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Yora
2012-10-28, 06:26 AM
I don't have any specific plans right now, but with so many horror specials and descussions right now, I guess this is as good a time to have this thread as any.

So what general advice do you have on running horror adventures?

Nothing to fear but fear itself. I would say the number one thing that makes the difference between horror and screamers. While it's called the horror genre, the emotion it's centered on is actually terror. It is not the revulsion about what has already happened (horror), but rather the fearful anticipation of what might still happen (terror). I think especially in RPGs, which are entirely language based and have no visuals, scary and creepy things should be described to focus on the hints what might still happen and less on the revulsion and shock about what the PCs are currently looking at. Describing the gory details can easily get goofy and I don't think it works for more than a couple of times. You get a better effect when you provide clues that hint on the abilities and methods of the being or phenomenon the players are investigating. Also, keep it to hints instead of answers. Nothing you can tell the players will be as horrific as the undefined subconscious hunches the players will have.

It's not the darkness you should fear, but what it is hiding. Which directly follows on the previous point. One of the most important aspects of horror is keeping the players/audience from knowing what exactly is going on. When you know what you are dealing with, you can come up with a logical solution for it. But I think the helplessness of not knowing what actions would help and what actions would make things worse is the very basis of fear and dread. If you know you're dealing with a werewolf, you get yourself your basic werewolf hunting supplies like silvered weapons, belladonna, and a bunch of hunters with tracking dogs, and wait for the next full moon. If you know it's a vampire, you get your stakes, crosses, and garlic and go around investigating for people who show signs of vampire bites and check all tombs and abandoned ruins in the area. From then on, it becomes a systematic opperation, which is exactly the opposite of horror. Fear comes from lack of control, when you have a plan it might still fail, but it still gives a great deal of confidence. The key to horror is to prevent exactly that.

If it bleeds, we can kill it. A basic truth, and as explained in the previous point, things get scary when such basic truths no longer apply. Now in RPGs, this is something that requites some careful handling. I think most players and GMs have the unspoken assumption that everything that gets into the reach of the PCs weapons will be killed by the PCs. If it can't be killed, the GM wouldn't have set the creature before them to fight.
For horror games, this assumption must be thrown out. Implicitly, it is still assumed that the PCs will kill the creature at some point, but this doesn't mean they can do it just by walking up to it and hitting it with weapons. Even if it's far from elegant, I think a very wise move is to say right from the beginning "not everything in this game can be defeated by just striking it with weapons and spells". The GM should of course not put the PCs into situations where they have no chance of survival, but in horror games, PCs may get into encounters they can not win. Retreat is not just an option in such games, but part of the players arsenal to succeed in their quest. And they should be told that.

Create unique monsters. You can't get afraid of monsters when you know their stats. For horror games, the big bad monster should almost always be a custom creature the player's can't already be familiar with. You could still have a vampire or an evil man-wolf, but don't use the standard abilities and descriptions for them. Instead, use a new unique interpretation of the archetypes. There is no such thing as metagaming in horror games. Even if the player tries as hard as he can to not let his personal knolwedge of monster mix with the knowledge his character has, he still won't feel as uncertain and confused as his character should. And the mood of the players is what's important in a horror game.

Failure is always an option. Now this is even more delicate than undefeatable monsters. But I think for a horror game, there should be no unspoken agreement that the PCs will save the day in the end. But success should also not be impossible. Now unless it is a one-shot game, a total party kill should be avoided, especially when it's just a single horror adventure in a longer campaign in which players expect their characters to make it all the way through the end well and alive. But failure does not have to mean that the PCs all die. If the adventure is not about the PCs escaping a death trap, they can still fail while being alive after the end. A monster might flee the area, never to be seen again (at least for the time being), a specific person might not be saved, or the village is dragged down to hell with the PCs barely making it out alive. Again, this should be made clear in the beginning. Loosing can be great fun, but only if you know you can lose. Otherwise it feels like the players never had a chance to win and were send on a wild goose chase for nothing.

