GM Advice: Scaring Players

By Shamus
on Oct 29, 2008
Filed under:
Tabletop Games

I’ve never run a horror game, so I can’t really author much genuine advice of value on the topic of scaring players. But it’s still a subject of great interest to me. With that in mind I offer the following:

Consider these two passages:

You are standing in a huge stone chamber. If the map is right, this is the “tomb” of Gul Morgath, the Dead God. Here his followers gather to worship their ever silent master, and offer him unwilling sacrifices that can join his congregation in oblivion.

There is a sacrificial pit in the middle of the room, long stained with blood. A table straddles the pit, beneath a web of chains that stir slightly from some unknown force. Crude iron weapons are stacked by the table. Skulls decorate the room, peering out from crude grinning totems.

The legends that drew you here tell you that this is the famed “Altar of a Thousand Screams.”

Beyond the pit is a great wooden door with evil symbols written on it in the Forbidden Tongue. You recognize enough of it to know that this is the Last Gate. This is where the curse was wrought. You can undo it, but only if you have the strength to open this door and face whatever awaits you on the other side.

You reach out to open the door…

Let that stew for a second, and then read this one:

The white, two-story farmhouse is silent. The front door hangs open like a lolling tongue, waving gently in the late afternoon breeze. Occasionally the stillness is broken by a gentle thud as the door knocks against the porch swing. The sound travels far in this wide open space.

You look back down the long gravel driveway to the quiet road below. Not much traffic this far out into the country. The sun is low on the horizon. The door bangs again, listlessly. There are no birds. No animal sounds. No sign of activity from the gaping house.

Inside, it’s simple and very rustic. The living room has a large, busy bookshelf and a tiny old television. In the kitchen the woodburner stove is dark and quiet. The fire appears to have gone out hours ago. Atop the stove is a pot of congealed soup, cold and untouched.

You glance around upstairs and find two tidy bedrooms. One smells of Old Spice and has a double bed. The other has a pair of small beds and an overstuffed toybox.

In the backyard, fluttering laundry clings to the clothesline. A few things have been blown loose and tossed about the yard. The doghouse is empty and the leash is coiled in the grass nearby. As you head back inside you notice the basement door. Shallow fingernail scratches have been clawed into the door frame. The doorknob is wreathed in bloody fingerprints.

You reach out to open the door…

Tastes vary, but the second one just works for me on a level the first one doesn’t. I’m not sure if it’s just me though. Nearly all videogame and tabletop settings aim for the style of the first when they want to scare you.

Discussion topic: According to your own tastes, which of the above seems like it is / could be more frightening? (In whatever medium: Book, a tabletop scenario, videogame, etc.)

Alternate / bonus topic: A gaming story. Did you ever have a time where the players at the table (maybe including you) were scared in a game which was not designed to be a horror campaign? (That is, you weren’t playing Cthulhu or its ilk.) What were you playing?

Happy Halloween.

Edit: Don’t miss this great story from Dev Null below.

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  1. Maddy says:

    The second one. Laying it all out for you to see is just overkill, in my opinion (no pun intended). It’s more like Halloween-scary. Subtlety and suggestion are what really get your imagination going into bad places.

  2. Nixorbo says:

    I think the second one is creepier, more subtle and thus, more frightening. An outward appearance of calm with a building number of small details that steadily increase the tension. You don’t know what to expect, whereas in the first one you have can have a pretty reasonable expectation of what comes next.

  3. mos says:

    The second one is more scary, because I believe it could be real. There’s a hint of the supernatural, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be. Also, the deserted farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, with no one to save us/them is a nice touch.

    The first one is just a story about how my 11th level paladin is leading a party into the den of evil to stop the child sacrifices we’ve discovered.

  4. Ben Orchard says:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0460681/episodes#season-1

    This is a show that seems to do it well…I just watched episode 19 of season 1 last night (Provenance). Good stuff. Yes there are some cliches, but one of the great things about this show is that they have a great device for the episodic feel of the show. The brother’s are specifically looking for any sort of strange activity OR they are sent to a town by their dad. In Provenance, they go to the town after a series of very long-separated murders. Turns out (early on) that all the deceased have been owners of a particular painting.

    I won’t reveal the details of it, but the show does a decent job of keeping secret the why of the painting’s haunting until the very end AND it keeps the brother’s moving.

    The nice thing about this: the victim’s are killed, and while they see the killer, you don’t see it until the brother’s do. It’s frightening precisely because you know it’s killed others, and because they are scared. It separates them, and it makes the situation dangerous because of that. Together, well prepared, the situation would have been easily handled, but the way it’s handled, it’s much creepier.

    In another episode (The Bender’s), there’s nothing Supernatural at all…the villians are mortal, but are so twisted as to be even more frightening than some of the demons the brother’s face.

    As for the passages above? Neither works completely for me. Maybe I’ll write a competing passage–I’ve never done horror, so it will be a good exercise.

  5. MintSkittle says:

    For me, the second one is the scarier of the two.

    You are not trying to scare the characters, but the players. The tomb of a long dead god of suffering isn’t something players can connect with on a personal level. It’s just another dungeon in need of a good looting.

    The farmhouse, on the other hand, is something players can connect with. The home is a sanctuary to most people, and as such, the twisting of the familiar into something terrible is what brings out the fear.

  6. Cdaaj says:

    The second one is much more unsettling, because of the implied context. The above posters are certainly right that the familiar is much more terrible, because it’s easy to imagine a hundred desperate crimes occurring behind shoddy wooden doors or amidst 50’s era furniture and far from help. You enter a dungeon prepared for this kind of thing (especially if you’re an 11th-level paladin) but a man’s home is his castle. Thus it’s doubly horrible when it becomes his prison and his crypt.

  7. Ozzie says:

    The second one is better, but more because it’s part of the growing dread part of the campaign.

    The first one is less effective, but it’s tackling the much more challenging evil revealed/final fight part of the campaign.

    I have never been scared while role playing. My denial skills are to good for that and yank me out of my disbelief suspension whenever I get creeped out.

    I have written a Cthullu/Star Wars crossover, borrowing from Warhammer 40K which I will run starting sometime this month. We’ll see how that goes.

  8. Tacoman says:

    I agree with everyone thus far, in that story 2 is much scarier to me.

    I put myself in both situations:

    In the first, I’m clad in some ridiculously awesome armor, holding a flaming sword of undoing and I’m here because I know the evil things live here and I’ve come to stop it. I’m opening that door!

    In the second, I’m in a t-shirt and jeans, and I might have a pocket knife. I came across this because my car broke down way out here and my cell phone is dead. None of my friends or family know that I’m here, but probably that I’m headed from a point east of here to a point over 200 miles west of here. I’m not opening that door unless I’ve got at least a hammer in hand.

    This is a very good point you’re making. There seems to be no way to scare a character unless their player is scared, or is way into the RP. I’m running a game now where the Paladin just got ‘Immunity to Fear’, and I doubt that would have mattered anyway. She knows her character is tough and that I, the GM, wouldn’t throw anything too overpowered at them.

    It may also be the different purposes of the game. If you are having a one-shot, see how long you can stay alive kind of game, then yeah, it could be scary. If you’ve got a long running campaign where a new character can be rolled up and their gear reclaimed, then there’s no problem with a death in the party other than IC inconvenience. “Oh shucks, now we have to go to the inn and ‘discover’ Pete’s new character.” Bah!

  9. Mavis says:

    I have scared people in D&D – although it was very clearly “a world that’s not fair”…….

  10. Luke Maciak says:

    Yup, it’s about building tension. In the first example there is no buildup at all. You arrive at a creepy place, witness an orgy of creepy items, and know that there is something big for you to fight on the other side of the door. You immediately go into your combat mode, think about how you will defeat the creature and even start wondering how will you divvy up the loot.

    In a second example, you are presented with a normal setting and a hint of danger. When you open the door you don’t know what may be on the other side. It can be anything. Or there might be nothing there. You are wondering what happened here. How did the blood and scratches end up on the door. I find that we are most scared of what we do not know or do not see.

    When the monster is seen or it’s presence is revealed the tension is blown. At that point you have a target you could try to fight with.

  11. Crystalgate says:

    The first one seem more aimed towards scaring the characters than the player which I think is rather useless. It’s really hard to connect to that scenario and frankly, the majority will read it as “enemies awaits behind the door.”

    The second one works better because that scenario is easier to connect to and you don’t know whether or not something terrible awaits behind the door. Not knowing when and where you will face something terrible is more scary than actually knowing it awaits at a certain place.

  12. Neither of them really work for me, but I’m very, very difficult to *scare* in the horror sense. When I’m confronted with something like that I tend to get nervous and excited, but not frightened.

    That being said, I’m very easy to STARTLE. I’m the person in horror flicks who *always* jumps when the monster leaps out on someone even though it’s OBVIOUSLY coming.

    I think this may be the result of the fact that I have a lot of anxiety in real life, so activities as simple as going to a new restaurant are an exercise in extreme fear-control for me.

    Both passages also have a very detached feel because it’s someone else *telling* you what’s going on instead just describing and letting you draw your own conclusions.

