View Full Version : How does one do horror in pen-and-paper?

2010-08-26, 03:35 PM
I'm doing a simple post-apocalyptic GURPS campaign with some friends and want to include some horror elements (28 Days Later/Silent Hill-type stuff). How does one create the proper horror mood? What have you done as GM's or experienced as players that created that air of menace?

2010-08-26, 03:41 PM
Fitting music is extremely important. Steal soundtracks from horror games, horror movies, etc.

Keep the mood of the group low - discourage joking, do not let the players talk OOC.

Be grim - never smile, never laugh, just be silent and calculating. This will freak them out - trust me.

Shy away from battles. Dicerolling and adding up bonuses isn't scary - seemingly random, scary and dark things happening around them is a much better rotue.

2010-08-26, 03:56 PM
Description. Don't say what things are, describe them. Describe atmosphere, settings, provide niggling details of things being oh, so wrong. I disagree with music. For me at least, it's detracting,

2010-08-26, 04:05 PM
Good story is essential to horror. An ancient red dragon might be 'scary' because of all the damage it can deal, but that doesn't make it 'horror'.
Powergamed characters tend (in my opinion) to be the death of horror. Especially something like the Radiant Servant (Vampires, oh no! I'll just do a greater turning, making him flee in terror, I mean, burst into flame and never bother us again).

The party not knowing what they're fighting, what it's powers are, or how to kill it will be very useful when you do need a fight. Never anything simple like a couple of human bandits, or an orc war party. If you do use them, one or more should be something special (not just class levels)

I realize you're doing Post Apocalypse Gurps, but I really only know D&D, so all my advice uses that as an example.

Reis Tahlen
2010-08-26, 04:26 PM
Everything can be scary in the proper context and ambiance.

Dozens of goblins in a cave serving as minions of a powerfull caster? Not scary.

One single goblin spotted near the nursery, just after the cook mentionned some rapscalion stole his butchering knife? A little bit scarier.

Level 20 Black Knight loaded with magic items and undead servants? Not scary (well, yes, but not that kind of scary...)

Low level guy among a crowd of people, killing them one by one with elaborate traps, using secret passages and disguises, and seeming to avoid investigation, when at the same time there are fewer and fewer people? Scarier.

You don't need to be high level to splash the wizard's face with hot boiling water. You don't need +5 Vorpal Longsword to kill and threaten relatives of the players. And as long as the players don't realise who the ennemy is, everything is up to their imagination, and fear feeds on imagination.

2010-08-26, 04:28 PM
Heroes of Horror mentions some of this sort of thing. Little ways to increase the tension, alternate takes on existing monsters to ramp up the creepiness, and so on.

2010-08-26, 04:31 PM
It starts in the setting. Not the game's setting, but yours. When I DMed my horror campaign, the lights were down, the table lit by candles or each player given a flashlight. I sat behind the players, (hopefully) giving them a subconscious sense of a disembodied voice.

From there, it moves to description. You have to give good descriptions. I like to emphasize horror of the unknown and non-sexual squick. However, don't go overboard, especially if some of your players have very active imaginations. Oftentimes, what they conjure up in their heads will be worse than anything you can describe.

After that, it's just putting them in the right situation for your horror to unfold :smallamused:

2010-08-26, 05:00 PM
If its zombies (eg like 28 days later) give them a few in the first encounter, a few more in the next, a few more in the third, etc until they start realising the combat isn't going to end well if they try to hack through.

Also lots of perception type rolls, followed by 'you're not sure...'. If you can get some 'impending doom' type encounters in there then use them - they know they need to go into the sewer, it looks quiet. However someone has to go down the ladder first, alone... In fact anything where one of the party is separated is usually enough to ramp up some tension - especially if you exchange some notes with the character and the player is the type that will go with it.

2010-08-26, 05:00 PM
I'm doing a simple post-apocalyptic GURPS campaign with some friends and want to include some horror elements (28 Days Later/Silent Hill-type stuff). How does one create the proper horror mood? What have you done as GM's or experienced as players that created that air of menace?

Horror comes from powerlessness and inexplicability. If they can understand it, and do something about it, it isn't horror.

Nightmare scenarios that you play out.

"You awaken surrounded by X. roll initiative". Party gets slaughtered.

They wake up again Surrounded by X. Slaughtered again.

They wake up. There is a strange wet moaning coming from just beyond the firelight. The words too wet and mangled to be clear. What do you do?


Mushroom Ninja
2010-08-26, 05:04 PM
In my experience, one does not successfully do horror in pen and paper. However, my experience is limited to rather light-hearted groups. With the right gaming group, you might be able to pull something off.

