MoonHunter Sayeth 20181026


Game Guru-Thread Shepherd
RPGnet Member
Validated User
Horror Gaming, the ins and outs,
usually splattered on the floor.

BOO! Fear and Horror in a game aka
The Boo! Effect

[VO: Vincent Price ] (*1)
There are things that go bump in the night. Things that will unnerve you. Things you should never meet. These are the things you are gaming.

What is Fear? Actually knowing fear is nearly impossible, but you can see its results. It is that BOO! That startle that we have all seen (and sometimes experienced) while watching horror films. It is that racing pulse and tension we get when reading a good horror novel. Fear is the key to horror and horror gaming. We all want to generate it in horror games, but it is so intangible. Understanding fear is the first step to generating it.

Fear’s job is to prepare the body for action: attacking or retreating . Blood flow is concentrated internally to the muscles and brain, instead of at the skin and extremities, and blood increases its tendency to coagulate, to prevent blood loss in case of an injury. The amount of lymphocytes (special blood cells that repair tissue damage) also increase. The lungs dilate, to take in more oxygen, which the increased heart rate and blood cells released by the spleen can distribute throughout the body rapidly. The liver releases stored sugars, to energize the muscles. The pupils dilate, to better view the danger and any possible escape routes. All of this takes place in a few seconds. By applying these results to a character, you can express elements of its fear.

The purpose of fear, the fight-or-flight reflex, as it is often called, has long been accepted, if not completely understood. Fear is recognized as a necessity, for the only fearless man is a fool. But just what is scary? What stimuli trigger fear in their troupe?

That is what the GM of a Horror game must determine.
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Monsters do not make a horror game, but they help. In Urban Fantasy and Supernatural Action games, you are "competitive" with the monsters/ supernaturals. They may be dangerous, but they are a manageable threat. The monsters of a horror game are more powerful than the PCs and must be out tricked or outwitted, rather than out fought or out powered. If you could just “fight the monsters”, you might as well be crawling around a dungeon.

Horror is about powerlessness and the not-understanding what is going on.

To make fears believable in a character, the player and the GM we need to discover what character is afraid of, understand why the character is afraid of it, and then apply it to the campaign.

You might want to find out what the players are scared of as well. (*2)

The GM should be providing all sorts of sensations to the players. The GM is the players' eyes and ears. They are also their sense of smell, sense of feel, and the sensations of their body. The GM should inform the players when their bodies are feeling queezy at the gore, pounding heart rate, their nerves are going, they have the shakes, or that smell of fear sweat. Reminding the player of the character's physiological state helps reinforce the boo! aspects.

For a player to care about the scare in game, they first have to care about the character. Make sure the player is invested in the character via roleplaying and conception work (foundation scenes. Only then can you get a good Boo! effect without resorting to serious theatrics. (Bangs on the table, turning out the lights, and so on.)

There is, unfortunately, no psychological textbook list of ‘top ten fears’ to pull from, since the intensity of fears is so subjective, and only the unusual fears are studied as a rule. Some of the most common fears include the fear of: spiders, snakes, or other animals, death, public speaking, commitment, the dark, heights, pain, and failure. There are countless others.

There is only one thing that any of us, and any character is afraid of: Pain. Pain or the threat of pain is a main tool in Horror. There are many kinds of pain beyond mere physical pain (Physical Injury, Death, Disability, Gore, Critters who inflict), Emotional (Heartbreak, Loneliness), Mental (Insanity, Sensory Deprivation), Social Failure (Rejection, People, Speeches, Intimacy, Stares, Exile/Prison). Finding the right kind of pain that will motivate and horrify a character (or player) is a requirement for horror.

What’s even scarier than a monster in front of you? A monster behind you. The potential for pain is more frightening than actual pain. That’s why the threat of force is scarier than actual force. The unknown is scarier than the known. The scariest aspect of pain is loss. Long-term disability is scarier than death. Insanity is scarier than unconsciousness. Commitment is scarier than loneliness.

Foreshadowing the potential pain or danger. Let the players know it is coming, but not when. Then after a few false leads, it happens.

Never go for death or unconscious. Death is too simple to quick. Extend it. Take away the character's powers slowly. Go for hurt or crippled or mental/ psychological trauma. Chip away at the player until.... the inevitable happens or the characters get smart and save the day

Scaring your players works best when the horror is implied, rather than stated outright. Peoples individual imaginations are filled with images much more disturbing than any GM or writer could dream up. These primal, hidden fears just need to be stirred a bit with some subtle suggestions. What’s scarier, the sound of a twig snapping behind you as you walk down a dark path, and wondering what might have caused it? Or seeing a stranger step out in front of your path?