Everyone concentrate. It can be hard for most games, but in a horror game it's especially important that everyone is fully focused on the game. You can't have people reading books or having conversations while the GM is talking about something in the game with some of the players. If it needs to be, start the game by telling that this time, they all have to put their books and phones far away, or the game simply won't work. Of course, this requires that everyone actually want to play a game like this.
In the same way, don't have every single lamp in the room bright up and have some random music on, or worse, the radio. You don't need commercials in the chamber of slimy doom.

Reaper_Monkey
2012-10-29, 06:07 AM
This is fantastic advice already, but a few things to chime in with:

There are worse things to lose than HP. Players are used to having HPs drop, its normal and expected and ultimately not that much of an issue - even if its large HP damage its still not all that scary, it just prompts more defensive play. What really gets to players is when they start losing more unusual stuff, things that they know are going to be harder to heal - or better yet have no idea if they can heal!
D&D obviously promotes stat draining attacks, and ageing attacks, but these are already quite common in undead so wont be entirely unexpected. Try scaring your players with attacks which drain spell slots, movement speed, or skills or even alter how far they can see. So long as it's a mechanically noteworthy penalty which is instantly recognised as occurring, but will leave your players scratching their heads as to how on earth they will go about restoring them. This will quickly get them to fear combat and situations where they might be hit again with these debuffs, which is the root of all horror.

There's no turning back. Allowing your players respite from the horrors which hound them only allows them to steel themselves against them. Preventing rest and/or retreat (or at least making it an much harder coarse of action) allows you to both play a game of attrition but also add a realistic element of peril to the situation - there is now a reason to preserve resources and avoid harm, as noone knows when they'll next be given a break to re-cooperate.

DigoDragon
2012-10-29, 07:17 AM
So what general advice do you have on running horror adventures?

Atmosphere. Music is a powerful tool that can add a lot of punch to a horror adventure. A DM can set up a laptop with a few tracks of music and sound effects to play in the background while the party explores the area. From personal experience, "less is more" with music.
For example: The classic game Half-Life has very little music to it and its music tracks are minimal-- mostly low hums, a few deep notes, etc. but the music tracks play with your imagination, especially when you reach a strage new area of the facility. Personally I've even employed silent tracks or music that is just very faint white noise to great effect.

Kelb_Panthera
2012-10-30, 05:19 AM
@ reapermonkey

You're point labeled, "no turning back" is solid, but incomplete. Constant dread eventually has a numbing effect. If you never let up it'll go from creepy to boring eventually. To really maintain the horrific feel of the game you've got to back of a little here and there. Never enough to let the party completely relax, but enough for them to catch their breath. Yes, they will steel themselves, but that just means you can up the ante afterwards.

Good horror is like music. It has a cadence. Ideally though, that cadence shouldn't be too predictable. You're trying to play the whole horror tune, not just the base-line. Each horrific event is a note. Sometimes the notes are close together. Sometimes they're spread apart. Sometimes they build to a crescendo.

@Yora:

Yeah, it's important to get that sense of dread and foreboding, but the horror of the past has its place too. There's nothing better than when you hook back to an unpleasent event in a way that makes the true horror that was only hinted at come to light.


Minor rant:


Modern "horror" films have lost touch with genuine horror. They overlook the dread and foreboding. They overlook the disturbing reflections of previous events. All they seem to do anymore is go for the "shock value" of gore and the cheap "Boo! got ya!" with the barest of setup. Between these failings and the formulaic nature of big-budget films making them utterly predictable, I've pretty much given up on horror outside of books and gaming.

Yora
2012-10-30, 06:11 AM
Those aren't horror movies. It started with slasher movies and now we have torture porn.

Reaper_Monkey
2012-10-30, 06:26 AM
@ reapermonkey

You're point labeled, "no turning back" is solid, but incomplete. Constant dread eventually has a numbing effect. If you never let up it'll go from creepy to boring eventually. To really maintain the horrific feel of the game you've got to back of a little here and there. Never enough to let the party completely relax, but enough for them to catch their breath. Yes, they will steel themselves, but that just means you can up the ante afterwards.


I fully agree with you here, the psychological term for that is 'flooding' - where you simply cant maintain the anxiety caused from over exposure to a stressful stimulus (as its quite a costly activity to engage in) and as such you become desensitised to it.