2010-08-26, 05:06 PM
I'd just throw hordes of undead (like zombies) at you constantly that surround you guys. Maybe also illusions to really freak out characters or invisible foes.

2010-08-26, 05:12 PM
This comes up every once in a while so one day I wrote down some suggestions into a short essay. Here it is:

Horror is hard to do in D&D, largely because characters face the stuff of horrors on a regular basis and kick its ass. But it's not impossible. Leon Kennedy beat the crap out of a lot of scary monsters in Resident Evil 4 and I was no less scared.

1) One of the elements of good horror is isolation. Look at Alien, Night of the Living Dead, Nightmare on Elm Street, Evil Dead (OK, that's a comedy), The Thing, Resident Evil, etc. A lot of those movies involve isolation in one form or another.

Maybe your heroes are trapped in a particular location and can't escape. Maybe the monsters have found a way to strike at the heroes in such a manner that they can't get help, like in dreams. Or maybe the heroes are alone in a world full of monsters.

The point is, there's no help coming. You're on your own.

Here's a fun idea: what if the players went into a dungeon and the entrance collapsed behind them? What if they had no way out past the rocks? Suddenly, the search for treasure becomes a search for a way out. The stakes are raised.

2) Don't turn everything into a trap. At least, not right away. Some things have to be safe for the players, at least so that you can turn it around on them.

I remember one time my players encountered a room with nothing but several corpses in it. One of my players said they were obviously going to raise up as zombies the minute they searched them.

On the other hand, the same trick gets pulled in the video game Bioshock (dead bodies suddenly spring up and attack the player) and it was incredibly creepy. Why? Because you've spent the entire game rifling through the pockets of corpses without consequences. So when one jumps up at you, it's damn creepy.

3) Remember this old rule: nothing is scarier (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/NothingIsScarier). Sometimes all you need to freak the players out is the suggestion that something is going to jump out and tear their heads off. D&D players in particular are paranoid this way: when they find a big spider web, they think they're going to fight a giant spider. So they get themselves worked up to fight a giant spider. But what if you screwed with their heads and had nothing attack them? This can actually be more effective than having a big ol' spider suddenly appear.

I remember one time my friend and I fought and killed some orcs. We left their bodies in a room and then came back to it later. The bodies were gone, the only trace of them a bloody smear indicating some beastie dragged them off. We just about pissed ourselves.

Another guy on this board once mentioned that the scariest adventure he had was the ghost town where they expected some zombies to attack them. But nothing jumped out to attack the party until nightfall. When the zombies actually showed up, it was almost a relief.

But take caution! This trope should be used only in small doses. You don't want adventures filled with the party wandering from empty room to empty room.

4) Change up your players' expectations with the creatures they face. A lot of D&D players know the MM inside and out, so they know what to expect when, say, facing off with vampires. Shake things up. (I think this is a suggestion in Heroes of Horror, too.)

There's a funny video on Youtube of a scene from Condemned 2 where the main character is chased by a bear. The player goes upstairs and "It's OK! He can't go up the stairs, he can't go up the stairs!" So what does the bear do? "HE'S GOING UP THE STAIRS! WHAT THE ****?! WHAT THE ****?!"

5) Don't overdo it, by the gods! Horror requires a bit of a fine touch. Dead children can be unsettling. Zombie children can be scary. A zombie giant made of dead children is just cheesy, although it might be appropriate for splatterhouse horror.

Overall, though, it's easy to go overboard in horror. This was a pretty common complaint with Clive Barker's Jericho, where pretty every enemy is a hellish abomination that will tear you limb from limb, blah blah blah. "OMG, that monster's wearing human flesh like an overcoat. Just like the last dozen or so beasties we faced."

2010-08-26, 05:18 PM
Unfairness is the most important thing. What really creates horror in a game is the sense that you can't do anything about what you're facing. Check out games like Dark Corners of the Earth (where you have no way to attack anything for the first part of the game), or better yet, Penumbra, where you are screwed if you even let something see you (or if you let yourself see them), and fighting monsters is a ridiculous idea.

Unfairness is created in many ways. In a zombie game, the zombies just keep coming. You can't win, long-term, by taking them out, and one bite is all it takes. Another option is the Invisible/Invincible threat - either it's so stealthy, so mobile, or so powerful that you can't get to grips with it, or you would have to be suicidal to try. Invincible is much trickier, and usually less scary.

