Implementing Horror at Your Table

Excellent Advice on using horror in your game. 5 stars of scary!

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There is something about horror that directly and instinctively impacts humans on a primal level. It triggers a genuine gut reaction from us and creates a lasting memory that can be really impactful in film, storytelling, and gaming. I’m going to teach you how to use horror effectively and poignantly in your campaign.

Every GM has a style of story/play they lean toward. I’ve played in super high fantasy, low fantasy, and even pre-written games at my FLGS (Friendly Local Gaming Store). Personally, I lean a heavily toward sending a chill up my palyers’ spines, I love a good horror game, and getting a true sense of dread across can be difficult; luckily I’m feeling like sharing a few of my secrets. Here are a some things you can do to boost the scare-factor of your Table Top RPG, and some helpful hints on what horror actually is and how to use…

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Setting the Scene

food and diceThe players arrive and lay out their dice, character sheet, a drink and perhaps some edible substance that should provide some sort of vague nourishment for 2-4 hours.  There is some idle chit chat before the dice start rolling and you begin your story.

As a GM one of the largest challenges has been setting the stage and mood of the adventure right from the beginning.   How can I truly place my players into the world I’m about layout before them?

Appeal to all the senses.  This means as you describe your beginning tavern you want to include the mood of the setting. Is it a dark room filled with various nefarious types with the smell of rot and smoldering kitchen stench? The damp air chills your core. There is older Dwarf hiding in a corner looking every which way mumbling to himself.   You can also apply one of those hidden and often forgotten senses to every setting.  How does your current environment make you feel?  Ah, that is the key, make your players feel something.  tavern

A good GM will leave his players fumbling with their dice and sitting attentively, waiting for what happens next.   I want my players to feel so immersed in the world that they don’t notice in my rush to prepare their night of adventure I forgot to put on pants.

Painting a picture of the world you are describing has to reflect as much sensory detail as you can.  It can be easy to do.  Imagine how you interact with your world.  Humans learn about their surroundings through our senses.  You want to have your story telling to come alive.

One of the examples I can remember took place at local game convention with a DM I had never met before.  Please take into account that in the 80’s we were a rare breed.  I was excited to have someone new. Each one of us brings something different the table.  Call it our own personal spin on things.  Our character voices or the way we describe something.  The words we may use or even the hand waving action we perform for our small collective audience listening on our every word.

I was looking forward to learning something new.  My DM skills are a giant soup pot of my own skills mixed in with every DM/GM I’ve met.  I see something I like and I add it to the soup.   I would suggest you do the same.  You should always be learning.   Nothing is more flattering than telling a DM, “I really liked what you did and I’m going to use it”.

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This new DM starts our party off on a road heading into the local village.   Opening scene “You are on a road and see some fog in the distance.”  My first thought was to charge the fog.  Rage wasn’t really a thing back then or I might done that also.   I was a little disappointed and it didn’t get any better.  The plot was good, but I was left with a feeling like I could have been so much more.

I couldn’t get past the opening scene and right after the game was finished we had to hand in our comment cards.   It is important to make sure you are reaching your goals and the goals of the player.  Not every player is going to be completely satisfied.  But this day I was a player, and felt a little let down.

For my comment card I rewrote the opening scene how I would have described it, and that was all.  I didn’t check any of the boxes and just wrote on the back.

fog2“You find yourself standing on a muddy road.  Large tracks from wagons and horses make it difficult to get your footing on the slippery road.  There is a chill that your cloaks can’t shake.  The skies are a dull grey of the early morning overcast.  You can feel the bite of the salty air in your mouth. The sea must be close now.  According to the map the town should be just south but there is thick fog bank like a wall of despair that blocks your path.  The silence only broken by the faint sounds of waves crashing on a hidden shore line“. I might have written a bit more, but space was limited.

It wasn’t perfect but I guess I made my point because the new DM approached me sometime later and asked how I came up with that.   We sat down and discussed a great many things that day over many ales while receiving strange looks from the local tavern ladies that listened to our crazy discussion.   The simple solution to his approach was to write.  Write as much as you can and practice using the senses as a guideline.  Back then we didn’t have an internet to quickly look things up and the tens of thousands people in numerous support groups to ask questions too.

My best suggestion is read books. Lots and lots of books.  Authors are the best inspiration.  To this day I still rely on the small library I have collected over the years as a support group before I headed on over to the google hive mind.  I still write all my scenes as part of my DM prep time.  I want to make sure I’m capturing the detail and feel of the scene.  I use the words to foreshadow events to my players.  I want them to feel the world and forget for the few hours they’re with me that anything else exists.

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I don’t have an instructional guide how to accomplish this as that would end up being some sort of novel on its’ own.  Instead I going to make a few recommendations that you can do to succeed.

Start writing out your scenes.  It’s easy to look through a monster manual and pick out a few things, but even that part can be reduced to just some hit points and an AC.  Make specific notes on the description of the monster and use that in your scene.

I encourage writing your scenes and reading them to your group instead of trying to remember what you thought was correct.  This way you don’t get to excited and miss out on those pieces of detail that will make your player feel.

Practice every day.  Thoughts about adventures normally follow through us more than a few times a day.  Write them down and expand on them.  Write down descriptors using all the senses.  This will help you later when you want to write the scene.

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A good DM can see the pulse increase and feel the anticipation of their players.  Make them feel scared and excited.

Players will always remember how they felt.