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How to Make RPGs Scary

There are a lot of horror RPGs out there and around this time of year is when all the GMs out there start breaking them out. I’ve run more than a few in my day (I ran a whole Ravenloft campaign way back in the day), and I’ve had my mix of successes and failures. By success, of course, I mean the games were actively freaky and frightening. By ‘failure’, I mean everybody merely had the same good time they had during all other RPGs. That’s okay and everything, but let’s face it–if you’re playing or running Call of Cthulhu, you intend for it to be a frightening/thrilling experience.

There is a colossal hurdle to overcome, however, when trying to make an RPG scary. It is, quite simply, this: your friends are not afraid of you. They just aren’t, and they particularly aren’t while sitting back on your couch, popping Doritos, and googling stuff on their iPhone. Ain’t gonna happen. You can write the creepiest module in existence, practice your Vincent Price impression for years, and place the PCs in the most intolerable peril ever and they won’t bat an eyelash. Why? You aren’t scary.

So, what to do? Below, I have a set of simple rules to follow that will help. The thing that will help the most, however, is to be a good storyteller and a good performer–commit to your creepiness and don’t let up or break character. The more engrossed you are in the adventure, the more engrossed they will be. This doesn’t just go for horror games, but it is a place where it is especially important. Beyond that, you have the rules, as follows:

Rule #1: Silence, Please

Horror RPGs don’t work without everybody cooperating. Since everybody, presumably, wants to be freaked out, this shouldn’t be a problem. The idea here is for everybody to be quiet when not speaking for their character and to remain focused on the action. No googling on their iPhone (in fact, turn the phones off!), no chatting about their days, no having a sidebar about the kind of pizza to order. Quiet. Silence. Focus. Nothing is scarier than playing with volume in a game–lower your voice to draw them in, to have them straining to hear the words, and then shout the climax to their utter surprise. You can’t do this if Bill is in the corner watching YouTube videos.

Rule #2: Setting and Mood

Try to play somewhere dark and, preferably, quiet (as per Rule #1). Candlelight or a fireplace is best. Music should be creepy and should fit the mood. If you’re going to order food, make sure it is done and the food is there before the game starts. It’s okay for folks to eat while you are playing, of course, but don’t get interrupted by the pizza guy–it breaks the spell, as it were, for everybody to stand up and fumble around for cash (plus you’ll probably have to turn on the lights). Setting the mood helps Rule #1 actually happen and gets people into the zone. The more they play along, the better things will go.

Rule #3: Screw Mechanics

Horror RPGs work best with very, very simple rule systems. Roll one or two dice and have done, move on. Don’t ever break the flow of action to handle rules, and never stop a scene to roll dice. Roll dice before or after the scary, never during. If possible, don’t roll dice at all. Dice don’t make things scary and they break the mood to pieces, so use them sparingly. If you can handle it, have the GM roll the majority of the tests him- or herself and describe the results. Horror RPGs aren’t about your awesome dice rolls–they are all about the story and the mood. Of couse the PCs should get to make some rolls, sure–this is a game–but don’t let it interfere with the scary.

Rule #4: Show don’t Tell

A venerable rule for writers, but not necessarily so venerable for GMs. In a Horror RPG, a vampire is not ‘a vampire’. A vampire is a pale, handsome man with a plastic smile and eyes so dark they seem like pits. His handshake is cool, hard, and with no sign of a pulse–like shaking the hand of a store mannequin. The zombies that are chasing you? Describe their smell. Describe the sound of their bloody feet spattering against the pavement as they shamble closer. Your gun doesn’t do ‘7 points of damage’, it rips a bloody hole through the fleshy part of the alien’s bat-like wings, releasing a stale odor of something cold and ancient that tingles at the back of your throat. Now, its beetley head and compound eyes swivel from the child half-eaten by its gory mandibles and, in a way that chills your bones, you know that it sees you. And it hates.

Get the idea?

There are probably other rules I’m not thinking of, but these are the main ones. Folow them, and I guarantee your game will be creepier and your players will have a great time. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.

Big Fish, Little Fish: The Foodchain of RPGs

A lot of role-playing nerds are obessed with ideas of status and power. They ask their GM’s questions like ‘how many of us would it take to slay an Ancient Red Dragon?’ or ‘how many kobolds can each of us kill ourselves?’ Speaking for myself, I usually answer something along the lines of ‘depends on how you go about it,’ but when a player is asking that question of his or her GM, the question they want answered isn’t ‘can I kill x’, per se. What they really want to know is ‘where do I stand in the foodchain of this RPG?’