I was attempting to convey not repeated and continuous exposure to stressful events/horrors, but more that the situation should be charged with potential peril - where you ebb and flow between a sense of dread and concern for what you might/must face, and events which call for immediate action. This will still eventually wear them down too, of cause, however in d&d (especially) it's important to not let up and allow the party to fully restock their resources (be it spell slots, HPs or daily uses), as this gives the players a sense of power and emboldens their actions (something which shouldn't occur too often in horror). Using these tools though you should be able to usher the group onwards and keep them from lingering in safe havens where they might be able to recharge mechanically.

I guess this flows back into Yora's "Nothing to fear but fear itself." too, in that fear is more about what you think might happen - rather than what is happening. But you do still need to have things happen in order to wear the groups resources down, which adds ongoing dread that they might not succeed - which is much easier to maintain than a constant sense of fear.
As dread doesn't require a specific target to be afraid of or generate fear, it allows you to have breaks from fear educing environments without breaking the 'horror' spell by allowing your players to overly relax and lose focus.

Think of it like this:

Dread is the momentum that maintains urgency within the group and keeps them pressing on and provides fuel for Fear.
Fear is the suggestion of something bad that is about to happen, the more that is currently stacked against you the more this is felt as there is more that can go badly.
Peril is the action that causes you to jump and fight or run away, its the tangible source of what you fear - its why there is something to fear in the first place.

All of these will cause stress on your system, but where as Peril causes the most stress - it is also the easiest to dispel through overuse. Once you've killed a hundred zombies, seeing another one is hardly going to be a cause for concern. You should use Peril sparingly, but with high impact, it should always be something noteworthy - as this is the root of why you're horrified in the first place. (See Yora's "It's not the darkness you should fear, but what it is hiding." for more).

Fear is the rational response to a peril that might occur in a given environment, it may not be the darkness that is causing peril - but without it the things that are causing peril cant hide within it. As such Fear should always be a facet of the where you are, it allows you to foreshadow potential Peril and as such you can raise and lower it quite easily (so long as your group still considers the threat of that Peril meaningful). Using visual, audible or other environmental cues to suggest when Peril might be near is a quick and indirect way of telegraphing minor Fear - be it simply darkness/bodies of water or a chill in the air.
Be sure to use these cues as both real threats of Peril and fake/avoidable ones though in the form of foreshadowing cues like scarping claws, rattling chains or similar - as this causes more major Fear as the source of Peril is (seemingly) much more certain to be near.

Dread is the subversive emotional response to dwindling hope or confidence in overcoming a source of Peril. This is the most powerful effect that can be used, but its also the least dynamic as it generally takes a long time to generate. In addition, just like Peril and Fear, it can also be dispelled without careful cultivation - should the source of Peril ever be emotionally nullified then Dread goes with it. Luckily Dread needs the least active work to generate and maintain, you simply have to erode hope - removing options is the easiest way of doing this, although setting up seemingly insurmountable hurdles is a better way.
This can be done all in one go, by making a single source of Peril suddenly become more numerous ("yes you did just lock the vampire in the basement, but it turns out he just woke up all of his minions - now there are a dozen vampires stalking you!"). The main thing to keep in mind with Dread is to not over do it, it can be very easy to cause your players to lose interest ("Well we can't win anyway, so might as well stop caring") or break down ("We're doooooomed") which can be very hard to come back from without resetting the source of dread entirely ("You get a good nights rest and restore all of your spells").

MarsRendac
2012-10-30, 06:48 AM
Another suggestion I can add is to manipulate vile damage in new ways. A violated ray of exhaustion? Yeah, you need to rest for 8 hours on hallowed ground to turn that into vile fatigue, then another to get rid of it entirely. If your PCs only have themselves/each other to rely on for support and healing, effects like that can really stir up panic, even if the penalties in question aren't as mechanically bad as they sound.

DigoDragon
2012-10-30, 07:10 AM
...All they seem to do anymore is go for the "shock value" of gore and the cheap "Boo! got ya!" with the barest of setup...

