Halloween was last week, but it’s never too late to take a look at some of the rules we use to run better horror games. Some of these apply directly to the organiser, others are more directed at players. They all need adjusting for your game and your players. You know what your players can take.
This is a good blog entry for further reading. Some of the ideas in this post are discussed here. There are others we’ve not looked at. It’s a distillation of thoughts about horror LRP from a range of people who have run these games.
Nobody likes a quitter – Give them a reason not to leave
Give your players a reason to stay. If they are in a truly scary situation then there comes a point when the logical decision is just to go. Work out how you’ll handle players walking away from the situation. Are you going to give them an exit? If you do let them exit, what do you do with players who’ve decided their character would just leave? Is it a timed exit that they can only access after a certain point? Will it only take a certain number of players?
No you can’t have toys – Weapons and light make it less scary
People are less scared if they’re armed. As soon as they can fight back they don’t need to be scared anymore. Bright torches, weapons and guns are the enemy of scared. Limit players to low brightness torches and try not to let them bring weapons into game environments. Control is useful for better horror.
You’ll be right back – It’s better to go alone
Or at least in small groups. Small groups of players are more easily scared than large ones. A small number people going out to meet in the woods and encountering horrific thing of doom is vastly more scary than a mob of thirty doing the same. Try and build reasons why your players wouldn’t all go into parts of the game. Let them return and tell the story. Hearing about things happening out there builds the fear level beautifully.
Roleplaying horror isn’t easy. Try to actually scare them
It’s hard to convincingly roleplay being really scared. Giving players some solid fear to work from can help. If you can have your players on edge they’ll buy into the story more and more immersion will result in more fear.
Don’t let them get too close
Sometimes you can only phys-rep things from a distance. Some of the best horror events I’ve played have had monsters I’ve never met before, and people I didn’t know were on site. If I know who’s playing the monster then it’s less real and it’s easier to think outside the game.
There is no good answer
Players who have to choose between morally bad options in order to do good things are more likely to end up playing confused and angry characters that will make stupid choices and react impulsively to the big bad.
There’s a time limit
No one can be scared forever. Work out how long your players will enjoy being scared for. Break down the fear so they have moments of relief as and when they need it. Try and plan in a build to the main horror moments. Flip the game. Work out what the best setting for your major horror scenes is and time the game around that. We typically prefer horror in the dark so try to run in the middle of winter.
They really are that dumb – Encourage the choice to do the stupid thing
This one is for the players. Split up, go out into the woods alone, leave all the weapons the other side of a locked door. Let your character lose control of the situation. It allows you to be more scared. You can justify pretty much anything if you have to.
Give them friends and loved ones – Listening to them scream over radio is good
By good I mean it’s kind of scary. If you are going to do the stupid thing, take a radio with you, make sure someone’s at the other end, then let them know when you’re lost and dying. This will heighten tension and fear for the players who haven’t gone out into the dark, and give them a reason to follow you.
Let them die
Don’t be afraid to kill players. Give them a good death. Let them die to save others. Let them die carrying out the stupid plan. Let them go down in a blaze of glory. Have a plan as to what to do with them when they’re dead. Waking up to the ghost of a dead character screaming ‘why aren’t you dead!’ a foot from your head is more than a little discomforting.
Change the rules
Let them think they know how you’ve done it. Then do something different. Destroy their OOC explanations for what they’re seeing and they’re left with just their IC horror. Let them think they’ve worked it out and that they’re in charge, then take that off them.
Don’t have “hero” characters in the game.
Heroes are about overcoming the odds. Common, everyday characters will not be as well equipped to deal with the horror. If your characters are superheroes then they’ll have a harder time being scared. There is a place for that. It’s not really what a horror game is about in my opinion.
Hit all the senses
Give your evil a smell. You can have players leave your games afraid of Lemons but never sure why. Have a sound track. Build it up gradually so the players never really notice it then take it away. Use low lighting, shapes and visual themes. Remember how it feels to walk through a spider web, to have a sudden chill of cold. There are tricks online everywhere. Work out what works and use it consistently. Plan this in. After one game where we’d been haunted by the cries of a dead child I have to leave the service station on the way home because there was a baby crying.
Play the metagame
Take the horror outside of the game. Blur the edges. Let them work out what you’ve done, then change the rules. Do the impossible and keep them guessing in and out of the game. Write rules that build expectations. Make the players have to decide to do the dangerous thing IC. Be careful with this, it’s a really careful balancing act. We’ve had a group of players shut themselves up in a building with no food when we got it wrong. We’d deliberately separated food and light to make them keep having to move, but they decided they’d just go hungry.
Keep them in the dark
Darkness really is your friend. People often don’t feel safe in the dark. They can’t see what is there and they see things which aren’t there. It distorts their perception of everything, and being plunged into darkness will draw the attention of everyone. You can light things, hide things. It even hides the shoddy edges of otherwise awesome costumes. Use it. Don’t be afraid to finish games in the middle of the night, and be aware how vulnerable people feel when creeping around in their pyjamas in the early hours.