Rain pounded against the shutters as we sat around the gaming table. The characters had just asked the mysterious, hooded figure his name. I looked down at my gaming notes.
“You can call me…” I said, slowly lifting my eyes but not my head.
“YOUR DOOM!” I sprang forward, and suddenly lightning crashed and all the lights went out.
We all jumped a foot.
I hadn’t planned it. Nature and the perversity of Italian electric wiring was on my side. With nervous laughter we all lit candles and continued to game by candlelight until the electricity went on again. But that moment was referred to over and over, one of the scariest gaming moments in my history with that gaming group. If I coulda taken credit for it myself, I would have.
Running a scary game is difficult. Fear is an uncomfortable emotion, and people instinctively try to avoid it. As soon as a game starts becoming too engaging, too tense, too spooky, players’ defensive mechanisms kick in. One of them will make a corny joke, and suddenly everybody will laugh with relief that the mood has been broken. The fear settles; everything has been put back into the proper perspective. And the GM silently damns the joking player to a thousand agonizing deaths.
Of course, it isn’t always the players who break the mood. A phone ringing can do it. A mother, sibling, pet, or roommate walking in can do it. Loud noises from the street can do it. Even being too scary will do it—as soon as you’ve made the players start, immediately defensive laughter will kick in, and the mood is lost again.
What’s a GM to do? How can a GM create a spooky mood for a scary RPG session?
Ambiance, player cooperation, and GM roleplaying are all necessary to create a spooky RPG. The GM has fairly good control over the first and third, and the second can be established with willing, enthusiastic gamers.
Humans are hardwired to find certain things disturbing, and the GM should take advantage of this. First, darkness is a fundamental source of discomfort for almost everybody. Plan your spooky RPG for evening or find a room in which the light can be blocked out (most department stores sell black-out shades, or you can make your own by tacking a dark blanket over the windows). Turn off all large lights. The GM should have a small desk lamp to read by, preferably the kind that will cast eerie shadows over the GM’s profile. Candles can be set in the center of the table to provide dim lighting for players to read their dice by. I suggest getting covered lanterns or electric candles for this, to avoid any accidents involving open flame and too many papers on the table. Inexpensive candles can be bought almost anywhere, including most grocery stores, and black iron candlesticks are also fairly easy to find. If you anticipate that players will need more light, consider buying some emergency glow sticks from your local hardware or auto supply store—they cast an unnatural green light strong enough to read with but not bright enough to ruin the mood.
Second, props can help build a mood. Even doing nothing more than throwing swaths of black fabric over your furniture and non-gaming piles of stuff can help reduce the number of visual distractions and make everything look darker. If you have money to spend, drop by Alchemy for some inspiration. Halloween is an excellent time to shop for props; Halloween costume and accessory shops are gamer candy stores. Pick up fake weapons (good for props year-round), skulls, gargoyles, even some of those foam tombstones (write the player characters’ names on them!). You can decide how elegant or cheesy you want to get; elegance usually works better for real spookiness, even though it costs more.
Third, music can be invaluable. Instrumental scores from horror movies are best. Avoid soundtracks that include vocals, unless they’re uniformly creepy vocals. Classical music is also a bit difficult to work with, since it often changes mood and volume; unless you know the work well, don’t use it for spooky games. Modern movie scores are more consistent.
Fourth, eliminating outside noise is important. If you live with others who aren’t in the game, ask them to please refrain from making much noise or coming in while you’re gaming, or try to find another place to game for that session. Turn your phone’s volume down or unplug it entirely. Ask your players to remove and turn off their phones and pagers, or to at least keep them on buzz if they’re expecting an emergency call. Keep the TV and computers off. You can’t do too much about outside noise, but using your music as “white noise” to help drown out the neighbors can help, as can using a white noise generator set to something appropriate, like “rain” or “thunderstorm.”
To carry off a scary game, you must get your players’ cooperation. Don’t be afraid to explain to them that you’re trying to set a mood for this session and want them to help you out. Some good ground rules are to ask them to try to avoid breaking the mood with jokes or out-of-character comments, to silence their phones, and to concentrate on their roleplaying. Ask them to make their refrigerator and bathroom runs quietly. Most mature players won’t mind these requests at the beginning of a game, and will want to help you create a memorable gaming experience. If you promise extra rewards for good roleplaying (experience points or whatever your RPG system uses), that also helps.
If a player breaks the mood, don’t complain about it but, within a minute or two, refocus their attention on the game. You might want to repeat what you were saying right before the mood was broken just to “suture” the break in mood.
The most important factor in creating and maintaining a spooky mood, however, is you, the GM. Many skilled GMs fall into an automatic-drive mode where they’re thinking several steps ahead, processing character actions and planning reactions rather than concentrating on the here-and-now of the game. This intellectualization is fine for most games, but when your goal is to build emotion, then you must slow down and concentrate on the game moment-by-moment rather than mentally rushing ahead.
Providing thorough descriptions helps paint a picture in the players’ minds. Take a minute to describe the scene, and don’t forget all five senses. Describe not only what is seen, but what is smelled, heard, tasted, and felt. You can write these descriptions out beforehand if you want, but don’t read them off a sheet of paper—describe them as if you were a player character standing there, relating what you are experiencing.
If you find it hard to slow down and concentrate on descriptions, set a watch behind your GM’s screen and force yourself to spend a full 30 to 60 seconds describing the scene.
Sitting back and distancing yourself from the players is a mood-reducer; leaning forward and putting yourself into the players’ personal bubbles is a mood-intensifier. Look at the players when you speak. Lean forward slightly, so you can drop your voice slightly. Catch a player’s eyes and hold the gaze a few moments longer than is comfortable. Silently count to five or 10 as you do, so that you don’t look away too quickly. We’ve all been trained to respect others’ space; breaking those rules helps make the players uncomfortable and edgy.
Concentrate on the nonplayer characters you are playing. Again, slow down, stop thinking ahead, and put yourself into that NPC’s shoes just as if you were an actor. Use your voice and hands to create memorable signature vocal or physical gestures that will bring the character to life. Sob, chuckle, raise your voice, lower it, snarl, stutter. Get up from your chair, just for this session, and act. Touch the players. Again, that invades their personal bubbles, makes it uncomfortable for them. Touch their shoulders as you roleplay the earnest NPC. Caress their hair or cheek as you play the romantic or threatening NPC. Thrust your face into theirs as you play the insane or aggressive NPC. Pace back and forth around the table as you play the lecturing NPC. Use your pencils and sodas as props if they’re appropriate. The idea is to reinforce the game’s illusion by intensely becoming the NPCs for a few minutes, and to increase the players’ discomfort by giving them a taste of what their characters are feeling as the NPC touches or stares at them. Do be careful, of course, to make sure that you don’t touch a player who will react violently—respect personal boundaries.
…There’s no easy way to create and maintain a spooky mood in a roleplaying game, but these tips ought to get you started. After that, hope for a thunderstorm and bad wiring.
Originally written October 27, 2000
Image Source: The Red Fairy Book, 1890