  13. BK says:

    Like you, I find the second more frightening. Fear isn’t about what’s going to happen to you as to what you THINK is going to happen to you.

    The former is a classic confrontational scene; you can expect some degree of combat and beating things up, but it doesn’t FEEL as if anything permanent is going to happen to you. Beyond scarring. (Pain is temporary.)

    The latter, well…there’s very little to overtly suggest what might happen. But something has happened. Which is where the human mind gets freaked out; oblivion (death falls under this) and the unknown are arguably the two universal fears.

  14. henebry says:

    The second one, but you’ve stacked the deck here, Shamus. It would be a more interesting question if you rewrote the first version using the same technique of giving the players vivid sensory data which is nonetheless incomplete.

    The contrast between these two passages is twofold: a difference of genre AND a difference in the way in which information is conveyed to players. Everyone agrees that partial information trumps full understanding in any horror situation. Just look at the way Lovecraft frames his narratives, often recounting the aftermath of the adventure before describing the scene of horror at its climax, so that after reading the final words the reader is left (like the lead character) with the horrific image and only incomplete knowledge.

    Perhaps, then, the interesting part of the question you pose is contained in the difference of genre between these two passages: is horror scarier when set in an everyday setting or in a high-fantasy setting? Even here, though, the answer seems pretty obvious: as noted by several postings above, any situation where I can picture the events as lived experience is necessarily scary. And, besides, in real-life settings I can’t cast fireball to solve my problems.

    So it seems to me that a more intriguing question would be the following:

    Given an adventure opening like one in the second passage, would the GM do better to develop the story in ways which remain quotidian but suggestive of the supernatural (creaky stairs, perhaps a scaly green hand felt grasping up from beneath the floor to pull a character down into darkness) OR in the direction suggested by the first passage (discovery of a cult that’s been operating out of the house for years, kidnapping little girls for torture, a club to which all the leading male citizens belong and which in the climactic battle proves capable of summoning creatures from the outer darkness to spirit one or two heroes off into space).

    Both develop the initial scene in a real-world setting. But in the second one, the players move from partial to a more full understanding, while in the first they remain pretty much in the dark as to the nature of the threat they face. Which is more scary? Or are they different kinds of scary?

  15. Mari says:

    I think one of the things that makes the second one scarier is the almost subliminal jolt of “this is wrong.” That’s one of my favorite tactics for scaring players. You describe a very ordinary scene then slip in a single wrong note then get back to the normal. If your pacing is right, players are left going, “Uh, did you just say…?” but you’ve already moved on and left them wondering.

    It’s all a prelude to my second favorite trick: gaslighting players. “You hear screams and feel heat coming from the old furnace.” At that point, the players are expecting to peek inside and see something horrible. But they don’t. They peek inside and see…dust, cobwebs,and consumed coal. The heat is gone and maybe you just imagined the screams.

    I can go on like that for session after session, building up the horrible tension then backing it off again until the players are just ready to scream because they know something should happen at any moment.

  16. Hirvox says:

    I usually respond best to dangers I can’t see, but I know that they’re there. Like facehuggers in Aliens vs. Predator. Another good trick is “normalcy” that starts to descend into nightmare fuel territory. Like your second example.

  17. Ouchies says:

    White Wolf, without a doubt. The scariest game I was ever in was a white wolf one-off. We created characters that the GM apparently wasn’t impressed with. So he went about maniacally killing us off.

    It was one of the best games I ever played.

    Though countless games have come and gone on that system in my local group. The thematics of the universe imply horror, though it rarely was exercised.

  18. Loneduck3 says:

    In meta-game logic, the first is scarier. This depends on the game, but unless things are pretty dicey, this basement isn’t going to be that scary. But a Dead God? You bet someone will have to reroll. Then you have the awkward “I’m a new guy who joins your group” roleplaying. That’s scary.
    In terms of mood? The second example, the abandoned farmhouse. I think if scariness is what you’re going for, you shouldn’t have named creatures. (That is to say, zombies, skeletons, orcs, etc.) If you have knowledge of them, than you rule out the fear of the unknown. However, you can also make that very knowledge a fear issue too. Make a creature so horrific that knowledge creates more fear than the ansence of knowledge. This isn’t an RPG, but first example coming to mind are the Reavers from Firefly. There’s a good deal of unknown about them, but what you do know makes it only worse.
    Of course, the key to any horror related scenario is the absence of power, whether it’s man’s impotence before the Old Ones, or merely running unarmed away from the axe wielding maniac. So that makes some systems more apt to horror than others. But low level campaigns could adapt to horror scenarios, if the players were forewarned. (If they expect it to be a normal hack and slash campaign, they’d say is was unbalanced.)
    Them’s my thoughts.

  19. Plasma says:

    This is mildly interesting to me, because I’m going to be running a session on Saturday, as I do every Saturday. I’ve known all along that this particular session will be pretty gruesome, and it was mostly coincidence that this one wound up being the day after Halloween (it was kind of “oh, hey, I’ve been building up to this gruesome session, maybe it’ll be appropriate for that to be the Halloween one if the timing works out”. I was actually trying to run this one last Saturday, but the characters wound up being incompetent and letting the guy teleport away before he could lead them to his evil lair). It honestly hadn’t even occurred to me to try to make it scary, just gruesome.

    Maybe I’m contributing to the ongoing Halloween trend towards gory and away from scary. But I’m fine with that, because “scary” things in general do nothing for me other than annoy me. My personal taste, is all. Other people can run scary sessions, I’ll stick to the nasty, disgusting ones.

  20. Adam Greenbrier says:

    The second is more effective, but you knew that already. Partly, the first just isn’t as well-written. More than that, the first doesn’t provide a way “in” for someone who hasn’t followed the story up to that point while the second is immediately accessible to anyone who has ever wandered around an empty house. The first could be frightening, genuinely, but it requires some build-up, while the second could be an easy introduction to a story. The first just feels like a Sci-Fi Channel attempt to jump start a frightening situation.

    By the time the player has found his or her way into the tomb of What’s-His-Face, a good storyteller would have had a slow reveal of the cult and its activities so that the alter, the blood, and the implements could be genuinely frightening because the player had seen them put to use. What is the curse that the player is afflicted with? Is he or she alone or part of a questing party? How was the cult discovered? What’s the setting?

    It’s interesting to see the responses that people have had to the first. There’s an assumption that it’s a D&D-type campaign (and it could very well be; I don’t know if What’s-His-Face is an established D&D god or what). That the player has a high-level character. That there’s a questing party.

    Try this: you come to the tomb through a small door in the floor of a stable on a ranch somewhere in Colorado. You’re a woman, eight months pregnant with your second child, a son, and you’re covered in your husband’s blood. You killed him. That’s the curse: you lose your mind, hallucinate, and you killed him with a kitchen knife. You don’t know where your 3-year-old daughter is, but you think she’s somewhere on the other side of that door. You think that’s where the cultists took her after you handed her to them.

    I’m not saying that this setup is great, but it’s more frightening than a context-free dungeon crawl look-a-like. If I were in charge of it, I’d leave the details of the cult and the god as vague as possible. For a more concrete example, consider the last level in System Shock 2. [Spoilers! But for a ten-year-old game.] The Body of the Many is not frightening in and of itself, and would have been lame as the first or second level, but because you’ve seen the havoc that the Many have wreaked on the crew of the Von Braun there’s genuine tension when deciding to launch yourself into it.

    EDIT: Also, I think the first situation is more or less frightening based on the GM running the game. If you’re reasonably sure that he or she won’t throw you up against something you don’t have a chance of killing, it’s not scary. Or if you’ve established that you can go back to the inn to recruit a new character identical to the one that died, it’s not scary. But if death is a a real and nasty penalty, it’s more frightening. Caution contributes greatly to a feeling of dread.

  21. wintermute says:

    “Offer”, not “author”.

  22. John says:

    I agree with henebry, but i just wanted to add this observation: In the first scenario, you’ve got otherwordly/macabre ‘set dressing’ everywhere you look, while in the second setting, you’ve got every-day/completely mundane set dressing (until the blood-stained door), so the ordinary-except-for-this-one-thing imagery in setting 2 is more disturbing because of the contrast thus giving you more of a sense that the nature of the danger is unknown—indeed, if there even is any… but it’s always the unknown that’s most frightening. In setting 1, what we know is obviously more disturbing than what we know from setting 2, but we have an idea of what danger to expect, thus giving us at least the illusion that we can be better prepared. Like i said, the unknown is always more frightening than the known. Like they say, ‘knowledge is power,’ one of the reasons being that knowledge/understanding usually gives us a sense of control.

  23. Joe says:

    Well, the second is scarier. Beyond all the very good reasons that have already been mentioned, its scary because it might *not* be scary. In the first instance, when it gets to the last line, assuming my character has his trusty sword in hand and whatever appropriate preparations made, I’ll go with it. The reason is simple: the biggest fear most people have isn’t so much death (*especially* if it’s just your character dying), it’s being a fool. If I charge in and vanquish the evil therein, I’m a hero. If I charge in and die trying, chances are I’m still a hero, just a dead one.

