This is being written on October 31, which is one of those Iconic dates in North America and catching on (thanks to the marketing muscle of various supermarkets and retailers, who are always looking for an angle that will persuade you to buy something extra) through large parts of the rest of the world.
This time of year is always significant; it signals that the year is in its home run towards the finish line. Because the last opportunity to hand out Christmas gifts to our players is often the first Saturday in December, and we need time to have the things that we have ordered over the internet arrive in Australia, most of my Christmas Shopping is already done by this point, and various products are now in transit. December sometimes seems almost entirely one big end-of-year party getting in the way of the usual routine, so for most of our games there is just one more session before the end of the year.
So it’s a date that’s worth celebrating, that deserves to be noteworthy. And the usual way is by talking about ghosts and ghoulies and goblins – well maybe not goblins, not anymore. But the scary stuff. Which brings me neatly to today’s article, which is bang-on theme. I’m even aiming to publish an hour early, right at the stroke of midnight, just so that I can legitimately claim that this was published on Halloween here as well as in North America!
According to Wikipedia, “Fear is a feeling induced by perceived danger or threat that occurs in certain types of organisms, which causes a change in metabolic and organ functions and ultimately a change in behavior, such as fleeing, hiding, or freezing from perceived traumatic events. Fear in human beings may occur in response to a specific stimulus occurring in the present, or in anticipation or expectation of a future threat perceived as a risk to body or life. The fear response arises from the perception of danger leading to confrontation with or escape from/avoiding the threat (also known as the fight-or-flight response), which in extreme cases of fear (horror and terror) can be a freeze response or paralysis.”
I don’t agree 100% with that description. Fear doesn’t necessarily lead to a behavioral change. It is unreasonable to think that soldiers, police, and rescue workers would eliminate the fear response, but unless the fear becomes acute, they remain able to follow their training. Thus, while the Wikipedia description would be accurate for acute fear, there would be lesser degrees of fear which do not completely meet the description.
Fear is the emotion that we feel when we feel scared. There are causes both rational and irrational, and the latter are usually characterized as phobias, though I would include paranoia in that category as well. Rational fears are fears that have a solid justification in terms of perceived threat, and yet fear goes beyond simple threat perception and the associated physiological responses. You can feel an adrenalin rush without feeling fear; excitement and exhilaration are also possible reactions to danger.
Mutual fear can bond people together in a shared experience, just as can shared grief; the two often occur side-by-side. Survivors of a life-threatening incident such as an aircraft crash frequently bond in this way, for example, and survivors of terrorist threats may also respond in this way. Communities can band together in mutual cooperation in the face of natural disasters. Sometimes, these bonding effects can be transient, sometimes they last a lifetime; soldiers also report this phenomenon, to the point that it is almost a cliché.
Neither of these effects is part of the description of fear that is quoted above. Nor is the experience of fear by proxy, which happens in thrillers and horror movies, explained by it. And that last is important to us, because that’s the closest analogy to the purpose of the spooky in an RPG. So let’s look at it in more detail.
Fear in Entertainment
Again, from Wikipedia:
“Horror is a film genre seeking to elicit a negative emotional reaction from viewers by playing on the audience’s primal fears. Inspired by literature from authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley, horror films have existed for more than a century. The macabre and the supernatural are frequent themes, and may overlap with the fantasy, supernatural fiction and thriller genres.
“Horror films often deal with viewers’ nightmares, fears, revulsions and terror of the unknown. Plots within the horror genre often involve the intrusion of an evil force, event, or personage into the everyday world. Prevalent elements include ghosts, extraterrestrials, vampires, werewolves, demons, gore, torture, vicious animals, evil witches, monsters, zombies, cannibals, psychopaths, and serial killers.”
So why do people enjoy scary movies? Bottom Line: while lots of people have opinions, the phenomenon is so complex and multifaceted that no-one can really say, definitively. Richard Sine of WebMD discusses several theories in his article “Why We Love Scary Movies” – everything from rites of passage to vicarious thrills. But most of his article is focused on the gore/slasher/torture subgenre, even though the title generalizes the topic. While some people find this subgenre thrilling, exciting, or enjoyable, most don’t – and it doesn’t come close to encompassing the whole of the genre.
