“The closet door has closed, and it’s pitch black,” I said.

“I feel around for the handle and get out of here,” Roger replied.

[The clatter of some dice] “You don’t seem to be able to find the handle. There are a lot of coats and things in here—it seems a bit more crowded than when you entered. Make a Perception roll.” [More clattering. Success.] “Somebody is whispering, but you can’t make out the words.”

“Whispering? Is someone else in here? I feel all around.”

“Coats, walls. It’s a small space. There’s nobody else—but still the whispering.”

“Crap. I start shouting. ‘Help! Can someone get me out of here?’”

“Sure. You’re shouting, and feeling around for the doorknob.” [Another roll of the dice.] “And then something touches you. A hand or something grabs your ankle.”

Roger pauses, then reaches for the dice. “I’d like to make a San check, please.”

And that’s when I knew the scene had worked.

Horror has been a part of RPGs since the early days—certainly since the initial release of Call of Cthulhu back in 1981. Horror’s a great element for RPG play, and every campaign I’ve run in the past decade or so has included a healthy dose of it.

But, truthfully, the RPG medium struggles to do horror well—or, more specifically, it struggles to invoke a real reaction of fear in players. Unease? Sure. Tension? When done right. But actual fear—that cold feeling down in your gut? That need to look away when the detective investigates the attic in The Grudge? The hesitation to turn the page the first time you read Pet Cemetary? When was the last time you experienced that in an RPG?

A novelist or filmmaker gets to control the pace in a way a gaming group just can’t. Fiction reveals what it wants with no input from the players, and a film immerses the audience across a range of senses. Those are advantages RPGs don’t share. But that doesn’t mean you can’t generate fear—it’s just a bit more of a challenge, and you have to know what tricks will make it work in an RPG.

Here’s the big secret: Players are not afraid of monsters. They’re not afraid of the dark. They’re not afraid of spooky sound effects or mood lighting. Players are afraid of one thing, and one thing only: Like all of us, they fear the unknown. So the way to generate a fear response is to pit them against the unknown. It’s not enough to face a monster they haven’t seen before: They have to realize they don’t know the outcome of the situation. They don’t know how it’s going to unfold. They don’t know what might happen next, or even which of their cherished assumptions about their characters or the game world are, in fact, true.

Here’s another example: I played in a long Call of Cthulhu campaign a few years back. In the course of our investigations, we several times experienced a visitation by the ghost of a creepy old man. It was never long; sometime he said something brief, but mostly he just leered at us for a moment before vanishing. We frankly had no reason to believe he had any power over us. But he seemed to have purpose, and we didn’t know what it was—and that freaked us all out. (And there were no wet-behind-the-ears players here, new to all this; the group includes such veterans as Jeff Grubb and Wolf Baur, among others.) We were loathe to go near the area where he was most often seen, and as it became clear that we’d have to face him (he wasn’t the climax of the story, but it turned out he was tied to it) any discussion of that eventuality put a pit in every stomach. There was more than one shaky hand reaching for the dice as we finally headed into that encounter.

So how do you make that sort of thing happen? Here are some specific tips:

  • Remember that fear happens in the narrative, not the action scene. The fight is the resolution of the horror, not the horror itself. In that last example, we were most scared as we headed into the confrontation with the ghost, not when we actually faced him.
  • Set things up. In my d20 Apocalypse campaign, the heroes once rode into an abandoned town, noticing a ghoulish figure watching them as they drove in. They spent the next several sessions worrying about what they had seen before they eventually faced the ghouls. This was similar to the ghost of the old man in the previous example, who literally haunted us through nearly a year of play. The game TORG did this in a setting-wide manner with the realm of Orrorsh: They hinted at this realm of horror since the launch of the game, giving only brief glimpses, so that by the time they published a sourcebook and invited gamers to head into it my party, at least, was terrified by the prospect.
  • As part of setting things up, make it the norm to mix up CRs (or equivalent) in your game. If the players can assume you’ll only throw monsters at them that they can defeat, well, they’ll assume that’s true of the unknown antagonists as well as the known. So make it an assumption of the game that sometimes one must flee or be killed. (Then see my point about commitment, below.)
  • Reskin monsters. In that d20 Apocalypse example, the creature in question was a simple ghoul, but I found a more haunting piece of artwork to represent it. The players couldn’t pigeon-hole the creature, and that helped make them afraid of it.
  • Put unknowns in the environment. I once played a rogue in a dungeon crawl run by Monte Cook. Exploring just ahead of the party, I found the passageway walls, floor, and ceiling increasingly covered in spiders. Not monstrous spiders. Not, apparently, even dangerous spiders. But their presence seemed to mean something, and I found myself quite hesitant to continue on.
  • Push players outside their comfort zones. You can do this in the game, by putting them in situations where their usual strengths won’t help them. (But use this sparingly; it doesn’t work if they don’t have comfort zones, and one of the great satisfactions of RPG gaming is playing to your strengths.) You can also do this by shaking up how the game is run—see this post on using blindfolds, for example.
  • In a related technique, force players to commit to a course of action before they fully understand what they’re committing to. Once players know (or even think they know) what they’re facing, the tension is gone. But if they have to make irrevocable decisions about how to move forward when they know they don’t know what they’re facing, they start to sweat a bit.
  • Isolate players from trusted resources. This is really just a variant on pushing them out of their comfort zones. Find a way (or a rationalization) to counteract a couple of their best spells or items. Separate them from their friends—or even, sparingly, each other. That forces them to find new ways to solve problems, and the uncertainty over whether the new ways will work adds to the sense of the unknown.
  • Include a system to accrue negatives. This might be CoC’s Sanity system, or some sort of taint system, or whatever. These things don’t create fear in their own right, but they inject a small sense of anxiety into the game: Even if the players succeed, they may come away worse off. There are other things to worry about besides loosing a few hit points. (Plus, most of these systems move toward an end-point of the player losing control of his or her character—and most players fear that far more than death or injury.)
  • And finally: Set the mood. Dim the lights a bit and play some quiet, spooky music. This is often the first technique cited for injecting horror into the game, but it really only helps if all those other pieces are in place. Atmosphere absolutely cannot bring horror to your game, but it can help settle the players into the right mindset and counter the distractions that might undermine your fine efforts.

These are just some of the best methods that have worked for me; I’m sure there are others. Maybe you’d like to share a few tricks that have had your players volunteering to make San checks?

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