    In the second, when the GM tells me that I reach out to open the door, my instinct is to say “Wait! No! The heck I do!” because there’s so much unknown. I’m faced with a trilemma. If I open the door and walk in, and the Brooding Malevolence Within eats my face, I’m going to feel like a fool (also, dead). If I walk away quietly to find another farmhouse, and read in the paper the next day about how this farmer murdered his family, and realize that I could have stopped it, once again I’ll feel like a fool, and also fairly guilty. If I walk back outside, find a barn, siphon some gas out of the tractor, fill up some bottles, go back inside, kick in the basement door and plaster the stairwell with Molotov cocktails, that’s all well and good… until I find out that the whole family was so busy painting their basement a nice cheery red color that they forgot about their soup on the stove (side note: they had to get rid of their dog, it was always clawing at the door frames). Having just *become* the Brooding Malevolence that killed the whole family, burnt down their house, and pretty much ruined their day, I’m gonna feel just a wee bit foolish. Also, wanted for murder.

    So, given that circumstance, I’m scared because I have an actual, real decision to make. I might be wrong. Now, depending on the GM, he may have already decided whether I will be wrong or not. But still, the choice I make determines what kind of wrong (or right) I might end up being.

  24. Roxysteve says:

    Neither of them, actually.

    The first is overloaded with hyperbole and rightly dismissed by everyone as not capable of scaring anyone.

    The second is entirely too…I dunno…ordinary I suppose is the word. Blood and scratch marks? Better but not particularly scary either.

    For me I’d prefer that house as described with no blood or scratches, but a circle of odd hoof-prints just barely discernable in the ground around the house, a tiny tuft of fur on that dog-collar and the small detail (Spot Hidden on the player’s initiative, not mine) that the cleat at the other end of the chain is bent like a pretzel.

    But then again, I run Call of Cthulhu.

    And I just scared the living bejayzus out of three grown men – safe in a warm, dry basement with snacks to hand – with the old Nightmare-Within-A-Nightmare gag, to the point the brave adventurers were actually yelling at each other at the tops of their voices.

    Iä Shub-Niggurath!

    Hehhehheh.

    Steve.

  25. McNutcase says:

    Second one, big-time. The first one reads like bad-GM-running-generic-module, while the second one reads like a GOOD GM playing with his players’ minds.

    I don’t have a gaming story, but I do have a plot hook that I am intending to use when I can get a group together. It starts off several decades before, when the coal mines were abandoned. Parents told their children to stay away, which of course meant the children went straight over there, and some of them didn’t come back. This being pretty much a slum district, little investigation was done and it was all pretty much expected anyway. Some decades later, children have started disappearing from their beds in houses near the mine entrance, and this is where the PCs get asked to investigate. While going through the mine (very very cramped; I know what mines are really like), they’ll be followed by something that stays out of their light, and seems to dance around them. Chasing it won’t help. Eventually, they’ll find their way to a largish area that’s mostly full of child-sized bones. I’ll then attack them, steal their lanterns and knock them unconscious. When they wake up, they’ll be able to follow sounds to another chamber, where they’ll find that some of the original vanished kids survived, bred, and their descendants are now supplementing their diet with fresh child. I haven’t decided how to end this yet, but by that point the players should all be nicely full of nightmare fuel…

  26. In the first story I’m pretty sure my and the buds brought enough firepower to deal with the nasty. In number two I’ve just got my hands. Scarier.

    Storytime: This was GURPS Fantasy with a homebrew setting. One PC was a noble with lots of points in Wealth, Status, etc. Adventure took them to a peasant village, home of lovely girl who wanted out of the place by any means necessary. Noble soon regretted not having points in Strong Will. Plan to flee and deny was vulnerable to the Determine Paternity spell. So they were seriously stroking the rabbit’s foot as I rolled the dice for her health check.

    She failed, so he got away. But that’s more scared than they were in any of the fights.

  27. Sungazer says:

    There’s all sorts of horror. In the Earthdawn campaign I’ve been playing in for seven years, there have been plenty of scary, dreadful or horrific moments.

    There was a session early on where the characters breached an underground compound that had been corrupted by horrors and was using sacrifice magic to try to protect themselves.

    There was an arc a few years ago where the characters were confronted with the darkness within themselves. That was memorable.

    More recently, my character is scared for his son and what his enemies may do to strike at him.

    Earthdawn itself has a post-apocolyptic feel to it. And we do play with horror elements just below the surface much of the time.

    In regards to which statement is more frightening, I agree that the second one is. I think that part of the problem is that the first one explicitly names certain things, like the Altar of a Thousand Screams. To name something, to put a face on it so to speak, is to gain some measure of power over it in storytelling.

  28. Galenor says:

    I’m going to go with the second one.

    In my spare time, I like to write short stories. Every so often, of course, I’ll put a little bit of horror into my story. When i do this, I always follow a few simple rules which I found worked for me; corrupting the normal is better than making obviously nasty things (see Mari’s comment), and the reader’s (in this example, player’s) most self-betraying weapon is their own imagination.

    When you defile something that’s perfectly normal, people can relate to it more. Like you said with the Silent Hill Origins review, you can only get a player going when they relate to the character. If the player can relate to the setting, it makes everything worse for them (and better for you!).

    Using the reader’s/player’s imagination as a weapon against them works wonders. I’ve seen it a lot in video games; you feel the tension much more when you only see glimpses of the Big Scary, which then quickly escapes your view. What was that? Where is it now? What can it do? Is it down there? Is it around that corner? Behind the door? Is it still watching me? Then when you do fight it, the actual fight feels tamer than the build-up to the inevitable fight. A good example is when you encounter ‘that’ nasty near the start of Half Life 2: Episode 2.

    The first passage slaps everything in view of the Player; it’s a nasty room, there’s gruesome tools, and it’s generally uninviting. It’s almost like the Big Scary behind the door rightfully lives there. There’s little room to stimulate any imagination, other than “What’s behind the door, and how much HP?”

    The second makes the imagination go crazy. Where did everyone go? This fire has only been out for hours. So what happened? Why is the soup still there? In fact, why is it so spookily quiet? Where did the dog go? This house looks like it was fit to live in, but obviously, a few hours ago, it wasn’t. Something came and made this normal place a hellhole.
    And it looks like it all went into the basement.
    Ohgodwhat’sdownthere.

    It’s very psychological. Instead of making it all present, it drives the reader/player mad through their own imaginations. It’s a great skill to harness!

  29. Randolpho says:

    If either one was a short story, the second would be scarier / creepier.

    In terms of a roleplaying game, however, neither would work: in both scenarios your players would recognize boxout text and start ignoring you after the second sentence.

    I mean, it’s like you’ve never even *read* DM of the Rings, Shamus!

  30. Miako says:

    I know my GM. If that first scene happened, we’d be dead.

    So they’re both scary.

    but the first one scares me in a totally different way — I think of not MY CHARACTER’s DANGER, but I think back to the screams of the tortured. Having had someone relive being tortured in my arms tends to do that sort of thing, I think.

    So, scary, but because I CONNECT to it, in a way someone else might not.

    And the “behind the door” — to me it’s not a monster, it’s an empty plane. Or SOMETHING ODD. not something as normal as a monster.

  31. krellen says:

    I don’t find either scary, but I think I have a chemical imbalance in my brain that makes me not feel fear. I can be startled – which a lot of horror things try to do – but I’m never particularly scared.

  32. Rebby says:

    I think the second one is definitely creepier, but I’ve never played a horror campaign due to not even being able to watch someone play Duke Nukem or something like that in the past. I think like you mentioned in a previous post that when it’s more like something that could happen to you, it’s more scary. To me it just seems like this normal family had something happen, laundry in the back yard, a dog house, the soup being left cold… yeah, definitely creepier than the first

  33. BlackJaw says:

    Neither seems more scary then the other in my opinion. They are different things, but zombie/etc family in the basement vs ancient cultist pit are both sort of cliche.

    The scariest thing I ever did in a game was possess on of my players, and have the fallen angel in his character slowly take more and more control.

    Short Version:
    At around 5th level the player got killed (knocked off a bell tower) and the PC’s called in a favor with the local mage’s guild even though they knew the guild was untrustworthy. They got directions to a door in a back allyway where they handed over their friend’s body (a PC) to a bunch of guys in black robes. A few hours later the door unlocked and they found their friend unconscious in a strange glyph surrounded by black candled, and no one around. They were a bit freaked out, but at least the Raise Dead spell was half-off.
    Latter, I let the player know he was hearing a strange voice in his head, but didn’t know the language. Every time he gained a level I let him know that for 2 skill points he could take Speak Language in the tongue in his head. On his 3rd level (8th level) up he took the language… and promplty learned Infernal. Then the voice was offering him advice.
    In a later adventure the players slept in a chamber of a temple to the Dream god… and each got an interesting prophetic dream… except the possessed player who got a strange nightmare about the creature in his head taking control. The next day the player god himself nearly killed, and the voice offered to help him… Which he took. Most if not all of this was done without letting the other Players in on it.
    Little deals with the voice continued on for many sessions and few levels. At around 11th level the Player had started taking ranks in a custom PrC that gave him extra power from his possessing evil. The other PCs were a little freaked out by the ghostly evil claw that appeared around his arm when he made attacks.
    The player himself thought all of this was cool until I started throwing in what I called “Fight club moments.” Random NPCs that the players had never met would walk up to him and call him the “chosen one” or “master.” They would offer him twisted gifts or blessings. Clearly a group of cultists were paying homage to him, but more disturbingly they seemed to have met him before, and interacted with him.

