View Full Version : Tips for a good horror / mystery atmosphere?

2010-06-10, 10:08 PM
I'm a experienced DM, and I consider myself rather good at DMing your typical Medieval Fantasy and other types of Fantasy settings.
But the thing is, I really enjoy a good Horror adventure. I've played a few that were exceptional, easily the best adventures I've ever played.

However, I don't feel confident enough in my ability to maintain a proper atmosphere for this type of game. Besides the basics of playing during the Evening and in a quiet place, I'm at a loss.

Any nice tips would be welcome.

2010-06-10, 10:11 PM
All of this post is based upon my very limited run with CoC. Like, 3 sessions.

Now that that's out of the way... Have a playlist of several reasonably scary songs that you play quietly in the background to keep the mood good. I find candlelight, or otherwise dimmed lighting to be effective. Also, make sure people are in the mood. Start out the session by watching something scary, or discussing really serious things.

2010-06-10, 10:32 PM
Low lighting (out of game).

Eerie low background music (I suggest nox arcana).

Don't give the players ANY info except when they find a plot specific clue, and even then keep it vague.

Monsters that they fight are NOT meant to be defeated, monsters should maul and kill any players that do anything but run or hide. Even then make it difficult to escape.

Over describe anything that is mundane or unusual in more then 30 words but not anything meant to be supernatural or terrifying, that should be described as best as possible in less then 15 words, 7-10 is more preferable.

don't kill players; make monsters maul them, traps separate them, spells manipulate them.

If you stick a player in a trap, give them a way out, but have the way out lead them through an area that is WORSE then the trap at hand.

2010-06-10, 10:39 PM
First rule: Death is permanent.

Second rule: Horrible injuries/disease are permanent. Use save or lose, frequently (that which doesn't kill you drains you five levels...)

Third rule: Primary antagonists are significantly more powerful than PCs even as a group (and I don't mean the big bad, I mean the ones that they'll be tripping over every single session), and capable of inflicting horrible injuries/disease.

Fourth rule: Secret notes and rolling constantly. Whether this has any effect on gameplay is up to you, but periodically announce bad things after rolls, or delay announcements while rolling. "As you peer down the corridor, you see... *rolls* *chuckles nastily* Nothing."

Fifth rule: NPCs are Villains, Dead, or Refugees. It's far more terrifying to be cut off from supplies, friends, and allies than it is to have a base, even one that's in bad shape. It's even more terrifying if on your way to the adventure, you come across a fleeing bunch of natives that says "You won't survive, any more than the last 3 groups." And imply that prior attempts were better prepared. Then, when you're all alone and paranoid, you come across a cryptic campaign hint ("Don't look in their eyes!" is always a good one) scribbled in blood near a withered and eviscerated corpse.

The combination gets characters and players paranoid. Paranoia leads to jumping at shadows, which lets you ramp up suspense even more.

And never let it turn into a grind. There's an old rule from half life for making scary maps. A headcrab in every vent is routine. A headcrab in every five vents is terrifying. If it devolves into hack and slash, you've lost the horror.

2010-06-10, 11:41 PM
Well, the most important thing is to know your group. If you have guys who throw popcorn at each other and giggle through The Exorcist, you're almost certainly doomed to failure. Talk to your players ahead of time, and make sure they are interested in this kind of adventure. Suspense is the key here. The scariest things I have ever been through in gaming were the haunted hotel in Vampire: Bloodlines, and the Asylum in Thief: Deadly Shadows. The key to both of those was that while you saw scary things (lights go out for a moment, "GET OUT" is slashed on the wall when it comes back on; screaming woman dashes across a cross hallway right in front of you, looking back over her shoulder as if she's being chased, then nothing in either direction when you reach the intersection; a door creaks open and a childs toy rolls out, etc), but you never actually engage in combat until very late in the scenario. Once you roll for initiative, the suspense is over and it dissolves into mechanics.

The toughest thing with most groups is overcoming the natural tendency of players to roll for initiative and wade in swinging as soon as bad guys appear. If you want them to run, severely hobble their combat abilities. Anti-magic zones, lost spell books, broken sword hands, stolen weapons, whatever. You don't want to kill a PC right off (because then you have a bored player with nothing to do but disrupt the game), but knocking out 80% of the tank's HP in one shot (fake die roll, natch) will probably give the players that the right idea is to run and hide. An even better idea is to have an NPC accompany the players who you talk up as being a fantastic swordsman/duelist/wizard/whatever (ie way more powerful than the PCs), and have something one shot him. If your players still stand in the face of that, there's no hope for a horror game.

One really effective monster for horror is the ape demon that can teleport at will. One of the adventures in the Savage Tide Adventure Path made good use of one of them for scary effect, teleporting in, grabbing a PC or persistent NPC, then teleporting back out, gradually whittling down the party.

If you are going for more mystery than horror, the most important thing is to keep it low-level or disallow spellcasters for a one-shot. It becomes near impossible to run a mystery once the characters have access to mid-level divination magic.

2010-06-11, 12:12 AM
Depends a bit on what system, on your group, and on your DMing style.

Atmosphere is definitely a must. Play some haunting music in the background. Lowering the lights might work, although honestly it will probably just make the dice/character sheets hard to see. Hide behind a DM screen, and keep all your notes hidden.

How you communicate with the players can have a big effect. After describing a scene, sit back and watch your players until they choose to do something. Keep quiet to unnerve them. When they examine something, describe it as promptly as possible then clam up again. Occasionally roll dice for no reason, and note the results on a piece of paper. Have a copy of each player's character sheet on hand, so you can make spot/search/listen rolls for them without asking.

You don't need to make combat dangerous or even prominent for horror. If anything, it should be quick and sparse. Running into easy-to-kill zombies will quickly become eerie if they get up and wander off whenever the party leaves the room. Similarly, something weak like a ghost will becoming unnerving if it keeps coming back repeatedly, not giving the characters a chance to rest.

There should be some kind of danger, though - at least, something that will obviously kill them to prevent the party from just kicking down all the doors. Leaving is also a concern. If the party can simply walk out or Rope Trick for a safe sleep, the suspense of getting trapped and unable to get out is lost. The horror location shouldn't be someplace they can leave, or at least, should require a significant bit of travelling to get away from. Travelling through fields of dead wheat that are potentially hiding zombies for an hour to/from the location gives it a sense of isolation, and the potential that the whatever then find there will still be able to chase them down before they're back home.

2010-06-11, 07:00 AM
The scariest things I have ever been through in gaming were the haunted hotel in Vampire: BloodlinesYeah... I had to pause that game to take my breath from time to time.

Thanks for the tips, guys. I'll be trying them later this month.