Once in a while we need to frighten the players. A house on a haunted hill. A monster in the closet. A sewer full of horrors. The next campaign calls for major creeps. But the problem with players (nay, media consumers) is that they’ve seen it all before. Most horror movies on Netflix have stranger monsters than the Monster’s Manual. Even your average non-horror RPG game, like Fallout or Skyrim, contain thrills that make old slasher flicks look like Anna Karenina.
How do I scare my players? How do I legitimately freak them out? How do I make their pulse pound after a lifetime of slaying vampires, goblins, and trolls?
The same way modern writers do, that’s how. So here for your pleasure (and to the dismay of your party) are 5 ways to scare the shrieking squirming shits out of your players.
5) Differentiate ‘Horror’ from ‘Monster’
No matter how dark the swamp is, how creepy the tribal drumming, or how viscous the glowing eyes staring back from the bogs, when I say the word ‘Goblin’ the tension vanishes like a fart in the breeze. Even if I describe an army of goblins, or a whole world populated by goblins, the party will do the mental math and devise a plan accordingly. No need to be afraid, fellas, we know the armor class, health dice, and behaviors.
Eventually no monster in D&D can be scary, because all we need do is quantify the threat.
This is why you need to differentiate your new ‘Horror’ from what we know as the classic RPG ‘Monster’. The Horror can’t be quantified. The Horror doesn’t move in expected patterns. And until your plot is nearly wrapped up and you’re ready to give your players the edge, the Horror should be a complete mystery. Like the ghost from The Ring or Freddy Krueger. Your Horror’s origin and weakness shouldn’t be revealed until late game.
Make the players sweat. Don’t let up on the tension by giving stats or figures. And when you first introduce your horror…
4) Kill Something Powerful as a Demonstration
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, whenever the writers wanted to display an alien’s physical power, they would have it beat the shit out of their strongest crew member. Like some space-age prison yard where they can thrash the alpha for respect. Unfortunately for Worf, he was usually the alpha-made-bitch by the alien menace.
For our purpose, we’ll call this writing trick ‘Taking the Worf Challenge.’
The first few times you see it, this trick is genuinely impressive. That Borg just knocked Worf the fuck out. Which means everyone else on the ship is weak, fleshy game for the invading cyborgs. It’s only after we see the trick over and over does it lose its power.
Don’t overuse The Worf Challenge…but do use it. Introduce a character, creature, or enemy that could easily ruin the party’s day. Make sure the players know it could ruin their day (probably because they memorized the Monsters Manual) and let your Horror wipe it off the map. Go gruesome. Go bloody. Go crazy. This will plant the seed with the players that they might be dealing with…
3) Immortal Horror
After having an NPC take the Worf Challenge, go ahead and let the players take a crack at the Horror too… just in case they’re unconvinced. Nothing makes a believer like one who has experienced. Just remember: you have to indicate that the Horror is immortal (for now) without listing any stats. Here are my favorite ways:
- The Horror clearly takes physical damage, but the damage is quickly healed.
- The Horror takes physical damage, but its anatomy is completely foreign.
- The Horror takes damage, but its anatomy/reactions are incongruent to real life.
I prefer a combination. My favorite is to make my Horror composed of dream-like materials. If someone shoots my horror, old moldy yarn and bits of rotting ivy vine are as likely to fall from its gut wound as blood or viscera.
Note: I never include “Horror doesn’t take damage whatsoever.” Because this would give the clear appearance of invulnerability. Don’t ever say that bullets bounce off your horror creature. Invulnerability doesn’t scare anyone. Invulnerability is a comic book gimmick. Invulnerability is the Hulk and Superman. Everyone knows that a character with clear invulnerability just needs to have his kryptonite found, his elixir tainted, or his magic ring stolen.
Confusingly vulnerable yet practically unstoppable is Pyramid Head and Mike Meyers. Make your Horror bleed, and show him relentlessly pursuing the players nonetheless. In fact, the scarier you want your Horror to be, the more you should…
2) Make the Horror a Force of Nature
Hannibal Lector is frightening because of his sharp wit and disturbing knowledge of physiology. But as viewers, we always assume we could talk our way out of his lair. All hyper-intelligent villains are like that. We imagine ourselves finding that ego crutch that will get him to stop–that psychological lever none of his victims have pulled. We imagine that every Horror can be bartered with, bullied, or persuaded– especially of we roll a natural 20.
Just for fun, don’t give your Horror intelligence. I had a game recently where my ‘Horror’ character stuffed one of the players into a bag and carried him around for the entirety of a session. The player-character was effectively dead, but I let the player glimpse little snippets what my Horror was up to on the day-to-day. My descriptions of mindless violence and fully random behavior were so strange to the players, I heard someone whisper ‘Oh, fuck.’ knowing they’d have to face the Horror again.
To eliminate your suspense, dear reader, in brief; they saw my Horror staring up at an oak tree for hours on end as he made it decay with a touch. Then a glimpse, days later, of villagers running from the Horror as pieces of their clothes and flesh flaked away and fell to the ground like leaves. Another glimpse of the Horror eating dirt by the handful like a demented child. Then he’s holding a squirming goblin, like a babe in his arms, while it expires from corruption.
Get crazy with your descriptions of mindlessness, but remember to make it truly mindless. If you hide plot-points in your Horror’s actions, the players will treat it like an agent of the game. The more you think of your Horror as a storm or a tornado, random in direction and intent, the more your players will fear it.
And in case the players think they’ve got it figured out, you can always…
1) Involve Player Weakness
Using the example above, when I first introduced my horror I knew one of my players was role-playing a character with greed and theft problems. He was a clepto, and could never say ‘no’ to an easy score. So I designed a dungeon that continually paid out loot every turn, but corrupted the characters the longer they remained. Sure enough, the greedy bastard stuck around long after the corruption had warped his mind, making him easy meat for my Horror in a way the party felt was justified.
In the end the real weakness you’re capitalizing on isn’t that of the characters, but the player’s fear of the unknown. The moment you introduce a way to kill the Horror your players will rush to make the squirm-fest stop. In the meantime, try to enjoy the little gasps of fright and cringes on their faces. Because by next week it’ll be back to burning down taverns and ignoring the shit out of your story.
Featured image and article images from Wiki Commons.