There are some tried and true methods for sharing the fear, or scaring the living daylights out of your audience. These apply equally well in role playing games as they do to other formats of horror as well. From probably the earliest days of sharing a tale around the fire these techniques have been spreading the joy of being scared down through the ages, so pay close heed reader, lest the darkness swallow you before you finish my terrible techniques…
First and foremost is framing the game. You want the player to know upfront this is going to be an adventure filled with horror. You probably wonder at this point if this is the best way to instill fear but consider an example. Say you are running a game where the fearsome krakledon thought extinct for over a millennia erupts from the earth and swallows whole the birth town of our adventurers. If it is unexpected, i.e. the players think they are in a standard game, the players become shocked at this event, rather than in fear (fear may come later but shock is generally the initial response). If you have framed it (and this does not mean specifically saying it was horror but perhaps scary portents on the lead up) then the event will not take them by surprise it will scare them as they realize the krakledon is some great evil emerging from the ground (note, krakledon is a made up creature. Don’t go looking for it.). Some games do this just by playing them like Call of the Cthulhu and Ravenloft. If you are playing that game you are already in the frame of mind that is required because you expect it to have horror in it.
Lighting can be used to great effect when playing a horror game. If ever there is a time to turn the lights out and use candles it is while you are playing a horror game. Spend some time making sure your candles have built up wax drips down the side, new candles can ruin the effect. Also, use a GM screen and have loads of tea light candles burning on your side so the light from them comes from below your face, casting eerie, scary shadows. You can of course take this further and deck out the table like a gothic nightmare and even get some spray on spider webs to play. If you have a stark basement or a dusty attic, put it to use and play there. If you have a shed and live in a windy area that will make strange noises, all the better.
If you have only a kitchen table to play at, investigate getting a spooky soundtrack to play through a sound system. I have several favorites to use. I have one that is as old as the hills with chains and witches, winds and wolves. All great stuff for traditional horror. Being a bit of a horror video game nut I also have several horror video game soundtracks that spook the nerve from my players! I have one in particular that spooks my (15 year old) daughter so much that I have been banned from playing it due to the nightmares that follow! If you can, have a generic soundtrack just looping but if you want to get specialized, cue up the tracks you need and use them at predetermined points in the story to send your players packing!
Narration techniques also come into it. Make sure you overplay your big baddies and have them become unforgiving nightmares in your portrayal. If you want to hit them with something new start describing the leadup a little quieter so the players have to really concentrate on what you are saying and then when you want to surprise them BOOM! Make it loud and use large hand gestures! It should unnerve them. Also with a horror game make sure you are descriptive. Don’t say “You look in the ballroom and see a vampire with his two thralls in tow” say instead “A gaunt pale figure walks to the table. He spies an open curtain reflecting the scene and hisses something to the misbegotten pale man that stands next to a second beautiful but tragic figure of a woman. The pair react quickly and run forward closing the curtain and then move to the table to snuff out two of the candles near where their master will sit. The pale figure then moves so quickly, almost at an inhuman speed to seat himself at the table. He waits for the woman to come forward. She grabs the crystal wine glass and draws out a bottle from inside her cloak, unstoppers it and pours a thick red wine into it for him before withdrawing to the shadows with her male counterpart.” Description is key here. Never, ever, name your creature types. Let the players work it out. They are likely to decide that this is a vampire but they will never be 100% certain because you never stated it was.
Draw on your own experiences. If you have ever been on camp and told ghost stories around the campfire then remember what scared you. That style of tale sharing is the oldest that exists and the tropes it uses are easily translated to the table for scares a plenty. Remember also that people love to be scared. The adrenaline rush they get from having their heart quicken, even the appearance of goosebumps make the player alert, aware and in a heightened state. Don’t tame it down, pile it on!
Give some of these a try at your next horror game and let me know how it went! Until then, keep rolling, but look over your shoulder. Because I heard once that a GM dared to roll the dice in jest of the gods of horror and his soul was sucked straight from him. Now when a GM stands and sits three times while waving his d20 in the air saying Dire Derek Rolls they are struck down within 8 hours by an accidental death. Of course no one can prove that it is this same GM but better safe than sorry, right?
Mark Knights is 40 year old guy living in a small rural town called Elliott in Tasmania, Australia. I have been role playing since I was 11 years old playing the original versions of Dungeons and Dragons, MERP, Elric, Dragon Warriors and the like amongst other genre games. I played D&D 2nd Edition through the 90′s but I ran Earthdawn for my fantasy setting and loved it as a GM. When 3rd Edition came out for D&D I tried it but found it too heavy on rules. I ignored the 3.5 edition of DnD in favour of Earthdawn (big mistake) as I thought it was just a money spinner. When 4th Edition DnD came on my players and I gave it a red hot go but hated what it had dumbed the game down to be. On a trip to Melbourne to buy some 4E stuff from a hobby store an old mate of mine pointed me at Pathfinder and in a Fantasy setting I have never looked back.