Boo! Fear in a game
Cue Vincent Price Voice Over
What is Fear? Actually knowing fear is nearly impossible, but you can see its results. It is that BOO! startle that we have all seen (and sometimes experienced) while watching horror films. It is that racing pulse and tension we get when reading a good horror novel. Fear is the key to horror, and horror gaming. We all want to generate it in horror games, but it is so intangible. Understanding fear is the first step to generating it.
Fear’s job is to prepare the body for action: attacking or retreating . Blood flow is concentrated internally to the muscles and brain, instead of at the skin and extremities, and blood increases its tendency to coagulate, to prevent blood loss in case of an injury. The amount of lymphocytes (special blood cells that repair tissue damage) also increase. The lungs dilate, to take in more oxygen, which the increased heart rate and blood cells released by the spleen can distribute throughout the body rapidly. The liver releases stored sugars, to energize the muscles. The pupils dilate, to better view the danger and any possible escape routes. All of this takes place in a few seconds. By applying these results to a character, you can express elements of its fear.
The purpose of fear, the fight-or-flight reflex, as it is often called, has long been accepted, if not completely understood. Fear is recognized as a necessity, for the only fearless man is a fool. But just what is scary? What stimuli trigger fear in their troupe? That is what the GM of a Horror game must determine.
Monsters do not make a horror game, but they help. The monsters of a horror game are more powerful than the PCs and must be out tricked or outwitted, rather than out fought. If you could just “fight the monsters”, you might as well be crawling around a dungeon.
To make fears believable in a character, the player and the GM we need to discover what character is afraid of, understand why the character is afraid of it, and then apply it to the campaign.
You might want to find out what the players are scared of as well.
For someone to care about the scare, they first have to care about the character. Make sure the player is invested in the character via roleplaying or conception work. Only then can you get a Boo! effect
There is, unfortunately, no psychological textbook list of ‘top ten fears’ to pull from, since the intensity of fears is so subjective, and only the unusual fears are studied as a rule. Some of the most common fears include the fear of: spiders, snakes, or other animals, death, public speaking, commitment, the dark, heights, pain, and failure. There are countless others.
There is only one thing that any of us, and any character is afraid of: Pain. There are many kinds of pain beyond mere physical pain (Physical Injury, Death, Disability, Gore, Critters who inflict), Emotional (Heartbreak, Loneliness), Mental (Insanity, Sensory Deprivation), Social Failure (Rejection, People, Speeches, Intimacy, Stares, Exile/Prison). Finding the right kind of pain that will motivate and horrify a character (or player) is a requirement for horror.
What’s even scarier than a monster in front of you? A monster behind you. The potential for pain is more frightening than actual pain. That’s why the threat of force is scarier than actual force. The unknown is scarier than the known. The scariest aspect of pain is loss. Long-term disability is scarier than death. Insanity is scarier than unconsciousness. Commitment is scarier than loneliness.
Scaring your players works best when the horror is implied, rather than stated outright. Peopleâ€™s individual imaginations are filled with images much more disturbing than any GM or writer could dream up. These primal, hidden fears just need to be stirred a bit with some subtle suggestions. What’s scarier, the sound of a twig snapping behind you as you walk down a dark path, and wondering what might have caused it? Or seeing a stranger step out in front of your path?
Always describe the results rather than the cause. Allowing players (and their lovely imaginations) to fill in the blanks will result in more horror atmosphere than simply describing what caused it. Besides, once the cause is known (be it monster or whatever), the horror transforms into action, as the characters now have a known threat to deal with.
Horror scenarios and campaign all have elements of
the unnatural (or uncanny). The sense of “things not right” is a powerful trigger for nervousness, just one step away from fear (and so much easier to induce). Things are too dark, or too light, or too quiet, or too wet, are simple descriptions that will put the players on edge.
Horror is not about the monsters. A standard run of the mill werewolf can generate much more “terror” than a Cthulic thing depending on how it is presented to the players. It is in the descriptions and the mystery.
