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All Rules in Horror Storytelling

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How to Scare Players

Source Horror Adventures pg. 201
Numerous guides, stories, and films exist that can help GMs tell a better horror story. However, few explicitly help a GM run better horror adventures. Telling a great story is only part of a horror adventure. The GM still runs a Pathfinder game, and unlike most horror stories, this means the players are not just her audience but also the stars of her story. While she wants to terrify the characters, she wants to give the players the opportunity to dread something as well—to share a sympathetic sort of fear with their characters. While the game’s atmosphere can contribute to players’ fear, a GM can also subtly alter the roleplaying game experience to sow suspicion and dismay. The following techniques are essentially GM special effects and are best used sparingly.

Secrets and Suspicion

Source Horror Adventures pg. 201
Players occasionally learn things at different times or find themselves in cahoots with the GM regarding some larger plot. Rather than trying to hide that one player has secret information, consider broadcasting it. As soon as the players know they don’t share an even footing, matters of trust and suspicion become a choice rather than a foregone conclusion. Consider the following techniques to build suspicion between players.

The Secret: The GM has one player step outside of the room with her or otherwise out of earshot of the other players. She then provides him with secret information he’s learned during the course of play or something only he’s noticed. She possibly gets a brief response, then as swiftly as possible, they return to the game table. How and whether that information is shared with the rest of the party is up to the player—but now everyone knows that something special happened to him.

The Bluff: The GM pulls a player away from the table and asks him how he thinks the game is going, or how his day is, or tells him there’s nothing special to reveal. Then they return to the game. Now all the other players think the player has a secret. Even if the player tells the truth and explains that he was pulled away for no reason, who in the party’s going to believe him?

The Observation: The GM pulls a player away and tells him something inconsequential—maybe that his character feels like rats are staring at him, that he never noticed the hint of blond in the bard’s hair, or that all the fallen leaves seem to point to the west. Now the player has to wonder whether this is a meaningful secret or just a random observation. Maybe he fixates on it—especially if the GM encourages him to do so. Perhaps he mentions it to the other players, at which point the GM can decide whether to confirm the observation and have the other characters notice too, or to deny it, causing the other characters to mistrust the observer and causing the observer to mistrust her. This works particularly well if a single character has become slightly unhinged or if one character is legitimately more perceptive than the others.

The Shell Game: Combining the techniques above, the GM calls each player away from the table one at a time. She tells one character something relevant, but provides the others with either nothing or pointless observations. The players who got nothing now have to wonder if they were the only ones, while the player who learned a secret has to wonder what other players learned. This works well in situations where one player has become the GM’s coconspirator—perhaps via an enchantment effect on the player’s character or by the PC being replaced by a monster.

Dice and Other Deceits

Source Horror Adventures pg. 202
Much of the structure of a Pathfinder game can seem like a foregone conclusion. But in a horror game, nothing need be sacred. Consider manipulating the fundamental activities of the game to keep the players off guard.

The Mystery Roll: The GM asks a player to roll a d20 and makes a show of noting the result. When the player asks what the roll was for, the GM tells him not to worry about it. She might not need this roll for anything at all, but the players won’t know that. This works particularly well for refocusing the attention of distracted players.

The Stolen Check: The GM rolls a d20 and asks a player what his Perception modifier is. She notes the result. Repeat for the entire group—or not. This could just be a technique to make the players wonder if they’ve missed something, or it could be a legitimate hidden check (there are even several sorts of rolls that generally dictate that they are rolled by the GM). This trick works best when used in both ways throughout a game, leaving the players wondering about any given stolen check. As a variation, the GM might have the players roll 10 Perception checks at the start of the session and keep the results on hand. During the adventure, don’t ask players to roll Perception checks, just reference the existing bank for results. That way the players won’t know whether they rolled well and noticed all there is or poorly enough that they should search again.

