Finding The Guts for Horror

Halloween has come and gone. Despite my love of games like Delta Green and Red Markets, horror has never really been something I enjoy. I’ve been through enough in life that I don’t see the value in scares. However, I do know that horror can bring out some of the best stories. Making fear a dominant force in a story gives something for the characters to overcome. Having been in enough games and listened to enough actual plays, I’ve come up with some tips for when I run horror.

The biggest piece of advice comes from my writing mantra. While watching 'The Incredibles' commentary I was struck by director Brad Bird's advice to merge ‘the mundane and the fantastic’. This means to find the normal moments within something fantastic. For horror, this means seeing what can be scary in something that is not scary. Without going into spoilers, RPPR’s recent episode ‘Somewhere Lane’ took its inspiration from a weird TV show. The real show is a normal TV travel show and is not horror. However, it’s writing and presentation are so weird that it freaked out the GM. He used the weirdness found a way to make it scary, then wrote out a scenario in Delta Green. This made for a terrifying listen.

For our own games, history has also been a great fuel for terror. One of the reasons Ethan’s many Civil War scenarios are so scary is that they are based on real events. This can make for a delicate situation, however. You do not want to belittle actual people and their actual suffering. Make the events into framing devices for the horror. You and the players know these events actually happened, and are often worse than the scares you came up with.

In Legal Tender, I wanted to find new and different places to stage fights with zombies. This made me think of places where it would be interesting to have a fight. It made me think of Discovery Zone, which led to one of the episodes that freaked out the players the most. It also led me to candy factories, which led to the creation of the ‘Candyman’ Aberrant that the players hated so much. Neither of those places are inherently scary; in fact they are nice to go to. But by thinking of them as places for the PCs to investigate led me to things that can be scary within them.

Now that you have the scenario, the final key is to make it scary. Make it tough for the PCs to win. Or even if they win, they lose something along the way (health, sanity, gear, etc). This doesn’t mean you take away the players’ agency or kill them in one shot. But you have to put pressure on them to perform. This is one of the areas I know I need the most growth. I’m always interested in the story and I want the players to succeed, so sometimes I go easy on them. But pushing them to their limits will add more tension. Tension, combined with the horrors you’ve thought up, will make for a very scary game.