Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Touch of Fear

I wrote a little bit about fear and the role it plays in gaming sessions last week with the promise that I’d share a few of the tricks and methods I’ve used over the years to help instill that sense of fright into my players. Having had some time to review my past game experiences, I’ve come to the realization that, when it comes to scaring the players, I don’t have a set bag of tricks from which to pull from. Like many referees, I often rely on improvisation and the taking advantage of unplanned developments to serve as a launching pad from which to get under the players’ skins.

In all honesty, I can only think of two referee tricks that I’ve used in the same exact method more than once to try and frighten my players: one cheap and tawdry by refereeing standards and the other potentially clumsy but effective. I’ll quickly cover those two and then cover some of the improvisational methods that have had success.

The cheap and tawdry one is a hoary, old chestnut which doesn’t so much instill fright as it does induces a unconscious flinch of the nerves; the game master equivalent of hiding behind a door and jumping out to yell “Boo!” Anyone can do it and even if the players know it’s coming, it still works. It’s a simple matter of allowing your voice to slowly drop in volume as you describe the game environment. As the characters creep from room to room, you speak softer and softer - not quite whispering but with much less volume than you normally use. Then, when the monster strikes or the body falls out of the closet – BAM! –suddenly you raise your voice and perhaps slam your hands down on the tabletop; startling the players and hopefully making them jump. It’s the role-playing game version of the “spring-loaded cat” that haunts bad horror films. As I said, it’s cheap, tawdry, and perhaps beneath those who consider themselves exceptional referees but effective nonetheless.

The other trick, which for lack of a better term I’ll call “Ten Little Indians,” is dependent upon one’s usual method of game mastering. If you don’t do what I do, you might tip your hand to your players that something’s afoot by this perceived change in your game descriptions. When I’m running a game, I’ll usually confirm the players’ actions in the course of the descriptive narrative in one manner or another. For example, if the adventurers decide to investigate the wizard’s library, I’ll usually begin the description of the actions by saying, “The party enters the library to the west” or “Arthur, Beryl, Casper, and Dorian (the characters’ names) head into the library.” I use both the individual names of the characters and the collective term alternately in game sessions so my players don’t suspect anything when I use one rather than the other.

On two occasions, I’ve confirmed the characters’ actions in the narrative but left out one of the characters’ names, saying (to use the above example), “Arthur, Casper and Dorian head into the library.” On one instance, the party immediately noticed the missing name and alerted me to my “error.” I responded, “That’s strange. Beryl is nowhere in sight. You’re quite certain she was just here a moment ago,” and then smiled. On the other occasion, the players didn’t notice until several minutes into the exploration of the next room, which left the time of “Beryl’s” disappearance slightly more uncertain. In order for this trick to work, you either need an NPC which can be removed from the party’s ranks without the need to rely on a lot of secret dice rolling or make arrangements with one of your players who agrees to be the temporary (and perhaps permanent) sacrificial goat. Understandably, using an NPC for this trick is much easier.

That’s about the extent of rote trickery that I’ve used consistently. I have noticed that I tend to speak with a slightly lower timbre to my voice in “scary situations” and that I use much slower and shorter descriptive sentences when fear is lurking in an attempt to keep the players on the edge of their chairs until the hammer drops. I may be overlooking some other tendencies that I do unconsciously and anybody who reads this blog and has had me as a referee is free to comment if I’m missing something.

For the most part, however, it’s the improvised little things that suddenly leapt to mind during game sessions that have been the most memorable and the most effective. I can’t rightly call them tricks or offer them as suggestions other than by example.

I remember one case in which I was running a player through his prelude for a Vampire game. We were gaming down in a finished basement that had the lighting on several switches and a row of square columns covering the house supports. Since the location of the prelude took place at a carnival after dark and involved the character being slowly led into the forest surrounding the fun fair, as the prelude continued I began shutting off banks of lights as the character plunged deeper and deeper into the woods. The further in the character proceeded, the darker the room got until just a single set of lights remained to simulate the moon (and allow us all to see our notes). Additionally, the figure that was coaxing the character into the woods was only appearing at the edge of his vision and was using the trees for concealment. For this, I stood up away from the table and placed the room’s columns between myself and the player to replicate the fleeting glimpses he caught of his mysterious quarry. It was very effective but obviously not the sort of thing that could be easily applied to any gaming session. I certainly didn’t think of it until the prelude had begun and I became aware of the basement’s possibilities.

In other games, I’ve used the materials at hand to set the stage. A big handful of dice slowly rubbed together has served as the sounds of the clattering bones of skeletons and the chitonous legs of giant insects. I’ve riffled the pages of books against my thumb to create the sound of fluttering wings and made harsh scribbles with pencil and paper to simulate the scratching of a deranged lich’s pen. Use what’s around you to whatever ends you can.

This is by no means a comprehensive study on the topic of fear in rpgs, being merely an account of my own experiences. A few useful links have been provided by commentators in the previous two posts and game masters looking for a starting point should consider tracking those sources down for inspiration. It is a wonder, however, how much fear you can instill in your players with a just a little bit of effort and a modicum of creativity. Here’s hoping that your players are in for a few frights over the course of their game sessions to come.


Christopher B said...

"That’s strange. Beryl is nowhere in sight. You’re quite certain she was just here a moment ago..."

Brilliant! :D

This is exactly why I always make sure to have a plethora of memorable NPC's passing through my horror games - the longer PC's have known them, the better. >:)

Anonymous said...

I once ran a horror campaign where I accompanied particularly grueling scenes with a heartbeat sound from a machine hidden somewhere in the room along with a tape of "rabbit in distress" prey sounds that I got from the internet. That, plus candles and strangely placed lights can put people on edge fairly easily.

Kent said...

You are touching on a crucial point here. To create fear the DM has to bind the player to his character emotionally and the tricks you mention are a kind of DM craft not covered in any books. I like to use NPCs to raise a player's heartbeat. Have them get to know a knowledgeable unflappable expert who accompanies them into the deep dark. PC morale will fray if this NPC starts to lose it, "What was that noise? You again. Keep quiet you moron do you want to get us killed!" Saying this to a player who must respond in character gets the adrenaline flowing and when he is in the middle of responding have something terrible happen.

"Fool of a Took! Throw yourself in next time."