How To Build Mood For Horror
From Johnn Four
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #606
RPT reader Joshua Hanson asks: How do you handle mood and building the mood, particularly in horror-based games?
First, Joel Fox provides us with some great suggestions for building a horror atmosphere, that I’ll recap a bit in the tips below:
And here are some additional tips from Danny East about mood and atmosphere in general:
With some of those thoughts in mind, here’s how I’d approach building mood for horror.
Dim The Lights
Clear, bright rooms make us confident. There are no shadows to trigger our primal fear of the dark.
So first do what you can to block light in the game room.
Next, only illuminate the table. Create shadows and darkness beyond the game area. Use candles (safely) or small lamps to provide partial illumination.
Ask everyone to put away laptops and mobile devices to prevent them from giving off light. (Let players know in advance it’ll be an electronics-free session.)
Give players flashlights with red filters on narrow beam if they need help reading character sheets and dice.
Queue The Moody Music
Find music that resonates with the type of horror theme you want. Use a few different styles instead of putting one style on repeat so the background ambience doesn’t get monotonous.
For example, grab a creepy movie soundtrack, then some minimal electronic stuff, then some dark dungeon tracks.
Ask your players ahead of time about what music creeps them out the most. Then get that music and add it to the playlist.
We are visual creatures. Sight is our strongest sense. So trigger player imaginations with horrific visual elements in your game room.
- Posters and printouts
- The colour of blood (candles, dice, tablecloth)
- Weird props (e.g., dollar store toys you’ve perhaps painted red)
- Red paper handouts or handouts covered in fake blood
- Halloween banners, posters, window decals
Just seeing and experiencing these game room additions will get everyone worked up a bit at a subconscious level.
Separate The PCs…And The Players
Incomplete information helps create fear, uncertainty and doubt.
Normally you keep everyone together to streamline gameplay. But this means all players get exposed to everything the others experience. Omniscience foils horror.
So to prey upon player fears better you should isolate them from time to time.
Have side conversations with players away from the game table.
If you’ve got Tip #1 Dim The Lights working for you, then take players into a dark area and don’t turn on the lights. Game with them in the dark.
In these one-on-ones, aim for some dramatic effect. Then come back to the table and let the players see the shocked look on the returning player’s face.
For example, a PC gets cut off from the others by cannibal hillmen. Take the isolated player into the dark hallway outside the game room. Roleplay the chase. When the PC rediscovers the party, return to the table.
But here’s the twist, the shock moment. Cover the PC in blood. From head to toe. Dripping. But you don’t tell the player in the hallway this. Instead, you wait until you’re back at the game table to reveal to everyone the PC is covered in blood. When the players see the surprise on the returning player’s face (because this is all news to them too) it will amplify their own surprise.
Do not allow out-of-character conversation. Let the group try to piece together what happened to the player and their PC from the clues and likely scrambled descriptions of the player.
Do what you can during the game to separate the PCs and players so no one has an omniscient understanding of what’s going on, even at the meta game level.
Veil The Enemy
In the same vein as firewalling players from information to create uncertainty, do not reveal the true nature of the enemy until the last moment.
One of my favourite player experiences was when my GM, Django, took us through a cavern complex and he got our pulses pumping by not revealing the monster we were chasing until the end.
Instead, he described all the horrific and creepy evidence the monster had left behind in the caves. This built a lot of suspense. In one cave we saw large marks clawed into the stone walls. In another we saw the remains of a victim, all torn up and bloody.
As we progressed the clues got more horrible.
By the time we confronted the abomination we didn’t know what to think and we worried we might be overmatched.
So brainstorm a list of clues and horrific signs pointing to the enemy and hint at the enemy’s powers and might. Build suspense by revealing these clues over time without ever showing the true nature of the enemy or without direct confrontation until the end.
Dice rolls kill the creepy mood.
Only roll for important results. Else, roleplay and narrate to maintain the mood you’ve built.
And use pacing and voice levels for effect.
Faster pacing means less time to consider options, which builds suspense. It also gives players less time to process the clues and mood-building encounters they trigger. Fast paces cause players to make more mistakes, communicate poorly and act rashly.
Slower pacing gives players more time to worry about details, like why are victims’ heads always missing. It gives you more time for description. It lets imaginations conjure worst case scenarios.
As for voice, banish the monotone. You are always enthusiastic. But sometimes you whisper, and sometimes you yell. Try talking quietly for a minute then slamming an open palm on the table just as the enemy attacks.
Vary your pacing and voice to keep players on their toes, not knowing what to expect yet.
Get players out of their comfort zones. Be careful about crossing the line (for example, don’t touch players) but do what you can to disrupt player comfort and confidence.
