GM Quickies: GMing Horror

When you take it upon yourself to GM a horror game, it’s your job to build a moody experience. If you’ve run a game as a GM before, you know that building mood is a significant task! You share the storytelling stage with the players, and by and large, they react to the game elements you’ve told them are present. With that in mind, knowing how and what you want to present the players with goes a long way toward maintaining the mood appropriate to a horror session or campaign. The following suggestions aim to help you do that.

Create Fear, Don’t Squick

Fear is an emotion that comes as a result of the uncertainty of one’s own well being. Characters in a horror game are right to feel fear — some dark force has turned its baleful eye directly upon them!

Every good GM knows to add sensory detail to their descriptions, the better to immerse the players in the setting. Gory detail should be used sparingly, however. Gory detail more often creates revulsion, not fear, and risks replacing the thrill of fear with discomfort. Resist the urge to devote too much attention to the glisten of viscera or what’s dripping from a ghoul’s mouth. While certain parties may appreciate this sort of thing (and, of course, you know your gaming group better than anyone who’s never met them could), be wary of risking their enjoyment of the game by placing too much emphasis on splatter in place of building a mounting mood of horror.

Detail is like a spice. Too much overwhelms the dish. A little goes a long way.

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Let Imagination Loom

Fear thrives in environments where the mind is left to imagine its ultimate doom. The monster unseen is more fearsome than the monster described. The creaking door, the guttering candle, the faraway howl on the moor: All of these create more fear than revealing what caused them. Ultimately, many questions will be answered and many mysteries will be revealed over the course of a session or campaign, but leaving some time between describing some element of the story and revealing its true nature is the crucible in which horror forms.

This technique works well for everything from small details on up to greater campaign mysteries. Revealing partial information to the players sets their minds to imagining all sorts of worst-case scenarios that help reinforce the mood at the table. Pacing the rate at which you reveal information can trade much on that principle. Introducing strange and incomplete details and allowing the players to ascribe dreadful significance to them lets the players brood upon the unknown. It’s a technique used in mystery stories as well, but it takes on a fearsome gravity when matched with other elements of horror.

Example Details

Minor details: The creaking door, the guttering candle, the faraway howl on the moor, as mentioned above. Footsteps on the ground floor of the inn (who could be visiting at this time of night?)

Story details: A bloody knife discovered in the refectory. Flashes of light witnessed at the castle on the crag from the village below. The missing servants at the tycoon’s mansion.

Campaign details: The construction of the new crypt on the family estate (because the old crypt filled so quickly…). Learning that the librarian is the seventh son of a seventh son. The brewery is owned by the son of the secret police, and every delivery has an extra barrel unaccounted for on the shipping manifest.

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Discovery Through Repetition

Delivering game descriptions with emphatic repetition indicates to players that the repeated detail is important. The repetition reinforces the presence and normalcy of the detail. It creates a pattern that stands out when it’s broken (which allows you to amplify the dread by the players not knowing what has caused the break in the pattern). It creates a subtle signal that makes players feel empowered when they discover.

The chilly castle has a fire stoked in every room that feebly keeps the cold at bay. The perfect array of bricks in the Boston cellar walls indicates attentive craftsmanship. Every envoy sent by the ambassador has blond hair. When the players explore one of the castle rooms with only smoking embers in the fireplace (who or what put it out?), observes a cellar wall with a single missing brick (what’s behind it?), or receives an envoy from the ambassador who is strikingly bald (why is this fellow different?), their minds work to analyze the the change in the pattern. And this lets their imagination loom, as above.

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Steal Their Ideas

A clever GM knows when to rely on the purchased or pre-annotated source material, and when to run with the players’ cues. Packaged stories are commercial products, and are generally written to entertain the broadest audiences. Notes written by the GM before the session starts are, at best, projections of concepts that will challenge and entertain the players. But when your session is underway, you’re getting live, real-time feedback for the game events that you can use immediately so that you can tailor further developments to that player response. If your notes say the Duke is secretly the werewolf, but your players have a more significant connection to the midwife, maybe it’s best to change the werewolf’s identity. If the vital clue is in the publisher’s office but the players are having more fun at the mayor’s inaugural ball, consider relocating the vital clue to city hall.

