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In the spirit of the new Heroes of Shadow, I have decided to kick off an article line I am going to do called GM Clinic with an article about horror in games.

There are a lot of genres you can pull from in order to get fodder for your games: science fiction, science fantasy, runepunk, steampunk, romance, mystery… but there is one genre that many people try to pull off, and rarely can, and that is horror.

The problem is that what scares some people doesn’t necessarily scare others, and GMs forget this frequently.  All too often it is forgotten that the game is the PC’s story, not the GMs, and because of that the GMs don’t think about what is scary to them.  The good news is that with a small amount of effort, and a good deal of extrapolation, you can scare the living bejeezus out of your players.

Key #1: Make It Personal

That’s right; dig in and make it very personal.  Don’t just have the shadowy villain kill one of the heroes’ loved ones; have him use her as leverage.  Have little personal memento items left for the PCs to find, making them wonder what is happening to their loved one.  Don’t just stick the emotional knife in, twist it around a bit.  In the same vein, have the PCs greatest asset become useless; take away the greatest weapon they have, or hobble the fighter in some way, as in with a curse, or the aftereffects of a ritual.

The idea behind this is to really stick it to your PCs that this involves them directly, and in some ways, they are powerless.  You never want to make them completely impotent, but you do want them to feel that way for a good deal of time.  This way, they may be the grandest heroes on the stage, but they come to realize that they are dealing with someone or something that not only wants them dead, it wants, and is very capable of making them suffer.

Key #2: Make Them Uncomfortable

This is extremely important.  If you are trying to create an atmosphere of the unknown, dark, tension of chasing the bad guy through the tunnels of a sewer beneath a ruined city, during the new moon, while wererats chase after them, the sounds of munching snacks, the bright light, and people constantly making wisecracks and snide remarks will ruin it, fast.

So, here is what you do first: adjust the external.  Turn the lights down; put on some good creepy music (Nox Arcana is good for this, so are some other old goth-rock bands like the Cure, Joy Division, Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy, but in a pinch some of the less upbeat Enya and Loreena McKennit albums work too) at very low level (think muzak levels in a hospital).  If it is meant to be a cool to cold night, turn up the AC or crack a window.  If it is a hot night, close some windows.  Take the snacks off the table.  Have the PCs keep the table chatter to in-character only, speaking as if they were their characters.

Now you have to adjust the internal.  Learn to use key terms that keep the setting defined but vague.  This is a very delicate thing, honestly.  You have to let the PCs know what is going on, overall, but keep a lot of details from them.  Don’t let them in on the deep-dark-lowdown of where they are and what they are doing.  If one them is taking ongoing damage, describe it.  Is the acid or fire burning away at his flesh?  Does the electricity arcing about that poor son of a bitch make him move jerkily and stilted?  Get descriptive with the suffering of the character.

Keep things vague.  With the advent of greater miniature use in gaming, it is too easy to dismiss the deadliness of combat, and to overlook the advantage to not letting the PCs see and know every little thing.  Keep them guessing.  Be a bit reclusive about what information you discuss.  Don’t cheat!  Do not cheat your players!  But use misinformation and lack of information to your adventage.

Key #3: Be Devious

Every GM should be a devious bastard.  I mean it.  If one of your PCs reveals little bits and bobs of their personality and past, us ‘em.  Get character histories and write-ups; go over those suckers with a fine-tooth comb and mine every last advantage you can out of them.  When your PCs make what they think are inconsequential actions in game, and you know better, keep your cool, store the info, and exploit it later.  It is your job to foment chaos, confusion, and disorder among them, so do it, and do it well.

An example of this goes back about eight years now.  I was running an old World of Darkness game where a friend of mine was playing a Brujah biker vampire who once was a member of the Sabbat, but split after he felt he no longer had a place among them.  He made the mistake at the end of one session of calling one of his old Sabbat contacts from the house the whole party was staying in, on a LAND LINE!  I bit my tongue, let him put the call through, and then at the next session, proceeded to have their safehouse come under fire by Sabbat forces who wanted to talk to the Brujah.

Now, in a horror game, you don’t want to be so overt.  Despite what the crappy slasher films of today think, horror is not heavy-handed; it is delicate.  Think about it, what is more horrifying: just another maniac with a big damn knife chasing you through a cornfield, or is it scarier to think about waking up, strapped to a frame, and a delicate looking man comes in with an array of surgical tools, pristinely clean, and eyes that don’t seem quite right?  Yeah, I agree, the second one.  Horror is a delicate surgical tool; use it right, and you can really do some damage.

I hope these tips have helped with plotting your horror game out, and given you some nifty new tools for your GM toolkit.  Trust me, take good care of those tools and learn to use them in new and creative ways, and you will find that they will pay you back for years to come.

What do you think?

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