My first exposure to horror role-playing was a write-up in Dragon Magazine back in the early 90’s. The review was for Chaosium’s newest edition of Call of Cthulhu. The author described characters “having the life-span of gnats” which I found intriguing, so I learned about Lovecraft in a sort of backwards kind of way. Call of Cthulhu first, then the books.
Running my first game was surprisingly successful, but that had almost nothing to do with me. We were in my friend’s old decrepit house in a bad part of town. It was midnight, his folks nowhere to be seen, and the place was known to have rats that would occasionally make an appearance in the wee hours. It was a good place to try our first horror RPG, though we had more to worry about from real life threats than from Nyarlathotep.
Some players were into the historical element of Cthulhu, set in the 1920’s, and some into the general adventure, but all in a way that was no more engaged than any other RPG, meaning there was chatter, snacking, and thumbing through magazines mixed in with our gaming. As a clawing came from the other side of a boarded up window in our game, I reached down and scratched at the bottom of the table, so that my players couldn’t see what I was doing, but heard the noise. Suddenly, everyone was alert, and nervous! Magazines were set aside, snacks back on the table. One player started sweating. Steve went to check the locks on the door. I was amazed at how that focused the game and brought suspense to the table. The game was a success, and largely because of this small thing that made the game more present.
I cannot claim to be a master of horror role-playing, and would love to see the input of our fans on this particular issue, but I have learned to pick up a few things since those first days
- Know your rules or be prepared to fake it – Nothing will limit the impact of a creepy situation like stopping the momentum and looking up the rules of the game, or fumbling documents and stats. It’s just good storytelling to be able to keep the game flowing. Any time the players can separate themselves from the events or what’s going on with their character, you lose the feel that is so important to the success of this specific genre of game. Better to take your best guess and roll with it.
- Know your adventure – This goes somewhat to fumbling, but players in a horror game will go in directions you probably won’t see coming because in some ways, many horror stories have been considered by players before, and a pragmatic, unheroic response to those scenarios might be the one the player chooses. Characters in these games are often everyday kinds of people, and everyday people aren’t heroic all the time. Knowing your adventure will help you to be able to respond more freely and improvise more quickly when players go in unexpected directions.
- Props – Any Call of Cthulhu fan will know that props are key items that are really emphasized in a number of Chaosium materials, like their award winning Horror on the Orient Express box set.. These are part of breaking the wall and bringing the characters and players into the world of the horrific events. But, moreover, these games are usually not combat games. These are games that reward thinking, deduction, and observation. The combat character, if there even is one, is usually the dead weight. Props allow the player to focus on details, and enjoy the gathering of information beyond the rolling of dice to determine success or failure.
- Access the senses – Many games can rely on the verbal imagery to convey the message and be enjoyed, but in eliciting a more visceral response to a game, deviating from the expected can place that player on the edge of their seat. My simple example of the unexplained scratching noises is one, but using lighting effects (like lighting your room with just a candle for parts of your story where the characters travel in darkness), or apps with sound effects such as Syrinscape might bring a new level of engagement to your game. By way of a great example, our GM played this for us when we tried out Fantasy Flight’s End of the World system. I have never been more haunted and focused than after hearing this message.
- Music – Good music can really shift the feeling in a game, especially if coordinated well. It may be necessary to groom your playlists. I’ve been using a playlist from Spotify, wherein some particularly good Lovecraftian mixes, but a ‘Creepy’ play list might be just what the doctor ordered for your highly creepy campaigns.
- Go with what creeps you out – I know what makes my skin crawl. I try to access that part of my mind when running these games, then leak bits and pieces. Not everything has to make sense or be explained, but avoid contradictions or red herrings. Little things can be the most haunting: Exploring the suspects home to find a personal item from the investigator’s bedroom or a lock of their hair; a glimpse of someone watching the investigator and the discovery of a lengthy surveillance (cigarette butts in the yard, photographs, etc.); dead animals appearing in their yard inexplicably; phone calls with quiet breathing on the other end.
- Less is more: A great GM once said “Things are always scarier when you keep them behind the curtain, just giving a little peek or a hint as to what lies beyond. Show them the monster in the light of day, and it’s just a guy in a rubber suit.” You’re always better to keep things out of the direct line of sight if at all possible. If at the last moment they have to see the guy in the suit to wrap it up, so be it, but if your players are finally relieved to see Cthulhu’s face, then it’s Mission Accomplished as a GM..
Finally, realize that horror role playing is not for every type of group. It may not be the kind of game you can play with your dungeon crawling axe-potato group of murder hobos. But, with the right group, you can access all that is rewarding about the horror genre. While these tips are helpful, there are probably numerous tips our readers could share, or great stories to be told. I invite those of you who do to share them with us, and let us know what keeps you up at night from your favorite horror RPG.