Mark D Griffiths, PhD, in an web article for Psychology Today, “Why Do We Like Watching Scary Films?“, attempts to look at a broader picture. What’s interesting is that the first quote, from Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein, a professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Utrecht, is directly contradictory to findings quoted in the first article listed. Specifically, WebMD’s quote is that the reactions to the on-screen threat are exactly the same as if the threat were real because the hind-brain can’t tell the difference between simulation and reality, and triggers the identical physiological responses, while the Psychology Today article suggests that “But people have the ability to pay attention as much or as little as they care to in order to control what effect it has on them, emotionally and otherwise.”
This contradiction is most easily resolved by suggesting that neither of the two have the whole picture. when monsters or madmen attack from the shadows without warning, especially if there has been an appropriate buildup of tension, it’s easy to believe that for a second or so the more primitive parts of the brain respond as though the on-screen incident is real, and that this triggers physiological responses that last for some time. However, if granted sufficient distance before another such incident, the higher brain functions are capable of making the distinction between reality and simulation to whatever degree is necessary for individual comfort, together with personal reactions that limit further exposure to such shocks such as the desire to look away. This permits the viewer to enjoy the effects of thrills and danger at an intense level vicariously, without a personal sense of imminent threat.
Subsequent quotes in the Psychology Today article seem to bear this theory out, one researcher suggesting that there are four types of audience and that each would enjoy different sub-genres more, or for different reasons: ” (i) gore watchers typically had low empathy, high sensation seeking, and [among males only] a strong identification with the killer, (ii) thrill watchers typically had both high empathy and sensation seeking, identified themselves more with the victims, and liked the suspense of the film, (iii) independent watchers typically had a high empathy for the victim along with a high positive effect for overcoming fear, and (iv) problem watchers typically had high empathy for the victim but were characterized by negative effect (particularly a sense of helplessness).”
There are other theories as well, some dating all the way back to Aristotle (and obviously relating to the telling of scary stories). Amongst others, there are the Excitement Transfer Hypothesis (discussed in “Why Some People Love Horror Movies While Others Hate Them” By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S., at Psych Central, which suggests a persistent emotional amplification effect; Catharsis, in which seeing or imagining scary things helps us manage the fears which are the subject of the media; primordial unconsciousness response, in which the perceived images express things that we can’t bring ourselves to envisage and offer a context in which to resolve them; Morbid Curiosity or intellectual stimulation, in which the entertainment poses questions of ourselves that we would not have thought to ask for ourselves; and many others.
I suspect that the individual has a complex relationship with the content and tone of the entertainment that engages one or more of these in different degree, and that the reasons for a given entertainment being enjoyed are subtly different both from one individual to another and from one offering to the next.
There are some horror movies that I quite enjoy, and others that don’t greatly appeal. I prefer the original version of “The Fly” over the remakes, even while appreciating the improved visual effects of the latter; I like both versions of the The Thing, for different reasons, but would choose John Carpenter’s over the original if I had to; Westworld is another that I quite enjoy, and so is The Gate, and The Wraith, and Trick or Treat, and the Dr Phibes movies, and Hammer’s Frankenstein movies, and Dark City. I enjoyed The Craft enough to skip a meal in order to be able to afford the DVD – but have never played it since. I know one person who regards Groundhog Day as a horror movie, because they fear being trapped in a world beyond their control, but who watches it regularly anyway, because it promises that there is a way out of such situations should they arise.
All this makes it incredibly difficult to apply the creepy to an RPG because you not only have a very small ‘audience’, each of them will react differently. In a larger group, the statistical likelihood is that some viewers will respond to specific elements or attributes and their reactions will entice others to respond in the same way via empathic association. In particular, fear is communicable to at least some extent, and so those who are most responsive will enhance the sensitivity of others to the scariness of a film – when you see it with a group.
