How to run an effective horror scenario

“Be afraid. Be Very Afraid”
(Veronica Quaife, The Fly)

Thousands of words have been written about the proper way to run a horror scenario, so in this article I won’t attempt to venture into this over-crowded field. Instead, I’ll try to go over a few typical mistakes novice GMs often perform, and show you how to avoid them.
Before venturing deeper, I’d just like to take a moment and remind you, the reader, that everything said in this article is strictly my opinion and point of view. A good horror scenario could run in any setting, from Call of Cthulhu’s classic 1920s to the colorful world of the Teletubbies. The issue is not what could be done, but rather what should

“Dark sky
Dark sky grey
Mark my
Mark my grave”

(Four Star Mary, Thrown to the Wolves, Dark Sky)

Many GMs, when attempting to picture their horror scenario for the first time, picture Ravenloft, the late TSR’s (and now Wizards of the Coast’s) land of horror, a land where the air is always cold and the sky is always dark, even in summer, a land of long shadows and chilling winds.
Using the forces of nature to set the mood and atmosphere for the scenario is not only possible, it’s even a widely accepted convention of the horror genre. However, at least in my opinion, it only becomes effective when it is used to highlight the difference between the mundane world we have come to know and the unnatural situation the characters find themselves trapped in.
In fact, the main reason for using this technique, even though not everyone that uses it is actually aware of this reason, is to emphasize the difference between the world of the characters and the real world the players exist in. I claim, however, that it is not enough. No London resident would be disturbed by some mist, and no Bedouin would be alarmed by a hot day. Start your scenario by describing a warm spring day, the winds gently caressing the characters’ cheeks and the smell of blossoming flowers carried in the air. Only later, when the characters become aware of the fact that the world isn’t the safe and protective place they thought it was, point out the miserable environmental conditions, as though the world itself is reacting to this new found understanding.
A different variation of this technique is to describe the world in shades of gray, dark gray and black from the beginning, but to constantly describe the characters’ flashbacks and memories, in order to emphasize the contrast.

“The higher you walk
The longer you fall
The longer the walk
The further you crawl”

(Metallica, Load, The House Jack Built)

Another mistake, similar to the one described in the previous paragraph, is the mistake of causing the characters to fail in each and every attempt they make, out of a misguided notion that in doing so, the players may feel as though they can’t win, and hence horror will settle in their hearts. The truth, unfortunately, is far from it. If each and every action the characters attempt would ultimately fail, the only feeling that would settle in their hearts is boredom.
This mistake is especially common with GMs whose players are accustomed to succeeding in whatever feat they attempt, ludicrous as it may be. Instinctively, when they try to create a scenario with a different mood, they present their players with a setting which is the mirror image of the campaign setting they were used to.
The correct way to deal with these situations, in my humble opinion, is not only to allow the characters to succeed in the trivial tasks they perform, but also in some worthy challenges. The higher you place the players on their throne of false-confidence, the harder they will fall, and the crueler the truth would be when they finally open their eyes and accept it – they were destined to fail from the start, they were never worthy opponents to the powers beyond their understanding, and all they can hope to do is to cushion their fall.

“I’m a 21st century digital boy
I don’t know how to live
But I’ve got a lot of toys”

(Bad Religion, Against the Grain, 21st Century Digital Boy)

Another mistake common with novice GMs is paying too much attention not to the campaign setting, but to the physical setting of the gaming table itself. Such GMs may go to great extents to make the table “appropriate for a horror game”, as they perceive it, from a black table map, through flickering candles, background music taken from Friday 13th soundtracks, incense and dozens of other props and accessories. However, the most useful accessory a GM could hope to use in a horror scenario is the players’ mind. Imagination is the master of filling in gaps, and once the seeds of terror are planted in the players’ hearts, the most effective way to scare the players is to simply step back and allow those seeds to flower. Unfortunately, the very props the GM intends to use to scare the players often distract them from the scenario itself, and allow their imagination to stop running in circles around their own fear.
I don’t claim that props shouldn’t be used. An appropriate use of a prop can make the players jump from their seats, literally (I won’t even describe the time I found a new innovative, albeit extremely unpleasant, way of using my glass of water), but be careful not to overuse them, or you would find that your scenario serves the props, instead of them serving the scenario.
Do you know that horror movie that didn’t have much to offer beside special effects? Remember it scaring you? Most of you would probably answer “not really”. That’s exactly how a horror scenario over-packed with props feels like.

The most important thing to remember when running a horror scenario is that it is supposed to scare your players. Don’t give in to convention or notion that claim that “this is how a horror scenario should look like”. Fear knows no rules. Why should you?

This article first appeared in issue #24 of The Orc.