East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Scaring people for fun and (sometimes) profit


Kids these days!
On a roleplaying forum a discussion starts about horror RPGs and how you create fear. And everybody starts talking about game rules and mechanics.
Which is oh, so wonderfully naive, and misses the mark by a half-mile.

In a roleplaying game, we get players playing the roles of characters.
Scaring the characters is easy.
The Game Master says “Your characters are scared.”
There can be specific rules to simulate fear – the old Ravenloft setting used a Saving Throw vs Death and Paralysis or a Will check. Fail that, your character is scared. Other games used different formulas. Done.

But if one of the the purposes of horror fiction (and horror roleplaying is interactive, shared fiction) is for the end user to experience the frisson of fear, then the fact the characters in the stories are scared witless is not enough. We need to get to the end user – the player.
And here’s something I learned in my long life as a Game Master – nobody’s scared of a roll of dice or a table.

So what do we do?
Basically we use cheap tricks.
Coupled with narration (that is always essential to set the mood and the atmosphere), a balloon going BANG! without warning will cause the players to jump on their chairs.
If you are allowing them to sit on chairs.
Because what we need to do is take these people out of their comfort zones.
It’s easy to go through a long session with your characters trapped under a pyramid with swarms of killer carnivorous scarabs, if you are sitting on a comfy chair, eating crisps and drinking beer, cracking the odd joke with your mates.
But now you are standing, and everything gets a lot more urgent. Because you are also in the dark, and the game master is not sitting at the head of the table. No, he is prowling around the table. You can hear him, and then he enters your personal space, gets real close, points his flashlight on your character sheet and taps a skill you need to check. By the time you roll he’s moved on to the next player (that is not the one next to you – nobody knows where he will hit next) and you have to squint to read the dice result.
And you don’t have a clear idea of what the heck’s going on.

This is getting really uncomfortable.
We got to make it quick.
Oh, no you idiot, you blundered!
I can’t see jack in this darkness.
What was that?

It gets scary.
Well, it gets scarier than sitting around discussing last week’s episode of Star Trek and throwing pop corn at each other.

A good horror game master should have a box full of cheap tricks. Not props, but cheap tricks. Things that make weird noises. Things that go bang. Flashlights and glowsticks. Dry ice.

And it has nothing to do with the rules.
Because we like rules, rules give us something to rely on, and having something to rely on is the enemy of fear.
It’s the sort of thing you learn in the field, or from an old article by John Tynes in a horror-themed issue of Shadis magazine.
Or from Ken Hite’s Nightmares of Mine, for my money the best treatment of horror in games and narrative you can spend money on. Don’t be scared by the fact it’s supposed to be a Rolemaster accessory – if I remember correctly there’s three boxed out texts that cover Rolemaster rules. The rest is system agnostic, and it’s absolutely wonderful.
Or scary.
After all, it’s all about scary, right?

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “Scaring people for fun and (sometimes) profit

  1. Holy cow, those are great ideas. I wish I’d thought of these when I was running Ravenloft adventures all those years ago!


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