Some advice on running a Horror RPG

This is not going to be a masterclass on how to do it right every time, but more a look at the things you can do as a GM to make the game as memorable an experience as possible for your players, along with a few things that you might want to avoid.

Before we get into the advice I just want to say that the horror game I’m talking about running isn’t a splatter-punk/zombie survival kill fest kind of game, although it could very well include elements of any of those things. No, what I like to run are games of creeping terror. Games that stay in your players’ minds and make them nervous to perform even the simplest action while playing. Think about some of your favourite horror movies and how terrified the characters are when all they want to do is close the refrigerator or check on a strange noise. That’s what I want my players to be like when I’m done with them; shivering, in a fetal position and cursing my name.

One of the most fundamental ways of getting this response from them, is letting the players know from the start that they’re going to be playing a horror game. If everyone’s on the same page, it means there’ll be less mood breaking chatter and horse-play coming from your players; something that would be totally totally understandable if they don’t know what kind of atmosphere you’re trying to achieve. If they know what’s expected of them with regard to the genre of the game, they’re going to be more likely to stay in character and respond to in game threats like they’re lives actually depended on it.

Another consideration is the size of your group. This comes from my own experience of trying to keep the intimate ambiance needed for a horror game with a group of seven gamers. Ideally I would try to keep the group at four players, and absolutely no more than six. Smaller games are great, and I really don’t think there’s a minimum number for a horror game. With your group set up, it’s now time to look at the place you game.

I have in the past gone all out on the room dressing for my horror games, but the simplest stuff to get right is also the most important. I know not everyone has as much control over their gaming space as they would like, so take this next bit of advice as what to do in an ideal world. You’re going to want a smallish space, ideally with the players all pretty close together. Intimacy is very much what you should be going for here. Keep the lights low, as this helps just a little bit, but make sure everyone can still see their character sheet and dice. Keep noise to minimum, and if you’re going to use a soundtrack, put some thought into it. One of my favourites for this at the moment is a band named AKLO, who do some great Lovecraft inspired music. Suno))) are also worth a look, as they manage to put together some of the best blackened creeping drone music out there. Maybe not the kind of stuff you can dance to, but it does its job of creeping out the players very well indeed.

One last thought on the room and atmosphere, and this is something I’ve done myself and seen done very well by other GMs too; get the group to sit facing each other, while you as GM sits apart. Make sure everyone can still hear you, but that they will have to keep the noise down a little to catch your disembodied tones coming in from he darkness away from the table. This may not seem like much, but if you can pull it off, it’s well worth the effort.

When it comes to running the game, there’s a few little bits you can do to heighten the tension and thus the fear. First, never worry about splitting the party. Isolation is a great companion to fear. If you do this, impose a strict ‘no OOC chat’ rule around the table, but ideally you should occasionally split the actual group up. If you do this though, try to keep moving between the players, as you don’t want tension you’re building to become boredom. If each player can still hear hushed conversation, the creepy music, or some unexplained noises, you should buy yourself a bit of time though.

Pacing is important in any game, but when it comes to a horror RPG, even the speed that you talk at can be used to ratchet up the horror level. Start slow, and quiet, but shift up when you need to, increasing volume and pitch, but never drop the scare on them when the players are expecting it. If you have the right players, you can even use them to help out occasionally. Dropping a note to a player you can trust, reading, ‘scream when I say the word “door”‘, and then waiting for it to catch the other players unaware is just priceless.

That’s just a few of the things I do to help keep my players gripping the edge of their seats, and since I’ve played more than my fair share of horror games as well as GM them, watch this space for advice for players soon. If you’ve anything you want to add to the above, or you just want share some stories of your own scary horror role playing games, then sound off in the comments box.

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20 thoughts on “Some advice on running a Horror RPG

  1. One of my best moments in running a Horror game was when I ran Cthulhu for my younger sister and her high school classmates. One boy in the group was so shaken after his character had died that when he left the room to compose himself, he flicked the wrong switch and turned on a particularly old (and noisy) ceiling fan that rattled and screeched, making him freak out and run back to the group like he’d seen a ghost.

  2. I play a lot of Cthulhu and we had some memorable sessions. Players can do a great job of freaking themselves out when exploring an old house, for example. You just KNOW that there’s something horrible around the corner or in that old chest.

    I played Cthulhu at a con a few years ago and while the setting was less than ideal, with a lot of other groups in one room and a lot of laughter and talk from them, our group played for seven hours straight. We were so immersed that we didn’t even hear the others anymore. A lot of that came from the great setting the GM presented, a rambling old house. He managed to make us feel like we were being watched all the time by something and there were a few nice shock effects, like the closet full of maggots. Needless to say, we all died.

    The tip of distancing yourself a bit from the group as a GM is a great one for this. I think it makes GMing easier and creates a little bit of tension between players and GM, in the best way possible.

    Erdenstern is a German project that makes music for RPGs. We listen a lot to their CD Into the Black, written for horror games and Berge des Wahnsinns was written for Cthulhu games.

    • At a student nationals a few years back, the organizing University society got permission from the uni to run the games all the place, so we got to play a 30s Cthulhu game in a science lab on the top floor of an old Victorian building, with dark wooden beams through the ceiling and only two small windows. Setting can be so important.

  3. Brilliant stuff. I ran Orpheus a few years ago and learned firsthand the joys of keeping the horrible awful bad things “off camera” for as long as possible. Sound effects work really well in scenarios like that too, just relying on some very visceral sensory triggers and letting the players’ minds fill in the rest!

  4. Rich has always got this one sewn up for me with his Chill games. Some absolutely terrifying evenings were had in his folks front room back in the day. I seem to remember a particularly disturbing session when one of the players spent the majority of the evening trying to work out how to get their blood into another character. Nasty.

