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.