In a completely fictional world where the rules often don’t imitate reality well, there can be some very real anxiety among players regarding what will and will not get their character killed and what kinds of tasks they can and cannot succeed with. Some of this is due to unfamiliarity with the rules (and, since I switch systems constantly, I get questions like this a lot), but a greater part has to do with unfamiliarity with the campaign setting or the GM’s style. Some RPGs set the foodchain up for you so you don’t need to think about it (D&D 4th ed, for instance, with it’s level system and rigid encounter creation guidelines), and others leave you to guess on your own entirely (Shadowrun, for instance). In any case, it is up to you, as the GM, to make certain the PCs know where they stand. This will make everybody have more fun, since they will know what is expected of them and what to expect, and they will become more comfortable with taking risks (and risks, always remember, are where are the fun lies).

Above and beyond any system-based cues regarding the difficulty of opponents (level systems, the Brute/Henchman/Villain set up in Wick’s 7th Sea, etc.) , a GM should consider and inform players where their group will fall on the foodchain of the campaign. For me, I separate campaigns into one of three strata: Little Fish, Medium Fish, and Big Fish.

Medium Fish Campaigns

Somewhere between badass and harmless...

 Medium Fish are the standard, so I’m going to start here. Basically, if the PCs are meant to be ‘medium’, it means that, while they are generally quite capable, there are a lot of big baddies in the world they can’t handle. Your average thugs and minions aren’t much of a problem, the elite guards of the enemy should pose a significant health threat, and the big, big baddies should be beyond their capabilities until they either find a clever way to defeat them or grow in power somehow.

‘Medium Fish’ campaigns I refer to as the ‘default’, since it is where most D&D campaigns spend most of their time (anywhere from levels 5-15, arguably, and even broader if the GM gets clever). Since most RPGs take their cue from D&D on some level, this is where everybody lands. The advantages of the medium fish campaign are obvious: the PCs have enough power so that they feel awesome, but not so much power that the GM feels like he or she might lose control of the party (which, in itself, is a concern better addressed other ways, but I digress). Medium Fish are a good way to keep a campaign on the rails, so to speak, and to give PCs both a keen sense of mortality coupled with some fun opportunities for derring-do and frontal-assault type heroics.

My only problem with Medium Fish campaigns is that it sets a kind of arbitrary cap on what PCs can do. This is fine in many contexts, but not in all of them. Furthermore, you run the risk of making your game ‘formulaic’ in the sense that PCs always know what to expect all the time. Medium Fish campaigns don’t always require the GM or players to think outside the box (we beat up the henchmen, we outwit/outlast/outnumber the big villain, we go home and party!). They are often great fun, granted, but they can get old after a while.

Little Fish Campaigns

These three scare nobody...


 Little Fish campaigns have the PCs controlling characters that are either novices, apprentices, or other kinds of low-status individuals in the world in question. This means the scope of these campaigns is either fairly small-potatoes (you are doing jobs intended for novices) or they are exceptionally dangerous (i.e. Call of Cthulhu).

The advantage of such campaigns is that, because the players aren’t very powerful, the standby frontal assault tactics don’t work anymore. This requires the players to think harder and come up with plans that are outside the box, which makes things more interesting. Furthermore, more deadly opposition means players are more worried about their impending demise, which can also up the tension in the game and make things more fun (so long as everybody is on the same page, of course).

The drawback of these games, of course, is that there is only so much the PCs can realistically accomplish and the GM has to be constantly aware of this. Unless playing a Cthulhu-type game where the death of all PCs is acceptable, the GM has to pay close attention to how fairly he’s balanced the obstacles to PC success to avoid bitterness or frustration on the part of his players, which is a big no-no, obviously.    

 Big Fish Campaigns

Look out, evildoers!


Big Fish campaigns involve the players using characters at the top of their professions–they are tough, smart, fast, and all-around super-badass. They can kill any enemy, cut their way past any army, conquer any castle, defeat any foe. They are supermen, pure and simple.

The big advantage of this campaign is that it frees up PCs to do whatever it is they want. They are allowed to be creative just for fun, without the worry of dying due to a lousy roll or looking foolish. The world becomes their playground, and this is good.

The problem with Big Fish is, of course, the GM can’t really control them. They will do whatever they please and he has to bend over backwards to make things challenging enough to give them pause. Since the GM needs to create challenge to make things fun (no matter what the players believe), things get hard for the GM. Essentially, what he has to do is think outside the box, himself. Challenge needs to be internal rather than external; the PCs need to fight their own character’s demons as much as real, actual demons coming to eat their souls. Also, even though they are super powerful, they can still be outsmarted–GMs need to be clever and they need their villains to fight with intelligence rather than raw force if they hope to be a challenge for the PCs. 

In the end, there is no one type of campaign I prefer to the other–I like to shake it up. Of the three, I think Big Fish campaigns are the hardest to manage, if for no other reason than you need to try so very hard to keep things interesting for the good guys (though there are a number of tactics I’ve developed by this point). So long as everybody’s having fun, however, it doesn’t really matter. Make sure you know where your PCs stand and make sure they know, as well, and things should be fine!