View Full Version : Can you make a horror game work with genre savvy players?

2015-10-11, 02:49 PM
I ran a horror pathfinder game last week and realized I was fighting an uphill battle when my players pretty much guessed the entire plot accurately after just a few minutes.

This worries me, as it took a lot of effort to come up with that plot.

They guessed that the townspeople were all shapeshifting cannibals, and that the real townspeople were still haunting the place.

Darth Ultron
2015-10-11, 03:08 PM

Though the trick is not to use the old well known standard things. Or, even better, to use them, but add a twist or two or three.

2015-10-11, 04:00 PM
A horror game is as much about the players as it is the characters. Now that they think they have it figured out, its time to start using that against them.

2015-10-11, 04:15 PM
Never expect a particular response from the players. If they get scared, great. If they instead get all clever and figure everything out and think they're the hottest stuff around, that's also great.

Just keep on making things and let the players worry about reacting to it. Eventually you might learn enough about them as people to know which buttons to push for a particular reaction, but even then it's not always the way to go.

2015-10-11, 08:21 PM
Part of it for me is not letting my players know they are getting into a horror situation, as even with the greatest awareness of Meta-knowledge, they are still preparing for a horror game. This makes the characters act unlike any film, book or game out there, as they are expecting horror. it's like Scooby Doo, the main gang are hardly ever scared, as they know this is a regular thing that they regularly deal with.

Also, if letting them know has to be thing, defy the tropes, as others have said. Not just horror tropes, but fantasy and magic tropes as well. If they find corpses partially eaten with their throats ripped out and their hearts eaten every full moon, they will stock up on silver and Wolfsbane, as werewolves are a very real and present threat, so make the local Lord (Who hired them) a serial killer, who uses a Hound of the Baskervilles style dog to reinforce the rumors. Throw them off his scent by having them eat using silver finery when they visit him. Make them fool themselves by assuming. Because they expect one thing, due to the tropes, feed them the other. This has to play into everything you do.

Example, that I have used to great success before on my then party of 6 (Also citing Chris Perkins of WotC for the original inspiration.):

Okay, basic rundown, Party was hired to clear the local Dwarven Mining Town, long abandoned, built into the mountain they were mining. The local villagers wanted to reopen the mines but were too afraid of the "haunted" place that seemingly swallowed anyone who went in. The town was accessed by boat, as the cliff face it was built into was bordered by a lake, created and partially flooding the Town around the initial desertion. This served a dual purpose. 1. It isolates the players, there is no backup, no easy escape. (The boat was found destroyed when they did try to Gtfo) 2. It makes a foreign/imposing landscape, fog ridden, deathly quiet, unsettling, just the wind howling (With accompanying sound affects.)

They started exploring, and found nothing, except dirt, decay, dust, and webs. They heard things, clanks in the distance, half seen swirls in the fog, ripples in the other wise glass still water. This continued, and every so often I'd ask for them to make a perception check, say interesting, and scribble down a note, if they succeeded too high to fake, I had a list of small vignettes of horror, people barricading themselves in. Mummified husks with ribs burst open, (This caused a few Alien jokes, which quickly petered out when I remained poker-faced. This got the players on edge, as they became convinced there was something they were missing. There wasn't. I was just fueling the paranoia. Getting them to the state where I could enact Act 2.

Here's where the trust of players comes in, as they were exploring, I consulted the marching order, and took the rearmost player to the side (actually the kitchen away from the others. There they enacted the next scene, where now known to them a merfolk grabbed them from behind, muffling them and dragging them into the water, pulling them down to where 2 others waited. They were quickly subdued and dragged away. I clarified they were not dead and asked them to go wait in the other room, where I'd previously prepared snacks and other things, saying they'd only be there a short while.

Back to the main group, the silence was broken by a large splash and crash, and they spun round to find the player missing, their torch left on the ground and ripples spreading, the monk dived in to look but couldn't see anything under the murky dark water. The disappearance, reinforced by the players actual removal from the table, made them terrified of the water.

Another thing I'll add here: These guys hadn't had a break from the game, the most they got was when I disappeared with the other players. This helped make them exhausted and by this point all table-talk had died out.

