with an illusion of choice? It seems too rational to give the player a chance to calculate, “Yeah, this guy and his six ugly friends are too much for me, I think I had better come back with help.” Or worse, the player is stubbornly immune to the manipulations of a deceptive GM and tries to make the “wrong” choice (as in, the choice that the GM didn’t want them to make) to stand their ground.

        So, since the emotion being triggered by the power is an involuntary imposition, how about describing the reactions in terms of involuntary reflexes? Cold sweats, tensed muscles, hammering heartbeat, nausea, blurred vision, paralysis or blind, flailing fleeing; the body utterly betraying the wishes of the mind.

        With non-supernatural scares like the collection agent or similar threats, it can be tricky because a lot of their ability to be intimidating lies with the performance skills of the GM. If the GM is the type of nerd who lives in terror of being stuffed into a locker, they may have a tough time putting on a convincing act as the ice-cold collector who would break your fingers just as easily as filling out a crossword puzzle.

        • Runeslinger says:

          Well, as I say in the article, and imply in my earlier reply, players scare themselves. While the article in question is about setting and maintaining mood, and not about the use of specific mind or emotion control powers, that truism still stands – just on different ground.

          A player that understands what sort of game that they are playing does not need to be coerced into accepting that they have been affected by a power that affects their character. A GM typically does not have to defend the damage effects of weapons in the hands of enemies, or the listed effects of drugs and alcohol on characters in a given game, neither should they have to defend the successful use of a mind or emotion altering power that the players have equal access to; and have access to at the start of play in many cases. This is particularly true of powers which have a clearly defined means to resist as a part of the general game mechanics. As I stated earlier, there are other problems at hand that need attention in this case than how to describe the effect. Your suggestions sounds fine to me, and would be helpful for a lot of players… but not, I suspect, one who doesn’t want to be scared in a game with scary monsters.

          What I suggested is a way to help a player who is annoyed, get into the scene, and try to help them go with figuring out what would trigger a reaction of ‘dread’ in the character. The character and the story the group is creating does not need to carry the extra burden of the player’s ego. The GM should do their best to help the player separate these things. It also helps to remember that a lot of the power descriptions in the early editions were limited in word count and relied heavily on GM interpretation and the Golden Rule. The heart of things like that is to ‘provoke a flight reaction.’ How doesn’t really matter.

          I totally agree that a GM’s performance, preparation, and understanding of the characters strongly influences how the story feels, and handles on the road. It is the players, who put the gas in the tank and turn the wheel, though. If they are choosing turns at random, and following whims, not in-characters reasoning… it doesn’t matter how well the GM describes the road-side attractions, the game is going nowhere.

          Your other point was about choice. The power does not exist to deny the player choice, any more than having an NPC dodge or wear body armour denies them the option of killing him. It simply alters their understanding of the environment and requires them to come up with a new approach to whatever their goal might be. That used to be a good thing.

  3. Runeslinger says:

    A question on rpg.stackexchange.net relating to creating an environment of fear without desensitizing the players returned a lot of great answers. I include mine here as it rises from and expands on this old post:

    Any sensation, experienced in full without stop will eventually allow or force those who experience it to adjust to or move away from it. For a ‘horror’ campaign to be effective, memorable, and successful for a good duration of time it is necessary to have a solid understanding of two things, everything else is secondary and dependent on your performance skills. If you understand the two things, then your campaign can rise above poor performance skills. If your performance skills are solid, then you have a chance to go for a legendary campaign the players will discuss for decades.

    1. The meaning of fear

    We use the word horror to describe this genre, but all the words we have for fear have different meanings and describe different sources and sensations. This affects the games we run in both how we describe scenes and in how we plan them. Consistency in design will allow you to help you lead your players in the direction of horror. Be aware that you can only go for the physical jump, shock, or reaction a limited number of times, and that this may not be the biggest scare that your set-up can generate. Shaping the session so that you can get the fear in under their skin will hit them harder, and be remembered longer. By building through the stages of fear and the little things which produce it, your sessions subtly shift and grow in intensity, preventing things from becoming stale.