    Then the Character went missing. The Player wasn’t able to make a session… so I sprung my plan. The Player didn’t show up that morning. The other PCs went to his Inn (big city and they all stayed in various different placed due to their place in various sub-plots). The Inn keeper recognized his description… but said wanted to know which of the twin brothers the PCs were talking about… “two of them?!” they were very confused. They went into one of the “brother’s” rooms on the 2nd floor.. and it was clearly their friend’s room…. but they found an odd symbol on the ground under his bed. The other “brother” had the room directly under it… and it was a place of darkness and evil… with an alter right under the other “brother’s” bed. Various bits around the room hinted at all the odd events and things in the past where the possessing entity had secretly taken control.
    The player realized that I had been planning about a year of playing time (only months of in game time) and that it had been hinted at in nearly every session… some more then others. They freaked out. It was great.

  34. Tesh says:

    Wasn’t it Hitchcock that said something to the effect of:
    ‘It’s the things you don’t see that build tension most, and implying things can be stronger than explicitly showing them.’

    …I might just go look for some quotes later, but I’m pretty sure that was the gist of it.

  35. Dev Null says:

    The second in written text… BUT it would take the right group and the right GM to be able to pull off that kind of florid descriptive text in a game. Seriously; its brilliantly creepy to read, but try reading it out loud. Feel a little silly and melodramatic? If you don’t, great – you’re the dude – but if you do you’re going to have a hard time selling it to the group. And if your players interrupt you every 30 seconds saying:
    “I check the door for traps”
    “Is there anything hidden in the soup pot?”
    “I turn on the TV; any reception?”
    “I set fire to the sofa”
    Then you’re going to have a hard time holding onto the pacing that makes that second passage work so well.

    So I’m not disagreeing that its better, but written text and games are two different beasties.

    Best scare for me in a game ever was in a fantasy game (GURPS I think, if it matters.) Over the course of a day travelling towards this village, we slowly discovered hints that things were not right. No people in the fields. No travellers on the roads. Then a house which appeared to be abandoned recently and hurredly. We got to the village and found it deserted, with signs of a struggle. Then someone discovered the corpse of a dog, but dried and emaciated. Before we could investigate, the cry of a child was heard; rushing to investigate, we find a wailing child in the bright sunlight of the inn courtyard, surrounded by eaves deep in the shadow of the slanting evening sun…

    Reveal to: those shadows are rustling. Filled with pale, ragged corpses; dead, but standing, eyes open and staring, shuffling slightly but doing nothing. We brace for a fight… but they don’t move. Gathering courage, we move closer to discover that each corpse has a pair of puncture wounds on the neck.

    We know what vampires are, and know that we are no match for them whatsoever. They can’t stand the light of day, but the sun is rapidly heading for the horizon. Their zombie servants, we presume, are inactive while the master sleeps, but he wont be asleep for long. No time to make it to another town by nightfall; we grab the child, double-up on what horses we have, and bolt for the nearby house where the man we came to find is supposed to live. Sunset comes and a strange exultant cry is heard in the distance, from the direction of the town. Like a hound getting a scent. The child, who has been sleeping in the arms of one of the party, suddenly starts awake eyes newly gone blood red, and tries to savage the person holding her; she is bundled up and restrained, but we lose time. We bolt on in the dark, pushing the horses hard, and arrive at our destination to find the house a smoking ruin – only a doorless wooden storage shed survives. Part of the party desperately reinforces the walls of the shed while the others search the smoking ruins for survivors. One man is found, badly burnt and unconcious. “Hurry!” the lookout calls “They’re coming!”

    The scholar of the group suddenly shouts “Of course! The hearthsban! A vampire cannot cross the threshold of a home unless invited! If this shed is part of that man’s home, and he lives, we could be safe! Keep him alive!” A horde of shadows shambles towards the shack, while we desperately attempt first aid. The enormous smith unlimbers his hammer, the small vagabond unsheaths his knives, and they brace themselves in the doorway, the tall behind the short. Faces begin to resolve in the flickering torchlight; pale, expressionless, but all with the lips moving. As they grow nearer we can make out what they are saying: “Welcome my lord, I bid you enter. Welcome my lord, I bid you enter…” The shambling dead offer no resistance; pounded by the smiths hammer or slashed by knives they just come inexorably on like the tide, always mumbling “Welcome my lord, I bid you enter…”

    The fight to keep the man alive and the zombies from inviting the vampire into our meager shelter got more and more desperate as the night went on. The zombies were easy to kill, but all they had to do was survive just long enough to cross the threshold and say those horrible, horrible words and we were doomed. The slow buildup of the tension and reveal of the danger was great for building real fear, as was the fact that there was always something to do, but it was never something that even hinted at victory; we were always running desperately to stay alive for just another few minutes. In the end we worked out the vampire was probably just toying with us – just before dawn he mocked us and then sent the remaining zombies to push the shack down. We braced it, then set fire to our own shelter, which kept them at bay long enough for the sun to rise just before we burnt ourselves to death…

    Something about the combination of an unbeatable foe who could be kept at bay by extraordinary measures, and the easily slaughterable hordes who didn’t fear death or even try to defend themselves, but who constantly threatened to let the first foe through made it truly terrifying; the gap between the reveal of the threat and the actual beginning of the assault. I’m sure I haven’t done it justice. (And Blake, if you’re out there somewhere and somehow read this; you the man. You totally scared the shite out of us that night… I still remember it well 20 years later.)

  36. Jimmie says:

    Wasn’t it Hitchcock that said something to the effect of:
    ‘It’s the things you don’t see that build tension most, and implying things can be stronger than explicitly showing them.’

    …I might just go look for some quotes later, but I’m pretty sure that was the gist of it.

    Stephen King said somethign very similar to that. He says, roughly, that when you show the monster, it immediately becomes less frightening.

  37. Yeah, I’m not entirely sure I can agree with the difference in description. I know, I know, everyone else does. But hear me out.

    Sometimes, it’s not what you say, but what happens in the plot in-between your own descriptions. In other words, I once let the players fill in the blanks with their own imagination. In this campaign, my descriptions were very bland (though accurate.) But what was actually happening in-game and the bland tone of my voice led to a sort of creepy irony that grew between the players.

    I have very tough guys and gals that have played for years, the sort that refuse to surrender and feel they can solve everything regardless of what their character SHOULD probably do. This was the first time many of them cracked.

    My story was so unearthing to both the players AND the characters that 4 out of 10 (God, what a big group that night) of my players decided that their character would commit suicide after what they had been through. The rest went insane. Only two survived… barely.

    It wasn’t Cthulhu, it wasn’t Ravenloft, and I wasn’t trying to be scary. The players themselves chose the aftermath for their characters; they could have easily said “Oh, my character is perfectly fine after that experience.”

    Nobody dared. The subject matter at hand? I wasn’t even trying to be scary, but it was cruelly depressing to a level I rarely descend. If you want to know how to get away with being so boring and yet drive the characters mad with fear and grief… watch Solaris (1972).

  38. Kevin says:

    To Scare: Show the results of something horrific, the destroyed town, the strewn about body parts, the broken armor of the greatest hero of the land… but avoid showing your beastie. Let the players hear it as it crashes along just past the tree line Let them feel the ground shake as it stomps about in a rage looking for players to eat. If you must show your monster, show just a part. A claw or a whipping tail. Put the players in some form of vulnerable position just before the beast shows up… and if they’re too prepared, let it’s mate show up behind them a round later…

    The Accidental Scare: 30th level wizard hunting for the Great Aboleth City in an underground lake, visibility is 60 feet. He is traveling at a speed of 120 and heading in a diagonal direction downward. He comes within 60 feet of the bottom and is now able to see it, only to realize that it appears to be made of skin and is traveling at 240 in the opposite direction. He really could have handled the situation, but he decided teleportation was the better part of valor.

  39. Shinjin says:

    I haven’t read through all of the comments, but the differences between two scenes boils down to environment and expectation.

    Scene 1 – environment = tomb, expectation = tombs are creepy.

    Scene 2 – environment = farmhouse, expectation = farmhouses are mundane

    So it’s the contrast between mundane and creepy in the farmhouse scene that makes those creepy touches more effective.

  40. Aergoth says:

    Fear, when you want to do it in a fantasy setting D&D I think works best when you throw the players in to a setting (either at the outset or during the game) or situation that they aren’t familiar with. Have the players wake up in a dungeon, the night after they were outside it, or without their weapons. Make them feel powerless and alone. To make the player feel fear, there has to be a real threat. (Coating the other side of doors with signs of madness is something I’ve wanted to do if I had the players wake up in a dungeon.)

  41. Eldiran says:

    I had a nice horror-type setting in my last 4E DnD adventure, though it would probably have been more frightening if I were better at describing things and spicing them up.