They chose to rest in the nearest building, reinforcing the existing barricades, and have the wizard prepare a sending for help the next day. Now, I couldn't have this. Consulting their stats, I decided to be evil, choosing the person with the weakest WILL, the rogue and waiting till they were on watch, I had them make a Save Vs Sleep, as per the Sleep Spell, and as I planned, they slumped down gently snoring, every else started rolling perception checks, and when they did Succeed, 2 others had already been carted off, leaving the guilty Rogue, the Fighter and the Cleric. During the resulting chaos, one of the attackers dropped a magical darkness, and several loud splashes later they were gone again. (This was also deliberate, as it left them a balanced, but greatly reduced party. Minus the Wizard, which scuppered their plan to run away.)

This is going on a bit longer than I intended so summarizing: the new mini party saw a green glow in the distance, and heading towards it found and rescued the party, disrupting a Merfolk ritual to open a portal to the plane of water, releasing a Kraken and flooding the entire Valley where this happening. At this point, now the character's where aware of events, I shifted the style, creating a more Cthulu esque temple area, having a water-themed dungeon, and keeping the created tension and fear going with pressure and horror elements. The players, by this point fully immersed in the situation, kept the horror themes going even through the shift.

Looking back on this adventure has made me realise a few things.
1. Keep ahead of the players, as with most good slasher flicks, the Killer is always one step ahead.
2. You have to be evil, and while this is normally a bad thing for TTG, for Horror you cannot be their friend, you cannot be kind.
3. You need to do at least twice as much planning in a horror game, to account for all the psychological elements, this all takes place in the players heads, make sure you get in there and start using that to your advantage.
4. Again, gonna stress this one: DO NOT LET THE PLAYERS KNOW THEY ARE IN A HORROR CAMPAIGN! That is the most important thing. As soon as you do, they will start acting as such, and that will kill the mood.

2015-10-11, 08:53 PM
Also, if letting them know has to be thing, defy the tropes, as others have said. Not just horror tropes, but fantasy and magic tropes as well. If they find corpses partially eaten with their throats ripped out and their hearts eaten every full moon, they will stock up on silver and Wolfsbane, as werewolves are a very real and present threat, so make the local Lord (Who hired them) a serial killer, who uses a Hound of the Baskervilles style dog to reinforce the rumors. Throw them off his scent by having them eat using silver finery when they visit him. Make them fool themselves by assuming. Because they expect one thing, due to the tropes, feed them the other. This has to play into everything you do.

To be fair, none of those assumptions are based on metagaming tropes, that's all information they would likely know in character (with the appropriate knowledge checks or some research) with the villain is using misdirection to throw them off. They don't expect one thing due to tropes, they expect one thing due to the information you've provided them.

Your point is a solid one, just that the example is faulty.

2015-10-12, 12:26 AM
Absolutely. What you need is player buy in, and it's generally going to come from the people who like horror enough to be genre savvy in the first place. Focus on atmosphere, have a more horror based plot than a mystery with superficial horror elements (in the example, the players figure out what's going on and are fine, in horror that tends not to help that much), and maybe use a system that isn't geared towards characters beating the living snot out of horrific monsters on a routine basis.

2015-10-12, 12:53 PM
Turn your plot inside out at least twice.

It's not about the plot anyway it's about playing mind games on your players. You could run the most hackneyed horror plot and still have the desired effect.

2015-10-12, 01:43 PM
Horror is more about the antagonist being helpless than figuring out the plot. So make sure that just because the players can figure everything out that still doesn't help them.

Here's an example, slip one of the players a note that their character has been eaten by one of the shapeshifting cannibals and tell them they get to play as one and their new job is to eat the other players. Pick that one guy who will enjoy it, THAT will be scary. Trusting nothing will not save you, seeing through the plot will not save you, doing all the right things will not save you.

2015-10-12, 02:03 PM
Horror is more about the antagonist being helpless than figuring out the plot. So make sure that just because the players can figure everything out that still doesn't help them.

I think you mean "protagonist."

And that's largely true, though it's not total helplessness, but a sense that you're vastly outmatched and that your options for survival are limited to an almost puzzle-like subset.

You can hide, but you can't run. You can run, but you can't fight. You can invoke esoteric rules that don't FEEL like they should keep you safe in order to gain fleeting, temporary, fragile safety (e.g. "the monster can't see you if you don't breathe," which becomes all the more nerve-wracking when the monster's baleful eye is directly upon you and you struggle to hold that breath.

2015-10-12, 05:37 PM
In my experience, people are nowhere near as "genre-savvy" as they think they are ;) The poor fools...

Traditional horror of haunted houses, towns with dark secrets and so on still works a lot of the time. Players suspect there is something up... good! A major aspect of horror is foreboding and the sense that something is wrong.

