B4 Series #1

During our column series in Guild Year 19, we ran a few installments about genres in role playing games. We are making a return to that topic in honor of October’s arrival. The month, and its very popular holiday and trappings, heightens our awareness and acceptance of the scary side of things. That familiarity and openness to being put on edge makes it easier to implement that mood into a gaming session by overcoming our usual difficulty in allowing ourselves to fully immerse into a setting.

When we play an RPG session, envisioning a fantastical realm or pretending to engage with beings on an alien world is simple and almost second-nature. Reacting to the situations in those kinds of settings requires a bit of imagination but not much mental work. Horror and suspense, however, require us to buy into the experience and give ourselves permission to be scared in order to be effective. It is a difficult thing to achieve given the reality around us when we play and the out-of-character interactions that we have at the table.

So, how do we as players let ourselves be scared at the game table? How do we as game masters effectively set the mood of ever-present dread or at least unease? Some steps fall into the category of table policy while others are present in the game rules we use. None of them are hard to put into play but they do require a bit of focused commitment.

Mood is the biggest element of a successful game session and the broad scope of the horror genre thrives on it. It is a good idea for the game group to firmly establish during Session Zero that the usual “casual & fun” spirit will be toned down during a horror session or mini-series. Nothing kills the spooky mood than an ongoing stream of jokes and Monty Python quotes. Staying in the moment of the adventure assures that a consistent tone is held.

It also is a good idea to keep the horror story fairly short, either as a one-shot or a defined mini-series. Brief forays like these are much easier to administer than longer ones when a solid tone is required. The limited time period also keeps the identifying tropes of horror, suspense and terror from becoming tired and boring. Being scared has to stay as a special event or it risks losing its punch.

Small but effective things can be done at and around the game table to establish an appropriate atmosphere. A reduction in lighting is simple trick as is running thematic music very quietly in the background. Obviously, enough illumination is needed so everyone can see what they’re doing at the table but swapping the regular light bulbs for flicker lights works. And the music should stay instrumental, moody and barely audible. It should be sensed but not boldly apparent.

Game rules offer a number of methods of enforcing the right mood too. Some, like Call of Cthulhu, are built on the mechanical representations of fear and insanity. As events unfold in the game session, die rolls are made that take into consideration a character’s mental stability with failure weakening that condition. That reduced capacity for the unreal builds upon itself and gradually but steadily degrades a character’s ability to function.

Even game systems not designed specifically for implementing horror can be used with some degree of success. In the D20 System, based on a version of D&D, saving throws for Willpower and against the Wisdom stat score are great tools for activating a character’s in-game fear response. A number of spells and spell-like effects inflict Wisdom stat damage which then plays into exacerbating the failure rate of Willpower saves. Some supplemental rules even offer suggested behavioral, emotional or mental quirks to role play the growing effects of a diminishing mental state.

Bridging the gap between the mechanical rules and table atmosphere are a few other tricks. As GMs, we always should be making an effort to verbally describe that which the player characters see and hear. Sprinkle in mentions of fleeting sounds, weird flickering shadows or odd and suspicious behavior of passerby NPCs. Some things only need to be used once or twice but others can be leaned on a bit more to keep and establish a scene’s vibe.

Additionally, use of the initiative system even outside of combat is a good way of keeping the pace moving. As the suspense builds, it often is advisable to keep the players just a little bit off balance or feeling like they are a step behind. Keeping some sort of timer behind the GM screen is a nice tool to use in conjunction with initiative as the players’ time to make decisions is tracked and, gradually, reduced as the story progresses. (This works for other genres too and is worth adding to the GM toolbox for regular use.)

Delving into the broad horror genre in your games can be as simple as swapping out the orcs for ghouls and being done with it. But restructuring and refocusing the mechanical, logistical and structural elements of the game is a more complete method that gets better results. Horror is much more than just set dressing but rather it is a full-spectrum environment. These suggestions will go a long way toward properly and effectively playing the genre at your game table. Give it a try this month and you just may find yourself going to it again and again throughout the year regardless of the month.