Today I’ll be continuing my review of Paizo’s Horror Adventures for the Pathfinder RPG, heading into the section on Horror Storytelling. So far, I’m happier with this book than I am with many entire games that are supposed to be built around the premise of horror; hopefully this continues as we head into the last sections of the book.
Among the first things in this part is a note of the distinction between scaring heroes and scaring players. Scaring the heroes is comparatively easy; you use the narrative to evoke a sense of dread, which can involve splashing hints of the horror that lies in wait, you put your skill as a GM to use to engage the group and draw people into the story, and you prepare the game space to evoke a sense of something ominous.
Scaring the players is trickier; it often lies on layers of cleverness by the GM, which can be difficult to keep up but generally has a worthwhile payoff. First, you need to figure out how to sow suspicion among the players, but in a way that won’t impact out-of-game interactions with one another. While passing misleading or blank notes, or passing a note with valid information but telling the player not to share it will work, it leaves material evidence; if you can, instead take them into a side room or the hallway for a very quiet and quick chat. It doesn’t matter whether or not what you told them in true, or if you just tell them that there’s nothing to tell them. Knowing that this is a horror game will make the others suspect the player knows more than they say – and if you deny their claims after giving them something misleading, it’ll help sow uncertainty across the table. Just don’t overdo it, and vary who you favor with real information and who gets nonsense or nothing.
Dice are a good way to heighten the tension; mystery rolls where you note the result down, making a roll and asking a particular player what their Perception or Will modifiers are, and occasionally asking a player to roll a die without explaining what they’re rolling for are good ways to put them all on edge. Similarly, don’t be afraid to take away familiar tools – get rid of the battlemaps and use rough sketches on whiteboards or large sheets of paper. Play fast and loose with measurements, but don’t go out of your way to screw players over; don’t be the person whose NPCs are always a few inches out of range of the fireball while the PCs are always just barely in range.
Stress and uncertainty are also your friends; throw in outright alarming elements like a wind that seems to follow one player in particular, or all the dogs in town shying away from a particular character for no reason. Take away the PC hive mind; insist that players act one their turn, quickly, without discussion. Don’t allow pre-game tactical discussions. Stick a timer where everyone can see it, counting down the rounds, or just make a show of counting the rounds off. Make it clear that time is moving and they’ve only got so much of it. Don’t let them have downtime to rest until they’re literally about to collapse and their abilities are gone – then harry them a bit more before letting them hole up, and make it clear that something may be about to disrupt their downtime.
Death is an important thing to think about; in normal Pathfinder you either roll up a new character or get a resurrection spell. Horror, however, provides more options. A character may wake up with a monstrous hunger for flesh that they have to struggle with, transformed into a ghoul. Or they may find themself at the gates of death, intercepted by some powerful and amoral being that offers them a second chance at life in exchange for a favor to be named at a later date. Use death to hang some horrible fates over the players – and call them due, one by one, to accentuate the horror.
The next section is on creating atmosphere; it covers the bases quite nicely, with the game space, lighting, music and sound effects, and dealing with things that can distract from the game all touched upon. Important thing: don’t let players get distracted by the internet, and try to keep electronics to the minimum possible. Nothing wrecks the atmosphere like a bright white screen glaring into the gloomy room and someone’s cheery pop ringtone going off.
The last part of the chapter is advice on house rules and their extrapolation into larger situations. I won’t really say much here, but the situations they offer up are familiar horror tropes, such as being buried alive or burned at the stake. Worth a read-through, really.
That’s all for today! The next two chapters are Horror Gear and Magic Items, and the Bestiary. These likely won’t take too long to cover, unlike these last two chapters. Check back next time!