Allen Varney, writer and game designer


Spooking Them

[From InQuest #31 (November 1997)]

You've just started your Call of Cthulhu campaign, or Wraith or Ravenloft or even PARANOIA. You want to scare your players, right? You want 'em lying on the carpet with cardiac arrest, they're so scared. You want trembling limbs, jumpy nerves, your players backed against the wall holding broken Coke bottles and screaming "Don't come any closer!" Right?

More power to you. Here are 12 do's and don'ts to give your players anxiety attacks:

1. Find players willing to be scared.

You're saying, "Well, duh!" But beware the player who says, "Sure, I'd love to play in Masks of Nyarlathotep," and then gets all snippy when you throw his boozy private detective in the pool of leeches. Some players play in constant action-hero mode -- calm and strong-jawed -- and dislike rules mechanics like Call of Cthulhu's Sanity checks or GURPS Horror's Horror checks that "force" their player characters (PCs) to scream, run or develop thalassophobia. Discuss such likely outcomes with each player before the game begins and make sure they're okay with it.

2. Keep it mysterious.

Another feature of classic horror is the loss of understanding. Suppose that after following many clues, the PCs have figured out that Dr. Incunabula uses a Devolvo Ray to turn people across the continent into chimps. They break into his Devolvo Lab, wreak the machine -- and it's an empty box with weird symbols scrawled inside. Oooh. The best horror scenarios resemble an onion: peel away a layer, and there's another one below.

3. Endanger the player characters without warning.

You can get plenty of good scares by establishing a long, rising tension that's suddenly released when the monster attacks -- but that's not the only way to make 'em jump. Drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs describes the best splatter flicks with his ultimate compliment: "Anybody can die at any time." This principle works especially well in West End's PARANOIA, where Troubleshooter PCs can die even while being issued equipment for their mission. But even in straightforward horror scenarios, consider sudden attacks from an unexpected location, with no warning tension beforehand. Say the PCs are preparing for the final assault on the cultists' countryside lair, but first they gas up the car in town. They go in to pay, and you matter-of-factly announce, "The clerk has been brutally murdered. You hear strange noises from the adjacent garage." Yow!

4. Never take control of the PCs away from the players.

Though many terrific horror stories revolve around the hero's loss of control, roleplayers hate it when their characters are taken away from them. If you're planning a demonic possession, inflict it on some hapless non-player character (NPC) instead of a PC. The game will go more smoothly for it.

5. Show the enemy's vast resources.

I wrote an AD&D Spelljammer adventure that sent the spacegoing adventurers into a hollow asteroid. To build a colossal artifact, a race of monsters had turned the place into a complex of gigantic cubical rooms, each a couple of miles on a side. The rooms were basically deserted, so it surprised me when several gamemasters later told me, "My group was scared to death." The place itself wasn't scary, just the idea that the bad guys had this much power.

George MacDonald, co-designer of the Champions RPG, offers another way to hint at an all-powerful nemesis: "It scares [players] when an already powerful character shows fear. When Doctor Destroyer [a world-conquering mastermind] shows up and tells them, 'You must help me, or the world as we know it will be destroyed,' they go, 'Whoa!'"

6. The enemy should appear unkillable by normal means.

The Call of Cthulhu adventure King of Chicago features a darkness monster that you could kill with a flashlight. Gee, I'm scared. Give the PCs a clear shot at their enemy with their best weapons, show that those weapons have absolutely no effect, wait for them to start praying -- and then give them a clue leading to the special weapon that can kill the thing.

7. Screw with their bodies.

Bodily invasion has been a movie-monster staple since 1979's Alien, and you see it a lot in horror RPGs too. In an adventure in Pagan Publishing's Delta Green, aliens secretly experiment on and improve a PC one night when he's asleep. Thereafter, he needs very little food but is constantly thirsty. How would you feel?

8. Screw with their bodies progressively.

One of the best CoC adventures, Keith Herber's "Pickman's Student" in Dreamlands, centers on a human victim who is slowly transforming into a Dreamlands monster. The PCs have reason to check on him daily for a week, but can't stop the progress. On Tuesday his body swells, on Wednesday pustules appear, by Friday they've broken to reveal "small deformed animal-like heads" that feed on the victim's flesh... and meanwhile, his attending girlfriend grows ever crazier. The general principle behind this example is left as an exercise for the gamemaster.

9. Turn their tools against them.

Atlas's action-movie RPG Feng Shui isn't usually considered a horror game, but it has its creepy aspects. Its magic-tech "arcanowave gear" is revolting but handy stuff: wet insectile eyes that stick to your forehead and tell you your enemies' injury levels; green ectoplasm that, when injected by a three-foot hypodermic, gives you a thick chitinous shell; agony grenades, helix rippers and obscenely writhing neural stimulators. These all mutate you with each use, gradually turning you into an abomination. Give your PCs grotesque yet indispensable gimmicks, and watch them grow ever more uneasy.

10. Turn them against each other -- sort of.

Don't try this in a continuing campaign, only in a one-shot adventure. At various times during the scenario, take each player aside and tell him privately that another PC is acting "a bit strange." You can describe the same behavior to each player, or invent a different one (and choose a different PC) every time. Does this have a plot-related reason? Maybe. Or maybe it doesn't matter -- it just turns up the tension knob. Just be sure your paranoid players don't blow each other away before the adventure's climax.

11. Mess with the rules.

George MacDonald again: "I always warned my players that my Halloween [superhero] adventures were different-that on Halloween their characters' super-powers, which were more or less warpings of conventional reality anyway, would behave a bit... differently. Less controllably."

What does MacDonald mean, exactly? He summarizes the technique in a word: "Cheat. Cheat broadly, openly and dramatically. Players will shout, 'There's no way that can happen under the rules!' And you say, 'True. Under the rules that you understand, there's no way that could happen.' That scares them." Recommended only after you've gained your players' solid trust -- which may prove impossible after some of the tricks above.

12. Enlarge the universe -- then show the PCs their place in it.

The real terror behind Call of Cthulhu and it's inspiration, the horror stories of H. P. Lovecraft, is not that alien monsters want our world. It's that the universe is so incomprehensibly large and old that if the monsters take Earth, so what? Humans mean nothing in the larger scheme of things.

Horror RPGs as a group have accreted gaming's finest and most diverse collection of scenarios. Maybe it's because in a horror game, you're usually a normal person facing exceptional dangers. It's easier to create tension when you know you're just a frail human -- the GM doesn't have to amp up all the encounters because you're driving a tank or something. When you figure out a clue or survive a difficult experience, it's a real thrill.

So, first play up the ordinary, then play up the extraordinary. Before long, your players will be smashing Coke bottles and backing up against the wall -- right where you want them.

Nothing scares Allen Varney! Nothing!