Maintaining the Horror Campaign – Chapter 3
Taking Players out of their Comfort Zone
Maintaing the Horror Campaign is a series of articles intended to not only make your players afraid of the dark, but to keep them in a state of fear through the length of a campaign. The Introduction , Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 can both be read at their respective links. In today’s article, we’ll be discussing props, and where and when they’ll be best applied in your game.
Demon: I’m not Regan.
Father Karras: Well, then let’s introduce ourselves. I’m Damien Karras.
Demon: And I’m the Devil. Now kindly undo these straps.
Father Karras: If you’re the Devil, why not make the straps disappear?
Demon: That’s much too vulgar a display of power, Karras.
– from, The Exorcist
The players enter a crypt. There are skeletons there. The players attack them. Congratulations! You’ve just told a basic encounter! Was this encounter a good building block to a horror campaign? Not at all!
It’s true; Good horror is not about the trappings, but the experience. Vampires, in and of themselves, aren’t scary. After all, they’re also well known for counting and offering us a chocolate-y part of a balanced breakfast. Even a good vampire story is not the beginning or end of a horror campaign. Why? Because you are in control of the story, not the players. A spooky story invests the Game Master in a horror campaign. That’s a good start, but what you need is to invest the players in your game. And, since you can’t force your player to take an emotional investment to your story, you will need to find ways to convince players that they wish to invest themselves in their character’s story.
I know I’m being a bit redundant here, but I’m going to plug Dungeon Mastering Horror: Tips on making your Halloween D&D game memorable one last time. I swear, no more after that. But, I’m mentioning it here because this is the exact sort of scenario that Josh is trying to establish. All the candles and music that he mentions is a means to put your players in the mood to play. It’s funny how our senses work. We are so used to relying on our sense of sight, that it becomes the most common medium on how we express the world around us. Our other senses aren’t muted while we look at our environment, though. They’re always active and collecting information, even when we aren’t paying conscious attention to them. All it takes is a little stimulation, like the tinkling of wind chimes, or the smell of the ocean, and we are suddenly on our grandmother’s front porch, creaking back and forth in a warped, peeling rocking chair; or trying to snag your hand through your dried out hair that’s flirting with the sea breeze, while wanting more gelato on this Fourth of July weekend.
Josh mentions a number of scents and sounds to kick your players in the butt, and get the wheels in their heads turning. One thing that many Game Masters don’t realise, though, is that the sort of stimulation we’re looking for here doesn’t need to be “spooky”, it just needs to make players feel out of their element. Many great horror stories are based on this concept: Get the audience uncomfortable so that they are open to scaring themselves. Let’s take “The Exorcist”, for example. The scene that most people take away from that movie is of a young girl possessed by a devil, locked in a battle of wills with two priests attempting an exorcism. It is a dramatic and visceral movie moment, but all of the action takes place in the last fifth of the movie. If all the good stuff happens at the end of the movie, why do we bother to slog through the first four-fifths of the movie? Why not just fast forward to the good stuff?
The reason is that we can’t appreciate the ‘good parts’ of this movie, without all the details that set up the last fifth of the movie. Father Karras doubts his faith while dealing with his mother’s terminal illness. Something unexplainable is wrong with Regan McNeil, who has seizures, which doctors attribute to puberty, but can’t find out what is wrong with her. In a very striking scene, Regan comes downstairs in her nightgown while her mother is hosting a party. As guests look on, Regan looks beyond the company as she pees through her bedclothes and onto the carpet.
What is the point of that scene? The scene itself isn’t scary, but it places a response in the audience of revulsion and confusion. We don’t know why Reagan is acting this way, but we know that she shouldn’t. This lack of understanding disturbs movie goers, while leaving them more sensitive toward the plot in a desire to get answers. Later, when the plot becomes more fantastic, the audience is more involved because they have opened themselves up to possibilities, and are willing to suspend their disbelief because they are being lead toward a conclusion.
In this same way, we can lead players to make themselves more scared when exposed to terrifying plots, by using sounds and smells that engage their senses. But, we don’t have to stand guard at the usual trappings of cotton ball cobwebs and listless chamber music. In fact, depending on the player, using ‘spooky’ sights and sounds that your players are comfortable with may do you more harm than good. A much better idea would be to engage your players in a visceral manner that leaves them uncomfortable, confused and wanting answers. You may want to try any and all of these suggestions:
- Remove the table and the miniatures.
- Remove the Game Master screen and sit with the players.
- Stop rolling dice. Choose to dictate the action more often. Ask your players to do the same.
- Do something physical as part of the adventure. Hand over props, or Prepare and/or eat a meal as part of the adventure.
- Include setting appropriate sounds and smells, but not necessarily spooky ones. Bring in fresh hay, if the setting is in an agrarian culture, or find a moldy scent if the game takes place in a sewer. Play a recording of crickets, or of a bustling lumberyard. Aim to awaken the senses, as opposed to deaden them with the expected.
- Get the players out of their chairs. Make them walk around reenacting certain scenes.
- Get out of your usual game room, and take the game somewhere unexpected. Hold the game in a musty basement, an old warehouse or out in the woods.
Click here to move onto Chapter 4, and when we talk about killing your darling players. Until then, avoid conversations with the demon. You may ask what is relevant but anything beyond that is dangerous… He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us… So don’t listen to him. Remember that – do not listen.