Always describe the results rather than the cause. Allowing players (and their lovely imaginations) to fill in the blanks will result in more horror atmosphere than simply describing what caused it. Besides, once the cause is known (be it monster or whatever), the horror transforms into action, as the characters now have a known threat to deal with.

Horror scenarios and campaign all have elements of the unnatural (or uncanny). The sense of “things not right” is a powerful trigger for nervousness, just one step away from fear (and so much easier to induce). Things are too dark, or too light, or too quiet, or too wet, are simple descriptions that will put the players on edge.

Change up the descriptions, make sure that things are not right.... at least for the scared character.

Horror is not about the monsters. A standard run of the mill werewolf can generate much more “terror” than a chthonic thing depending on how it is presented to the players. It is in the descriptions and the mystery.

Remember, Horror antagonists never play by the rules. They are always unnatural (or uncanny). If the players and the world has known magik (your average fantasy world), then the enemy or Evil plays by a different set of rules. The accepted rules and what the characters/ player believe is tossed out the window. (Or it plays mostly by the rules.) People assume the rules will be a safe boundary to what happens. When those rules break, it drops the safety net some.

In a Horror game, the enemy are stronger and more focused on the characters than your average fantasy monster or roleplaying antagonist. The enemy is out there, waiting for just the right moment, stalking and hunting the characters, not just sitting around waiting for players to come to it.

Once the players discover what the horror is, believe in its existence, and have a good guess as to what it can do, the game shifts from a horror game to a fantasy action game. Keep the horror mysterious for as long as possible to keep up the horror aspect.

In play...

Tension, conflict, release, repeat as necessary. This simple formula will help you create a horror game. Build up the tension in the scene. Have an event occur. Everyone breaths easier for a moment. Each time the process is repeated, the stakes go up. The first time is just the cat, the second time is the wind, the third time you don’t know what it is, the fourth time it is the monster.

A tool to build tension in the players is to give out of character knowledge. There characters sense nothing, but you give the “audience” (made up of your players) the knowledge that the horror is near by, stalking, waiting. Good gamers won’t use the out of character knowledge. Bad gamers will, but then find out that it was all imaginary (and there characters are now paranoid).

One of the most effective ways to generate tension and nervousness in characters (and players) is to take them out of their normal environment and place them somewhere else. For characters this means getting the characters somewhere unexpected. For players, this means making them sit in places they don’t normally sit in.

Horror scenarios are best set up as a single session (be it short or long). It is hard to sustain the “fear” mood over the time between sessions. The week (or time between) will dull the effects of the game and allow the players a different perspective when they come back to it.

When running a horror game, try to prevent breaks or time outs from happening. This keeps everyone concentrated on the mood at hand and does not give them a chance to break the mood of the game.

Horror games should shift from regular time to horror time. In Horror time, the GM needs to push the game as fast as possible. Do not give the player or characters time to think. Narrate through things ruthlessly. Push for fast answers. Do not give the players time to think. Then the game could "calm down" when the threat goes away or pauses. But them it will fall into Horror Time when things go scary again.

If the games go for longer than one sessions, players in horror games should always write down their current “state of mind” at the end of the game session. This “note to self” will be handy for the player to pick up where they left off.
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If your rules have it, you can have your characters reach a state of "scared out of their minds". You can describe things and the characters react. These can be horrific or unusual things. The character is scared out of their mind. Later on, they might discover that what they saw was not 100% real. (After all, the monster that scared them was still around.)

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One of the best ways to get a proper boo! effect is a bit of a cheat. The best way to get players into a horror campaign is to not tell them that it is a horror campaign. This is called the “bait and switch”. Have the players set up characters for a campaign in the same setting (be it a spy or street level pulp, or medieval court). Give them basic materials for that kind of campaign. If they know it is a horror chronicle, it is amazing that they have characters "that just happen to have" iron will, no fear, spirit sight, resistance to magic, flight response (double movement when frightened), and other mechanical advantages that allow their characters to "casually handle" the strange or occult. (Now a good GM might just "say no" to prepared characters, so there are issues either way.)

Then give them the unexpected in the second or third adventure.

Now there is good and bad about the Bait and Switch. Some players will utterly hate this occurrence (many for thematic reasons, others because they could not build a horror genre equipped character). It could wreck a play group, so the GM should be prepared to use their best judgement and knowing if players are interested in horror, before shifting the chronicle to a horror one.

Or just not do it that way and play it safe.

The best way to do this is to be strong and veto horror prepared characters. Then give the players one to four mundane sessions before any Horror occurs. If the chronicle is continuing, it shifts back to a more mundane game with only punctuating adventures ( ! for the Horror) every few sessions. That way, when the horror comes up, it is a true surprise to the players and the characters.
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Now some key points:

A classic horror trope is the “bad place”, the geographic focus of Evil, it’s home ground so to speak. In the confines of the “bad place” things do not work normally and the Evil is strongest. The GM should consider the “bad place” an NPC that must be worked out before game begins. By defining the bad place properly and knowing what little effects will occur there, the GM frees themselves up to be creative with the descriptions and the narration of the evil effects.