Another unfairness, seen in Silent Hill, is one of physical circumstance: things are bad, and you can't get away. This is very important in horror: you have to have a justification for why the players can't just go "I get in my car and drive away." Maybe everywhere is as bad, maybe there's nowhere to go, or maybe there's a personal reason they just can't ignore (this, naturally, requires the players to go along, but only the rudest fool of a player wouldn't play along in a horror game, anyway). There's an entire D&D setting, Ravenloft, built around justifying this: the world is a set of domains that are separated by the Mists of Ravenloft, and most are closed or opened at the whim of the Dark Powers and the domain's dreadlord.

Subtlety is important. For most people, violence, gore, and constant fighting won't work. I once creeped out a player exploring an empty house so badly I had to throw a ghoul on the road when he was driving back just so he could run into it and relieve the tension (it flew off the road and was not found). I drove the party mad with a room across from theirs in the dorm that acted oddly, to the point that they built and planted a fire-bomb in it even though they didn't know there was anything there.

Be careful with red herrings, though. There should always be a reason for odd things happening, even if it's just "the world is completely insane" or "this is all some sort of perhaps-a-dream". Dead-end clues and oddness aren't any good long-term.

And remember, horror is tension. It's expectation. It's worry about what is to come. It's usually not revulsion or disgust or frustration or anything. This is why you want to build tension constantly, and only release it occasionally. Tension is released by letting the players do something about it - fight, run, act, make a difference, have agency over their fates.

The unknown is one of the best sources of tension. Knowing what you're up against is the first hint of true agency, and will inevitably lower the "ceiling" for tension. This is why the inexplicable, the invisible, or the impossibly mobile are all good options, and why you shouldn't over-describe and rather underplay things: they create more tension.

Heroes of Horror has some ideas, but there's a great degree of gore and gruesome (although some of it is so absolutely mercilessly terrible it actually works - like finding spare fingers where there should be no fingers). The list of random creepy effects is my favorite thing, but remember, there has to be some explanation, some cause, even if it can never be fully defined or understood.

For zombie horror, specifically: in the best zombie apocalypse media, the zombies aren't the main thing. Look at X of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Walking Dead, World War Z, and so on: the zombies are just a disaster. The real interesting thing is the people. Zombie horror is ultimately an exploration of how people react in extreme situations. Everyone expects the zombies to kill you and eat your entrails. But the things people are capable of in a bad enough situation can be far more terrifying, and having to make choices like killing an infected friend or leaving someone to die rather than brave a mob of zombies - that's the harrowing heart of zombie horror.

Description. Don't say what things are, describe them. Describe atmosphere, settings, provide niggling details of things being oh, so wrong. I disagree with music. For me at least, it's detracting,

Music has to be instrumental or (preferrably) ambient, and turned so low you stop noticing it when you're not paying attention. There's a Blair Witch 2 soundtrack of subtly creepy ambient sounds that I like.

All this, of course, is subject to knowing your players. Different things work for different people.

Also, related to knowing your players: trying to play up their fears or phobias may be a really really bad idea, and you absolutely must not do it unless you definitely have a very good idea from past experience how they'll react to exactly the kind of thing you plan to do. If you've never dumped a realistic toy spider into your arachnophobic friend's lap before, don't do it mid-game!

2010-08-26, 05:20 PM
Maybe also try and arrange it so that your meeting last until like 4 in the morning when it's dark and everyone is jumpy. Just a thought. Not sure how'd you manage it though unless you're one of those groups.

2010-08-26, 05:29 PM
Maybe also try and arrange it so that your meeting last until like 4 in the morning when it's dark and everyone is jumpy. Just a thought. Not sure how'd you manage it though unless you're one of those groups.

We did that when we were still in high school, but nowadays it's a wonder if I can stay up past 1 AM. It did work absolutely great. Because Call of Cthulhu hardly even needs the character sheets, we used 2-4 candles for light, and basically played in flickering darkness in the dead of night.

Breaks were essential to avoid locked-in-hyperactivity-syndrome, though.

2010-08-26, 06:24 PM
Horror comes from powerlessness and inexplicability. If they can understand it, and do something about it, it isn't horror.

This. Take the players out of their comfort zone. If you're inexperienced at DMing, it doesn't hurt to start off at low levels so things are more manageable.

The party have been travelling for a long time without rest and one night come across a small town wrapped in dense fog. They enter and start searching for the inn. They think they see figures moving in the distance, but the fog is so thick that it's hard to tell. They find most of the buildings in disrepair, some blood stains, broken windows. Then they hear the moaning. Now there's many dark figures surrounding them. They move closer. Zombies, wights, whatever. Despite the large amount of undead, the party is victorious. But then the moans get louder and they see many... MANY more figures shambling towards them, and they know they can't handle all of that.