    The basic set up was that the party was sent to investigate why trade and communications had ceased with a town to the south; it was suspected bandits were apprehending all the travelers between the two. The party traveled along the long road uneventfully, eventually stumbling into a deep fog. Once in, the fog became thicker and the sky became darker no matter which direction they traveled, until it was pitch black. Eventually they burst into the town they meant to visit, except it was dark, dull, grey, and abandoned, lit only by ghostly pale blue flames. It wasn’t long before they found zombies in the houses, and stumbled their way into an underground labyrinth riddled with giant spiders.

    In the end they found the (nigh-invulnerable) vampire responsible for the devastation, who spared them out of sheer boredom, and instead let them traipse around getting attacked by spiders, zombies, zombie-spiders etc…

    Eventually they delved further into the labyrinth destroyed the artifact responsible for the fog and fled the town. Unfortunately I think the adventure ended up coming off more as a power trip than a horror story, as evidenced by their nickname for the powerful vampire, “Captain Awesome”.

    P.S. @Dev Null: that’s an awesome story.

  42. Jason says:

    I believe the second one is much scarier, but let’s add a twist. This is a farmhouse you’ve been to before. You know the owners and you’re friends with the kids. AND YOU KNOW WHY THIS FARMHOUSE IS EMPTY! That’s a level of fear that is hard to reach. It’s not the fear of the unknown. Anyone can do “Scary creature in the dark.” It’s the fear of the known combined with the helplessness of not being able to change it.

  43. Shamus says:

    I second what others have said: Dev Null wins the thread with that story. Nicely done.

  44. Scott says:

    I found them almost equally frightening. Maybe because when I saw the first one, I didn’t think of it as an element in a DnD campaign, I thought of it as “Oh look, I’ve stumbled across these strange caves during a hike.”

    Imagination is also important. If you show a close-minded, down-to-earth kind of guy a Lovecraft short story, he won’t even wince. And then there’s me, checking my array or protective amulets every night before bed.

  45. Ian Price says:

    The first one is far scarier, to be perfectly honest. So much so that it threatens to overwhelm the senses, thus dulling its effect; however, if used as the climax to a story (“It was here that the curse was laid…” does seem to imply that), this would be a great scene indeed.

    The second one holds a far greater sense of suspense. I could not possibly stand an entire game going with only these little hints, but it’s a great way to start off. Emptiness is difficult to pull off as a narrative device without becoming boring, but if used effectively it can greatly enhance horror.

    I could see the second passage being the beginning of the same story that ends with the first passage, after quite a bit of build-up in between.

  46. Jason says:

    Dev Null, that is awesome. Zombie horror always gets me. And when the horde of zombies is not the scariest thing, it’s even more horrific. Shamus I would also like to expand on what Dev Null said before the story. Mood and lighting set the tone of the story. I’ve learned to use this to great effect in my horror D&D game.
    In your game room, turn on only the lights you need to read by. Make sure your windows are closed and any background noise is lessened. The sound of your voice should be the only thing heard. Sound effects are key. If the players are hiding in an abandoned mill to escape the snowstorm outside, make the wind blow through the cracks in the doors and windows. Make the windmill slowly creak and turn. I have made my players jump at the descriptions I’ve given and I’ve also given them nightmares from some of my games. No joke. The setting is everything. You have to scare the players to scare the characters.

  47. Corvus says:

    The 2nd one is much better. In my campaigns I always go for the creep factor, rather than the overwhelming evil factor. We’ve had moments that people still talk about, a decade later.

  48. John says:

    I think it’s important to note, though, that the first example is useful in a case of D&D, WoW, or any sort of *game*. The latter works well for a story.

    The first example gives me great information to deal with “ZOMG CTHULHU JUST BUSTED DOWN THE DOOR NOW I MUST FIGHT HIM”. The latter describes a much creepier scene, but it leaves the reader feeling powerless because something (clearly not a struggle, which I’d be able to handle because I’m An Adventurer (TM)) “disappeared” the inhabitants of the house.

    I think it just comes down to what you’re using them for. Horror in RPGs is designed for gameplay, even if it’s survival-horror-ey, and you’re running away. Horror in stories doesn’t require the same level of noun-dropping to explain a scene (I think).

  49. Rev.Blacky says:

    The Great Old Pumpkin
    By John Aegard

    25 October 2004

    You must know, Doctor, that I did not choose to seek psychiatric help. I have no faith that I shall exit this room a healed man; I know now that I have been destined for the asylum since childhood. No mere conversation with you can steer me clear of that fate. That said, let us proceed with this court-compelled farce before my mad prattle provokes your crabbiness further.

    As you are no doubt aware, I am the issue of solid Dutch stock—the prosperous Van Pelt family of St. Paul. Mine was a comfortable and happy childhood, and I spent much of it in the devoted service of the Great Old Pumpkin. For him, I cultivated an annual pumpkin patch—mostly Autumn Gold and Big Max, as I thought he would find the Atlantic Giants tacky. I also evangelized him in the community, relating the tale of how, every year on Hallowmas Eve, the day when the spiritual most strongly encroaches on the substantial, this mightiest of gourds would rise to revel across the world with the most sincere of his adorers. My neighbors were understandably skeptical; after all, not once had this superbeing ever chosen to grace my pumpkin patch or any other place in our town. I vowed that I would coax him into my backyard, and I set out in the manner of a learned man to discover how I might do this.

    This quest led me into mouldering libraries, cramped basement antiquaries, far-flung correspondences, and, on one occasion, frightening and persistent telephone conversations with a lunatic in Boston. The last raised alarms in my family. I promised them I would turn away from my studies, all the while resolving to continue them in secret. I committed everything I knew to memory, burned all my papers, and embroidered my most unfathomable and precious secrets in near-invisible thread on my security blanket, which as you can see, I carry still.

    My continued investigations led me to certain grim texts detailing eldritch and macabre sincerities—chants, autosacrifice, sinister configurations of pumpkins—which would bait the Great Old Pumpkin to my patch. On the Hallowmas Eve of two years ago, my investigations bore fruit, so to speak. I believe that I saw him—orange, flaming, and magnificent, hovering above me for an instant and then vanishing skyward into the constellations.

    Having tasted this small success, I knew that I could not simply sit and await him, but that I must seek him out. Thinking that such a search would be better conducted aloft, I decided to hire an aeroplane. My modest allowance raised complications, though; it took me eleven months and three weeks to save up a sufficient sum. With that money jangling in my pocket, I struck out for the aerodrome and asked after a pilot skilled in night reconnaissance. The mechanics there—diminutive, jaundiced fellows—directed me to a small French-themed café alongside the airstrip.

    There, I met my pilot. He was a veteran of the war, with a characteristically large Gallic nose and sharp black eyes that peered from just underneath the seam of his leather flying cap. He nursed his root beer silently, his manner that of the haunted serviceman, and let his two friends supply the conversation. On his left sat a pretty French girl, whose eyes were completely obscured by heavy spectacles. On his right sat a chattering yellow fellow—kin, by his looks, to the mechanics in the hangar.

    I approached and sat down with them to explain my business.

    “Sounds dangerous, sir,” the French girl said when I was finished.

    The pilot’s small yellow friend warbled at us in a strange language—Aramaic, perhaps.

    The pilot waved away this concern and nodded at me, indicating he would accept my contract. We set an appointment for dusk on the eve of Hallowmas—only five days distant—and I left him to his friends, leaving, as a gift, a jug of root beer.

    On Hallowmas Eve, I found at the aerodrome a scene of reassuring efficiency. Mechanics fluttered over my pilot’s machine—a Sopwith model that was, like him, a veteran of the war. They poured it full of fuel and castor lubricant and fed long belts of brass cartridges into the breeches of its Vickers-guns. I was surprised that we would be going armed, but after a moment’s thought, I was again reassured; an attitude of constant readiness befitted my pilot, as a man of action and a daredevil.

    The crew chief noticed me and I was instantly incorporated into his bustle. He and his fellows boosted me into an observer’s cockpit that had been cut into the fuselage behind the pilot. In their chirping Aramaic, they intimated to me that I would need some kind of headgear, so I wound my security blanket around my head and face in the manner of a Bedouin tribesman. Over this arrangement the mechanics snapped a pair of goggles, and I felt snug as one of the Vickers-gun’s chambered bullets.

    My pilot appeared then, climbing a ladder and vaulting into the Sopwith. I skritched him on the head to indicate my readiness, and without delay he barked out the order to start his engine. The aeroplane chugged to life, instantly suffusing the air with a hell-hot mixture of castor oil and petroleum vapors. The pilot’s silk scarf flapped before me as we bumped off of the grass and onto the airstrip, and within two hundred feet the Sopwith was aloft and headed for Eau Claire, where one of my correspondents maintained a very sincere pumpkin patch.

    The Sopwith climbed swiftly, and soon we encountered the first layer of clouds. The air grew wet and unsatisfying and utterly dark save for the flames jetting from the Sopwith’s exhaust ports. Unaccustomed to the altitude, I dozed until a sudden roll to starboard jerked me awake.