  5. Cool post.

    Never drop the hammer too soon and make sure they are scared witless by their environment long before you confront them with a monster…

    I did a Cthulhu in Space thing a couple of years ago that kicked off with a few “routine” emergencies to remind them that there was but a thin wall between them and horrible vacuumy death and cut them off from any outside contact. I also deliberately had more than enough characters prepared than strictly needed, of course in case of any waaay too early character deaths, but also so I could gratuitously maim and kill the ship’s main pilot in the opening crash.

    Lighting, you mentioned, definitely super important – in that instance I blacked out the lights totally and used green glow sticks (emergency lighting).

    The best horror stories start when the characters are *already vulnerable*… fear of vulnerability is a key part of generating good horror.

  6. Great post Shorty and I think you are spot on about the pacing – I always like to give the players time to think about ideas and to let the horror develop or else they quickly move on to something else. Also very much agree that splitting players up really works and flipping between players to give mini cliff-hangers can be very effective
    The key for me about running horror games (Chill has always been my system of choice) is to realise your limitations. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to re-create movie style Horror and then its always disappointing when it doesn’t really come off. Creating that perfect storm of visuals, sound, atmosphere etc in a movie is relatively easy – in an RPG, if anything, it requires a greater level of subtlety.
    Inspired by your post, here are a few points I’d add. I’m no expert, but these have worked for me…
    1) Don’t over describe things. The more dark corners and silhouettes the better. The deserted old asylum that your player imagines may be much scarier to that individual than the intricately illustrated place you describe. Sow a few architectural seeds to make sure your locations work logistically and then let your players minds develop the details. A sneaky thing I used to do is to work out how my players travelled to the game sessions and then introduced elements of what they see on their journeys into descriptions in the game. E.g. knowing a player walked past the local cemetery, I might base the entrance gate to my asylum on the real cemetery’s gate. Done subtly, you can introduce some creepily lifelike descriptions in game – plus on their walk home the players are subconsciously exposed to elements from the game keeping suspense ticking over.
    2) Don’t over-do gore. Movies get away with this because they can expose the viewer to the whole scene at once with shocking effect. In an RPG, excessive descriptions can end up feeling overly laboured and at worst take on a comedic, almost Jackass, element as you try to gross out your players. Pick out the key elements that set the scene, give some atmosphere (e.g. a dripping sound, a smell etc) then let the players investigate. Another idea is to let an NPC describe the scene before the players get there to give a fragmented, distressed view of what they are about to see.
    3) Don’t get upset if players seem to be taking a light-hearted approach to things. In my experience you rarely see players cowering under the gaming table. You may not get instant fear feedback from players but that doesn’t mean they are not getting into it. Just keep building the suspense. Also really listen to what players are talking about. As you subtly introduce descriptions players often begin to speculate about what might be happening giving you a flavour of what really freaks them out. It doesn’t hurt to deliver them that once in a while, even if it means diverting from your plot a bit.
    4) Own the horror. Sometimes the simplest, everyday things can be used as horror elements in games. For instance, ahead of a Chill session I’d bought some vanilla scented candles (not as a game prop I might add). These were particularly strong and my players were met by an overpowering scent when they arrived at my house. To make the best of things I simply added the smell of vanilla into the game (The characters began to learn that it was used to cover up sinister activities in the asylum in which the game was set). To this day some of the players tell me they can’t smell vanilla without thinking back to the game – sorry about that!
    In another example for a game set in Alcatraz prison I gave all of the players name tags with the warning that as long as they stayed ‘visitors’ the prison would treat them as such. Incredible to see how protective of a name tag players can become – so you really don’t need big budget visuals to generate some good suspense
    5) Repetition. One tool we can borrow from the movies is repetition. So your players see a light bulb flicker before filling with blood and exploding over them as they enter your haunted house (inspired by one of the Evil Dead movies). Introduce that idea again later on. Perhaps a player split from the others is climbing attic stairs towards a lone swinging light bulb. Slow the pace and play out the scene…. swing, swing…foot creaking on the stair…..swing, swing…bulb starting to flicker…..swing, creak, swing…..then BANG, the PC falls through the rotten top step into whatever horror waits below, gazing up into the face of their antagonist as the light fizzles out…

    6) Keep your plot and your NPCs solid. In my experience Horror games work best with tight execution and momentum. Make sure you know where the plot is going, don’t over complicate things and be wary of creating ‘on the fly’ NPCs – players will realise you’re padding and it just kills the momentum. Not always popular with all GMs / players, but I also try and keep dice rolling to a minimum to avoid distraction. Promote and reward good roleplaying and you shouldn’t need to demand dice rolls for every little point.

    7) Generally speaking, if it frightens you it will probably frighten your friends. Don’t feel you need to get too sophisticated – a good old haunted house can give you a terrifying game!

    Right, that’s probably more than enough from me

    • I have to add in here, and say that a lot of the stuff he’s talking about included me. Vanilla still weirds me out. I used to walk home from the game past Edgerton cemetery at midnight.

      take lot of my cues for horror GMing from the doom baboon…

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  9. “That’s what I want my players to be like when I’m done with them; shivering, in a fetal position and cursing my name.”

    And this is why I hate horror games. Too many GMs feel that they have to scare the player and not the character. It’s “roleplaying” – you throw scary things at the character and I roleplay their response. Try and scare me and the least that’s going to happen is I walk out on your game.

    This goes for any genre but it more prevalent in horror RPGs.

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  12. Completely agree, dpmcalister. Few people will be scared if you’re desperate to scare them. What you really want to do is put players in a position to scare themselves. You won’t get anywhere unless players let down their guard, and players won’t let down their guard if you’re actively trying to scare them. Players need to feel comfortable. And they should be encouraged to take an active part in their own character assassination as often as is reasonable.

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