They can try defending a building, but the undead are relentless. They crash through any window or make holes in the structure. Maybe some are waiting patiently inside already. They think they hear laughter. They think they see a filthy little girl standing on the road, watching them, but when they blink she's gone. They see figures standing behind them in reflections, but see nothing when they turn around (or maybe one time they do!).

Their base of operations is, above all, NOT SAFE. And countless more undead are moving towards them. They must leave. Maybe that boarded up mansion on top of the spooky hill nearby is their best hope of survival... But what awaits them inside?

Etc etc.

Hinder their senses. Hinder their ability to just smash their way to victory. Make them see things, unexplainable things, that they are powerless to overcome. Convince them that a fight is about to occur, and then nothing happens, just to freak them out more. Force them to move cautiously every step they go, let them be satisfied that the area is secure, then drop the nastiest things possible.

The Mentalist
2010-08-26, 06:43 PM
I personally recommend passing random notes (and requiring your players to pass them) and seeing people privately (sometimes for no reason) fosters a good sense of paranoia, especially if you do have a double agent.

2010-08-26, 07:10 PM
Personally, I use low, suspenseful music in the background (just loud enough to be heard during the lulls in conversation. Here's a personal favorite: Lux Aeterna (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKLpJtvzlEI)). I also use the tried-and-true random die rolls behind the screen (works for a while, but not on anyone who DMs, and if you do it too often, the players will catch on, too). Try reading some H.P. Lovecraft and see how he describes things. Emulate that style when describing things, that guy definitely had a knack for making things creepy-sounding. And do what The Mentalist recommends. A good, healthy dose of paranoia makes things just that much more suspenseful. Good luck!

2010-08-26, 08:00 PM
avoid anything the players may be used to.

let them assume the things eating the flesh of travelers is undead untill the radiant servant fails to turn. let assumptions lead to panic

likewise mimics can be brilliant horror tools. the suit of platemail found then suddenly night after night people in the party up bitten or killed. they start looking for some outside force untill the day the mimic decies to eat the party meatshield when his hp is low

Lord Loss
2010-08-26, 08:31 PM
Make sure that everyone sticks to the rules, then break them in the favor of the monsters/ enemies.

-gasp- that monster hits without rolling. My 19 on a grapple check still didn't keep that thing from pinning me to the ground.

Sometimes, you don't overdo it. A balloon at a murder scene is sorta freaky, especially when they walk into a birthday party that they know a killer is attending. A small pool of blood is creepier than a room painted with it. When their allies idssapear, the protomatter monstrosity grows a little bit bigger. Sometimes, however, you go all out. They find every last person in the hotel dead in one room. Add gory deatils. They see a zombie girl skipping rope with her mother's intestines. This will freak them out immensely.

Also, I'm completely for my players kidding around during a horror game. One of them cracking jokes half the time didn't stop him from freaking when I told him that the freezers in the morgue they were hiding out in were rumbling... and a mad old woman stood between them and their only way out. In fact, when they start making nervous jokes instead of all out humour, you know it's working.

I also second some music. One of my players really likes the Nox Arcana discs i got, but dollorama halloween tracks work just as well.

I also have a CoC Camapign Journal i just started. I'll provide a link if you want.

2010-08-26, 08:59 PM
Horror games tend to focus primarily on the exploration/exploitation of the fight or flight response in conjunction with strict information control.

Consider the movie Alien.
for the majority of the film, the crew (and audience) only get glimpses of the beast. It is there, then gone, without anyone knowing what it looks like, how it moves, why it kills. Crew members begin disappearing, one after another, until, at the end, as Ripley makes to escape the Nostradamus aboard a lifeboat, suddenly it's there, curled in the shadows, waiting.... lurking.

In a pen and paper game, evoking that sense of horror can be difficult, if you're unwilling to bend or break rules. I recently ran a horror themed d20 modern game, where the shadows themselves were the enemy. The players were out, doing their thing, and for the first few adventures dealt with standard fare... thugs and triad gangsters. Then came the magic words "the shadows deepen." Suddenly the mall where the players were spending an afternoon is under attack by animated dumpsters, Otyugh, a banshee, and all manner of mismatched beasts. Two rounds later, nothing. Everything is gone except the damage the PC's did to the surroundings... and the damage that was done to them.