    I sat up in my seat, searching the skies for whatever had drawn my pilot’s interest. We had emerged from the clouds and into a supernaturally clear night, with all of creation spreading out in a great inverted bowl around us. And before us, just this side of the horizon, was a faint orange glow upon the clouds.

    Within a few minutes the speedy Sopwith had overtaken the glow. My pilot descended until our landing wheels were skimming the orange-suffused clouds and then began to circle slowly. My watch said we had been in the air for fifty-five minutes. We were approaching the limits of our safe endurance. I closed my eyes and prayed that my quest not have been in vain, that I be allowed to see the Great Old Pumpkin, and as I whispered the last beseeching word, I heard my pilot yelp.

    There, not more than a thousand yards off our port wing-tips, was the Great Old Pumpkin himself, ascending from the clouds as smoothly as if he were borne by a Manhattan elevator. He was as magnificent as I had imagined; his stem rose majestically from a creamy orange body of heartbreakingly perfect radial symmetry, and bountiful vines streamed behind him like hair from Botticelli’s Venus. My eyes were suddenly wet with tears, and I realized that I had reached one of those measuring-lines by which we gauge life’s progress, that all days after that one would be ineffably different from those that had gone before.

    We came out of our turn and headed directly for the Great Old Pumpkin. I suddenly remembered my camera, stowed on the floor of the Sopwith’s observer cockpit. I bent to retrieve it, all the time keeping my eyes riveted on my subject—which then whirled and presented its face to us.

    The camera fell from my nerveless fingers and into the clouds below as I beheld this blood-curdling horror. Instead of friendly cross-eyes and gapped teeth, into its wide orange visage were sawn jagged spirals of alien script, and though of course I could not read the glyphs, simply witnessing them was enough to understand their meaning. They dragged my mind away to their subject-places, each of them impressing upon me a cavorting pageant of despair and rot. Worse than that was what lay behind those awful incisions, for instead of a candle or (for safety reasons) a lantern, within the Great Old Pumpkin burned a queer kind of furnace that was tended by thready, murmuring minions. This furnace emitted not light and heat but rather madness, and with horror, I realized that its emanations were not illuminating the clouds, but rather that the clouds were fluorescing under them, just as a squid will fluoresce under certain radiations.

    I shrank from this dread emission, pulling my head down into the observer’s cockpit. My thumb instinctively found my mouth, and I clutched my security blanket, which had escaped my head somewhat. I sought to reassure myself with a familiar chapter of the Gospels. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled!” I shouted to myself. “And there were shepherds out in the fields. . . . I bring you good news of great joy that is born this day in the city of David!” But of course, it was useless; the madness shone through our fuselage as if it were air. I felt my mind changing, unraveling as I bathed in it. Certain parts of my psyche withered to dust; others swelled like an autumn squash. My very essence was reshaped as was the Pompeii of antiquity.

    Time ran strangely in the thing’s proximity. It seemed I had lived ten years before my ordinarily quick-witted pilot reacted. I can imagine no more pitiful response than the one he chose. He drove us directly at the thing and reached for the triggers of his Vickers-guns. Their sound was hollow and faraway, and their flashes mere sparks before the luminous glory of the Pumpkin.

    “Dive!” I screamed at him, but that sound was lost with all the others. My pilot’s gloves seemed to have frozen on the machine-gun triggers. We crawled towards the terrible thing, spitting impotent tracers. I slapped my pilot’s shoulder, and this finally galvanized him; he ceased firing and nosed the Sopwith over, sending us plummeting beneath the thing. One of the threadlike tenders glanced over its shoulder at us as we passed the lowermost incision. Then, from somewhere in the ventral portions of that awful fruit, came a response: a white-hot hail of eldritch fire that lashed us and drilled pumpkin-seed-shaped holes in the Sopwith’s wings and fuselage.

    Our engine’s tenor suddenly became uncertain. My pilot shook his fist and cursed our enemy, then we plunged into the coal-mine black of the clouds. I was strangely calm as we fell; the sudden, smashing death from a high-altitude crash would be a small toll to pay to escape the grasp of that dread orange being, I knew. The worst horror, though, was yet to come.

    The pilot reëstablished control of the plane just as we emerged from the clouds. For a brief moment my sense of self-preservation reasserted itself, and I was flooded with relief, but then I saw the sight that ended my life as a normal man and ushered me into true understanding: beneath us, in all the fields of Wisconsin and Minnesota, stretched a starfield of pumpkins, their luminous orange faces turned upwards towards their god, their mouths wailing mockery of all civilized life. My pilot could not resist this damned noise; he also howled tribute skyward.

    The sound overwhelmed me, and I slumped feebly in my seat. I have no further memories of that night; somehow my pilot must have regained enough of his senses to fly us home and put me in a taxicab. I awoke in my own bed at sunrise the next morning. The orange stains and pumpkin-seed holes in my security blanket testified that my awful adventure had been no mere dream.

    I will admit that sometimes, I feel a temptation to seek out the Pumpkin again and perhaps learn more for the experience. This impulse is the only lunatic thought alive within me. The cyanide-laced candies I have mailed to my correspondents, the jars of petrol I have flung into the antiquaries and museums, the shootings at the aerodrome café—these are the actions of an eminently sane man. You see, Doctor, while I cannot claim full knowledge of that sinister gourd, I know this much—we cannot risk another encounter with him. If some fool shall call him up again, he shall be no more kind to us than the plow is to the anthill. The only record of my foolish pursuit that I dare allow to survive is my precious security blanket. I have embroidered upon it certain spells and rituals which I hope will serve as a bane to him, so that he will be unable to approach this world. You confiscate it at your peril.

    Yet these good-hearted efforts may still come to nothing; still, his servants campaign in the neighborhoods as I once did. Not long ago a cherubic boy came to call on me to tell me of the Great Old Pumpkin. Since then, I have made it a practice to keep my household firearms loaded and in convenient proximity to the front door.

    So that is my story, Doctor. I see you leaning over your plywood desk, ready to dispense your wisdom, to say the words that will cure me and free the world of one more mad menace. But before you speak, consider this! To truly heal me, you must reform the cosmos itself. Your words must leap from your mouth and cascade across the universe, undoing all of the uncaring, unfathomable things that lurk outside our cozy cave of a planet. Can you do this, Doctor? Can you? I see the fear in your face. Come, what say you?

    “Stay out of stupid pumpkin patches, blockhead. Five cents, please.”

  50. Rask says:

    I was a player in a Lovecraftian-based RPG once, and the DM had me scared to the point that when I went home that night, I made the leap from my bedroom doorway into bed, lest I touch the floor in my room. Then I pulled the covers over my head, of course.

    The setting itself was more like the second scenario than the first, but there were little embellishments added that completely made the scene. For example, there was a deer’s head mounted over the fireplace, but when one of us examined it closer, it was observed that the deer’s eyes were unnaturally larger than normal. (We never did find out why.)

  51. Ravens_cry says:

    The first is more. . .heroic, especially near the end. Also, you know a lot more about the situation. You know about the God, and his cult, and you know your supposed break the curse, you know you have a quest.
    The second however is riddled with mystery. You are alone, and you shouldn’t be. Why is the family missing? Then you find the blood and other signs of violence. Your not a hero, your ordinary. But extraordinary things are happening.

  52. GregT_314 says:

    Been asked to scale some games back; an Alice in Wonderland themed game gave a player recurring nightmares.

    The huge advantage that RPGs have as a medium for horror is the implicit whitespace; the only information the PCs have is what they’re told. The gaps in their knowledge are a lot scarier than whatever they actually do know.

    Consider this example, a retexturing of your second one, to be given as the opening words of a game with no further context:

    “The blood is flowing down your left leg and slowly pooling in your sneaker; your sock is growing damp and bloated and red. The road stretches from horizon to horizon and is empty, except for the quiet wind that drifts over the bitumen. They’re not here yet; if you’re lucky they won’t be for a while.

    You’re leaving a blood trail as you walk; leaving a dark crimson marker on the road highlighting you in the emptiness. It’s like an arrow, pointing through you to the white two-storey farmhouse looming silently out of the endless cornfields.

    You realise you are holding something, and look down to find it is a severed human ear…”

    Horror is the product of two things: the creation of a mystery, and the setting of that mystery in a world that implies that mysteries have horrible, horrible solutions.

  53. Althanis says:

    The first one works for me. I’ve always preferred the more blatant gothic thriller to the psychological thriller. But that’s just me.

    The worst scare I ever gave a group I was running was way WAY back in the 80’s. I was running group of 2nd Edition D&D and my new heroes were all low level. They were searching for something or other that a nasty group of orcs had stolen from the kingdom they called home. They had ridden out to the ruins the orc clan called home and had found nothing. Not that there was nothing to find, they were just numbskulls and had managed to miss every single encounter on the outside of the ruins through a combination of luck and stupidity. They found themselves inside the abandoned feeling ruins looking for any sign of the orc infestation that they had been warned about in the closest town when they found a room with several straw piles for beds. In the opposite corner of the room was a young buxom scantily clad woman chained to the wall laying unconscious on one of the straw piles. They rushed to her aid, with the party cleric shoving the others out of the way so he could heal her wounds and disease. Every one of my players was completely unprepared for her to weakly mutter ‘help’ and then have her skin burst apart to reveal a body infested with rot grubs.