Yeah, I noticed that too and it bugs me quite a bit. I don't label those kinds of shock movies as "Horror" anymore because it just doesn't feel right to the genre. Maybe more an insult? :smallsmile:

Personally, I think good horror is subtle.
Its greatest weapon is turning your own imagination against you.

FistOFun
2012-10-30, 12:36 PM
Personal Notes - No better scent of fear can be provided than those given by the players themselves. If a player is alone or first in the room pass them person note about what they might see, that other players don't and get them to fill in the blanks. Random perception checks with a small smerk at peoples results. Bringing their attention to innocuous shadows which are simply innocuous. Some times its fun simply to haunt a single player and sometimes the players begin to get paranoid about what each of the others know that they don't.

Note: Tell the players before the game, that while they can inform one another what is on the note in character, they are not allowed to actually show one another the note or talk about it's contents till game end.

Semi-Ethereal enemies - It may sound cheeky but attacking the players every now and then with Semi-Ethereal enemies can be a nice manner to keep them on their toes. You just need to do it once or twice and have them walk away through the nearest wall, then after that the players may become a bit more paranoid.

Timing - In one session I gave the players an exploration quest, through an abandoned city. They were given a map to a number of marked safe houses through out and told to make sure they were inside as the clock struck. There were plenty of clocks around the city and I made a mental note of them ticking, incase the players forgot to ask. When it got close to the hour I played the beginning of "Time by Pink Flyod" to represent all the clocks chiming. I generally found giving the players a sense of urgency and the chance of respite lead for a really nice vibe through the game.

Reaper_Monkey
2012-10-30, 03:38 PM
{snip} ... told to make sure they were inside as the clock struck. {snip} When it got close to the hour I played the beginning of "Time by Pink Flyod" to represent all the clocks chiming. I generally found giving the players a sense of urgency and the chance of respite lead for a really nice vibe through the game.

This is exactly what I mean when I say an audible cue, things like this are great as its a passive non-verbal means of communicating fear. Which means it both avoids needless chatter (which you can mess up with silly adjectives) and allows the players themselves to generate the fear rather than prompting them with "you should be scared now".

I might do a similar one with clocks chiming though, that's nice as it does (as you say) add a sense of urgency too due to its regularity.

Togath
2012-10-30, 05:52 PM
A few things I've encountered from a pbp dnd campaign I'm running;
-uncommon power sources of the abilities of the villain/monster can be useful, in this case I sent the party up against a psionic creature, which used abilities very different from what the party had, as well as bypassing normal defenses.
-a perfectly normal room, by this I mean a room that is simply a normal room, if the party is already nervous, encountering nothing can build suspense.
-mind altering effects also are useful, and work especially well if the pcs encounter them being used on npcs, in my case I used the thieves the pcs had originally been hired to capture(the party found all but one dead, two slain by the live ones sword, the third dead without any external traces).

I also had the being behind the strange occurrences in my case take the form of a simple wooden effigy of a humanoid, that the PCs encountered sitting on a chair, though at the time they assumed it was a decoy of some sort(since it didn't move when the entered the room, and only acted against them later on), I feel like it's a decent way to give a sense of unease, since they just milled about, searching for anything suspicious in the room while it sat there, watching.
Another concept Iíve been wanting to try out is an encounter with animated statues.....but only 1 or 2, amongst tens or hundreds of mundane statues.

Amechra
2012-10-30, 06:39 PM
A few suggestions?

Start Counting off the Seconds: If they have to make a time-sensitive decision in game, start counting off the seconds at a leisurely pace; it really causes panic to start setting in, especially since people don't like being reminded that, hey, you have 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 seconds left.

Keep them Off-Guard: I started running a horror game (it sadly ended up being a one-shot, due to no-one having time to pick it back up) where the players saw a bunch of people admitted to the hospital. All of them were recovering. When they checked later, all of them were DOA. When players can't tell whether they're the ones going crazy, or whether or not the world around them is slowly shifting...

