Monday, October 31, 2011

What Frightens Players?

Jason's Grim Reaper
One of my neighbors puts up this massive grim reaper every year for Halloween. It is quite epic. He detailed the original construction on his blog, but he modifies it a bit each year. Thanks for bringing the Halloween spirit every year, Jason!

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!


  1. This is an excellent post. Thank you! I love Halloween and I like to be frightened. Interestingly enough, even though I tend to play horror games, I’m rarely creeped out.

    You mention Lovecraft. I’ve read a lot more Lovecraft in the last few months, but my heart still belongs to Poe. Lovecraft wrote a piece on Supernatural Horror in Literature that I have yet to read although I printed it out (I should try that again.) Here it is….

    The first line, to me, says it all…….”The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

    For me in a game, first of all, I’m afraid of the unknown. If I’m being led somewhere and I have NO IDEA what is going on, that is scary. If I know that I could die, than that is even scarier. I’m still in the early part of Call of Cthulhu, but it looks like, in that game, characters just turn and run a lot. That’s because they are vulnerable and THAT is scary. Of course, a good Keeper needs to make sure that the fear is not offset by a sense of utter despair that you can’t do ANYTHING and are completely powerless.

    I think that this comes to a question I’ve been wondering about as well. To me, world-building is one thing….atmosphere is another. You have to weave atmosphere with your voice and your storytelling ability. Evoking silence, whispers, etc. World-building can be just showing a map sometimes. Nothing wrong with that, but atmosphere, to me is different. (Although….I will admit that Lovecraft creates creepy worlds. Dunwich and Innsmouth for example. Ewwww!) Sometimes props might work, although there are players that would roll their eyes at that.

    I think the darkness is frightening. I’ve been in one game in which the lights were suddenly turned out. It startled the players, but the game was badly run and people were suspecting something was going to happen anyway, but I thought it was an awesome idea. Sudden confusion!

    I know two instances in which I was really creeped out. One was in 4e D&D when the DM led us to a large mountain, I think, and his NPC was so taciturn and just kept going further and further and wouldn’t say a word. I was creeped out because I didn’t know where he was leading us. He also used flute music as background music to transport us to the Abyss. That worked in that particular instance because it was a haunting atmosphere and very unusual music. Music must be used very sparingly. That’s why I’m NOT a fan of putting on music every time there’s combat.

    Another time I was creeped out was my first trip to the Underworld on my first Geist game ever. The ST is very articulate with an amazing vocabulary. He was able to paint a picture of darkness and real depravity. The other players, knowing that they were in dangerous territory, were suitably tense as well because they knew they could expect anything from him and didn’t really know what could happen.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Anna. If I read your intent correctly, you find that the creepiest stuff is often a mood or atmosphere created by the person running the game through their vocabulary and intonation.

    Given all the great horror stories and poems out there, no doubt those of us who are GMing should have plenty of resources to help in this regard. Edgar Allan Poe (as you mention) and others, for example.

    On a cheesy note, I'm reminded of a sound-effects collection we had when I was a kid called "William Castle's Ghost Story" (you can find some info about it here: It was something my Dad always piped through the speakers into our front yard at Halloween. I think building haunted houses in my friend's garage was my real introduction to dungeon mastering.

  3. I don't think sound effects are cheesy at all! I have them on my IPod. I think they're great! I do think soundtracks are great too. But I think props and other effects must be used very, very sparingly or else people come to expect them....THEN they seem cheesy. In horror, I think, less is always more (oddly enough, there's a discussion occuring on my Google+ account on this very topic). It's the anticipation of what's possibly out there that's creepy, not the actual monster.

    But, yes, for me, the mood and atmosphere must start with the GM. It's like when you tell a scary story, you tell it differently than when you tell a normal, everyday story. That tension starts with the teller and then everyone else usually picks up on it. And the more unnerved/moved the GM is by their own story, the more the players should be too (theoretically.....)

    But that's just one person's opinion....
    Happy Halloween!!!