Roleplayer #17, November 1989

Scaring Your Players

Ten Tips for GURPS Horror

by Scott Paul Maykrantz

Horror roleplaying is different from other gaming genres. The excitement of the adventure is based on more than action or heroism – the fun is based primarily on fear. And while being scared can be fun, the Game Master's job of scaring the players isn't; this can be hard work, especially if you don't know how. The ideas in this article may help.

Use any of the following methods during the adventure, when the players are getting too relaxed. As you read, try to think of new ways to implement these ideas, expanding on the examples.

Concentrate on scaring the players. If they are scared, we can safely assume their characters are, too. If just thinking about being pulled underwater by a dozen slimy hands is frightening, imagine the terror if it really happened to you . . .

Try to tap into each player's personal fears. What are they really scared of? As you play a few adventures, note which of these methods work best and which players had the most significant reactions. When you are preparing the next adventure, use the methods that worked well.

One: Victims

Put the characters at the mercy of a force or thing that they don't completely understand. Make sure they know that the force or thing can easily kill them. The players will have to make good use of their characters' abilities and roleplay a little as they try to find a way out their situation before it's too late.

For example, imagine your players' reaction if their characters are on a plane and they look out the windows to see a boiling ocean of blood below them. Then, when they alert the other passengers or a stewardess, everyone else turns into decaying corpses! Pilot corpses are flying the plane. Will the plane crash? Where are they? Where are they going to land?

Either way, the player characters probably can't fly a huge jet aircraft (or maybe they just can't get into the cockpit). They'll be scared because they can't take control of the situation – and the situation isn't easy to understand. The players don't know what's going to happen and their characters are powerless to save themselves.

Two: What Should Have Happened . . . Doesn't

Break some natural laws. When someone dies, they are supposed to stay dead. When a book burns, it should be reduced to ashes after a few minutes. The moon is not supposed to slide down from the sky and sink into the sea. Night is supposed to be followed by day . . .

You don't have to break natural laws on a grand scale. Try something subtle, like a candle that burns forever. Or, every time the train stops at a station, the PCs see the same man outside the window, staring at them. And you don't have to explain the event – let that man at the station slip away if one of PCs gets out of the train to confront him.

If you allow the PCs to examine these strange occurrences, be prepared to have a reason (even a supernatural reason) for them. If you explain them, they become part of the adventure. If you don't, they'll simply make the players a little uneasy. Decide which result you want.

Three: The Mockery

A psycho killer dressed as a priest. A clown by day who leads a fanatical cult by night. Grandma is a witch. And your local senator is an agent of the Cabal.

If you can avoid offending your players, dress up your worst evil people as wholesome, good people. Think of stereotypes that make people feel secure or protected. Or use a stereotype of someone who has a lot of power. Or simply choose a type of person who is the least likely to be a supernatural, evil being.

Take the stereotype and use it as the outer appearance of an evil creature or twisted NPC – the NPC or creature is wearing a disguise. The players will be fooled, then terrified when they realize the true nature of the evil being.

The sheer shock of this realization will always be scary, but you can add to that shock by letting the players build some trust and familiarity with the disguised being. Suppose the player characters stay at Grandpa's house. Everything seems normal, there are no unusual incidents, and they suspect nothing. Imagine their surprise when they see Grandpa standing in the field outside the house the next night wailing at the sky in an inhuman tongue while small black shapes scurry around his ankles.

The mockery can also be in the form of a tattered, completely ineffective disguise. Imagine that a demon has possessed a six-year-old child – the child now has six-inch-long, black fingernails and is wearing the tattered, blood-caked remains of a school uniform. The demon is not trying to hide its true nature, but the contrast of a nice boy and a Beast from Below has a potent eerie shock value.

Four: The NPC That Knows Too Much

When the PCs meet a supernatural enemy non-player character, you can scare the players when the NPC mentions something he (or she, or it) shouldn't know. Suppose the PCs confront an evil scientist, a twisted man they will meet again in the adventure. He vaguely describes what is going to happen to them during the next few days, then predicts their death in 48 hours. As his predictions come true, the players will be terrified as they approach the end of the second day!

In the above example, the NPC talks of future events. But you can also scare the players when a mysterious NPC speaks of past events that have actually happened. The PCs run into an old woman on the street (or, better yet, in the middle of nowhere). She singles out one of the PCs and mentions a few things about his past. She may even mention something that he does not want his friends to know about (a character with the Secret disadvantage is particularly vulnerable). And the old woman doesn't have to just recount past events – she might ask about motivations for past actions. "Why did you push her off the cliff, young man? The others will soon find out."

Of course, in both versions, the GM must decide whether to explain how the NPC came to have this knowledge. You can either allow them to be explained (to move the plot forward) or force the PCs to continue on before they can examine what happened (which adds to the element of fear and mystery).

Five: Supernatural Phenomenon

Present a supernatural person, creature, place or item that the players are not familiar with. Then make it imperative that they figure out what it is and what it can do.

For example, let's say the PCs are traveling and get lost. It is very important that they get to where they are going in time. So, when they meet a young girl who tells them she can show them the way, they take her along. She seems normal until, when the group stops for the night, she wanders off and doesn't come back until dawn. Or suppose, when she is with the PCs around their campfire, she is terrified by the flames. Or she might sit far from the fire wearing only a pair of shorts and T-shirt when it is five degrees outside!

The PCs have to figure out what this girl is. Her actions and behavior keep everyone on edge, especially at night. But they can't simply leave her – they need her to show them the way. And is she leading them in the right direction?