Horror antagonists never play by the rules. They are always unnatural (or uncanny). If the players and the world has known magik (your average fantasy world), then the enemy or Evil plays by a different set of rules. The accepted rules and what the characters/ player believe is tossed out the window.
In a Horror game, the enemy are stronger and more focused on the characters than your average fantasy monster or roleplaying antagonist. The enemy is out there, waiting for just the right moment, stalking and hunting the characters, not just sitting around waiting for you to come to it.
Once the players discover what the horror is and believe in its existence, the game shifts from a horror game to a fantasy action game. Keep the horror mysterious for as long as possible to keep up the horror aspect.
Remember, Gore is what some people think of as horror. Liberal applications of blood and viscera can make for great descriptions in the narration, but it only sets the stage for the dread or terror. As a general rule, gore does not scare gamers, so you will need to apply others techniques to bring the horror to them.
A classic horror trope is the “bad place”, the geographic focus of Evil, it’s home ground so to speak. In the confines of the “bad place” things do not work normally and the Evil is strongest. The GM should consider the “bad place” an NPC that must be worked out before game begins. By defining the bad place properly and knowing what little effects will occur there, the GM frees themselves up to be creative with the descriptions and the narration of the evil effects.
Often to make a horror scenario work, the players must “walk into the trap”. The trap ends up being the bad place, the lost tomb, the back road that leads to this little vampire infested town, etc. Players who work with the GM in this way should be rewarded. Players who refuse to “walk into the trap” and are unwilling to work with the GM can simply avoid the adventure entirely, spending the next few sessions playing out their mundane daily routine in grinding detail, while the others adventure.
Tension, conflict, release, repeat as necessary. This simple formula will help you create a horror game. Build up the tension in the scene. Have an event occur. Everyone breaths easier for a moment. Each time the process is repeated, the stakes go up. The first time is just the cat, the second time is the wind, the third time you don’t know what it is, the fourth time it is the monster.
A tool to build tension in the players is to give out of character knowledge. There characters sense nothing, but you give the “audience” (made up of your players) the knowledge that the horror is near by, stalking, waiting. Good gamers won’t use the out of character knowledge. Bad gamers will, but then find out that it was all imaginary (and there characters are now paranoid).
One of the most effective ways to generate tension and nervousness in characters (and players) is to take them out of their normal environment and place them somewhere else. For characters this means getting the characters somewhere unexpected. For players, this means making them sit in places they don’t normally sit in.
Horror scenarios are best set up as a single session (be it short or long). It is hard to sustain the “fear” mood over the time between sessions. The week (or time between) will dull the effects of the game and allow the players a different perspective when they come back to it.
When running a horror game, try to prevent breaks or time outs from happening. This keeps everyone concentrated on the mood at hand and does not give them a chance to break the mood of the game.
If the games go for longer than one sessions, players in horror games should always write down their current “state of mind” at the end of the game session. This “note to self” will be handy for the player to pick up where they left off.
GMs, there are a couple of random things I want you to keep in mind.
The best way to get players into a horror campaign is to not tell them that it is a horror campaign. This is called the “bait and switch”. Have the players set up characters for a campaign in the same setting (be it a spy or street level pulp, or medieval court). Give them basic materials for that kind of campaign. Then give them the unexpected in the second or third adventure.
Also, many players will insist on injecting humor and zaniness into a horror campaign. The humor insulates them from the terror. It also destroys the feel of the horror game. A great way to cut this down is to institute a “humor tax”. Each infraction will cost the characters experience points, skill checks, a soda, or time out of game (where the GM runs your character). The players will either quickly get into the feel of the horror game, or find themselves at a severe disadvantage (and very thirsty).
I hope this little discussion will help you understand fear and horror in a game. Crafting horror takes dedicated and concentrated effort from the GM. The players have to be willing to “go along” for the bumpy thrill ride you, the GM, are about to take them on. Once everything is in place… things will go along swimmingly. That is until something JUMPS OUT at you.
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