Friday, March 9, 2012

Fear with a Handful of Dice

It's a common question, especially if you're going to run a horror game, or run D&D with a nod towards weird horror like LOTFP.  How do you scare your players?

After all, the typical gaming table is not conducive to generating fear.  It's a bunch of folks, usually in a brightly lit place, munching on chips and cracking jokes.  We're playing a game, after all.  The monsters, no matter how fearsome, may be well-known and "banal".  The cosmic horror and inherent atheism of Lovecraft can seem a bit quaint these days.

However, the method to generate genuine player fear is simple, and involves two basic elements - investment and atmosphere.

Disposable characters and an uninteresting setting are the enemies of your fear.  The players need to genuinely care about their characters before they'll feel any concern about the game situation.  I don't mean copious back story.  Even the "hopeless" 1st level fighter can suddenly become interesting when he manages to survive to level 2, and the player starts to identify with the character - he's become the underdog that's bucking the odds.

As a DM or Keeper starting a new game, that might mean doing something as simple as asking each player to say one thing they like about their new character.  The idea here is so basic it's almost too obvious - the players need to care about what happens to their game-world avatars before they can feel fear and concern for them.  Still, this is an important idea for the game master to remember - the prerequisite to generating fear has nothing to with the game master scaring the players, and everything to do with the players creating an opportunity to be frightened by having a stake in the outcome.

Once there is some investment by the players, even situations that are directly threatening will be sufficient to generate fear.  A banal monster like an ogre in D&D will frighten a low level group of adventurers, if the group cares about keeping their characters alive.  There is a preoccupation at times about using unique bestiaries and monsters, but the ability to calculate the odds, and recognize that the group is hopelessly outclassed, is an effective, direct way to generate fear.   Published bestiaries serve your ends for this technique.

"Oh no, that's a Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath! Run!"
"Crap, energy draining undead - we have no magic weapons - run for it!"
"Ugh, not killer bees - again.  Save or die.  Run!"

I like the term "narrative distance" to describe how the events of the game world can be so serious, but the group is cracking jokes and laughing about other things out of game.  It's important to the social side of gaming - I'm no fanatic when it comes to trying to run a "serious" table.  But it's a good practice to quiet things down once in a while and restore focus to the game world when you need to introduce something creepy.

Staging can help - some game masters advocate dimming the lights or doing something with the physical environment - but I rarely use those types of techniques.  I do recommend tactics like changing the speed, tone, and volume of your delivery, keeping your descriptions vague, and creating ambiguity.  Start with progressively more revealing glimpses of what’s to come.  Using unique or unknown monsters, with equally unknown capabilities, reinforces the ambiguity.  An entire post could be written just on narrative presentation and creating creepy descriptions by teasing the information.  There's an art to ramping up tension through description and pacing.

But atmosphere ultimately boils down to destabilizing the player's control over a situation by presenting the unknown.  Withholding or teasing descriptive information creates uncertainty in the minds of the players.  New monsters, with unknown capabilities, prevents planning, and this also blocks the players from controlling the situation.

Random effects and creatures that force saving throws are excellent for building a fearful atmosphere because of the uncertainty they engender - the player has limited control over the dice results, but the effect on their character can be both massive and negative (like petrification, or Call of Cthulhu's insanity rules).

The fear from the previous section, fear from a known but direct threat, is more like stress and anxiety, but still creates that cathartic feeling of relief when the situation is survived; fear of the unknown, built up through atmosphere and uncertainty and loss of control, is sharp and much more powerful.  I suggest you work at making both a part of your arsenal - and good luck!

Post Script:
Over at Jack's place, he posted a few articles this week on using terror and horror effects in gaming, and pushing those effects onto the characters.  It got the wheels turning on the interrelationship of fear, terror, and horror, and when should they be targeted at the player, and when should they be targeted at the character.  It's an interesting question!  This piece is looking at achieving player-focused fear, but it's made me want to review some of my favorite gaming moments that provoke terror or horror and see what makes those situations work.


  1. The thinking on investment especially works for me - keeping the mind on the back stories of the characters or great moments, and the longer-term hopes the characters might have, and bringing them up occasionally.

    Re the published bestiary list, I'd add that if you don't want the familiarity, but want the fear, you can mention environmental effects or sensations - with level drain for example, you can tell the players as they move in that the area seems to darken, the stone grow achingly cold, and the party feel more isolated and distant from each other, less certain of who the others are, and maybe have muscles weaken when really close, even a test for a weapon slipping from the grasp, for the foreboding of a fuller loss and the panic of having to pick it up again.

  2. I don't quite agree. Investment in a character creates tension because of a certain level of risk. But that's not fear.

    It may be as close to fear as we are going to get in a tabletop rpg - but never the less it has nothing to do with the specific kind of monsters, the setting or the theme, that we associate with horror. The same tension can, by the same means, be created in any rpg.

    This tension may be part of the answer, a necessary but not sufficient in it self.

    I think we also need to play on some those themes that are part of truly good horror, that will also work in an rpg. (Not all will.) Feelings of alieness, of utter incomprehensibility, hopelessness and so on. The fear of the unknown, rather than the known. (You only mention this at the end - I think it should be front and center of the discussion...)

    My experience is, that a few new monsters won't do it. Yeah, they'll have unknown powers. For a while. But once the players have fought them, they aren't unknown anymore.

    So I'd suggest the opposite - have new monsters, but don't let the players fight them. Let the players see that they can do really horrendous things. But let them do it to others. Especially innocent creatures - animals for example. We identify more readily with them, and that's a great way to build up fear of the unknown.

    Have the otherwise normal environment warped by them. Maybe they dive into the solid rock floor when the players approach, and the stone sends out ripples and behave like water even after they disappeared.

    Maybe a dog walks up to the part of the rock that behaves like water and sniff it. And when it touches it, the dog also is turned into a water-like state. And it seeps down and disappear in the cracks of the floor...

    Stuff like this, in my experience, is far more fearsome, and brings out some of that feeling that you have watching a great horror-movie. You something bad is about to happen, but you really don't know what.

  3. Sapient, that's a great list of atmosphere building suggestions, and I like how your ideas shift into the truly bizarre. It reminds me of one of my favorite off-beat horror movies, Uzumaki, based on a horror manga.

    It may seem like I emphasized the value of direct fear through investment, but I'm in agreement that the end goal is to shift into atmosphere building for running a great horror game.