Be careful with this! Ultimately horror revolves around the perception of helplessness. But if players feel that every time they develop an attachment to a character or show an interest in a setting element, the GM turns it against them, they will feel punished for their engagement. Horror relies on hope to contrast the darkness with light, and a sense of accomplishment is critical to maintain even in a horror environment.

Opportunities for Action

Description, detail, and lore are widely considered cornerstones of the roleplaying games medium. They tell only part of the tale, however. Certainly, description  detail and lore all have their place in the verbal-literary tradition on which roleplaying games draw. What ultimately defines a game, however, is the opportunity for players to make choices and affect the outcomes of the game environment. Without interaction, these details are simply words, diorama designs that assume no life of their own. The players’ interaction with these descriptors is what defines a roleplaying game as a game.

To this end, players inherently seek opportunities for action, inputs by which their choices determine, define, or react to the game’s events at any given time.

As a GM, it’s part of your job to draw attention to the opportunities available. You don’t have to — in fact, you probably shouldn’t — exhaustively list what the players can do, but suggesting a course of action has a variety of values. It lets the players know that the game state is waiting on them to interact with it, that it’s time to declare an action and “play.” It engenders in players a state of creative thought. And it provides a frame of reference, or an anchor with which to compare their own actions.

Describing the Call to Action

Given the verbal-literary tradition of roleplaying games, word choice when drawing attention to these opportunities is significant. Consider the differences in the calls to action in the following examples:

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Each are viable prompts to act, but each frames the potential opportunities for action differently. Some leave the full breadth of action available to the players, informing them only that the gamemaster seeks their input. Others suggest possible courses of action, and might even be interpreted as subtle clues.

As the GM, your presentation of the game world by definition limits how the players can react to it. After all, they can’t know what you don’t tell them. Each of your words and phrases discloses the presence of a “moving part” that players may attempt to exert control over or otherwise interact with. Choose your words carefully, as they tell the players not only what they experience, but potentially what actions might  be relevant to those events in response.

Importantly, as a GM, you don’t want to mislead your players. Avoid prompting them with opportunities for action that would have negative outcomes (or at least suggest that their outcomes might be negative, as with a quandary in which the players much choose between lesser evils). A GM who bait-and-switches her players with misleading negative suggestions soon loses the trust of those players.

Read Player Cues

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Illustration by Steve Prescott

The gameplay experience shouldn’t be a one-way flow from gamemaster to players. A good GM reads his players’ responses and adjusts the game to be a better balance of challenges and player desires. That’s not to say a good GM hands the players everything they desire on their terms. Rather, customizing a pre-written adventure or scratch-building one to offer the sorts of opportunities for action the players want to undertake results in more engaged players.

Much of this involves reading your players. For example, when a player asks, “Can we sail around the cliffs?” he may simply be trying to solve a given encounter with the available information. But it’s possible that he’s also saying, “I would like more sailing-oriented opportunities for action in the game.” Reviewing character sheets and skill specializations can provide more insight here. A character who has five dots in boat piloting and who’s asking “Can we sail around it?” is telling you, in the language of the game structures, that he wants to do some goddamned sailing. Satisfying this desire may be as simple as reskinning a travel interlude or as substantial as retooling entire encounters to involve sailing instead of, say, overland wilderness survival.

This is one of the toughest parts of GMing, because it involves not only reading these verbal and nonverbal cues, but also challenge design and balancing the results of that challenge design to a degree that the player ensemble finds engaging. If your players’ eyes are glazing over, you’ve got some work to do, but as the example above illustrates, you may have some work to do even if they haven’t checked out. In the latter case, you’re focused on increasing engagement. (If they’re zoning out entirely, you’re not engaging them at all.)