Fear in RPGs
In broad terms, RPGs are fairly simple, at least in principle, when it comes to scary content. It’s only when you get into details that things grow more complicated.
Ultimately, for example, if the whole thing is about Fear, there are only three populations (plus the GM) who can experience a fear response.
It didn’t matter how scared NPCs were in any game that I played, my responses and reactions were all predicated on the question of how great a threat the subject of those fears was to my character. Scared NPCs were ho-hum, a way of demonstrating the superiority of my PC over the ‘common herd’. When the NPC supposedly showing fear was someone that my character was supposed to respect because of his capabilities and prowess, my first reaction to such fear was always disappointment that the character had such feet of clay.
Sure, my character was able to feel fear when that was the appropriate response of his personality to the situation, but it was always from him, not from any NPC reaction.
If anything, I often found it to be scarier when there was something to be scared of – and the NPCs weren’t fearful.
It’s really hard to scare the players in an RPG because they are always aware that it IS an RPG. Sure, you could manage it by posing some actual threat to the players, but doing it by story alone is really tough. More often, players are scared for their characters than because of the actual situation facing the characters; they feel threatened because “their property” is at risk. This can lead players to spend long periods of time trying to analyze situations and make overly-extensive plans that drag out a game unbearably. I wrote about this in “Overprotective Tendencies: Handling Player Risk Aversion“.
So there is a really fine line to dance on, if you want to scare the players; it needs to be something that’s creepy more than directly threatening. I had this in mind when choosing the title for this article.
That leaves only the third population group: scaring the PCs in such a way that the players can experience that fear vicariously enough to roleplay (and enjoy) the situation while still leaving the players a sense of being in control of their characters’ destinies. Which is far easier to say than to do. Why? Because fear is all about restricting the choice of actions, while leaving the players with a sense of control requires no such restriction.
Nevertheless, this is clearly the road that needs to be taken. The theory is that getting the PCs to feel fear, if done properly, and even if that fear is not acute, can nevertheless be experienced to some degree by the player controlling the character by virtue of the player/character identification process. Achieving this objective is the subject of the bulk of this article.
The creepy in non-creepy genres
In one respect, it’s easier to do a scary adventure or encounter in a non-creepy genre simply because the impact is emphasized by virtue of the contrast between the “creepy” and “typical” situations. In another respect, it is harder, simply because the characters and players are not psychologically aligned to trend in that direction, and neither is the pervading mood, and – finally – the genre conventions might be in opposition.
Or to put it another way, putting the scary into a horror-themed RPG is easier because the mechanics are designed to support the genre and its standard tropes.
And yet, it’s that very difficulty that makes this worth attempting on occasion – if it doesn’t work, you have (ideally) a mediocre-but-solid adventure; if it does, you transcend the genre limitations to achieve something spectacular.
The difficulty means that it’s essential to have as many elements contributing to the objective as it’s possible to arrange. And that includes taking advantage of the psychological preparedness that derives from celebrating a “creepy” holiday like Halloween.
It’s worth looking at some of the specific difficulties involved. If the adventure is to succeed, most or all of these will have to be overcome, or at least minimized in their impact.
Arm’s Length Remove
The first is an absolute – anything that pulls the players out of character has to be minimized, the identification between player and character has to be maximized. This affects everything from the choices of phrasing of the GM – he should speak to the player/character always in the first-person and personal (“you,” “he”) and never by name, i.e. in the third person – to the design of the adventure, which should emphasize roleplay and minimize die rolls (it’s not going too far to have players roll dice in advance and for these to be kept by the GM and applied as necessary). That includes the GM rolling dice.
The Startle Response
A lot of horror movies function by building up tension and then provoking a startle response that makes the viewer jump. This is much harder to do in an RPG; descriptions never have the same impact, and you can’t cheat by showing the villain lurking in the shadows or stalking their target. Everything has to be from the PCs perspective.
It can be achieved using sound effects, hushed tones, and sudden punctuation – but it’s not easy.