    Know what effects you are actually trying to accomplish. For example, it is important to know that gore does not equal horror or automatically produce fear, particularly when imagined. As a long-term Call of Cthulhu player, I have written about this on my blog to some degree and would like to recommend this link on Fear(the above post), and this link on running long-term horror campaigns from my blog plus this excellent essay from mxyzplk as supplements to my answer below.

    2. The players scare themselves

    A horror game requires a certain degree of acceptance on the part of the players. All the efforts in the world to create mood will not counteract the person who opts to destroy the mood. It is far, far easier to destroy than to create. This acceptance does not require that the players want to be scared by the GM, it just requires that they want their characters to accomplish a goal or goals within the scenario despite the obstacles in their way. As the players are really in control of their own fear, leading them to it also works to prevent boredom or desensitization.

    Players scare themselves through being given the freedom to imagine the scene with few visual or aural constraints. Leading them to the borderline of sensory detail through implication and vague description produces stronger results and keeps the player actively engaged by putting them in a position where they do not know something they feel that they need to know, such as “Oh my God, what is that thing!?”

    TIP: Be vague with sensory details. Let creatures, effects, the evidence of violence or madness, the trappings and costs of magic, and so on all be left up to the imaginations of the players. Suggest things, do not determine or mandate things. If a sacrifice was made and some human parts are left in a bowl, suggest it’s shape, or colour, or size, or smell… and let them fill in the blanks. DO NOT be vague with empirical details of location. Denying information about the appearance of horrific things empowers players to create the details which matter to and lead them to horror. Denying information about distances, entrances and exits, stability of the floor, etc interferes with player ability to make choices and that is a barrier to generating fear as it leads to a loss of immersion and an increase of frustration.


    Players scare themselves by making choices that neither they as players nor their characters as people would want to make. The obvious solution from a horror movie viewer’s perspective when the heroine goes down into the basement to see what is making all of that creepy noise is to NOT go down into the basement. That is a meta-reason for not going. The character must have a compelling reason to push on into uncomfortable mental and physical territory knowing full well that something awful will befall them, and the player must have a goal to accomplish with and as that character in order to place themselves at risk of that fate… neither of them knowing when that fearfully anticipated fate will come.


    Players scare themselves through realizing the consequences of actions and choices. As fear comes from many sources, so too does it have many shapes. Building fear through recognizing the fate of others, (first strangers, then friends, then loved ones, then finally themselves) helps the player and the character move from concern, to sympathy, to fear, to empathy and finally horror or terror. It is best if these realizations come a little too late as you near the end of a scenario or story, but that is not something you can always influence. Thinking needs to occupy two courses, starting with ‘What do I have to do?’ and ending with ‘What have I done?’ It doesn’t matter if the characters survive, stay sane, lose their minds, or perish. A campaign does not have to be deadly to be frightening, and it does not need physical perils to cause fear. All it needs are choices and time to recognize the result of those choices before the consequences arrive.


    Players scare themselves through attachment, and fostering attachment to the characters’ contacts, family, friends, companions, and their own ongoing ability to operate against the horrors of the campaign are essential in maintaining that campaign. Not all games enable character longevity, which means that you may have to encourage the player to adopt a group of characters to connect with, but in all cases, creating attachment within the game world gives players something to lose, something to protect, and that again leads to them to a place where fear of one kind or another can begin to grow. As the threats of madness or peril slowly expand to affect those around the characters, so too do the ramifications of their experience, and that ensures that the story and its effects are evolving, not just being more of the same.

