<- Return to All Rules (Group by Source)
<- Return to How to Scare Players

All Rules in How to Scare Players

+ An entry marked with this has additional sections within it.

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.