Gore? Only In Your Mind, mate
Some horror films, especially the slasher subgenre, function by killing characters off and employing liberal doses of gore and the gruesome. These lose all their impact in a narrative environment unless very carefully handled. Again, sound effects and visuals can be helpful, but by and large the PCs will ignore these things as attempts by the GM to manipulate them. The gruesome is just ugly unless it is placed in the correct psychological context.
Gratuitous Violence? What else is new?
Similarly, gratuitous violence has minimal impact; players in D&D are used to extreme violence, for example. If you can give the players the sense that someone or something is picking them off, one-by-one, you might be able to pull it off – but then you face the problem of what to do with those players whose characters have been, or have supposedly been, killed – and if you give any indication that appearances are deceptive, the situation has all the impact of wet spaghetti.
Horror-genre games usually solve this with high levels of lethality – if a character is killed off, the player goes into the next room and starts generating a replacement who can join the survivors in their next adventure – but this is contrary to acceptable behavior in most other genres. In D&D/fantasy it might be tolerable, but the gratuitousness would still be contrary to the heroic fantasy concept in general unless very carefully managed, for example trading each PC ‘life’ for one of the big bad’s lieutenants. But, if you go this route, no PC victory can be permitted without a cost being exacted immediately. And the tendency for PCs to function as a group, however poorly-coordinated, must be taken into account; most of these “pick-them-off” tactics mandate one-on-one encounters. Persuading the party to decide that they have no choice but to split up is the only way to go – but you can’t be seen to be dictating this choice.
It’s even harder in the Pulp and Superheroic genres. Violence is so ingrained in those genres that it is not sufficiently dramatic to be scary, and it’s completely opposed to genre conventions for PCs to get killed off willy-nilly. Such deaths are major set-pieces, and always have to be heroic victories in which a PC makes the ultimate sacrifice to achieve a major plot objective, like defeating the enemy. On top of that, deaths are often not all that permanent, especially in the superheroic genre, and that reduces the impact that it has.
I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s worth repeating and emphasizing: every interaction with game mechanics takes players out of the close identification with their characters that the GM needs to exploit. Save that it would induce howls of protest, I would almost recommend taking character sheets away from the players just to make immersion in character as tight as it could possibly get.
The practicalities of when and where you play are usually going to be obstacles that have to be overcome as well. I have no choice, for example, about playing in daylight conditions and have no control over ambient noise.
Overcoming The Difficulties
There are techniques that can be used to overcome these and other difficulties, in whole or in part. Let’s consider the most useful of them.
A good visual representation is worth 1,000 words or more under normal circumstances. These circumstances do nothing but emphasize the value of the right visual representations. I’ve even used tricks like manipulation of images and presenting them as a sequence to achieve effects – for example, find a good photo of a creepy old place, duplicate it, darken it and desaturate it and otherwise edit it so that it appears to be a night-time view, then – in rapid sequence – flash from the darkened image to the original and back. The results look like a creepy place being illuminated by lightning. Overused, this doesn’t work; used correctly, it can have a huge impact.
Here’s how it’s done:
I started with this image of Bucharest provided by freeimages.com / creatsima:
You’ll notice there isn’t a lot of color in it at the moment. That’s good because it permits me to manipulate the colors as I see fit. I created a color mask, simply following the shapes of the bits that I wanted to be in different colors. In this case, there were two – I wanted a light blue for the sky and an even paler blue with just a little more aqua for the stone construction. Putting these on a new layer, I then set that layer to multiply with the original. This is the result:
I then made a copy of the original image layer, placed it above the color map layer, and desaturated it:
I also set this layer to multiply the layers below. I then had three parameters that I tweaked a little: the opacity of the different layers, and the brightness and contrast of the grayscaled image. It took only a minute or two to produce the “final” image:
In use, I would make two copies of the final image, numbering them with a numeric gap in between. The first one might be number 12, and the second copy number 14, for example. I then have my choice of using either the original image or the colored image as picture number 13; the former gives a very bright bolt of lightning, the latter a rather more natural result. In play, I simply show image 12, hit the shortcut to show the next image, and as soon as it has appeared, hit that button again. The result is that the brighter image only flashes on-screen for a second, creating the illusion of a dark and stormy night.