    To this day some of those players don’t trust any captive they find in a dungeon….

  54. ehlijen says:

    Given that we mostly play dnd and that is about supernatural stuff, I’d prefer the first for RPGs. So what if it ends up over the top and clichee? The second one just seems too mundane for me.

    As for stories where the players were scared? Not sure if scared was the right word (certainly not in the ‘horror’ sense), but they were afraid that any second now they’d die.
    Star wars: A couple of rebel fighters vs an Imperial supply depot. Things got ugly and the players were about to be shot down. It was a delightfully tense battle as they tried to save one another…all the while forgetting that I told them earlier that this was a simulated training mission :D

  55. Kasper says:

    Can I skip the normal question and do only the bonus? I wonder what grade that would get me in any normal test…
    Anyway, in a D&D game I was playing in (It was actually an AD&D game, but meh. No one seems to know the difference anymore) Our GM managed to scare us quite a bit. The funny thing is, our own actions helped him. We wouldn’t have been as scared otherwise. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

    The setting: we were four 12th level characters raised from level 1 without rerolls. So thats a lot of depth right there. We were rather attached to them as you can imagine. On our roamings through the world we had run into a strange figurine on a hexagonal base somewhere along the way, and it was a mystery I (as the cleric) would like to solve. It was obviously a figure of religious importance, but no one could tell me what it was. Eventually someone told us that he had seen a statue like it somewhere and gave us directions. (Peter is our Rogue, George a hunter and Mike a paladin)

    As we enter the clearing we see a statue covered in ivy. The face is still visible, and bears a striking resemblance to the figurine’s face. Similar statues are located at the other three points of the compass. In the middle of the clearing is a ruined building.

    Peter walks to the building, and checks for hostiles and traps. Finding none, we all enter the building
    Of the 6 walls, only 2 are still fully standing. The roof has fallen down, and all over the floor are the rotted remains of timber and reeds. In the center of the otherwise bare room is an altar.

    I walk up to the altar, and look for runes or indentations.
    In the middle of the altar I see a hexagonal marking of the same size as the figurine. Upon closer inspection, the hexagon is made out of plaster, while the altar is made of marble. The plaster of the hexagon has been eaten away in places to reveal marble underneath.

    Mike walks up to the altar as well and strolls a full circle around it. When he completes the circle we hear a faint cackle in the doorway we just entered through. We turn around and are confronted with a handsome man in travelling clothes. Peter is upset that he was surpirsed by the new arrival, as he prides himself on his keen senses.

    The stranger explains that he is a traveller, and was looking for shelter from the storm. George asks him “what storm?” and then we look up and see the sky is suddenly all overcast, and hear a rumbling somewhere far away. This is odd because when we arrived it was clear. The stranger walks up to the altar and, commenting how dark it is getting, gets a candle from his pack. He lights it and sets it on the altar. Then the five of us use our tent canvas to make a makshift roof for the building. Just in time, for as we finish the heavens open. It’s the biggest thunderstorm any of us has ever seen. After a few more minutes of inspecting the room, Mike George and Peter decide to get some sleep. The stranger and I keep watch. Me because someone in our party should, and he because he isn’t sleepy.

    After about an hour the stranger walks up to the altar and starts removing the plaster from the indentation. I ask him what he is doing, and he answers that he wants to shave, and wants to use the indentation and some water to form a makeshift mirror. I offer to shave him, but he responds he’d rather do it himself. After his shave he asks what brings us to these parts, if it was not the storm. I explain about the figurine, and he asks to see it, hinting that he knows more about this shrine. Thinking that perhaps he has some intersting information, I pull it from my pack. The moment the figurine enters his hands, a strange smile curvers his lips, and his eyes get a distant look. “Yes”he says. “It does come from here” Then in one fluid movement he jumps for the altar and places the figurine into the indentation.

    The whole room is suddenly bathed in orange light, waking the others, and a keening wail seems to come from the floor. The stranger closes his eyes and makes a strange guttural sound. Before my eyes his hair slowly changes from black to crimson. As the others fully waken and look at the scene, the stranger opens his eyes again, distantly focussed, and they are deep red. Then he smiles, and reveals fangs where before a normal set of teeth were all there was. At this point we look at each other and bolt, convinced that we are in mortal peril.

    I think that there are two reasons why the situation was scary for us. First of all those had been playing our characters for over 2 years. We knew them, and we were them. Most of all we did not want to lose them. (and don’t say the GM wouldnt let us, because he would. He had tried before and nearly succeeded 2 or 3 times. I think this is realistic and keeps the gamers on edge. It may give some grief when someone actually dies, but the overall experience is much better in my opinion). The second reason is the thought “uh oh, that was a mistake”. I notice that most of the time when I am scared, it’s when I have this thought. Be it something I do, something a character in a game does, or a character in a novel or movie. the uh oh moment is key to the fear. For this reason fragment two is more scary to me. It has more of an “uh oh” feel when you open the door, whereas fragment one makes me think “here we go, wish me luck” That is tension, but not fear. I think that the difference between fear and tension, and the lack of understanding of it, is what makes something frightening or not. (now i’ve gone and done the regular question after all…)

    In the end it wasn’t too bad for us. It turned out the shrine was dedicated to a longforgotten god, but had been desecrated in ages past, trapping the god in that clearing. We freed him to finally leave it, and as a thank you he gave us a ring we could use to call him once when we were in trouble. Then he left for the astral plane(or something like that), never to come near our plane again (until we summoned him to help us that is), after having been trapped there for ages.

  56. Kris says:

    I remember, that was part of the idea with Ravenloft. Horror was often most effective when it comes in a place that the players would never expect, like a bright sunshiney field of flowers. Everyone expects evil to come in a tomb, or a graveyard. It’s more of a psychological horror than an overt horror.

  57. NobleBear says:

    The first one seems the chilling moment before the climax of an adventure, the culmination of a long decent into darkness; the second, the start of one, an somewhat ordinary setting is presented in an increasingly disquieting way.

    With that in mind, I like them both. :D

  58. Avilan the Grey says:

    I think Noblebear and some people has already hinted at this but:

    As a SETUP: the second one is scarier. But it’s a Jaws scenario, isn’t it? With that I mean that the two examples are not necessarily setups. For all we know, the first scenario is the climax, and the second scenario is the setup (not for the exact same story, but you know what I mean).
    As a setup, trying to be the first thing that scares you, the first one is worthless. As a conclusion it works better, but it’s obviously NOT a horror game setting.
    At least not anymore. The GM/DM might have started the campaign as creepy as the second one though, we do not know that.
    However, it is most likely D&D or similar setting, and there are a few things that always works against the “horror” in such a game:
    1) Everyone already knows there are Gods.
    2) Everyone already knows there are EVIL Gods. With Cults. All over the damn place (or at least it seems like it at times)
    No matter how hard you work at it as a DM/GM you run into that problem. Not only am I not that afraid because well, It’s not the mindset I came with to play this, but most likely my CHARACTER will not be that afraid, because let’s face it: She is a heroic adventurer and has “Turn Undead” and “Protection against Evil” and… If you not only KNOW there are EVIL gods and their cults, but that the god I am worshiping (or the god the guy next to me is worshiping) is actively on our side… Not as scary. Have you seen one wretched being from beyond cover and scream in the light of my Clerics spells… Well you get my drift.

    The second one is a great starter for both a creepy story in a non-horror setting and as a start of a horror campaign. Or a bad X-files episode, depending on the skill of the DM :P
    Of course players are jaded anyway; my friend was feeling like a failure for failing to scare us in a CoC adventure, but he did not fail. His telling of the story was good enough that we did get the feeling he was trying to convey, and our CHARACTERS were scared witless! But there are too many things that works against him: Sitting in a warm apartment (even if you turn the light down etc). Listening to the drunken howls of stupid 16 year olds in the town square outside. And above all the experience of the horror genre as a whole by all of us: “There will be a monster in there. Don’t look into the overflowing bathtub.” etc.
    This is the reason why my thought when reading the scenario above was “Why is there scratchmarks and blood on the OUTSIDE of the basement door? Interesting. That means there is a monster outside, somewhere, possibly. And someone tried to hide from it in the basement… Let’s see if the door is still locked. Maybe there still is a corpse in there even in death trying to keep the door shut…? Hmmm…”

  59. gorbashin says:

    They’re both creepy…but I’m good at scaring myself, so as soon as I notice the gm going for the ‘creepy’ vibe, I start letting my imagination go wild.

    I can’t remember the game system, but it had an alternate ‘victims’ campaign ruleset…everyone rolls up 3-5 normal people, the gm creates a ‘horror movie’, and begins killing you off. The first time we did that was pretty creepy, but afterwards, it was too much fun playing a victim to actually get spooked.

    As a gm, my best ‘fearful’ moment came during a D&D game(can’t remember which edition), and it was entirely accidental. All 7 players were 3rd level, and had to travel through a huge remote swamp that was teaming with trolls. I had intended for them to only face what they could handle, then for more trolls to show up to ‘chase’ them the rest of the way through the area.