Often to make a horror scenario work, the players must “walk into the trap”. The trap ends up being the bad place, the lost tomb, the back road that leads to this little vampire infested town, etc. Players who work with the GM in this way should be rewarded. Players who refuse to “walk into the trap” and are unwilling to work with the GM can simply avoid the adventure entirely, spending the next few sessions playing out their mundane daily routine in grinding detail, while the others adventure. Those that willingly walk into the trap, should get a reward (EPs or drama points).

Remember, Gore is what many people think of as horror. Liberal applications of blood and viscera can make for great descriptions in the narration, but it only sets the stage for the dread or terror. As a general rule, gore does not scare gamers, so you will need to apply others techniques to bring the horror to them.

Also, many players will insist on injecting humor and zaniness into a horror campaign. The humor insulates them from the terror. It also destroys the feel of the horror game. A great way to cut this down is to institute a “humor tax”. Each infraction will cost the characters experience points, skill checks, a soda, or time out of game (where the GM runs your character), or gives the monsters bonuses. The players will either quickly get into the feel of the horror game or find themselves at a severe disadvantage (and very thirsty giving the GM all their sodas).

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I hope this little discussion will help you understand fear and horror in a game. Crafting horror takes dedicated and concentrated effort from the GM. The players have to be willing to “go along” for the bumpy thrill ride you, the GM, are about to take them on. Once everything is in place… things will go along swimmingly. That is until something JUMPS OUT at you.

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*1) I discovered that I heard Vincent Price's voice when reading the article. I guess, in my mind, his voice is permanently linked to the horror genre. After thinking about it for a while, I realized that I often evoke his spooky voice and mannerisms when running a horror segment of a game. It is almost more effective than my tip on using the "narrative voice" of your favorite author, because it includes motions and tone and inflection.

I think I am going to try to be Rod Sterling the next time I am running an "out there game".

Hmmmm. Hitchcock. What an interest -*BANG*- thud.

"Mother? Where are you Mother?"

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*2) Safety Cards: In a horror game (or any game that is macabe or has controversial themes/ elements) there should be safety cards on the table (or given to each player). There are some people who are naturally scared of thing like spiders, clowns, and high places. There are some people with personal experience that some events or themes are uncomfortable if not traumatic to deal with. (Some things could just be distasteful.) A GM might go a bit overboard with certain descriptions, knowing (or perhaps not) the effect they might have upon the player. If things get too stressful, they need to pull out a card. One card is Stop. They player needs to get out of the sitution. Play stops. The GM and group have a discussion about the sitution and how it can be resolved. One card is Divert. The Player is not against the sitution, but hopes the GM or who ever is describing or defining things has gone a bit too far, they simple want the the narrator to find a different way to describe it. (A player might flag a hold for a notable sex scene, asking the narrator (or involved players) to tone it down (and keep flagging it until they get to a comfort level or perhaps blue book it later). There are other card options that troupes might want to use.

MoonHunter Note: Players seem to be able to accept more of what they are afraid of when they have this option because they feel they are in control of their fear. An interesting occurrence, don’t you think?


Game Guru-Thread Shepherd
RPGnet Member
Validated User
*2 The Safety Card Footnote is now properly in place. There are any number of personal safe feeling systems in games and on the net. Each troupe will need to find the one that works for them.... including talking about potential issues before hand, including them as red flag bits in setting creation.


Game Guru-Thread Shepherd
RPGnet Member
Validated User
I have recommended a slightly modified version of John Stavropoulos’s x-card. Here are just two examples we like, but use what works best for your players:

Brie Sheldon’s Script Change Tool — When something players want to avoid is occurring, they say “rewind,” “pause,” or “fast forward.” “Rewind” means that a player is telling the group they want to go back a bit and head in a different direction to avoid elements they don’t want in the game. “Pause” means that a player needs a break but that the game may continue in the same direction it was going. “Fast forward” means that a player wants to skip over a part of the game — that they’re okay with the event happening in the world of the game, but they’re not okay in hearing it described or playing it out. For more information, visit

Ron Edwards’s Lines & Veils — Rather than establishing firm “off-limits” topics at the start of play, players can address issues as they come up, drawing a “line” (a topic that a player does not want to address in the game) or drawing a “veil” (a topic that can occur in a game so long as it is “off camera” (similar to the fast forward described above). This is best used with players who are comfortable enough with each other and with role-playing to pause the game and address issues as they arise. It comes from Edwards’s 2003 game, Sex & Sorcery.
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