    ——————————————————————————–

    Performance Skills

    Your Voice
    •The GM’s voice is the players’ primary access point to the game world and it needs to facilitate the development of the emotions and responses you hope to inspire in the players. It needs to facilitate, not create. It needs to suggest enough with tone, pacing, emphasis, and emotion that the players can project their own ideas onto it and ride that combination in the direction you want them to go. Words and ideas are your weapons, aided by volume and pitch. At times you will be the little voice in the back of their minds offering incomplete ideas and suppositions. At other times your voice will be a hammer, driving in the reinforcement of their own conclusions like nails in the lids of their coffins. You cannot tell them what to think, or what to feel. You cannot tell them what their character thinks or feels, but you can lay out the landscape of terror and watch those thoughts and feelings grow as the group steps out upon it.

    The Environment

    People can tune anything out with focus and investment in a good story. You can help this by including small props like matchbooks, newspaper clippings, tickets, and the like, that help increase immersion.


    Music gets in the way as often as it helps so consider its use carefully, particularly if it is familiar. Music you choose for a session will become tied to that session or story, so it might not work in the next one. Using music as a bit of realia works well to help with the necessary immersion. Looping a soundtrack can easily become a distraction or annoyance, and over long periods leads to a lack of reaction.


    Being able to control rather than set the light level is nice, especially if you can arrange to have the players in a small pool of light, such as with candles on a table and the rest of the room in adjustable amounts of darkness, but this can interfere with the players’ ability to take notes, read dice, examine clues and handouts, and check their sheets if it gets too dark, or stays dark too long. Anything which can create frustration in the player should be monitored closely. Fear leads to anger and all that… We want fear to lead to more fear.

    Proximity
    •The use of physical distance can have interesting effects on your players and when not abused or overused, having a mobile GM who can move around the room during descriptions sometimes near, sometimes behind, sometimes with his back turned, and so on can all enhance the facilitation of mood. In addition, the proximity of players to each other can build or deny the feeling of support, safety in numbers, and security. As an example, in some cases the GM may want to lead a player further from the others without explanation or comment. Simply have a chair further from the group ready, and without fuss or bother, imply the character needs to go there.

    Knowledge of the Audience
    •The goal is to help the players create an enjoyable experience of fear within themselves and that requires removing or not tripping over any of the barriers and obstacles to that creation of mood. Outside of the obvious planning of the campaign, it is important to get a sense of what enjoyably scares your players and what is off-limits. One might enjoy the idea of exploring maiming as a horrific story device, another might enjoy the threat of disease, but for another spiders might be ‘no-go’ territory; the line not to cross. Fear is not rational, and even the little things might cause a player to leave rather than have fun being afraid.

    Ritual
    •While play itself will be varied, strike different chords in the players, and follow your creepingly increasing pace toward terror, players need to be able to divorce themselves from the outside world and clean their mental slate before embarking on the journey. Have a little sequence of events that signal the start of the game and have it be long enough that players can get into character, recap events if necessary, and consciously choose to shift their mood. This might involve the use of a theme song for the story, or a series of news reports, the setting of the initial light level, the taking of specific seats, and the presentation of the first scene. With the comfort of this familiar starting ritual, the new and interesting events of the evening more easily are seen as the part of a the story’s thread, connected but different.

    Fear Breeds Fear
    •Once the players are displaying the physical cues of agitation, or unease, it is time to let things take their course. Do not try for a specific time limit, just let things build as they will toward the big scare, and the more horrifying aftermath. As you work to inspire fear, pay careful attention to the players to note the signs of your efforts bearing fruit. You are not giving them fear, you are trying to sell it, so you have to be acutely aware of when your fish snatch the hooks~

    Conclusion

    This may all sound very hard, but it is something most of us do all the time when we want to promote empathy in the listener. You want a certain amount of familiarity and repetition in the tale to allow the listener to make sense of things and draw conclusions. You want just enough ambiguity and variation to make them question their choices and actively put themselves in the scene. Reflect the fear you want your players to feel, let them fill in the blanks with their own experience, enhance the sense of a shared experience, and give them enough rope to hang themselves.

    When they are doing the hanging, the players do not get bored~

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