View Full Version : [General Question] Conveying a sense of Urgency and Terror

2014-02-21, 04:43 PM
I'll be running a session tomorrow where the PCs will enter into a crypt that was accidentally discovered by some miners. A handful of miners have already disappeared, loured into the tomb by familiar sounds (such as the laughter of a daughter, or a call from an old friend).

Anyway, Once the PCs get into this tomb, what kind of devices could I use to convey a sense of terror. As an example, once a player(s) enters a room, the door shuts immediately behind them. Players on the inside have to face enemies while the ones on the outside have to scramble to open the door.

So, along those lines, what would you guys recommend I throw into this dungeon?

2014-02-21, 04:50 PM
Swarming vermin are always good for a terrifying and claustrophobic scene. If you're playing d20, I would not used the swarm rules as written -- where you can disperse a swarm of spiders, for example, by hitting them with your weapons for a few rounds -- but play the situation more freeform. Any decent idea the characters have -- fire, diving in (murky and diseased?) water, physical barriers -- should work, but only to the extent of giving them a few moments' respite while the swarm finds their way around it. Especially effective if they have to deal with other threats while evading the swarm. Especially especially effective if the swarm consists of things (spiders, scorpions, rats, whatever) that the players fear in real life. (Don't take this TOO far, of course. You want "enjoyably scary", not "scarring phobia trigger".)

Pocket lint
2014-02-21, 05:32 PM
Play with light, especially if they've gotten separated. A pit trap might blow out the torches when triggered, leaving one character alone and in utter darkness, the rest (when torches are relit) with no trace of where he's gone. Have wraiths announce themselves by telling them how the light from the torches seems to dim and give no illumination, and then all they see is a pair of eyes moving toward them.

There are other obvious things - tunnel collapses forcing the players apart, causing them to scramble for their lives or be buried alive, vermin finding their way inside their clothes. Some enemies might be hidden in sand and will emerge underneath their feet (skeletons). Carrion crawlers are another favourite - with no warning, tentacles reach out and grab a character, pulling him into the wall to be eaten (brings back memories - we fought one in 2nd ed by casting enlarge monster on it. Cue smashed toothpaste tube moment, and the entire party drenched in ichor)

2014-02-21, 05:57 PM
My party is low level and consists mostly of characters that can see in low-light or have darkvision. Blowing out torches may not be as an effective scare tactic.

Illusions are usually awesome at low levels, but I have a creative block right now and can't think of anything scary enough to use it with.

Red Fel
2014-02-21, 11:55 PM
Emphasize atmosphere.

First, the setup. They're not just wandering into a random crypt, right? Make it scary before they set foot in it.'

Things have happened in the mine and to the miners. Weird things. They hear whistling noises in the rocks. One of the miners came down with a strong, hacking cough. Another developed feverish shakes. One swears he saw glowing red eyes from inside the crypt.

Key point: Make sure it's all explicable at the PCs' level. Don't introduce effects that could only mean something earth-shatteringly powerful, but allow the players to infer that this is so. The whistling noises? Just thermal vents leaking air through the stone. The cough? He's a freaking miner, it's coal dust in the lungs. Feverish shakes? He really should dress more warmly. Red eyes? Rats. But they could just as easily be an ancient, horrific curse, cast by the place's dark inhabitant, sealed away for centuries - and how would your players know the difference?

By setting the place up with these rumors about how creepy it is, the players will already be on edge.

Next, describe the setup. Say the crypt is carved into the living rock. The stones are smooth and aged, but covered with an arcane and disturbing scrawl. Go into detail about the creepy details. Make the place look creepy from the outside. Basically, confirm the players' fears without actually confirming their fears.

At this point, when the players set foot in the crypt, they're basically expecting it to be swarming with highly intelligent sorcerous undead and minor deities thirsty for their blood and hungry for their savory, tender flesh.

Don't give them the satisfaction. Leave them in limbo. When they finally work up the courage to enter the crypt, make it harmless. Some cobwebs, a rat or two, but nothing else in the first room or two. No traps, no magic, no skeletons; if anything, make it feel almost safe, apart from things like stale air, weird carvings on the walls, odd reddish-brown stains on the floor. Let the players catch their breath.