- Change the usual seating
- Remove those comfy cushions from chair seats
- Take away player dice and do all the rolling
- Cook strange food (even if it’s spaghetti and meatballs dubbed “Cannibal Stew”)
- Offer a strange drink (maybe an exotic type of tea)
- Burn a little hair in the corner during a break
Subtle here works best. And subtle measures are often safer and less likely to create real problems. 🙂
Be sure the content of the adventure matches the theme you want to build. For example, slapstick would not be a good fit.
Make sure NPCs are worried and only have incomplete (and conflicting) information about what’s going on.
Leave a long trail of bodies.
Kill an NPC in front of the PCs they wouldn’t ever think would be a casualty.
Create uncomfortable situations. This is a tricky tip. Please use your judgement about where the line of good gaming fun stops and where personal umbrage might begin. For example, women and children are often casualties in horror stories, but that might not be acceptable for some players.
Use creepy patterns so player brains try to close the horrible loops. For example, victims might always come in threes. The enemy attacks again from darkness and two victims go down….
Create no-win situations. Players can hope at best to choose the option with the least pain or loss.
Brief Word From Johnn
I’m going through folders of old RPG notes and printouts as part of a basement cleanup project. And I came across a neat idea I had written on a piece of paper long ago.
If you can’t read dwarven sanscrit, the note says:
Random character event chart. Roll 1/year?
- Relative passes away
- Old flame visits
- Medical problem
Issues should be personal and not treasure hunt related to promote greater character development.
I like this idea. And I think that’s a nice start to a random table.
How about we add more items to that list?
Send in your ideas for interesting and personal player character life developments.
I’ll edit and collate your ideas into a big table we can all use to make the PCs’ lives more interesting!
Hit reply and send me a couple ideas now.
Meantime, I’ll keep sorting through my game notes and running my writing through dwarven sanscrit recognition software.
Managing Info At The Table
William Keller suggests using color coded index cards to store your notes on and make referencing them easier.
- Green = NPCs
- Blue = Scenes
- Red = Action/Combat
He added, “I figure that if it takes more than a single card to express something, I’m probably trying to say too much.”
Build A Better Whiteboard
We received this tip from Jarrod Olson regarding how to make a grid on your whiteboard that won’t wipe off over time:
As a teacher, I have learned how to remove permanent marker from whiteboards by drawing over them with a dry erase marker. The solvent in the dry erase marker dissolves the permanent marker.
So rather than drawing grids in permanent marker, I suggest getting Graphic Chart Tape to make your grid lines.
Immersion Begins With Description
This tip is especially appropriate for this issue. In the G+ GM Tips group, Gary Furash asked for tips about enhancing “suspense, tension, and a sense of danger in your sessions.”
Walt Rimmer said, “A good mental image of the characters’ surroundings can make or break immersion, the sense of danger and even the feeling of the game. It can be hard if you’re not prepared for it or aren’t used to describing things, but practicing detail exorcises is a good idea for any DM that wants to increase these aspects.”
Glen Griswold’s response had a mood all of its own: “Less can be More: I use the Lovecraft approach – detailed, intensely visceral description of the surrounds, with almost non-existent description of the threats…or even better, calling for snap Perception checks, and then mumbling, “oh, interesting…” before moving on. Like a good horror movie, you shouldn’t ever see the monster until the last five minutes, except in the distance or in the shadows. Additionally, pull a player aside and hold a whispered conversation, before announcing to the rest of the group that their PC has gone missing.
Also, make sure the noises that the characters hear are intense. For example:
‘From far outside the torchlight, a wet, meaty sound can be heard, like someone walking through thick, squelching mud. All of the normal night noises have ceased, as if waiting and listening. There is a sudden short scream, and a CRACK, and the scream abruptly ends.’
Another thing to do is to add minor details, like a supposedly abandoned dwelling having a chair that is still rocking in it, or a plate of still-warm food at a table covered in dust and cobwebs.?”
Dan Higdon uses one of my favorite tactics: “I’ve found that giving a time limit on player response (provided you don’t usually do that) helps increase tension. Switch to ‘real time’ narration, and don’t give the players more than a sentence or two to respond with.
Don’t just cut them off (obviously), but if the situation is rapidly deteriorating, they don’t get much time to think. If they don’t seem to know what they want to do, they skip their action. Do that to them one or two times, and they’ll be trained not to lose their cool.
Couple that with atmospheric descriptions, and if you’re playing a game with perception checks, call for perception checks at random as players explore an area. Nothing makes players edgy like making perception checks that result in no new information. ‘You feel an unnatural chill – make a perception check. You think you see something out of the corner of your eye, but when you turn, it’s gone.'”