The Halloween RPG Tips Entry
Some general tips for running horror games:
1. Most important of all: never show more than the absolute minimum needed! This is really the key to everything else; and I would take this on as a rule for general gaming. Your player's imaginations can do WAY more for them than your descriptions. Show what you need to show to keep the game moving, or to create a certain ambiance, but let your players fill the rest in. Showing them hints of the terrible monster, or parts of it, is better than showing them the whole.
2. Making your PLAYERS be afraid is relatively hard, making them nervous is a lot easier. And its the step on the road to making them scared. Even if you don't get to the latter, the former is a great substitute for a fun horror game. On that note:
3. The hint of gore is better than gore itself. This rule applies up to a certain point; at some moment you might want to just have explosions of blood or people whose chests have been opened up, but in general leave the fountains of blood to WFRP. If you're playing a real horror game, implying something gory is better than showing something gory. Hints of blood, old stains, a single blood-stained knife or shirt, but no body is a hell of a lot more nerve-wracking than a big bloody corpse.
4. Take the mundane and make it unpredictable. One of the key elements of a good horror story is to have something that is utterly mundane and make that creepy. Creating atsmophere with abandoned churches or old musty libraries is great, but its as good or better to find ways to make ice-cream parlours or dogs or grandparents or underwear end up creepy is often better because it hits you out of left field. Its also good if you make a point of noting certain very mundane things that appear repeatedly (black dogs, or slightly creepy little children, or old ladies) but they don't actually have anything to do with the menace at all. Red Herrings are a classic tool of the horror GM.
5. In many games, incidental creepiness is a great touch. Having a dude who doesn't do anything, but is always around when the terror strikes; or having a prophetic newspaper article, or moments where reality appears to have been altered (a book that you read once is different on a second reading, someone who you talked extensively with yesterday doesn't recognize you today, etc etc.) are great ways to create nervousness.
6. Conspiracies can be creepy. The lack of conspiracies can be creepier. Running a campaign where the big government organization or the group of shadowy people in positions of power are NOT in control of the situation can be the twist that leads to real desperation for your group.
7. When in doubt, having something with tentacles show up is always a good thing.
8. Nothing creates tension more than having a helpful and significant NPC die a sudden and violent death; except having a PC die a sudden and violent death. This is even better if the death doesn't appear to have anything to do with the mysterious horror the PCs are pursuing.
9. Like with any other RPG, you as the GM do not have to have everything figured out beforehand; you just have to be quick-witted enough to make it LOOK like you had everything figured out beforehand. The best games are usually not the ones you planned every step out in advance for (in fact, these often suck because the temptation to railroad is too strong), but rather the ones that you can quickly incorporate unexpected actions by the PCs to create the appearance that said actions fit into your overall plan in the first place.
10. Give the characters something very personal to lose in the supernatural menace that they face, beyond their lives. Or, something very personal to gain.
11. It always helps if at least one of the player is slowly gradually losing his humanity in some way. A lot of the best Cthulu games I've run have had characters gaining power at the cost of their humanity, or their self-control, or their internal organs.
12.Making the confrontation with the terrible menace from beyond require finding out that its hidden in darkest Africa/peru/mayan ruins/Egypt/antarctica, is not as good as making the PCs go all the way to one or more of these places, only to find out that the real menace is hiding out in plain site in Milwaukee. Or better, if Milwaukee doesn't really exist.
13. When in doubt, having a bunch of guys in dark suits show up wielding shiny golden swords and start trying to kill everyone in sight is always a good thing.
Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Canadian & Image latakia
(Originally posted October 31, 2006)