|By L'Orso Sul Munociclo|
by Tobie Abad
Lots of gamers on Google Plus Communities have been asking lately for suggestions on how to run games that contain fear and horror. While I have written some articles before about mood building, I realize it may help to add even more examples of what I've done in various games. I wrote a few previous articles on mood building and you can easily find them by clicking here.
At the most basic, you should always be sure to engage the senses of your players to invoke horror. Bear in mind, location and the willingness of your players to get frightened are crucial to having a game session that will be conducive to horror. You'll want a place with less distractions, and the freedom to go really loud or really soft. Light, sound, darkness, and silence can be very important factors in developing fear.
Note: While the examples I write might mention specific games where I had used them, I do believe the ideas can be used in even other game systems.
1) Light Control
Manipulating light and darkness is a very useful tool in adding mood to a game.
Lacuna, Jared Sorensen's experimental game, is one surreal and disturbing game which I recently have gotten into and run with the use of various mood enhancing approaches. Here are some of what I've done with the game.
Since I start each game session of Lacuna with the recruitment process, I talk to players as one of the company interviewers while track five of The Devil's Advocate is running. As I shift the session from interview to diving into the Blue City, I then play the opening track to Inception and slowly change the lighting of the game area. I start by walking to the main light switch and shutting it off, plunging the whole room into darkness. Then, I walk back to the gaming table and switch on a small lamp. The light then is just enough to see the dice rolls and character sheets, and have slight glimpses of the players faces. This, then becomes my "stage" to run other tricks in the game.
For example, when a car drives nearby, or someone shines a flashlight at the player character's face, I switch on an actual flash light and train it at the player, making him feel the unwanted beam of blinding light upon him.
Or like when I had a room suddenly be filled with watching graffiti eyes in the game, I revealed previously hidden letter-sized print-outs of human eyes that I had taped on the walls be flipped over. So the player (who had a flash light) could shine them at the walls and see them.
In the latest game, I had the players dive into a deeper level in hopes of escaping Spiders. To represent this, I had the players shut their eyes, then switched off the lamp and replaced it with orange-hued christmas lights that slowly pulsed from bright to darkness. They opened their eyes and felt they were somewhere else, with things being visible, then dark, and back.
2) Use even ambient things as part of your game
Understandably, we don't live nor run our games in controlled studio environments. We tend to run them in our living rooms or condo apartments, with noisy neighbors, loud traffic, and ringing phones occasionally interrupting the game session. We even have a lovely dog who scurries around while we game. So I've decided to embrace the presence of such noises rather than find them distracting. When a cellphone suddenly rings, I tell the player who owns the phone, "Your phone rings..." but then motion to him to answer it while I continue a different player's turn. "Meanwhile, in your location.."
The same is done when loud cars drive by, or horns are blared, or someone comes knocking on our door. I make them events that happen in the game, and allow the player affected to handle it out of the game while I continue the session with other players. It allows things to keep moving and reduces the distractions and delays to a huge extent.
3) The Mystery Die
A simple tactic which I used to use in my games to generate tension turned out to also be a tactic which John Wick (L5R, Houses of the Blooded) recommended; I called it, The Mystery Die. How is this done? Just choose a specific looking die, or a different set of dice, or even a small number of tokens, and make a clear show of placing them somewhere within easy reach. Do NOT explain to the players what it is for. But whenever something interesting or wrong happens in the game (be it a player doing something that may be dangerous, or a character attempting a very foolish action), grab the die or tokens and make a clear show of taking note of it. (For the dice, roll it and react softly to the result. If tokens, take a moment to count how many there are.) Afterwards, continue the game as normal.
If you want, you can even ask one of the players to help out. Have a player roll the die for you. Or have the others tells you how many tokens are present in total.
Then continue the scene, pausing for a moment or two to "double check" the die roll or tokens. While the actual thing isn't really a mechanic in the game, it has become a mechanic that adds tension as players ponder on what it can mean. Old time gamers will wonder if its some kind of wandering monster check. Newer gamers might think the thing is some kind of new system they are unfamiliar with. But both side will be worried that it means trouble.
4) Ordinary Things
Throw an ordinary thing to your players. Maybe in a Vampire game, the player hears knocking at the door of his haven. And it happens to just be a new newspaper boy delivering the daily. Maybe in your Continuum game, the character wakes up at 6:29a.m. Then, have it happen again. The following day. And the succeeding one. As the pattern continues, the player will start to worry what's going on. The player will start to be very unsettled.
But whether or not the actual events mean something, or are just a quirk of chance, is yours to explore.
5) Silence and the Stare
The dramatic pause. There is power in the dramatic pause. There is gold. Imagine, for example you are playing Cthulutech and one of the players asks if his pilot can detect any Migou in the area. You glance up at the player. Stare at him for a few seconds. Smile. Then say, "No."
Rest assured, he will be on the edge for a few more turns.
|This, my friends, is a cassette tape.|
6) Say more with Scores
Music can carry the weight of a scene with the use of less words. When I stated using music in my games, mp3s and music cds did not exist yet. I was still rocking it old school with the use of pre-recorded cassette tapes and enya music. I had a small portable table recorder, which I could then play to add music to a scene. I'd carry dozens of batteries with me, in order to switch them once power ran out.
Now, with music being so readily available, there is little reason not to use music to enhance a game. If you've never used music in your games before, the basic guideline is to always use music with the intention to enhance and not overpower a scene. So avoid tracks that have lyrics or are too familiar (such as the Imperial March from Starwars, or the signature track from the classic Psycho) unless you want your players to start humming along with the song. I have a list of suggested soundtracks to try adding to your game in this very blog.