Note that you don’t need a lot of dark, rich color; always work to match the color that you want the lightest part of the image area to be, and then be prepared to tweak hue, brightness, and saturation.
I used a similar technique to enrich the colors of the image used to welcome people to this article, above.
Adding blurred reflections of other images is another trick that can work well, as does framing an image with a dripping-blood border- doing that last in red is a cliché, doing it in black with just a hint of red glisten has a disproportionate effect.
To show you what I mean, here’s another example – and this time I saved the color map to show you! I start with the original image, also provided by freeimages.com / createsima. Note that it is black and white:
The first step is to add color. In this case, I did a slightly more complex job of it, loading textures into the sky, which I am making mostly green with just a little blue, and darker green where the trees were in the original. The lower section LOOKS white, but it isn’t, it’s a very VERY pale brownish-yellow-gray.
Setting the colormap layer to multiply has an immediate impact: Note especially the effect on the color of of the gravestones and mausoleum:
Next, it’s time to darken things up, using a desaturated copy of the colorized image, and setting it to multiply. I used some additional copies of the brightest parts of the sky and multiplied them as well, and used a soft erase to eliminate the resulting dark edges, plus some tweaking of contrast and brightness. When you put all those effects together, you get this image:
Now, that’s fairly creepy on its’ own, but it really needs one final touch – a ribbon of dripping blood across the top. I made that separately and then copied-and-pasted it into the image:
Right away you should be able to see what I described earlier. It doesn’t look like it belongs, it is too bright and saturated relative to the rest of the image. It feels cheesy. To correct this, I duplicated the blood layer, turned the duplicate to grayscale, darkened it to 100%, stretched the underlying red blood just a little, and then moved it up a couple of pixels so that the bottoms of the drops of blood had the most prominent coloring. Here’s the final image:
Now the blood looks like it belongs there, adding to the eeriness and creepiness of the scene.
Reflections are much harder to get right, I’ll deal with how to do them some other time!
Still another trick is to take images of NPCs that the characters know well, or even of the PCs themselves, and using a multiplying filter on a number of desaturated versions of the image on separate layers – with appropriate erasures – can produce much harsher shadows and sunken eyes. I’ve even taken a photograph and photoshopped in skeletal eye-sockets (with appropriate tints) to produce images of the recognizable dead.
If you can use them in your environment, sounds can be extremely powerful in establishing mood, and mood is incredibly potent at creating a scary context. Even sparing use can be effective. This isn’t an option that I have, as I explained in the article on sound effects and music in RPGs earlier this year, but don’t let that stop you if you can do it.
Even minimalist efforts like a recording of fingernails on a blackboard looped into perpetual repetition and played so quietly that it can’t be consciously heard can have a substantial impact. Another is the gnawing of rats and mice. Bury both beneath a sonic layer of wind and then turn it down to the point where you can only just make it out when everyone is quiet.
Or save it for shock impact – a creaky door swinging closed, for example, or a crack of thunder – can be extremely effective especially if you don’t normally go to the effort, and can be played loudly enough, briefly enough, that they will be heard even in a reasonably high-ambient-noise environment but won’t be overly disturbing to others.
The key to maximum effectiveness is for these sounds to appear to be independent of you as GM – it takes all the surprise out of things if you are visibly fiddling with an app just before the sound effect gets played.
Darkening the room and illuminating it with candles on plaster skulls – or anything else of the sort – that adds to the atmosphere of the gaming locale is a definite asset.
When you’re talking about tension build-up and discharge, you’re talking about the emotional pacing of the adventure. I’ve previously written a series on the subject – to pull off a creepy adventure, you will need to master that material or get very lucky:
- Swell And Lull – Emotional Pacing in RPGs Part 1
- Swell And Lull – Emotional Pacing in RPGs Part 2
- Pacing and the value of the Pause
- Anatomy Of An Interruption – Endpoints
- Status Interruptus: Types Of Pause
- Compound Interruptions: Manipulating Pauses
You might also find these of value:
- The Yu-Gi-Oh Lesson: New Inspirations In Pacing and Style
- Back To Basics Part 1: Adventure Structures
- and, Scenario Sequencing: Structuring Campaign Flow if applied at the micro-level to the individual adventure instead of the macro-level of an entire campaign.