Just as the players start to calm down, trigger the first sudden event. Then the second. Then a third.

Think about an Indiana Jones movie. He gets through the creepy area, and it's quiet. He sits. He waits. Nothing. He breathes a sigh of relief, then leans against the wall. Click. Then, about twenty different things happen, all trying to kill him at the same time.

That's what you want. Your players were on edge entering the crypt. They calmed down. That's when you spring sudden stuff on them - a lot of it in rapid succession. Nothing lethal, but just enough to say no, you were not safe, you will never be safe, now you can only run, run, and pray you never find out what you're running from.

How's that work for you?

2014-02-22, 08:13 AM
Some cool elements from Horror;

Stalking: use random Perception checks ("you could've swore you saw heard something---")
Isolation: seal the mine once they're in (the only way out is into the unknown)
The Psychic: a PC with magic/mental powers gets really bad feelings about this place
Murder: having at least one party member die gives horror real impact
Powerlessness: this takes caution, but making the enemy seem near-invincible impacts players strongly

It'a all about messing with the players minds, in a fun way. Hope this helps.

2014-02-23, 01:07 AM
I realize I'm probably to late to help with this session but there are some things I would like to add.

You can create a creepy atmosphere out of game as well. The biggest thing is to cut out of game talk completely. Tell players up front that you want game play only tonight, most gamers will comply.

Play with the lights out and by candle light, black light or diffused lighting (A low wattage bulb with red cloth over it placed under the table throws stark shadows on the walls and is fairly unsettling.) this cuts out distractions and the flickering light creates a different type of atmosphere then normal lights.

Play Nox Acana (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lvC8b1_2bI) lightly in the back ground. Besides candles I can think of nothing other that creates mood better then music.

Lower the room temp. This does two things, eliminates drowsiness and replicates the feeling of being below ground.

Invoke the sense of smell whenever possible. If a ritual is being cast use incense. If there are going to be zombies, open up some Tupperware with rotting meat in it for a couple of minutes before the encounter, preferably without your players noticing you doing it.

Whisper descriptions, so that they strain to hear. Walk around the table, that way your voice becomes loader and softer like it would if NPC's were talking deeper in the mine. When you don't want to build tension talk in a flat monotone, then speak faster and louder when events build to a climax.

When describing the scene less is better. The more time you spend describing a scene, the worse off you'll be. Do not spend time describing a horrible scene of rendered flesh all over the place. This tends to overload or sicken the characters instead of horrify. What is better is to simply describe the sound of dripping blood, and maybe one or two pieces of flesh. Surprisingly, this approach works better than one might expect. The fertile mind of the players will fill in the gaps.

Use foreshadowing whenever possible. Keep your players paranoid. If they have a reason to be afraid, then they will react accordingly. Only attack when the players have a moment to relax.

Keep game mechanics to a minimum. Have perception checks rolled before that night. Try to avoid combat as long as possible Nothing breaks the mood faster then dice rolling and rule checking.

Don't forget cheap tricks. What works for campfire "jump" stories can work just as well around the gaming table. If you see a player who is seated with his feet up, have a severed hand suddenly animate and seize hold of an unsuspecting character's ankle as he walks past it. At the same time, do the exact same thing to the player himself. Use this sparingly as it is natural to laugh afterwords and that breaks the tension you've been building.

2014-02-23, 01:35 AM
I've found my players freak out when the monster they're fighting can get away from them with something they consider theirs.

For example, I also had the party go into a mine with miners trapped in it. The beastie was a insect that took the left arms off of miners and ate the left arms. The miners would bleed to death and then turn into viscious ghouls. The ghouls then went around eating parts off of other bodies or looking for the rest of the miners. A few of the miners holed up in the back of the mine. The players worked their way to the back of the mine. They found the miners there cowering in a corner.

AND THEN THE INSECT [email protected]!! It jumped out at the party cleric and claimed his left arm for its own. The party wigged out pretty hard at that. Seeing these ghouls missing their left arms throughout the entire twisting maze of the mine and then realizing that the same thing might happen to them. Pretty awesome.