Halloween coming soon, I decided to tackle the task of writing a scary spooky horror one-shot. If you’ve ever played with me as a DM you can probably testify how much I love setting a good unsettling atmosphere, slowly but surely sinking into your mind to distillate fear like a carefully matured wine. But Halloween is a whole new other league: how do you sustain and maintain an atmosphere of fear throughout a 4h game?
First, some definition. I will not be talking here about the gore horror genre, the mind thrillers, or the goofy slasher movies where sharks, tornado and machete merge to cut you in thin slices. No, I’m talking about games where fears becomes an NPC of its own.
1. The set-up: disruption and stakes
Set-up is important. Showing the “normal”, reinforcing the sense of order before subverting it is a cornerstone of horror.
You can either do it literally, by building contrast to an ordinary world. Do not let your PCs directly into the haunted house, but show first the perfectly normal festival in the neighborhood, and highlight how the carefree halfling villagers are having fun.
Or you can choose to show the “normal” through contrast. Setting up your PCs in liminal spaces where everything seems normal except for one or two things that do not fit and create an unexplainable feeling of strangeness. In an old dusty house, one room is fully clean; in the village visited by the PCs everyone is walking to the right, nobody is walking to the left; the only birds present in this field are just differently sized crows.
2. Play on primal fears and show the stakes
It is not because your villain is covered by spikes and oozing blood that your PC will fear it.
The two best triggers of fear I like to use are:
a) The unknown
Instead of showing your villain, how can you make it present, but unseen?
First show only the signs of the existence of the creature. A message written on the wall, a trail of disrupted bloody grass. A town, where everybody speaks only in whisper to avoid warning it of their presence.
Then show the creature indirectly. Build slowly the stakes regarding what the creature can actually do. Is it going to be just the low sound of claws rasping against the stone in the same corridor as the heroes? Then broken windows, exploding closer and closer? And finally the last shrill cry of a possessed NPC, crying tears as he cannot escape the creature within?
Show what the creature can do and hint at what it could do. What does it mean for the PCs if they ignore the problem, or decide to run away? Having a clear purpose will help your PCs immerse quickly into the one-shot.
When you reveal the creature (if you ever do), how can you make it scary? I personally like shrouding it in layers of smoke, or describing it as having no way of communicating easily with the PCs (no eyes, no ears, no mouth, etc.). Another way is to hide the body of the creature in plain sight, its deeds unseen until dark falls. The villain will be the cute, immobile doll carried around by one of your PCs for the game, or in a true Doctor Who fashion, an angel of stone that can only move when you do not look at it.
b) A loss of control
Your PCs must be able to feel like they might be able to fight the creature, but it has the upper hand.
They will not be able to heal the wounded the creature. If they lay a trap, possessed NPC will walk in it and the creature will fight back. They will feel a cold hand caressing the back of their neck. Their beard will slowly rise on its own to curl around their throat…
3. The environment around the player
Drop the thermostat by a couple of degrees, lower your lights, borrow the soundtrack from Alien. Use the surroundings around the player to play into their lizard brain and create a non-conscious unease. Another tool I like is talking with players separately to “hire” them as my helpers to set-up jump scares through the game. Tension builds, the monster is nearly there, when one of them suddenly collapses on the table, shaking as I whisper the threats emanating from the dark entity threatening the PCs. As everyone knows I talked with everyone to set-up those scares, but do not know what they are, this will create a subtle but ever-present feeling of “what will happen next”. Even better if you can hire a spouse or external friend from some knocking on windows, or turning off the lights.
4. Silence vs talking
Silence can take many shapes in a game. It can be a dramatic pause building tension after a dodgy roll. You rolling dices and not commenting on the outcome.
Or my favourite kind, a pure theatrical culmination. I like to prepare in advance cinematographic descriptions to “set the tone”. But sometimes, during key moments, I like to ask my players to keep silent and close their eyes, cut down the music, and let tension build-up, the only sound in the room the rasping breath of a monster getting closer…