Reconsider Game Aides: Many Pathfinder adventures feature a variety of tools that encourage strategy and precision gaming. A GM could throw precision out the window. When vague horrors are reduced to pawns and squares, the fearfulness of the unknown withers. Instead, the GM might play faster and looser with game measurements, tracking player arrangements vaguely on whiteboards or in the imagination alone, erring in the PCs’ favor in terms of range and movement whenever possible. It takes some experimentation, but GMs can find that players identify more intimately with characters in their heads than with miniatures on the game table.

Stress and Uncertainty

Source Horror Adventures pg. 202
The PCs should never feel like they’re entirely in control in a horror game. Just as their characters should feel unsure about what’s going to happen, the players should experience their own uncertainty. Whether in a GM’s storytelling or how she runs encounters, the following techniques can help add tension to a game.

Accentuate the Unnatural: The GM is the game’s narrator. That doesn’t mean she has to be an impartial or reliable narrator. Consider having the world seem to function in ways it shouldn’t—or in outright supernatural manners. A creak might sound like a player’s name; the wind coming through the window might cease as soon as the PCs enter the room; a rat might stop in the middle of the hall, rise on its back legs, look into the characters’ eyes, and whisper “Beware.” These elements don’t need rules because they’re not dangers or things to fight. They’re glimpses into the world—a world where something is unsettlingly wrong.

Acting with Urgency: The GM can describe a battle as being as hectic as she pleases, but if the PCs have lengthy strategic conversations during combat, it loses any hint of urgency. The GM can make the situation’s stressfulness real by demanding that PCs act swiftly. Speak quickly and demand to know what a PC will do as soon as his turn comes up in initiative. If he falters or reaches for a book, the GM insists that he either delay his turn or make a decision in 6 seconds or else he loses his action—then begin counting down. The purpose here isn’t to cheat players out of turns, but a constrained window of action lets the players share the same strain as their characters. Don’t be too much of a stickler about the countdown, especially with players new to the game.

Countdown to Terror: During a stressful situation, the GM starts a tally of rounds that pass, sets a timer or countdown, or makes a show of accounting for the time—“This is round three, right?” Ideally, this countdown leads to an occurrence on a particular round, but it doesn’t have to. It could just be a trick to make the PCs worry that something’s coming. Alternatively, a GM can strip the mystery away and let the players know something their characters couldn’t: that when the countdown ends, something terrible will happen. What? That’s up to the GM. But unless the PCs manage to defeat the monster, activate the device, or escape, things are about to get worse.

Purposeful Misperceptions: The GM tells a PC that he thinks he hears something. When he asks what, he’s told he doesn’t know, and then can decide whether he investigates further. Maybe the GM tells him he thinks it’s nothing—but can he be sure? It could be something the character heard, a shadow he thought he saw move, or even just a memory that pops to mind. Regardless, by giving PCs bits of uncertain or unsettlingly meaningless information, they begin to wonder what’s important and what’s not, what’s real and what’s just in their character’s head.

Refuse Rest: When the PCs rest, they recover hit points, spells, and other abilities or elements the adventure has worn down. But when the PCs can’t rest, the situation becomes more dire. Spellcasters covet their last spells, healers wait to dole out their last potions, and combatants think more strategically and retreat more readily when their hit points run low. How a GM denies the party rest might involve the adventure needing to occur within a limited span of time or there merely being no convenient safe space. As an alternative, circumstances might prevent a rest from recovering the PCs’ resources (for instance, the nightmare spell prevents an arcane spellcaster from preparing spells). While this technique is crucial for portraying dwindling resources and maintaining momentum and tension, use it with care. Players quickly grow frustrated if the restrictions seem artificial rather than tied to the story.

Splitting the Party: It’s relatively common in horror stories for the protagonists to become separated. If this happens in a game, the GM divides the group and sends those who aren’t currently playing out of the room—she doesn’t want them knowing their allies’ fate or distracting the players currently in the limelight. Switch between groups about every 10 or 15 minutes until the group meets back up, trying to end each scene with a group either on a mini-cliffhanger or at a point when they have something to discuss (which can happen away from the table). Keep the party split for as brief a period as possible; not only are divided groups weaker in a fight, but players quickly lose their immersion when away from the game table and forced to put the game on hold.