The more you know about how the players think that their characters think, the better you can target the characters – their fears and insecurities – as the players who control them understand them.
There are two grades of understanding – the gross and the fine. A gross understanding points at phenomena that are well known, for example a character with claustrophobia. These tend to be obvious and unsubtle, making them less desirable for use in a horror adventure. A fine understanding deals with those subtle nuances that may not be dictated by character sheets and descriptions. They are dictated as much by the way the player thinks as they are about the character, and as such, they are far more effective at targeting the “gestalt” that is the combination of player and character.
Horror stories take an aspect of the real world that causes distress, whether that be a fear of spiders, or death, or the supernatural, or whatever, and makes it palpably real from the perspective of the protagonists’ experiences. Whether it ultimately turns out to be ‘real’ in the sense of being what it initially appeared to be is another question entirely. In addition to containing most if not all of those potential horror elements, most game settings will have additional potentials that can comprise a nightmare scenario.
Some of these, like “fast zombies”, have been done almost to death, pardon the pun – but others will not have been. In D&D, smart zombies who retain the character levels they earned in life, and who are conspiring against the living, formed the foundation concept of my Seeds Of Empire campaign, for example, and a slightly different twist on the concept was used for the Tree Of Life campaign which I used for playtesting D&D 5e.
Seek out the uniqueness of your campaign setting and look for the elements within it that can be expressed as a nightmare, a fear. Done properly, this yields a horror story that can come from no other source, that is unique to this particular campaign.
Proprieties of Plot
While the varieties of potential plot are too great to permit detailed analysis, there are some common traits that they are all going to have to have in order for the horror adventure to succeed in a normally non-horror genre or campaign. Three in particular stand out.
The Accumulation Of Tension
The first is that horror will not happen all at once. You can’t simply flip a switch and go into “scary mode’; instead, it will be a steady accumulation of tension and the expression of that tension in a form that induces fear. Each event along the way adds just a little to the horror scenario, but the cumulative effect slowly overcomes all the difficulties that were outlined earlier, especially if given a gentle shove in the right direction.
In the Zenith-3 campaign at the present time, one of the central themes of the current adventure is that it is easy to make monsters, either literally or figuratively. There is a distant descendant of the notorious Nazi scientist, Dr. Josef Mengele, who applies 21st century science and ruthlessness to transform those on the scrapheap of society into physical monsters in order to present variations on the human form capable of thriving no matter what form of ecological disaster befalls the earth. His motives are sincere and even laudable, his methods are ethical but just barely tolerable, his results are horrifying because no-one gets a choice until after the transformation has taken place, and it is a choice between survival as a monster or death. Some make the transition and even find a measure of satisfaction from their new existences, others fail to make the mental transition and either kill themselves when given the opportunity or go insane. Because the PCs know that the line of work in which they are engaged – being a superhero – is dangerous, they cannot help but put themselves in the shoes of the monsters, confronting their own answers to the question of what an acceptable price is for survival with no quality of life.
Another of the plot threads involves a form of drugs that makes monsters, and how far you are justified in going to satisfy ambition.
A third relates to the protection of one’s children, and how far that can and should be permitted to extend – when your child is a monster, protection of that child becomes monstrous and makes you a monster as well.
And finally, a fourth involves extremism, and extreme reactions to extremism, and how that turns what are otherwise good people into monsters. The extreme nationalistic movements and outright paranoia about Islamics that is manifesting in many countries, cloaked in the dressing of nationalism, is an example of this sort of plot element. If your government does monstrous things in your name, does that not make you just a little monstrous? If you support these acts, is that not even more monstrous? And if you don’t think they go far enough, and you condone still more extreme manifestations, does that not take nationalism and turn it into something monstrous, exactly as the Nazis did in World War 2?
