6 Tips For Running A Scarier Horror Game

From Jesse C. Cohoon

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0589

6 Tips For Running A Scarier Horror Game

Horror games are difficult to run because players know they’re in a horror game and they often deal with well-known monsters.

Here are some ways to challenge your players and keep them on their toes.

Be Secretive With Monsters

In the best horror movies you only see the aftereffects of the monster’s attack. You rarely get a good look at the monster itself.

That’s because seeing the monster ruins the mood. Instead, the monster strikes from the shadows, remaining obscured and hidden from view. Then it disappears in the shadows, fog or mist. Anyone who sees it doesn’t have an accurate description of what they’ve seen.

Only after the PCs figure out what is going on and why can they attempt to track down the monster and deal with it.

Even when they finally do get to the point of fighting the PCs, the monsters should still attempt to strike from the shadows, to remain as hidden as possible. They should make full use of flanking, teleportation, shadow-walking, illusionary clones, fear attacks, etc. to be as mysterious and frightening as possible.

No One Should Be Safe And Nowhere Should Be Safe

Put the people around the PCs in danger – friends, loved ones, contacts, favorite merchants. The more you tie events with NPCs the characters know, the better, as the PCs will have a reason to stick around and investigate.

There should be bloody scenes, missing people, messed up rooms.

It should be up to the PCs to piece together exactly what is happening and why. A trope you can invoke is “anyone can die.”

Even when the PCs think they’ve got a place well-guarded, the monsters should still be able to get in. Any flaw in the protection plan should be exploited.

For instance:

  • Zombies find a hole in the fence, crawl through the window, drop down from the roof.
  • A council member has been replaced with an undead, and the people inside the building they are guarding are going to be its next victims.
  • A traitor sells the PCs out to the werewolves in exchange for protection for their family.
  • Vampires could blend in with all the other bats in an area, land on the roof, and take to gaseous form to enter the building.
  • How is it that the body of the creature they’ve defeated and are guarding is now moving again?

Figure Out Why

There should be a reason behind what is going on in the horror game. Simple is better because complex plots make it harder for the PCs to piece things together.

Why are the zombies rising up at this time? Who is controlling them? What does the zombie master want and why? What do they get out of their hordes of undead outside of loyal, unquestioning servants?

Why did the vampires go on a feeding frenzy? Are there internal struggles within their ranks and this new feeding behavior is a result?

What will put the ghost’s spirit at rest once and for all? How will the PCs fulfill its last wish? Why would they be willing to do so?

Why is the golem rampaging around the countryside? What can be done to stop it? Where are its creators, or are they even still alive?

Are the werewolves rising up because they feel they’ve been treated badly by the locals and now is the time to get revenge?

Target Sanity

When facing overwhelming odds or an unnatural creature formed by curse, magic or negative energy, the PCs’ sanity should suffer.

Even in games with no sanity rules, you can still play up the horror on encounters with the supernatural, monstrous and horrible.

Give PCs:

  • Nightmares. Replay twisted versions of past encounters and fights.
  • Phobias. Temporary unless left to fester.
  • Addictions. To drown out this terrible new reality.
  • Cursed or tainted.

All these effects become grist for quests to heal or at least push the insanity back into a box deep inside the PCs’ brains.

Give Monsters Interesting Skills, Abilities, Weaknesses And Allies

Give monsters skills the PCs don’t have, don’t know of or can’t use as well.

What classes would be appropriate and work well with abilities the monsters already have?

What spells, powers or abilities could you add or take away to the monsters to make them unique?

Perhaps the monsters have developed fear effects that can cause PCs to panic.

Perhaps the monsters have developed reality warping powers that cause them to appear strange, bizarre or frightening.

Perhaps the monsters infect those they attack, so anyone killed become one.

Perhaps moons or stars empower monsters in strange ways.

Perhaps vampires are so powerful they can walk around in full daylight.

It’s Never Really Over

Look at some of the most classic horror films and video games. Something happens and the foes get resurrected.

Maybe one of the PCs disappeared for awhile and had a suggestion implanted in them and they’ll resurrect the evil.

Maybe some part of the villain’s organization remains and vows revenge on the PCs.

Maybe one of the PCs gets contaminated and becomes the new evil themselves, and so the cycle begins anew.

You can layer these tips onto just about any encounter to make it scarier.

With Halloween around the corner, why not try them out?