“The air is cold and dank, heavy with the weight of the earth hanging high above your head. Jagged, black stone walls stretch ahead and behind. The torch in your hand flickers as a dead breeze staggers down the passageway. You draw closer and closer to the end of this bleak tunnel until finally, the narrow rock walls vanish on both sides. You can hear the heavy breathing of something in the darkness ahead and…”
“I have darkvision!”
“You… Oh, whatever! You see a feral troll in the back of the cave. Everybody, roll initiative.”
Horror can be a tricky thing—anybody can be gorey, but to really have an impact there are a number of factors to consider. Who are you trying to scare? Why are you trying to scare them, and most importantly, how?
Who You’re Scaring
What kind of group do you have before you?
Do they work well as a team?
Have they experienced a PC death before and if so, how recently?
Powergamers? Spotlighters? Meticulous planners?
This needs to be your initial concern because it colors everything that comes next. If you’re playing against power gamers, do not give them mechanical foreshadowing (see “How” below); conversely, if the group isn’t very team oriented (less the “X-Men” and more the “Defenders”), splitting them up won’t do you a huge amount of good. Carefully weigh out your options and do your best to anticipate what the PCs are likely to do when things get dark—no matter how you do it, surprise is going to be a part of the equation.
Why You’re Scaring
Building to a crescendo?
An essential element to a creature or particular encounter?
To increase the general suspense of the game?
If you’re running a game in Ravenloft, the word of the day is always going to be horror! The things to keep in mind in this case is that ultimately you do want the players to win, only that their struggle be a true test against an ever present darkness. I’ve found that warm reprieves can get the trick done, but there’s a lot to be said for a long, arduous trial with truly shining moments of glory.
Maybe this is just a brief foray into horror—in this case, definitely avoid pulling punches and keep extra material around in the event the PCs are on a lucky streak with the dice! On the whole, most games are encouraging the party’s victory (Paranoia being my favorite exception) so a good way to inflict terror is to really give them the feeling that the odds have definitely gone up. You don’t have to necessarily change the numbers to do it, either (more on that below under “How”).
Of course you might just want to increase the general level of suspense in the game because you’re starting to introduce some darker themes and elements in your world and story. This is where you’re looking for a sense of balance between what was and what is; don’t go and start throwing Cthulhu nightmare at the PCs right away, build up to it! An unsettling dream every other game session probably doesn’t register as too strange (stress, right?) but if you let it grow into a greater concern over time, the average player is going to concoct something far more terrifying than what you’re cooking up!
How You’re Scaring
Via the gaming atmosphere?
Using mechanics to get it done?
The old fashioned way: with a right proper scary story!
Making a gaming atmosphere that encourages fear is simple enough: get some soft lighting (but not too soft—everyone needs to be able to read!), be (more) secretive with your notes, throw in plenty of rolls that serve no real purpose other than to throw players off kilter, and play some music in the background. Not the epic stuff either, but something dark and foreboding (I recommend Midnight Syndicate; D&D music is their thing and there are lots of spooky tracks!)
As mentioned above, the second option is not for groups with power gamers unless you are a very experienced GM. If you can handle it (and aren’t afraid of a TPK), a surefire way to give your players the willies is to start giving them really good, very specific magic items. Nobody will be suspicious about the first one or two powerful weapons or protectives, but once they get the third or fourth, concerns begin to arise. This is a tough road to hoe though—you’re literally raising the stakes. By giving PCs specialized equipment of considerable potency, you’re able to throw something extremely dangerous at the party. If things go as you’ve planned, they should be of two minds when the final battle comes: oh-my-god-we’re-going-to-die and holy-crap-we-might-win.
If you can hack it, I’ve found this to be the most rewarding.
Finally, there’s just a well-told horror story. There’s a Kickstarter going on from Louis Porter Jr. Design for the Cross of Fire saga, and all the talent wrapped up in that is in good standing to deliver a terrifying tale, but I wouldn’t count out the logically consistent river of blood in The Mysterious Peaks of Baranthar. 😀
If this is your bag, tips for telling a scary story abound on the internet, but remember: people fear the unknown more than anything else, so make use of that suspense and stretch it out to good effect!