Horror Gaming: What are its Basic GM'ing Methods?


A Most Sincere Poseur
Validated User
I'll be running a session of Cthulhu Dark this Friday (unless the players decide they'd rather try Zombie Cinema instead). As I start thinking about what sort of scenario to present, I'm realizing with growing alarm that I can't actually conceive what the basic methodology is for running a horror session. I'm practiced in other approaches applicable to most genres: exploration, faction-interaction, resource-transit. But aside from just doing those sort of things but with fright checks, I don't really know what the core proven structure is for presenting a mystery, nurturing dread and otherwise running a uniquely Horror game.

What really is the "Horror GM'ing 101"?


Registered User
Validated User
Big fan of running horror RPGs here.There are a few things that I like to do. First is to leave clues, both subtle and blatant. The blatant clues are easy. Bloody notes, rearranged furniture, mysterious calamities. The subtle allusions are what builds the atmosphere. Add a reference into a normal description of things. Show the players something out of place, like strange behavior or weird architecture.

Secondly, harm an NPC to show the players what can happen to them. Have someone get possessed and then thrown off a roof or snatched by a mysterious something in a cave. Make it a little disturbing or weird. It'll get them thinking.

Third, keep it slow. Build up to the big nasty. It can do things, but the players should not be able to confront it straight away on equal terms. A big part of horror is feeling powerless and building that sense of dread will make the campaign better.

Lastly, add a bug. People hate bugs and putting a bug into the description of events will give just about anyone the willies. Dead body? Bug in the clothes. Haunted painting? Spider crawls out nof it.

I'll add more when I'm off my mobile.

Shade the Lost

Registered User
Validated User
Think about Hitchcock's comment about a closed door being the scariest thing possible. Don't show the monster(s) to the players until very late in the game. You can show evidence of the monster and results of its actions, but if the players haven't seen it yet it's going to seem scarier than if they know what they are facing.

Craig Oxbrow

Ah, y'know. This guy.
Validated User
Consider straight-up combat not working well, and the PCs not really being equipped for it. Cthulhu has plenty of things that will consider being shot at vaguely insulting, and a zombie apocalypse should always have more zombies than the PCs have bullets. Scarcity of equipment and the need to hoard resources and think if this is the right time to fight can have a big effect on a game. They have to find another way to take on the monsters, one that isn't as safe as standing back and shooting.

Playing somewhere quiet and secluded helps - it helps for concentration in most games, but keeping the mood in horror is that much more difficult.

One trick (from a Hallowe'en issue of Dragon) is in how to describe things. The example given is that "the thing looms over the tallest of you" is more evocative than "the werewolf is six foot five" - looming is always good.


Taxidermic Owlbear
Validated User
You need players who play along, otherwise it won't work.

Also (probably won't be an issue with Cthulhu Dark anyway) don't mix up scary with irritating. Scary is your NPC guide suddenly disappearing. Irritating is AD&D level drain.


Texas Gamer
Validated User
I don't know that I change my GM methods between genres. For horror, I give the descriptions a darker palate of colors. I listen for things I know disturb or unsettle my players (within reason — I don't have much interest in torture/rape porn and I'd lose players left and right if I did) and incorporate those into my game. Ed says no religion? Hey, how about an evil priest? I also consider what scares me and throw that in for good measure. In tabletop play, I'll break out candles, mood lighting and soundtracks, but those only work with player buy-in. Not even the creepiest music can carry the mood through a bevy of Monty Python quotes. Another trick is not to overdo the descriptions. Leave some gaps for the players' imagination to fill.

Lastly, horror works best on a character driven level. Yes, you can do plot driven horror, but its not nearly as satisfying as watching the players maneuver their characters into a corner where they are left with nothing but unsettling choices.



Registered User
Validated User

Based on my experience mastering Ravenloft (although, admittedly not that horrifying), I want to give the following advice:

Design the starting situation carefully. That is, design the threat with its motivations and emotions thoroughly. You really need to know how it thinks. The same goes for all its main minions/cultists/supporters. Having them fully fleshed out is half the way to success.

