Today I’d like to talk about a subject that’s close to me, because it creeps into most things I write or run: horror, in the sense of the soft and subtle breed of horror that never directly flings a slavering monster in anyone’s face. This isn’t any easy breed of horror to write games about, as even things like Call of Cthulhu tend to end up having some Horrid Thing that the players can focus on to defeat. Some games do it better than others, but most require the touch of a careful GM to really do it right.
So what goes into making this kind of horror game work?
Rule One: Know Your Players. This can’t be stressed enough, and not for the reason you’d think at first. Horror, no matter how much you’re playing it for fun or catharsis, isn’t a place to screw around with peoples’ psychological well-being. If you know a player has a phobia about centipedes or snakes, don’t use those in the game. At all. There’s plenty of other stuff for you to tap out there in the world that won’t trip over the traumas and scars of your players. So, before we even really begin, know your players and know what really, truly disturbs them so that you can avoid it.
Rule Two: Hide Your Books of Monsters. For this kind of horror, you won’t need statted-up and fleshed-out monstrosities. While they can certainly be helpful in many cases, soft horror only occasionally has actual conflicts with anything other than the players getting into a tense fight with one another in-character. This isn’t to say you won’t have beasts and things that go bump in the dark, but they won’t be anything that you’ll need your monster manual for.
Example: In one Alpha Omega game that I ran, the entire campaign saw about four combat sessions, none of which were with a creature from the book that detailed creatures in the game world. Each of these encounters served as either a break in the tension or a cap to it; on the other hand, one member of the group was plagued by a Creature that moved through the facility walls like a fish through water. It wasn’t aggressive or hostile, but it did seem to delight in tormenting the poor character.
Rule Three: Specific Hallucinations Are Magic. By this I mean that picking a specific theme of sensory data for each character – preferably tied to their character background – and occasionally – no more than once or twice a session – giving them a roll to notice something. If they succeed, they spot, hear, smell, or feel something tied to their theme; if they fail, they get a sensation that they just missed something, on the order of seeing something move at the edge of their vision.
This works particularly well if one character has mechanically superior senses to the others; you can pick to either give that character a horrible sense of paranoia by giving them the bulk of the rolls, or mess with everyone by not giving them any – or at least very few. Either way works, but you should pick the one that works best for your player group.
Rule Four: In Horror, Light Is Important. This is an important things to remember; if you’re ever going to use lighting rules for making perception checks harder, this is the genre to do it in. Tying in with Rule Three, put the bulk of the single-person hallucinations in shadows, so that they can’t be sure they saw something or if their mind was playing tricks on them due to the darkness. When you need to alarm them, have the lights all go out for a few seconds, then come back on (doing this in a fantasy setting when all the available light is from lanterns and torches has an added touch of WTF).
Alternately, in an inversion of the last rule, you can plunge everyone except one person into total darkness, while that person continues to see all the light sources as normal for the short span of time that everyone else is in the dark. Leave everyone wondering if the darkness was the hallucination or if it was the person who still saw light who was seeing a false truth.
Rule Five: Don’t Overdo It. This one is easy to screw up on; there’s a reason the previous rules all suggest that you don’t do anything to a given character more than once or twice a session. An extended group instance is fine, as long as they’re all experiencing it, but don’t make every single session about their delving into the deep bizarre or you’ll have players who soon devolve into either X-Files or Scooby Doo. Be sure to give the players a sufficient amount of mundane problems and effects, no matter how dangerous, in between the psychological bits.
Keeping plenty of mundane problems in play can keep the tension up and give people the time and space to explore what the mental assaults are doing to their characters. A room with a cyanide gas leak is a mundane problem; someone who has smelled bitter almonds via hallucinations a couple of times is likely to assume that they’re hallucinating again, until the others react to it; having to deal with an unstable tunnel or a rickety walkway can keep people tense while they wonder if something’s going to make them see things unexpectedly while they try to get through.
Rule Six: Use Ambiance and Props. Lower the lights in the game room. Setup your computer with some sound effects, the kind that can be used as white noise in the background. Have the wind softly whistling, almost too low to be heard. If you’re going to introduce unnaturally cold items, get a prop and keep in in an ice chest with a couple of cold packs before letting people hand it around, then tuck it back into the chest. Adjust the thermostat to make it just a little too cool for comfort. If you can afford it, things like wirelessly-controlled false candles can be amazing; plunging the actual room into darkness at the moment you describe it can do wonders.
Start speaking at a normal volume, but lower your voice slowly so that they lean toward you; do it right and they’ll talk in hushed tones without knowing quite why. The false candles are also fantastic tools in this, creating a dim, warm pool of light while leaving everything else in the room darker. Getting a book bound in thin leather will stand in well for a tome bound in human hide; be imaginative and you’ll only need a few props at the right moments to help cement the eerie and unnerving sensation in the minds of your players.
Rule Seven: Keep It Fun. This one should be obvious as an adjunct to Rule One, but everyone at the table is there to have a good time. You, as GM, need to keep an eye on your players and make sure that no one is showing signs of actually getting stressed out in real life. If they do, consider taking a quick break to check on them; it’s better to lose immersion and make sure that David hasn’t discovered that he has significant issues with spiders that he never knew existed than it is to keep going and have him either lose it at the table or pull out of the group because it now has bad associations for him.
Also be aware, if you’re a player, of your fellow players; signal the GM for a break if you think someone is getting twisted up in reality and check with them and, if need be, the GM during the break about their mental state. While there’s a certain subset of our hobby’s population that thrives on overblown machismo and the ‘man up’ mindset, the hobby will stay healthy longer if we look after one another. It’s also the decent and humane thing to do, which should be reason enough to do it.
And that sums it up for today; hopefully this can help you build a darker mood for the kind of horror that doesn’t rely on monsters and gore.