How I Run a Horror Game
How do I run a horror game? With great difficulty.
Like many people, my home group consists of my nearest and dearest friends. The game I have been running and we have been playing together for over seven years is Vampire the Masquerade. While (I believe) horror isn’t the main focus of VtM, it plays a large factor in the game. After all, what is a game about vampires without horror, blood, guts, and gore?
However, the familiarity between my players and myself often gets in the way of any type of true horror or drama. With some groups saying, “shut the %#$! up” may work; my group has fortitude. After all, these are the people who have personally seen me face planting on the sidewalk, tripping over my own heels, after declaring I could finish the remnants of a tequila bottle. My time for chilling them into silence with an icy glare has long since passed.
Saying that, I do have a few tried and true techniques that get everyone to settle. I thought I’d share them with you just in case you have a group like mine and you feel like freaking them out.
1) Sincerely ask everyone at the start of the session to cut the crosstalk and only react in character. Very often the thing that interrupts a tense scene between a NPC and a player (or two players etc.) is another player butting in with a comment or perfectly timed joke. In horror scenes this is the easiest way to suck all the drama out of the scene. Asking everyone not to interrupt each other’s play, except if their character has something to add, will get everyone into the game and therefore into the horror.
2) Jump scares. Now, this won’t work for every group, but if you have someone who is antsy this is a great trick. If there is a loud knock on the door, bang on the table. If there is a crack of lightning, slam your hand down. Basically, you need to be mean to the table. Loud sounds get attention and focus people and that is something you need in a horror scene.
3) Play on other emotions leading up to the scary scene. The more you play on someone’s feelings, the deeper they are connecting with their character. This goes back to what I said in point one - the more in character someone is, the easier it is to be scared. Playing on ‘easy’ emotions like love, anger, etc, warms them up before you hit a person with a terrifying scene.
4) Music. Music is great no matter what you are doing in a rpg. Songs can add emphasis to a scene and allow people to connect with the mood you are trying to portray. I’d personally stay away from something like a spooky soundtrack, because they are normally more comical than scary, but a great song can really do wonders for a scene.
Try playing something like "Transylvanian Concubine" by Rasputina, right before someone goes batshit on the players.
Or put on "Carnival Justice" by Hannah Fury as they enter a carnival. I am not being very creative with this one, but it is perfect, melodic and would work great!
5) Know when something isn’t working. The worst thing you can do as a GM is not let something die when your players obviously aren’t into it. You tried to scare them, it didn’t work, accept it and move on. Pushing a scene in a direction that no one is into is just going to frustrate people more. Find something to salvage in the scene and play on that. If your players are having a blast investigating the creepy, corpse-filled manor, let them do it - they’re enjoying the investigation you set up for them!
I hope you enjoyed this short list of advice. Have any more advice for people reading? Leave it in the comments!
Have a very spooky Halloween <3.
Liz Chaipraditkul is a writer and game developer. She is the owner of Angry Hamster Publishing, a company that develops and publishes tabletop role playing games. She dabbles in illustration and other crafts, but her true love is writing. You can read more of her personal ramblings on her blog epicxcloth.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter as @epicxcloth.