Spotlighting Relatedness

In campaign or chronicle play, the players’ actions in previous session often open new avenues to them. A hostage rescued in session three becomes a valuable contact in session seven. A sensitive document recovered from the antagonists later turns those antagonists into surprise allies. A trivial favor granted to a powerful vampire later becomes the boon that ensures the coterie’s invitation to Elysium. The barkeep buys the PCs a round and tells them, “Thanks for keeping us safe, dragonslayers.”

All of these examples are chances for players to relive their success moments from earlier in the campaign. Not only are they rewarding in this sense, but they’re empowering going forward — success paves the way toward more success.

Indeed, relatedness need not only spotlight success. Narrative progression may turn a past failure into a new opportunity for justice — or vengeance. One of the keen properties of narrative is that a “failure” in the terms of the story might actually be beneficial in terms of game systems, by opening new plot threads to explore or motivations to entertain. Destroying the wizard’s tower in session one only to be dealt a drubbing by the wizard in session three sets the stage for a showdown in session five.

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Illustration by Moebius

Call these accomplishments out. Give the players time to exult in them. Let their characters cheer each other (or commiserate with each other), and in so doing, grant the players a moment to reflect on the social activity they shared at the time. These moments provide valuable narrative context, and they renew players’ engagement in their current courses of action.

GM Quickies

VasilisaGamemastering is a combination of art and science, and like any skill, is improved by doing more of it. As you run RPG sessions, you’ll pick up your own style, voice, and tricks of the trade. Here a few that I use on occasion when I run games — I hope they serve you well.

Open with a Conflict

When kicking off a campaign or chronicle, open the proceedings with some sort of conflict. Deliver a few lines of scene-setting and then let all hell break loose. A fight, naturally, works great for a combat-focused game, giving the players a chance at the beginning to see which of their abilities complement one another and any team tactics or combos that can arise. But opening conflicts can also help set the stage in more cerebral or social games, in which players can learn things about the world through experiencing them firsthand — especially if dubious loyalties are part of the game’s theme. Opening with a conflict allows the game to begin with everyone participating, as opposed to a lore dump that begins with the players’ eyes glazed and hands tied.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone! Take This

Sometimes, an NPC wants the PCs to thrive, no strings attached. No bargaining for favors or information. No desperate pleas to save the village or stop the dread doom. No “I’ll give you this if you do that.” Just a minor boon or item from a person who genuinely wants to see the PCs succeed.

One Down, the Rest to Go

Before entering a combat sequence, describe the heroes’ effortless dispatching of one of the enemies. Minion types work great for this, but feel free to take out a pernicious named underling. Very often, we see “the big bad gets away” or other acts of GM fiat that seem to work against the characters’ interest. This technique reminds them that occasionally, GM fiat works in their favor as well. And it hypes them up for the combat to come.

Loot Drop

lootWithin the first session, the players find a trove of cash, contraband, or beyond-their-level items that pose a dilemma. Do they return the discovered loot to its (perceived) rightful owner? Or do they keep it for its initial advantage and risk being found out and earning the ire of the (rightful?) owner? This initial choice has a meaningful effect on the session/ campaign/ chronicle, kicking it off in high gear with an immediate emphasis on player communication and decision-making.

Blow up the Death Star

Construct an early session so that the players can enjoy a seemingly outsized victory that would normally be out of their league. The players will appreciate the sense of accomplishment, and you can design follow-up stories to take advantage of the initial event. For example, the player could destroy a very powerful vampire in the first session… which paves the way for her lieutenant to become a more powerful, recurring antagonist in the campaign. The entire campaign need not revolve around the initial outsized event, either: a future encounter or three can “call back” or refer to the initial victory can generate a strong sense of relatedness for the players.