Horror Improved!

Running a horror campaign is very hard work. Imagine a scene where the players should be in horror, frightened, excited and then someone tells a silly joke, a mobile phone rings or your mother calls from the upper floor and asks if someone want some sandwiches. And in an instant all you’ve worked for as a GM is ruined. But there are some simple but efficient tricks to make your work as a GM easier.

  1. Turn down the lights
    I usually darken the room when we play “Call of Cthulhu” or similar games. Then I get some candles and use only them for illumination. If someone complains that he can’t read his character sheet just use more candles. Bright artificial light usually distracts from the creepy atmosphere you want to create. If you run a SF-horror campaign you can utilize a flickering neon lamp for quite a nice effect. But this should be used sparingly because it gets old fast.
  2. Creepy music
    Another easy trick is to use creepy music in the background. And by creepy I don’t mean the latest Britney Spears album! Soundtracks from movies like “A Nightmare on Elm Street” or “John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness” work great. Refrain from using music with vocal and keep the volume down. If used correctly illumination and music set the mood even before the game started.
  3. Props!
    I love using props. When playing games like “Call of Cthulhu” handing out newspaper excerpts and other handouts to the player makes the game feel more real. And this almost everytime improves the sense of horror. A friend of mine has a sheep’s skull that he sometimes brings along when he runs a game and places it in front of his GM screen. This adds a nice touch.
  4. Turn off the mobile phones
    That should be a requirement for every gaming session! Just ask your players to turn off their phones. It makes things so much easier!
  5. No eating at the gaming table
    Nothing destroys the mood faster than someone munching chips at the gaming table while the GM tries to describe the supernatural horror in all its details. Instead of having food at the table all the time, make pauses to have something to eat. During the meals turn of the lights again and let your players relax.
  6. Voice and sounds
    One way to get your players attention especially when it’s supposed to be creepy is to talk with low volume. Usually they will listen more closely (especially if you robbed them of most of their sight by turning the lights down). When something dramatic happens become louder. Some GM even shout, stand up for more effect or even use maniacal laughter (if it’s appropriate).
    In one adventure scratching sounds played an important part, so I scratched with my fingernails over the underside of the gaming table for some great effect.
  7. Don’t overdo it
    The most important advice is: don’t overdo it. If you constantly scratch under the table, flicker the lights, do creaky-door sounds all the time, it gets old fast. After a while your players will not be in fear but they will probably throw their dice at you just to make it stop. So use props, voice and sounds sparingly.

I hope these simple tricks will help you improve the mood in your horror adventures! And if you know of more tricks, please let all of us know in the comments!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

8 thoughts on “Horror Improved!”

  1. I'd had very little luck running any sort of spooky until I started using sound effects. In one FR campaign I ran, where the characters were trying desperately to escape the ruins of an alhoon's castle, they got lost in the tunnels below the castle. While going through the tunnels, I had the lights turned down, several candles lit, and on my laptop, just played a loop of dripping water, with the occasional sound effect of pattering feet in the distance. When the group was attacked by three shadows, they were appropriately freaked out, and we had a nice intense battle. However, it turned out similar scenarios later turned that into a one-trick pony, because they never worked the same way afterwards. Oh well…

  2. I remember one evening when we started to play CHILL. Our GM used music for the first time (it was the "Nightmare on Elm Street" soundtrack) in a roleplaying session and it was awesome. The music, the great adventure and our anticipation created a great atmosphere. We were almost trembling in fear the whole evening.

    The next session, when we tried to complete the adventure was a total failure though. We had almost no atmosphere, everyone was making jokes and it was very disappointing.

    I still remember the first CHILL sessions as one of the most intense roleplaying experiences I had in my life.

  3. Good advice.

    I know I've had problems when trying to establish a scarier mood when playing World of Darkness. The cell phone thing was an issue for sure, and I think I'll have some creepy music in the background next time – sound seems like a great way to go to create a good ambiance.

  4. May I ask what WoD game are you playing? Vampire, Mage, Werewolf? I have played a lot of Vampire some years back and we almost never had a scary mood. But that's perhaps because our campaign was focussed on action and intrigue.

  5. Actually, other than promethean, I believe I've played or run every WoD game including a mortal chronicle (that was easiest for horror).

    Our mage game was more of an adventure/intrigue game so that didn't really go for horror. In my last run of Changeling I tried to create a more horrific atmosphere, but the mood kept getting broken.

  6. First off, Wow! this is a SWEET looking webpage. Seriously. It looks great!

    Now for the topic, I play horror games exclusively. But I play all games like horror games. We have to be really careful about the dork factor. I do use props from time to time, such as a Ouija board, but good lighting is important, everybody needs to see their stuff, and I've got to see die rolls all the way across the table.

    More important then any sound effects or mood setting lighting is that players CARE about their characters. If they don't then you can't play. Horror games need to be more personal, and the DM has to know when to speed up the game, and when to slow it down to build tension.

    This is mind theater, we have to attack them psychologically. Isolating the characters, letting them know that they are overwhelmed and full frontal assaults will NEVER work, and keeping them running because the monsters that they are hunting are also hunting them. If you can get into their heads, then the game will work every time.

  7. Thanks a lot. But you have to praise the creator of that sweet theme for that not me. I am just the guy who types in the words. 😉

    I agree on you fully but it's much easier to get into their heads if you create the right enviroment.

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