The combination of these themed plotlines has left the PCs unsure of who their allies are, uncertain of who can be trusted, certain that some of those they trust do not have their best interests at heart, feeling isolated and vulnerable, and made them willing to compromise their personal integrity for the bigger picture. They are, in other words, becoming just a little monstrous themselves. That’s a formula for inducing fear, but it has not yet manifested in horror; it merely contains the potential to do so. That final step requires events to make the self-identification with potential monstrosity unavoidable and the impact that the plotlines have had on the characters, undeniable and palpable.
Each of the PCs has his or her own personal demons against whom they wrestle from time to time, and that will make these plotlines resonate with these particular characters in one way or another, whether that is the potential within the character to perform monstrous acts, or the loss of self-identity in service to a cause, or the capability of psychological diseases such as addiction to drive one to otherwise unthinkable acts, or the price of caring for others even when they misbehave.
This plotline has been underway for three sessions so far, and has one more session of buildup before the final part yields the horror that is implicit within these situations for the PCs to experience, an event that will further shape their personalities hereafter, in ways that – in themselves – contain the potential for monstrosity. If it weren’t for a couple of missed sessions, this big finish would have taken place this weekend – making this a Halloween Plotline.
It was no one event or plotline or situation that brought the PCs to where they are now; it was a steady accumulation of things that added up to a horrific total.
Moments of Discharge
It is absolutely essential that there be moments of tension discharge without altering the root cause that is generating the tension. The PCs need to make progress, only to find that the ‘other side’ has made greater progress. It’s also essential that you create robust plotlines that can withstand the inadvertent discharge of tension, whether it be from a character’s emotional outburst clearing the air at an inopportune moment or the joke of a player who is feeling the effects of your psychological manipulation a little to strongly. A key component of the solution is the capacity to increase or decrease the intensity with which situations are presented. After the relief of a planned discharge, a brief increase in the intensity of the situation as it heads toward a confrontation will restore the progress toward the emotional climax while still permitting the relief of the discharge; this is necessary to sustain the mood.
Paradoxically, if you don’t provide relief, the situation becomes the new ‘norm’ and begins to lose its impact – and the climax loses its impact right along with it.
That’s relatively easy to do with a planned discharge of tension, but is also the best tool that you have for unscheduled relief as well.
The absence of distraction
The stronger the identification with the character being played, the more keenly the player will feel the effects of what their characters are experiencing. Call it Horror By Proxy. To succeed, your adventure has to minimize or even eliminate the distractions of other levels of abstraction in the representation of reality – game mechanics, character sheet consultations, die rolls. If your adventure is not more role-play than roll-play by a huge margin, the horrifying becomes just another roll of the dice, another round of combat.
Battle is, in itself, an inherent release of tension, because it permits the characters to engage the source of their fears in a direct manner that takes the players out of immersion and into abstract simulation. It follows that opportunities for combat, as with all other forms of making palpable progress, needs to be carefully planned.
It doesn’t matter how established a principle wandering monsters might be, if they are going to undo all you hard work with their very presence in the adventure, you should forgo them, or defer them at the very least.
Remember the goal!
Always bear the ultimate goal in mind – to place the PCs in an uncomfortable situation that the players will feel and then permit them to resolve that situation, relieving the discomfort and generating entertainment for the players.
There are times when its important for the characters to have fun in order for the players to enjoy that entertainment vicariously. Horror depends no less on the characters experiencing fear for the entertainment of the players. Fear is a part of life, and every now and then, that should manifest within a game. Taking advantage of Halloween to make your efforts in doing so more effective is only good sense.
In a similar way, the charity and generosity of spirit that characterizes Christmas should be exploited in December, the sense of renewal of hope and opportunity at Easter, and so on. Christmas Movies at Christmas time are a self-fulfilling prophecy, representing the spirit of the occasion; Horror in late October is exactly the same.
Happy Halloween, everyone!