Six: Shock

Surprise! Hit them with something they are not expecting. Make it big, a real attention-getter. When they are creeping through the graveyard, they are expecting something to jump out at them. But they aren't expecting anything when they are walking down the street in the middle of the afternoon.

Suppose the characters are doing just that. Suddenly, from the alleys and manholes, a thick, gray muck erupts and fills the street! Although it will later be explained to be a sewage backup, the player characters mentally feel a telepathic consciousness in the muck. The PCs are the only witnesses when an old lady is swallowed by the muck and dissolved. They felt the muck's telepathic laughter and the "mental sound" of smacking lips as she went under . . .

Catch the players off-guard. There are times in every adventure when the players will have maneuvered their characters into a safe place. They'll stop and collect their wits. Don't let them. Make every safe situation worse than the dangerous situation they just escaped from. If you can keep it up, they'll have the most exciting adventure of their life – the essence of the adventure – fear – will always be with them.

Seven: Nightmares

This will add some excitement to the adventure when players let their characters get involved in some boring tasks (such as researching or traveling).

Stop everything and tell them, "Suddenly, you wake up in a coffin, looking up out of a grave. You hear a priest giving last rites. A spoonful of dirt falls on your face." Or come up with another grisly, frightening situation that has nothing to do with what they were doing a few seconds ago. What happened? There they were, safe as could be, and now they're in coffins! Let them climb out and run into all kinds of weird and terrifying things for a while.

Then they wake up. Tell them that they resolved the boring tasks they were involved in (or fell asleep while they were working), they went to bed, and they had this nightmare. If you told them, "You go to bed and have a nightmare," it wouldn't be half as fun. The players will be a little disoriented for the rest of the adventure – when something terrifying happens, they might wonder if their characters aren't having another nightmare.

This device is used in horror fiction, especially movies. The nightmare begins with no introduction – you don't know how the character got from his seat on the train to this mist-filled forest until he suddenly sits up in his seat covered with sweat. The dream may even foreshadow events to come.

You might have to decide exactly whose dream it was – or maybe all of the PCs had the same dream! You can involve all of the PCs by putting them into one character's nightmare. The dreaming PC dreams that the other PCs are with him.

Eight: Impending Doom

Let someone or something close to the adventurers get killed, possessed or otherwise injured in some grisly manner. The players will soon realize that their characters could be next. If they know where the attack came from, they will be on edge until they can escape, find a way to protect themselves, or eliminate the attacker. If they don't know where the attack came from or how to save themselves, they will be terrified. Try this when the suspense and mental tension of the adventure is outweighing the physical action.

For example, suppose the PCs are creeping through a graveyard. They find a young woman hiding behind a gravestone, scared out of her wits. She babbles something about a soul-eating shadow and then, right on cue, a thick black shape materializes. It wraps around her and chokes her screams away by melting her flesh from her bones! What is this shadow? Which of the PCs will be next?

Nine: Pauses and New Fears

Pause for a moment when the tension is high, the suspense is nerve wracking, and the players have a lot to stimulate their imagination. If the moment is right, every second will generate new fears.

For example, suppose our heroes are exploring a dark, ancient tomb. They've managed to fall into a pit and fight off a swarm of hungry bats. They know that, in just an hour, the Thing buried in this tomb will rise to destroy humanity. But they're starting to think they are lost. You've got them right where you want them. Introduce lots of minor problems to stimulate their imagination.

For example, the PCs are exploring a dark, ancient subterranean tomb. One of the PCs trips and falls when his foot drops through the stone floor. The players didn't know there was empty space under them, they thought they were surrounded by earth in these subterranean passages. If they shine a light through the hole, they see something down there reflecting the light a little bit. They can't pry up any more pieces of the floor (or maybe the floor feels a little treacherous after that chunk fell out). Force the PCs to keep moving, leaving this mystery unsolved.

Suppose someone bumps an old statue and it falls over and breaks on the floor. Then a howl is heard echoing in the tomb. Did some sort of smoke come out the hollow statue, or was that just a spray of ancient dust? Keep the adventure moving.

You never have to explain any of these minor mysteries. As long as you keep the adventure moving along, the players won't spend time finding answers to their questions. This keeps them guessing and scared. If they spend a lot of time trying to figure things out, introduce some new suspenseful threat to keep them on the move.

Ten: The Unseen Shape

If the characters can't see some threatening shape clearly, the shape will look more frightening in the players' minds' eye than anything you can describe. This is one of the reasons horror stories were so potent on radio – the visual information from television and movies was missing, forcing the audience to dream up the appearance of the creature. Vague, threatening forms passing through the fog are terrifying.

Make effective use of all the players' senses except sight. Describe a sound or a smell. Throw in something physical to touch that the shape left behind, like a trail of slime or a hole smashed in a wall. The idea is to give the player plenty of information to feed the imagination – without a detailed description.

Make sure the sounds, smells, evidence and vague visual descriptions do not fit together logically. Suppose you describe a silhouetted humanoid form walking into a lake under the moonlight – the form, seen by the PCs from far down the beach, steadily walks into the water until it disappears under the waves. The players run to the spot on the beach where it walked. They find normal human footprints. That's it.

This could be a lot more frightening. Instead, when the PCs reach the spot where the humanoid once was, they don't find any footprints. But they smell the bitter stench of rotten seaweed. They find some evidence – a large, rubbery egg that is broken and half buried in the sand a several yards away. The egg is large enough to hold a full-grown man. As they examine it, they hear a low, inhuman moan come from lake. They think they see the wake of something, some large thing, swimming away.

(Back to Roleplayer #17 Table of Contents)

Copyright © 1997-2014 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved.

Steve Jackson Games | GURPS | Roleplayer Index