But as with any horror story, you have to be in the thick of it to gain true appreciation. But it doesn't take much to creep out your players. One of mine got bugged by the smallest thing. The d20 Modern books have critters that are giant cockroaches that wear humans as a skin for camouflage. Thinking about it, most insect communicate by rubbing their antennae against the antennae of others, but humans don't have antennae. They do, however, have fingers. That single act, the cockroach critters rubbing fingers with other disguised cockroaches to silently communicate, was sufficient to creep out the player.

it would've been amazing if they'd opted to try seducing one of the camouflaged critters... next time...

2010-08-27, 02:20 AM
I personally recommend passing random notes (and requiring your players to pass them) and seeing people privately (sometimes for no reason) fosters a good sense of paranoia, especially if you do have a double agent.

I used notes a ton to give out information only one character obtains, and letting them relay it to others as they would; this laid the groundwork for one PC slowly losing his grip on sanity (seeing THAT DAMN CAT, which he killed several times, including by flushing it down a toilet).

They see a zombie girl skipping rope with her mother's intestines. This will freak them out immensely.

Or not. It may work in context, but that would probably get a laugh out of my group and break the mood. Seriously, movies have conditioned most people to find excessive gore to be funny.

In fact, when they start making nervous jokes instead of all out humour

This is absolutely true. Play shouldn't be light-hearted and chatting should be kept down, but the players will start using humor as a defense mechanism when they start getting creeped out. It's not so much that you should encourage it - you shouldn't - but you should notice it and consider whether the players are bored or trying to fend off actual fear.

some guy
2010-08-27, 09:59 AM
If the party splits up, it's great (for the GM, not the players).
Me: "All, right. You've found the grave you were looking for. The soil looks freshly moved, a shovel lies nearby. Make a listen check."
Player 1: "7"
Player 2: "14"
Me: "Okay, back to you, player 3. You're alone in the car waiting for players 1 & 2 to get back from the graveyard. It's dark, and the streetlights behind the trees create shadows on the road. You may make a spot check."
Player 3: "16"
Me: "Hmm. Have you checked your rear-view mirror?"
Player 3: "[cusses] No and I will not."
Me: "Okay. I will get back to you in a moment, player 3. 1 & 2 this is what you hear: [plays an audio track of branches rustling and an owl hooting]
Player 1: "Crap. I want to get back to the car? How fast can we run?"
Me: "In the dark? You have flashlights, right? Probably less than 1 minute. Back to you, player 3. You see a, well yeah, a tree. Probably. Yes, a tree. It must be a tree. You almost certainly know it's a tree. Nothing special... Probably..."
Player 3: "Screw this! I'm taking more cocaine."

In short, leave them hanging for information (they might not want to hear). This can also be done with pretending you don't know on wich page you've written a certain piece of information (technique from Zak Smith). They will curse you for your perceived ill-preparedness, while you secretly chuckle as you notice how the tension rises.
It made my players' investigators paranoid and resort to drugs while alone on a graveyard at night while my players themselves became quite scared (screams were made by some of them, afterwards I had to check the empty rooms in the house of one of my players where we played, I felt like a good GM that night).

And sometimes the players screw each other up:
Player 4: "Oh, god. Something is behind you, 3. It could be sitting in the back seat, man. I'm so glad 5 and me have decided to stay at home and watch the camera's [we set up in the morgue]."
Me: "Yeah. About that. Make a sanity check."

2010-08-27, 10:05 AM
Player 3: "Screw this! I'm taking more cocaine."

"We can't stop here. This is bat country."

2010-08-27, 10:12 AM
Description will be your best friend, mix in some good descriptions with a few jumps and scares intermingled with real threats, it will keep them on their toes and lead them to be jumpy over scenery and monsters alike!

In a post apoc setting, my players dug a half buried building out of some snow, broke their way in, found skeletons curled up under desks trying to keep warm where they froze to death., this spooked them a bit.

They go into the hall, at the end they hear scraping and thumping, it sounds like its getting louder, as they advance down the hall a light comes on, with the scraping and thumping and through the flickering of the light they can see a shadow of a humanoid form lurching and moving. They decide that the small rewards in the building are not worth their lives and high tail it out.

a party of FOUR 5th level adventurers driven from an abandoned office building. The threats they ran from: a malfunctioning soda machine, and a door that was hitting a pile of bones and poping open again because it couldn't close fully.

It also helps to grin a bit when they tell you their actions, keeps them on edge with them thinking "oh god why is he smirking?!"

some guy
2010-08-27, 10:29 AM
"We can't stop here. This is bat country."

Oh, yes! I need to watch that movie again and take those drug induced hallucinations for my players' insanity induced hallucinations!

And they might encounter a byakhee or two. Really, you do not want to stop on a highway when a byakhee follows you.