There is a lot of very good advice for how to run horror in RPGs online. It is actually one of the better suited media for horror due to the players being personally invested in the safety of their PC.

2015-10-13, 06:38 PM
Its possible also that they guessed because they are familiar with your style of story telling. As an example, there is this fanfiction author I greatly enjoy reading. However, he has certain themes that are present in pretty much all his books. The same two characters fall in love, those characters tend to run circles around the antagonist despite the fact that they are (usually) hopelessly outmatched, with nothing more than a neat trick to put the big bad off guard briefly in a rational world. And his stories generally end with an upcoming utopia of peace prosperity, and acceptance. Despite this the stories are still lots of fun to read as he never does it the same way twice, but its predictable in its broad strokes. If you tend to follow general themes in your campaigns, then what you need to do is figure out ways to, not invert it, because that is also predictable, but to go off on an entirely different tangent from your usual work.

2015-10-13, 10:42 PM
I have a few players who are pretty genre savvy, I was given a great piece of advice which is "bring forth your own fears and subject the players to it." and it worked great, some of my bigger fears are being alone, being watched. what I did was have a vampire be invisible and watching one of the party members she could feel its gaze but never see where, I don't even describe it too well I describe a crime scene, she starts following some tracks and every so often I say to her "you still get the feeling that someone is watching you." afterwords she tells me she was uneasy after that.

2015-10-13, 11:22 PM
Q: How do I make a certain genre work with genre-savvy players/readers/viewers?

Solution: Defy genre conventions.

(Like Five Nights at Freddy I. Afterwards, yeah, it got old hat.)

2015-10-14, 02:40 AM
I ran a horror pathfinder game last week and realized I was fighting an uphill battle when my players pretty much guessed the entire plot accurately after just a few minutes.

This worries me, as it took a lot of effort to come up with that plot.

They guessed that the townspeople were all shapeshifting cannibals, and that the real townspeople were still haunting the place.

1) Work on your poker face. Absolutely do not crack if they perfectly guess everything.

2) If you haven't put it on-screen, it's still up in the air.

Change it on the fly so the villagers are exactly what they seem to be, but the ghosts are soul cannibals who've eaten their souls! Maybe that makes no sense but you can work with it, and most of all if one of the players tries to stab a villager out of nowhere to prove she's a shapeshifter, he's just made things a lot worse for himself.

This does have limits. If you dropped a lot of hints the villagers were shapeshifted cannibals beforehand, in kind of an "I never drink.... vine" wink-wink kinda way, then it's fair they guessed your **** and you shouldn't shift it on them. But yeah, as a DM who's had to deal with a lot of smartass from players over the years, don't crack, be calm the whole way through and they'll start to think they're maybe not as clever as they felt. That's the main thing.

2015-10-14, 03:52 AM
I plan backup plot twists in advance. In one of my games, the party was supposed to investigate a red herring in small settlement, while the real plot was about shapeshifter who was going to try kill the party for various reasons. The main plan was to make the party trust that shapeshifter, but they hated him immediately and (to my amusement) accused him of a whole bunch of things he wasn't guilty of. Luckily, I prepared a backup plan so that if the shapeshifter was caught early, the genre changed from mystery/horror to a full slasher flick. The shapeshifter summoned some backup to siege the settlement, blood and gore ensued and the players had fun in another way.

It's the same thing as in every other game type: don't make your story too rigid, always expect the players to do something weird, etc. A bloodbath works relatively well, but something more interesting can be made up depending on the campaign.

2015-10-14, 04:09 AM
I think you can. If you have some time, you may want to look at my suggestions.
Creating a good horror adventure is probably one of the most difficult tasks a DM may encounter. That said, I highly encourage you to go for it as it can be a lot of fun.

So, what is horror? What is fear? Long story short, fear stems from the lack of control. People are never frightened when they are in control. Think about it: Death for example is scary because you cannot do anything about in real life, whereas in D&D it is mostly a status effect. But death is final. All your endeavours, all your hopes and dreams, and even your legacy will ultimately vanish in the void called entrophy. Saying that you have to give meaning to your life yourself is just a way to stave off the horror of demise by inventing an illusion.
At least, that's what people think who are afraid of death.
But let's not open that particular can of worms. Rather, let's go into the details of fear.