Death and Bargaining

Source Horror Adventures pg. 203
Sometimes characters die. That’s not fun for anyone, though—especially if the GM has spent a considerable amount of time on a story that now might never take shape. While players should feel like doom looms around the next corner, the threat of death and the idea of defeat are far more useful than actually killing off the entire group. Few GMs are above fudging a die roll, having a foe die suddenly, or having villains start taking prisoners if bad rolls turn an encounter against the players. Total party kills should be reserved for when they make the best stories, like at the hands of a truly terrible foe.

Still, sometimes characters die, and it’s not always convenient or plausible to stop the adventure to find a cleric capable of restoring them. In such cases, a GM might take it on herself to make a deal with a player, trading a miraculous recovery (and thus, his continued role in the game) for a price she determines. Such a bargain might last for a set period: until the session’s end, until it’s convenient to make a new character, until the party comes up with a better solution, or—most menacingly—simply until the GM says so. The terms of the deal should be set outside the earshot of the other players, and the PC has the right to refuse. Regardless of the specifics, if the PC accepts, he works for the GM now, a factor that can lend new threats to several sorts of horror games. In all of these cases, the GM should take the blame for the PC’s treachery because she doesn’t want to cause hurt feelings between players.

The Doppelganger: Inform the PC that he barely survived—but only because he was replaced by a shapeshifting creature at some point in the past. He is now playing a monster with the exact same statistics as his character. When he sees an opportune moment, he should attack or otherwise betray the party to the villain. Once this occurs and the player’s monstrous nature is revealed, it raises the question of what happened to the real character— who might now be a prisoner somewhere, waiting to be saved by the others.

The Evil Spirit: Inform the PC that he died, but his corpse has been animated by an evil spirit. He can continue to play as normal, but when something in particular happens in the story (or simply when the GM says “now”), he should turn on the rest of the party or perform some other action prescribed—like attack the paladin. The GM might grant the character some fitting special ability or other monstrous power.

The Devil: Inform the PC that he died and now stands before a devil, a grim reaper, or something worse. This godlike entity offers to return the PC to life but will come to call later and demand a service. Whatever this service might be, the PC is compelled to comply and also to keep the terms of the bargain secret. Perhaps the GM knows what the entity wants at the bargain’s outset, but even if not, this kind of loose thread is perfect for future exploitation.

Encouraging Horror Roleplaying

Source Horror Adventures pg. 203
Pathfinder is not a game anyone wins, but it’s not uncommon for players to want to overcome challenges in an exceptional fashion or with the minimum expenditure of resources. That means that some players view time spent indulging in terrified reactions and unheroic roleplaying as a waste of time—particularly when such roleplaying arises during combat encounters. If a GM wants her players to care about and emphasize not just roleplaying but also reacting to horror, it’s up to her to encourage it—or at least not to penalize it. To incentivize her players into displaying frightened reactions, she can point them toward the Playing a Horror Hero discussion, and consider employing the following techniques.

Time for Terror: Many players’ first reaction to a threat, no matter how overwhelming, will be to fight. Before rolling initiative for a particularly terrifying scene, the GM can ask the players whether any of them would like to use the instant before combat for a terrified reaction. This is not a surprise round or any other in-game unit of measurement, but rather a special instance for characters who want to play up their reaction to the scene with a free action like yelling a warning, dropping an object, falling backward, or shrieking. In this way, the GM rewards players who want to express their shock and gets the group’s reactions all at once, rather than drawing out the first round of combat.

Reward Terror: Whenever a player does something that improves the game’s story, enhances the session’s atmosphere, or just seems cool, the GM can give the party an ad hoc experience award. There are few more powerful ways to encourage behavior that benefits the game than with immediate positive reinforcement, and the GM has an endless supply of experience points to dole out. This shouldn’t be much, maybe as little as 50 XP at lower levels, maybe creeping up to 200 XP at higher levels—nothing that feels like a game-changer. Even then, though, a little reward can serve as a strong incentive to encourage good roleplaying and story investment. Best of all, it encourages not just one player but the entire group to prioritize behavior the GM rewards.