    They were all on horseback, except the halfling, who was riding behind the palidin. The road they were on was the only way to travel through the swamp while mounted, and it was in shoddy condition. I gave them a whole day of travel without event. As the sun started setting and they began to debate on whether to set up a camp or not, the trolls struck.

    And the players began to make some of the most repeatedly horrific rolls I have ever seen.

    Now, normally, these players would begin to whine once the dice started betraying them. Not this time. I struck a rare chord in my combat descriptions, which pulled them away from their horrible luck and into that absolute crap-storm that was enveloping their characters. The simple encounter I had planned was fast becoming a route, and the heroes frantically decided they needed to flee. That’s when the paladin decided to buy everyone time to mount up. Except he fumbled. And the troll he was facing critted. Trolls get a rend attack, where they pull your chest cavity open, on a crit. The paladin died, rather messily. He had bought them the time they needed to mount though. The halfling hopped up on the paladins horse and took off with the others, just as dozens of trolls started pouring into the clearing and onto the road, while even more were loping through the trees beside the fleeing adventurers.
    I called for a ride check, for the bad terrain and the panicked horses.
    The halfing rolled a 1. He fell off the horse.
    The players had to circle back, and enter combat again, against a dozen trolls with more on the way. Thankfully, their luck had reversed, and they managed to hold them off long enough to scoop up the halfling and gallop off, with trolls hot on their heels. I spent a few minutes more on the chase, called for a few more ride checks (christ were they nervous on those rolls) when my descriptions called for it, then allowed them a get-away.

    At the end, everyone was breathing slightly heavier and perspiring. It was by far my greatest moment as a gm.

  60. Anonymous Botch says:

    Again I am agreeing with nearly everyone else. The second is more scary, read as it is presented, because of what we don’t know. In the first snippet we know about the cult, the god, the curse and that the scary thing is behind the door and we need to defeat it. In the second we have no idea what is going on, and as someone said it could easily not be anything scary, and that makes it more frightening.
    In D&D particularly it can be hard to create genuine fear if the players see every encounter as a suitably CR balanced affair with appropriate difficulty and reward. No matter how fearsome a monster it will scare no-one on its own as they see it just as a pile of stats and abilities, this is a shame, because stumbling on, say a Demon aught to be terrifying, but its not. The key is genuine risk, risk of death and risk that things are not what they seem.
    The scariest D&D session I played in was on the surface rather straight forward, so I will probably do it justice. The party were in a remote village suffering from disappearing livestock and eventually a villager. It became clear fairly quickly that we were facing a werewolf. So far so cliched, I even think there was fog. The scariness came from not knowing. Not knowing who it was, we knew these villagers pretty well and a few had been really helpful and we considered them friends, and suspision fell on the party at one point, and the more straightforward problem of not knowing where it was. The thing only ever attacked in ambush, unexpectedly and if it wasn’t attacking us then it would be eating a peasant and making us look bad.
    The single most scary however was a Cyberpunk game about 17 years ago. The party in that session was just 2 characters, I played a corporate who’s skills mainly lay in diplomacy and lying and the other character was a horribly well armed gun obsessive. We had tracked our enemy to a disused New York subway station. We sneaked down to the platform and there he was, the bad guy, totally unaware and nice and close. The grunt emptied his submachine gun into him and he fell into flooded trackbed. We ran to the edge of the platform and lit the water with flashlights, there was some satisfying writhing and screaming and then nothing.
    Befroe we could move on, out he leapt from the depths, onto the platform, “Ouch” he said sarcastically, pointing at the really rather large hole in his chest, plucked the gun effortlessly out of the grunt’s hands and tossed it over his shoulder. We screamed like 8 year old girls and ran.
    It was scary because this was cyberpunk, we knew that the shots were perfect and no-one could survive that amount of damage, it was all beyond our knowledge both as players and characters. It helped that we had no idea that this was a Vampire, the masquerade crossover or than neither of us had actually heard of Vampire before.
    I suppose the point is that if you want to scare the players as much as the characters the nthey need to be as surprised and confused as the characters.

  61. freykin says:

    Gaming story:

    One of my friends was running a game in a homebrew setting/system that was a mixture of cyberpunk and magic. We had hijacked an air transport full of mana crystals that went out of control and crashed over South America. All that magical energy being spread around ended up resurrecting an old Aztec god, and the climax of the adventure was us being chased by his high priestess down deep into an Aztec pyramid. One of us thoughtfully put up a wall of ice behind us, and when we hit the bottom, which was a dead end, we heard a crunching sound, then a large series of thumps, and then the body of the researcher who was helping us tumbled down covered in ice fragments.

    We heard her slowly coming down the stairs as we formulated a plan, and then.. her footsteps stopped. She started humming. Never has humming bothered me as much as it did that game, and to this day it still reminds me of it and makes me shiver a bit. This was after four to five sessions of play over the course of a week (man, summertime in college was awesome), and by then we knew that there wasn’t much of anything we could do to her.

    It also led to another one of my favorite roleplaying moments, where I got mind controlled by her flinging her blood into my eyes, then instead of it running out, a rival Aztec god contacted me and said that if I helped him, he’d free me of her blood curse. I accepted, and my character changed forever.. but not to any of the other player’s knowledge.

    We played for another good ten sessions or so, and the entire time I had a second agenda going on that was definitely affecting the game world, but the other players hadn’t figured it out yet. Our GM was a big fan of taking players aside, note passing, the whole nine yards, and in this game it worked really well. When the game finally ended, due to people needing to go back to college, I told one of them about what was really going on, and the look of surprise and enlightenment over what was happening in the game world made all the effort worth it. That, and being the high priest of the Aztec sun god is pretty sweet :D.

  62. Zaxares says:

    Both descriptions are scary, in the right context, but the second FEELS a lot creepier because it’s psychological horror. It works by playing on that nagging little voice in your head that SOMETHING, something just out of your perception, is wrong. That sense of ‘wrongness’ is a crucial factor in many horror games, giving players the feeling that they’re in danger even though their senses are telling them that everything’s fine.

    It’s also a lot harder to be scared in the first scenario because, as people have mentioned, it sounds like it’s straight out from a typical D&D adventure, where players are likely to be playing high level characters. Players feel empowered, protected by their mighty spells and magic weapons and, perhaps most importantly, knowledge about the foe they face.

    In the second scenario, you don’t know what you’re up against, and that seriously frightens anybody. I bet you that in the second scenario, you could give all the players shotguns and automatic weapons, and they’d still be cautious about going into that house, and exploring the basement.

    … Man, I SO need to run a Call of Cthulhu campaign again.

  63. DM T. says:

    Players usually get bored with long descriptions, oft just ‘forgetting’ what was mentioned earlier.
    The core of the problem stems from the fact that a horror game is based on long and detailed descriptions.
    In my game, whenever a call for horror is raised, I try to give a detailed description of what the player immidiately sees and wait for player’s actions before I continue.
    I try to react with a fitting description to everything the players do, even if they simply step forward to check a drawer in a desk.
    If a door is loosely banging against the pane, I’ll be repeating this statement when the player simply turns to check what’s going on through the window, cast a spell or check for traps.
    You’ll have your players tip-toeing their way inside the house in no time, checking what lurks around every corner because of the added attention the DM is giving to the door’s bad hinges

  64. fuzzyillogic says:

    As a master, I managed to scare more or less badly my gamers in 4 occasions.
    In the first the gamers where confined in a limited enviroment, an hostel, whit a set of more or less well defined npc, and a disguised demon with strong illusion powers.
    The demon feeded on killings, even if done by somebody other, and the players knew that, so this created a who-did-it situation, complicated by the fact that I had an history of involving my players in tricks of this kind, so they had doubts about each other too… the atmosphere of mistrust, the knowledge that each mistake in judging someone feeded the demon and a balanced use of illusions to keep the players off-balance about reality, quite unnerved them.
    Another time, one of my players was trapped in a situation similar to Nightmare, stalked by a nightmare-walking spirit. The trick was not telling him that he was dreaming, and involving the other players asking them to play double of themselves in the nightmare environment… the face of the stalked player when he run in one of his companions room to ask for help and he was backstabbed instead still warm me inside… after an entire session focused on him, running from danger to danger always nearly getting to him and with the world getting more bizarre and unreal each moment, he was totally drenched in sweat, and me and the other players totally amused.
    Another time, I obtained a quite similar result over the course of many sessions using a never tiring invincible pursuer. Even if at first it was easily avoidable, him popping up inexorably session after session put my players in a very anxious mood, fearing every shadow.
    Lastly, one time I had a couple of my players made prisoners by a very cruel enemy. The rest of the party had to go to search external help before being able to free them, so for many days their characters were in the hand of enemies that literally “got medieval” on them while interrogating them, and as it was a low-magic environment (no regen etc. etc.) they started really fear the moment their captor entered their cell, fearing which new damage their character would have to endure, that the other players would be delayed too much, etc. etc..
    Summing up, uncertainity, impotence, steadily increasing tension seems to do the trick…

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