Loss of control can entail several factors. The most obvious one is the lack of power. If you can fight something, it's not as scary. You can easily beat a cold. Cancer though... more difficult. That's one of the reasons why your average D&D zombie is not scary. It has poor stats and can overly be overcome. That's why ammunition in most survival games is scarce. That's why flight is usually a valid course of action. Of course, you have to be careful that the player characters can't just outrun every threat, because this gives them back some control.
For that reason, you have to find something that keeps the PCs from escaping everything. Yes, you can expect your players to follow the plot if you like metagaming. But you can also burn their plane, entrap them in a place between the worlds and have their little sister missing.

But loss of control can also entail a lack of understanding. People are afraid of the darkness because the lack of light makes it difficult to ascertain facts that are usually a given. The dark figure in the alley might just be an odd collection of trash with a hat in the daylight, but at night you cannot be sure. The more facts the players have, the more control they can establish. As soon as there are certain rules or patterns, a threat becomes more predictable and therefore less dangerous. A good DM therefore leaves events open to interpretation.
In his essay "The Uncanny", Freud offers a brilliant insight in events that occur in daily life which may become uncanny. Imagine a person that rents hotel room 33. Completely common. The taxi driver demands 33 dollars. Still common. A crazy man states that the world will end in 33 days. Alright, now it's getting odd... I think you get the picture. Everyone has heard of probabilties and coincidences, but at some point the chances of something being a coincidence are rather low, but you still do not know what is going on. A different example is something unanimated seems to be animated, or vice versa. There are certain ideas of things, and when they seem to behave differently, we are likely to chalk it up to our imagination or a simple mistake. But if it happens again, we are unsure whether our old ideas hold up to the truth. And if our understanding of how the world works is wrong, what else is possible?
For the same reason you never state that a zombie lurkes in the basement. A zombie can be categorized and is somewhat mundane to many players. "Show don't Tell" is the basic premise of every good story, and it is also important here. Describe the smell, the sound of movement, and suddenly a person scrambling towards the players. Is it a drunken bum trying to escape? The weird neighbour trying defend himself? Or an honest-to-goodness undead? The players don't know, so they have to take a risk of shooting an innocent or being infected. IF zombies are infectious, because that is another piece of information that the players hopefully don't have yet.

That said, there are also lesser factors that are important to fear. For one, the current course of action should be at least disastrous for the PCs. Nobody is afraid because they cannot change the fact that scientists found a way to negate the greenhouse effect. No, they are afraid because their girlfriend might become blind, or their little brother might rot in hell, or their own life is at stake, or something else that causes a lot of discomfort. At the same time, it is noteworthy that hope has a major role in upholding the tension. Utter despair is a horrible thing, yes, but it should reserved for the very last moment when their little sister is dragged to hell. If everything is meant to be doomed, players may easily become fatalistic and frustrated. That also means that not every horror story has to have an unhappy ending.

In this vein it is worthwhile to touch the lethality debate. Some DMs are of the opinion that a high body count is necessary to strike fear into the hearts of the players. It is not! Two reasons: One, as pointed out above, constant failures become tidious after a short while. Two, the idea behind that reasoning is that the loss of a character is the worst thing evar. But if the players don't even have time to become invested in their characters, their emotional discomfort is similar to removing a piece during a chess game. Put another way, very invested players may be shocked by the loss of a characters finger, while others just want to hang out and couldn't care less about a piece of paper. That's why players should have enough time to bond emotionally with their characters and the NPCs.

In order to have the players on the edge, you have to build up tension. Slowly. Ease the player into the mood. Get them invested, let strange things happen, until they slowly start to piece together the clues. Not everything has to be related, but there shouldn't be a street of red herings either. Don't forget the element of threat. And use the important scenes sparingly but effective. Every room soaked in blood turns mundane fast, but three drops of blood at the right time (e. g. out of a PC's eye) might do the trick. Here are some tricks to make the scenes meaningful:

First, TIMING. Again, don't turn your adventure into a ghost show. Leave room for mundane scenes.

Second, obey the dichotomy of shock effect and disturbing effect. A shock effect is everything that appeals to one's survival instinct a loud scream, an unnerving touch. A disturbing effect is something that plays your cognitive processes and perception. You know the feeling when something just isn't right. You come home to celebrate your birthday, but your parents are pale and your best friend is missing. Or the entire floor is wet and sticky. Both effects are different, but it is said they work best when you introduce a disturbing effect first and then add a shock effect a few seconds later while the players are still tense.
There is the optin of having OOC shock effects, and they may work. But once again, use them very sparingly. It may become funny or annoying, and this will kill your mood. Also, it breaks immersion. My advise would be to use them once. Preferably a real scream from the DM that is also uttered by a NPC.

