How to Make RPGs Scary
There are a lot of horror RPGs out there and around this time of year is when all the GMs out there start breaking them out. I’ve run more than a few in my day (I ran a whole Ravenloft campaign way back in the day), and I’ve had my mix of successes and failures. By success, of course, I mean the games were actively freaky and frightening. By ‘failure’, I mean everybody merely had the same good time they had during all other RPGs. That’s okay and everything, but let’s face it–if you’re playing or running Call of Cthulhu, you intend for it to be a frightening/thrilling experience.
There is a colossal hurdle to overcome, however, when trying to make an RPG scary. It is, quite simply, this: your friends are not afraid of you. They just aren’t, and they particularly aren’t while sitting back on your couch, popping Doritos, and googling stuff on their iPhone. Ain’t gonna happen. You can write the creepiest module in existence, practice your Vincent Price impression for years, and place the PCs in the most intolerable peril ever and they won’t bat an eyelash. Why? You aren’t scary.
So, what to do? Below, I have a set of simple rules to follow that will help. The thing that will help the most, however, is to be a good storyteller and a good performer–commit to your creepiness and don’t let up or break character. The more engrossed you are in the adventure, the more engrossed they will be. This doesn’t just go for horror games, but it is a place where it is especially important. Beyond that, you have the rules, as follows:
Rule #1: Silence, Please
Horror RPGs don’t work without everybody cooperating. Since everybody, presumably, wants to be freaked out, this shouldn’t be a problem. The idea here is for everybody to be quiet when not speaking for their character and to remain focused on the action. No googling on their iPhone (in fact, turn the phones off!), no chatting about their days, no having a sidebar about the kind of pizza to order. Quiet. Silence. Focus. Nothing is scarier than playing with volume in a game–lower your voice to draw them in, to have them straining to hear the words, and then shout the climax to their utter surprise. You can’t do this if Bill is in the corner watching YouTube videos.
Rule #2: Setting and Mood
Try to play somewhere dark and, preferably, quiet (as per Rule #1). Candlelight or a fireplace is best. Music should be creepy and should fit the mood. If you’re going to order food, make sure it is done and the food is there before the game starts. It’s okay for folks to eat while you are playing, of course, but don’t get interrupted by the pizza guy–it breaks the spell, as it were, for everybody to stand up and fumble around for cash (plus you’ll probably have to turn on the lights). Setting the mood helps Rule #1 actually happen and gets people into the zone. The more they play along, the better things will go.
Rule #3: Screw Mechanics
Horror RPGs work best with very, very simple rule systems. Roll one or two dice and have done, move on. Don’t ever break the flow of action to handle rules, and never stop a scene to roll dice. Roll dice before or after the scary, never during. If possible, don’t roll dice at all. Dice don’t make things scary and they break the mood to pieces, so use them sparingly. If you can handle it, have the GM roll the majority of the tests him- or herself and describe the results. Horror RPGs aren’t about your awesome dice rolls–they are all about the story and the mood. Of couse the PCs should get to make some rolls, sure–this is a game–but don’t let it interfere with the scary.
Rule #4: Show don’t Tell
A venerable rule for writers, but not necessarily so venerable for GMs. In a Horror RPG, a vampire is not ‘a vampire’. A vampire is a pale, handsome man with a plastic smile and eyes so dark they seem like pits. His handshake is cool, hard, and with no sign of a pulse–like shaking the hand of a store mannequin. The zombies that are chasing you? Describe their smell. Describe the sound of their bloody feet spattering against the pavement as they shamble closer. Your gun doesn’t do ’7 points of damage’, it rips a bloody hole through the fleshy part of the alien’s bat-like wings, releasing a stale odor of something cold and ancient that tingles at the back of your throat. Now, its beetley head and compound eyes swivel from the child half-eaten by its gory mandibles and, in a way that chills your bones, you know that it sees you. And it hates.
Get the idea?
There are probably other rules I’m not thinking of, but these are the main ones. Folow them, and I guarantee your game will be creepier and your players will have a great time. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.