Let them Make Friends: "But isolation is the best way to bring fear!" Not necessarily... to use an example from that horror one-shot I was talking about, one of my players decided to, spontaneously, call up his friend Mick, a cab driver, because they needed to get somewhere. Mick had a family. His wife and daughter were among the group that were admitted to that hospital. His daughter actually ended up living (or did she...). I got them to actually care about Mick (the session ended with them sitting down to a home-cooked meal with him; they brought fruit salad), which made the fact that I was going to use his daughter as a vehicle for horror all the more potent. Remember, getting PCs to care about NPCs as people make them vulnerable, since every single NPC is played by the DM, and thus are the DM's playthings.

Juxtapose Fear with Normality: Seeing crazy cult symbols smeared all over the walls of a crypt? Kinda creepy. Seeing those same symbols doodled on the wallpaper of a little girl's bedroom in crayon, with her having cutesy little girl nicknames for them, after you've seen them at the crypt? Terrifying.

Play Their Fear Like a Bloody Violin: Attack them when they aren't expecting it; everyone expects to be attacked in the dark, while no-one expects to be attacked in the broad daylight. With all the passersby ignoring the fact that you are getting your face torn off.

Yora
2012-10-31, 05:54 AM
A few suggestions?

Start Counting off the Seconds: If they have to make a time-sensitive decision in game, start counting off the seconds at a leisurely pace; it really causes panic to start setting in, especially since people don't like being reminded that, hey, you have 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 seconds left.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-v1OLMjG52I#t=1m24s

:smallbiggrin:

Kesnit
2012-10-31, 06:35 AM
If it bleeds, we can kill it. A basic truth, and as explained in the previous point, things get scary when such basic truths no longer apply. Now in RPGs, this is something that requites some careful handling. I think most players and GMs have the unspoken assumption that everything that gets into the reach of the PCs weapons will be killed by the PCs. If it can't be killed, the GM wouldn't have set the creature before them to fight.
For horror games, this assumption must be thrown out.

Failure is always an option. Now this is even more delicate than undefeatable monsters. But I think for a horror game, there should be no unspoken agreement that the PCs will save the day in the end. But success should also not be impossible.

This is one of the major themes in Call of Cthulhu and something I like about the system. Yes, it is possible for the PC's to defeat the cult/stop the ritual/dismiss the BBEG. But what will they have to do and what will be the final cost? And can they actually succeed? I've only managed to run one game of CoC, but the party almost didn't succeed in the ritual because the BBEG - a toned down avatar of Nyarlathotep - kept summoning creatures and the PCs had to keep making SAN checks. One PC finally failed so many he ended up with OCD and was in the corner, tracing cracks in the floor. If one more had gone crazy and left the ritual, they would have failed.


Create unique monsters. You can't get afraid of monsters when you know their stats. For horror games, the big bad monster should almost always be a custom creature the player's can't already be familiar with.

I think this should be done in just about any game, if the DM/ST/Keeper/Whatever knows that the players will meta-game. I ran a short 3.5 campaign several years ago and had a player who knew the MM very well. So I took stats from the book, but changed the description so he would not know right away what it was. Orcs became Green Army Men. An Ooze became Jell-o. A Pit Field (who was a puzzle, not a battle) looked like Cthulhu.


I believe picking the right system can go a long way to getting the right mood. CoC is obviously about horror and having the PCs at a disadvantage. Playing a Mortals game in nWoD is another way. I'm sure there are other systems, but those are the ones I am most familiar with. 3.P I think would be harder (though not impossible) because of the power level of the PCs (unless it was a low-level game). In that case, I believe the DM would really have to work the atmosphere/mood.

Gwyn chan 'r Gwyll
2012-11-01, 09:09 AM
Gonna plug this again..

SilverClawShift's (http://www.giantitp.com/forums/showthread.php?t=116836)most epicest campaign journals.

Her DM was mind-bogglingly good. The First Tale is the Horror Campaign.

Amidus Drexel
2012-11-02, 03:41 PM
Gonna plug this again..

SilverClawShift's (http://www.giantitp.com/forums/showthread.php?t=116836)most epicest campaign journals.

Her DM was mind-bogglingly good. The First Tale is the Horror Campaign.

+1 for that. The second campaign is a good deal longer, but it falls in line with "horror" also.