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<<