Likewise, you would want to design the location where the horror takes place with similar details. Have people that have daily, peaceful lives, with their own small worries and disputes. If the city/town comes to life for the players as a normal place with normal people, the impact of the horror can work better than if it is already a place that exists only in edgy sketches.

As was stated by others before, take it slowly, dropping hints. A broken door and an empty house can go farther with the imagination of the players than the werewolf right in front of them. Especially with Cthulhu Dark, you will probably want to keep the PCs missing the big bad, arriving always a tad too late or following the wrong trail for a while. The way I understand Cthulhu Dark, you also have to keep in mind that it is a mixture of exploration and survival. At first, the PCs are investigating something that is odd/amiss. But as they find out what the real threat is, their goal becomes survival. Sure, they may be able to alert the authorities about evil cultists and thus stop their rituals before they take fruition, but they are not going to hunt down and kill the monster. Maybe they find a way to seal it away. Maybe they just find a way to get out of this alive.

I actually also have that issue of Dragon magazine, and it points out a lot of things about descriptions. Few people have measuring tape ready to find out exact measurements of things, so most descriptions can be vague. Under stress, guesses get off and people tend to overestimate the threat. Yes, that means you can misinform the players if you have reason to believe that their characters' adrenaline level makes them misjudge things (but within reason, of course).

Another thing they suggest is doing the unexpected. Their example there being a werewolf not coming through the door but rather breaking through the wall - which is probably already a bit too upfront for Cthulhu Dark, I think.

Another tried element of horror narration is the false alarm. There should be moments of calm, even days where nothing shocking happens. And sometimes, what seems at first terrifying turns out to be harmless (the classic example being a cat in the bushes making a noise alerting the PCs before they see that it is just a mundane animal). If you constantly send one terror after the other, they become predictable and lose their impact. Use the horror elements sparingly.

Horror is mainly about something being out of place, especially when you go Lovecraftian. Remember the architecture in Call of Cthulhu - it simply geometrically wrong. A spider in an old house is not really horror in my book. A freshly squashed spider in an otherwise dust covered room, however, can be rather unsettling.



Registered User
Validated User
Think about the distinction between the players and the characters for a moment. The players suspect that it is a horror game, let us set them aside for the moment and think about how characters in world experience things. For them this is a mystery . Something unusual is happening which demands investigation and solution (the solution may be to run away but we don't know that yet.) It poses initially as a very strange but mundane occurrence. The longer one can keep that sense of mystery going the more successful the horror for the players will be when they do figure it out. The best one I ever had was leading the players room by room through a house in my Cthulhu Invictus campaign, back to front--it had been emptied of most of its contents, and then set afire, so it looked like a mundane arson case. Then they found a few creepy items left and a bed with some ropes. Finally in the last room, there was a pile of masonry from a roof collapse, which they had to clear away--where they found an altar with a blood groove, and a body, sacrificed. One of the players said, "My god, the second wife must have sacrificed 'x' in his own house..."


Monica Valentinelli

Registered User
Validated User
There's always the argument about whether or not horror is a mood or a genre, and I feel that it's both. To get "horror as mood", though, you have to be able to set the stage and get player buy-in. When I'm running a horror game, to make the scenes scarier I narrate the environment, my NPCs, etc. from a darker lens to even out the pace. I then watch to see how the players react and take my narrative cues based on what they're freaked out about to amplify that aspect of the game.

That said? Pacing and plot twists are, in my mind, the most important tools that you have in your arsenal when running a horror game. When your players are indecisive, use that against them with a little misdirection and some red herrings. If they think the story's going left? Go right. If they think the big bad is too scary so they'll deal with the little bad instead? Make the little bad more terrifying--but try not to overdo the gore. In an RPG, I feel that too much gore really kills the game, because then it's just a gross-out contest. The best games, IMHO, use the mundane world and turn the simplest thing into something terrible. For some great fodder to use the mundane-as-horror, I recommend checking out some of Bentley Little's novels.

Good luck!
Top Bottom