|Jason's Grim Reaper|
Driving or walking by the thing at night, lit by a blood-red floodlight, is a creepy experience. What would it be like as an adventurer to meet something on that scale? What scares you as a player? Large creatures? Supernatural beings? Atmospheric events? I’m always on the lookout for things that will scare players, but I feel like that is one realm of gaming at which I’ve rarely been successful.
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
— H.P Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu"
As Lovecraft points out, there are a lot of black depths in our minds. Black depths that hold untold horrors. How do we tap those “dissociated “ horrors and bring them to “deadly light” at the gaming table?
For some players, terror comes in the form of the assassin in the dark. A near-mystical force of death that slays and vanishes without a trace. A couple of the characters in my Sunday group have quit their local thieves’ guild and begun freelancing as a security company. At first the guild sent one or two of the characters’ friends to remind them of their duties. Later, they sent a pair of enforcers in an attempt to strongarm the characters back into the guild. Finally, when it was clear the characters were done with the guild, the guildmaster hired an assassin to finish the business.
I rarely throw encounters at my players that include unbeatable monsters. But, the jester (assassin) that walked into the common room of the Slovenly Imp was quickly identified as a foe and attacked. It became apparent that even the best attacks of the party weren’t hitting. A critical hit actually did some damage, but it appeared minimal. There was some grumbling around the table, and awkward silences, and much shuffling of character sheets. (This is one of my gripes with 4e D&D, upon which my home-brew system is based. Players often look to their sheets first instead of consulting the evidence of the situation in front of them. But I digress.)
Were they afraid? Large chunks of hit points vanished quickly from characters that were hit. An NPC who had been hired to help (and who told them upfront that he would not fight the assassin, but only his henchmen) fled as soon as it was apparent that the assassin was alone, with no easy minions to aid him. But, did this scenario invoke terror? Not much, I think. The players grumbled a bit about it. I maintained that I had given plenty of clues about the coming bloodbath. And, when they engineered a creative escape plan, I allowed it to happen largely unhindered. Had the assassin failed, thus ruining his own reputation? Who knows what the repercussions of the encounter were, and as the party skulked in the sewers for the next few sessions, what happened above them on the streets is largely unknown. Are they afraid of what is to come? Hard to say.
So, at best, the overwhelming encounter had mixed success in frightening my players. Perhaps I need to rely on more atmospheric elements. I had a great time a while back with a take on the Feywild (or Faewild, as I prefer to call it in my campaign.) The idyllic scene was fractured by war. Imagery evoked by modern, mechanically-based combat such as detonations, overhead barrages, and the chaos of fleeing civilians mixed with skirmishers, was used to bring the horrors of war to their immediate awareness. This was not the orderly line of elves swinging their synchronous swords against a horde of orcs. It was the madness of war, and quick choices to be made: Help the refugees, or aid the soldiers at the strongpoint?
The atmosphere of the Faewild magnified everything, both the urgent surge of life to remain living, and the elemental forces of destruction seeking to end it. Scary in a different way, I suppose.
Finally, for one of my groups I’ve drawn on the creeping horrors that H.P. Lovecraft brought to un-life so well. I’ve hinted at a “terrifying vista”, a reality twisted from our own, yet invading with some as-yet-unknown purpose. Slithering in through the dark recesses below our cities and wastelands. My hope is that, as the scope of this story unfolds, my players will learn to fear it. But I’m wary of lingering too long with one source of fear. A few years ago I ran a campaign that was designed to be an epic struggle between my players and the drow in a megadungeon that was described as the sunken library of Alexandria, hidden beneath the streets of an alternative-history version of that city. What I thought was frightening, the dark and twisted culture of the drow, my players just found annoying. They grew weary of it all and the campaign eventually collapsed.
What I learned from that is to vary my sources more. A single monolithic evil such as Sauron in the Lord of the Rings is all but invincible to most PCs, and therefore does little to generate fear directly. But smaller horrors, in varied forms, seem more likely to frighten my players.
I’d love to hear what other players and GMs have found frightening. Share your stories here, if you will. Happy Halloween, all!