Third, a summary of one and two: Don't overdo it. Ever played a video game where you die in the same scene again and again? That's irritating, not uncanny.

Fourth, there is another dichotomy, namely the one of visceral and cerebral horror. Visceral is your typical blood and gore style. Body mutilation is horrible indeed, but you have to be a grand storyteller to convey this style. Detail is the key. Describe how the needle pierces the black center of the eye, how the goo slowly poor out... Alternatively, you can present the players with the aftermath. Describe the white gooey ball on the floor, let them find the corpse and the tools later and have them piece together the scene in their own minds. Imagination can be worse than description.
Cerebral horror is... difficult to describe, really, and more prominent in the Eastern horror movies. It is something you can only fathom with your mind. Imagine you are trapped with something incorporeal, that sees you, hates you, is near you. Utter malice, if you will, and you are the target. Of course, you don't make a voice say "I hate you", but you provide clues. A broken glass, a hiss, or maybe a lost journal.

Fourth: Tension and tension release
You probably know the suspense curve. Typically, it starts low and increases towards the climax, as it should be. But at the same it is difficult to uphold the constant pressure. Cat scares are one way to do so. A creak in the bedroom, you trembling open the door, and oh it was just a cat. You know, a perceived threat that really isn't one. Another way to do so is by denying many things the players would usually rely on. Information and NPCs are they really reliable? Probably... not.
At the same time, it is really exhausting to be on the edge for a long period of time. During a long adventure, you need some means to release the tension. A joke and a safe haven usually to the trick. Just don't forget to tear down the safe haven towards the end. Usually it's just easier to have a short horror adventure.

Fifth: Topple the players
It is always nice to have a twist towards the ending that twists the guts and forces the players to adapt. The uncle is actually the murderer, and the gardener actually a victim. The zombies broke into the previously safe shelter. Surprises are good, but don't force them if they feel arbitrary. Bonus points if the characters could have prevented it if they had found the clues or succeeded otherwise. Especially in the final of a one-shot adventure, you may turn into a devil in disguise. But make sure there was a way the players could have seen.

Sixth: Beware the flow
So, you have brilliant riddles and the perfect gore scene? Great. Unfortunately, the players can't solve it and the scene is tied to an object that the players ignore. Frustration is the bane of atmosphere. Therefore, you should ALWAYS have a backup plan and be flexible. Maybe there is a different way that is just more costly. Maybe the scene can be adapted to a similar situation. Tense atmosphere requires some sort of progess, so make sure it is possible.

Lvl 2 Expert
2015-10-14, 07:06 AM
Have they actually seen a villager eat anyone yet?

If not, they are now shape shifting vegetarians, some ancient cult that has all sort of creepy rituals, but merely wishes to preserve nature.

Or turns out to like killing people after all, if you end up needing to retwist it.

You know those movies that just keep twisting again and again and again? Well, that's what you make for an audience that's too genre savvy. If they keep knowing what to do, keep changing it.

Until they catch on and call you out on it, by then it may be time to start thinking off admitting defeat. Just let them monsters come at them and turn it into a monster movie.

2015-10-14, 07:40 AM
Alright thus far: The players have entered a town populated by shapeshifting cannibals, imposters of the real villagers. They partied and the bedded, then they were awoken. They've had their first fight with a pair of revenants and the shapeshifters those revenants really wanted to kill(affectionately nicknamed the anglerfish twins).

They've decided that if this is supposed to be an easy fight, they want out as soon as possible... but at the same time the evil wizard really wants to loot the town, and the fighter feels honor bound to put the spirits of the town to rest.

Now, the fighter earlier encountered a very tall man with dark skin, red hair, and eyes like fire. The man walked through fire like it was nothing. The player(though I havent' confirmed it yet) has accurately guessed that the man is an efreeti(based on familiarity with mythology).

This efreeti is a bounty hunter, after the shapeshifter leader's head. If the players steal his kill, he'll request the head and pay them in three wishes(there are four party members). Now, I'm aware that if I go through with this, they'll be expecting a monkey paw scenario. If the wizard asks for ultimate power, he won't be surprised if I give him a grimoir that belongs to a powerful lich. If he wishes for intelligence, he won't be surprised if I give him intelligence+insanity.

I still like monkey paws though, and would love to go through with this assuming they survive long enough.