Horror games are difficult to run. This was a post I wrote on RPGNET back in 2008, but it's still might have something worth sharing in here...
The truth is, that the reason horror games don't work most of the time,
is that systems designed for horror games, simply by definition, do not
allow a gm to create horror. A horror game is premised around making
the characters afraid. We fear what we don't understand. If you are
running Cthulhu, or dungeons and dragons, or vampire, or dark
metropolis, or whatever..... you can't scare the players, because they
know what to expect the second they look through the rule book.
Monsters are statted out, and any player who has played in that system
more than a week will have a pretty good grasp of what to expect from
the system, and thus be impervious to actual fear.
You want to run a horror campaign, you have to hit the players with something unknown.
If you actually want to play a horror game, don't play Cthulhu, play a
system that doesn't have rules for supernatural elements at all. Play
it for several sessions so that the players get comfortable with the
world, and feel they have a grasp on what is going on. Then, out of
nowhere, start introducing the unknown... doesn't have to be anything
actually supernatural, but if you give players the idea it is, then they
will be caught completely off guard.
That's the first part of the illusion..... the second part is..... don't
show them the monster. Seriously.... this is the basic premise of all
the best horror movies. Once you put a face on something, no matter how
horrific, it becomes less frightening because you can now relate to it.
You can't talk about how the mere sight of the horror drives men mad,
and then show them a picture of Cthulhu, because while hideous, it's
simply not that scary....
Let that unknown fear build and build, until the climax, then and only
then can you show them what they are up against...... because you will
only have a brief period of time before the "shock" wears off, and they
stop reacting like people in a movie theater watching, and start
thinking like players again, thinking in terms of strategy and
tactics... that's simply the mindset that these games instill. You
don't have to railroad the players, and in fact doing so completely
removes the effect. You also don't need to attack the players
directly.... just create the suggestion that at any moment something
terrifying is going to happen. You have to create suspense.
Case in point. I have been running Cyberpunk 2020 since 1989.... at no
point have I EVER allowed super powers, magic, psionics, or the
supernatural to corrupt my game. My players know this, they understand
this, and they respect it.
A few years ago, during a nomad campaign, the characters were sent in as
part of the crew to rebuild Chicago, which had laid waste by a plague
and left to rot... They were told of strange happenings around the
sears tower, other nomads talking of it as if it were cursed, people disappearing from the area, and that anyone who dared enter was never
seen again. They talk of odd lights, and eerie noises.....
The characters were offered generous reward to go into the tower and clear it so reconstruction could begin.
As the characters went in, it was described how immediately the quality
of air changed, as they began to explore each level, things got
progressively weirder the higher up they went... (I will fully admit
that I used the oldest trick in the book, and we played in the dark,
flashlights used only for necessity like rolling dice, trips to the
They began hearing a distant whistling, they noticed small things, like
dried blood smeared on the walls, and all the wires in the building had
been removed, taken out of walls, ceilings, and from electronic devices,
etc... As they went up higher they noticed all these little fetishes
made in the shape of a man made out of wire, hanging from the ceiling,
in doorways, etc...
Higher up still they would come across walls or mounds made entirely
from rodent skulls. The blood on the walls was no longer just smeared
but some kind of crazy gibberish writing...
They get up to the fiftieth floor, just as the sun is setting, they
start coming down a long hallway that runs from one side of the building
to the other, with a fierce wind blowing through, in the middle of the
hallway, silhouetted by the sun behind it, seemingly suspended in mid
air, is what looks like a huge body, arms and legs spread out wide,
bloated, little things, that look like worms seems to be moving all over
it , and the whole hallway is filled with a loud eerie wailing...
The players themselves, not just the characters, as so afraid and
nervous, that they spend a full hour peeking at this thing from around
the corner, one of them shoots it and the "body" shakes in mid-air and
the wind and howling increase....
Finally one of the players can't take it anymore and rushes it, only to
find that the "body" itself is nothing more than a huge version of one
of the wire fetishes, supported by fine wire holding it in place... The
"fetish" itself was creating the wailing, as wind whipped over and
through the wires that made up its body
Things continued like this, with the entire situation getting weirder and weirder... till one of the NPC's that was with them disappears.... then
They hear screams and watch from a window as one of the NPC's is thrown
with incredible force from the building from the floor above, screaming
his head off as he flies towards the ground only to dissapear in the fog
that has crept in around the city...
They ever so slowly go up to the next floor, only to find another,
smaller fetish, similarly suspended in a hallway.... immediately they
think it to be harmless and continue towards it, only for it to start
moving and shaking on its own.... again the players themselves are
surprised and actually scared and begin shooting the fetish.... this
time it bleeds and screams.... they unload on it... they get up to it,
and realize, its the other NPC, wrapped in wire, and suspended in
At his point one of the players, demands I turns the lights on or he is
going home.... when I do he is sitting in the chair visibly shaking....
That moment.... that very precise moment..... is what I consider my
absolute crowning achievement in running a game. To illicit a real
world player response to the game and what is happening to his
character. I have never been able to top it, and my players still talk
about it to this day as the best single session they have ever taken
part in, I have heard from strangers who game how my players bragged on
me about that session...
I am not saying this because I am wanting to toot my own horn, though I
know it sounds like I am. I am saying that to achieve that effect, you
have to hit the players with something they simply had no way of
expecting. The essence of horror is the unexpected, the unknown....
And in games where the players know they are in a horror setting, that
is almost impossible.
Just like your villain can't make a character fear for his life by
holding a knife to a PC's throat using 2nd edition D&D rules
(because the player knows that the villain can't do enough damage in a
single round to kill them), you can't scare the players in a game where
they know what to expect. Just like once you have seen one Freddy Kruger movie (if that sort of thing scares you) then even if you were
scared the first time, you will never be scared by it again because you
know what is going to happen.
The key to a horror game is creating fear, not just for the characters,
but for the players themselves. If you go to a horror movie, and it
doesn't scare you, it has failed at its purpose... not saying it isn't a
good movie, just that it didn't accomplish what it was supposed to do.
The same is true for running a horror game, the desired outcome should
be to instill fear.
And in the end, it doesn't have to have any supernatural or superhuman
elements at all..... it just matters that the players don't know that.
The sears tower thing turned out to just be bat-shit crazy survivors of
the plague, which were still scary at the time, but nothing supernatural
about them, even though my players during the game were POSITIVE that
they were dealing with something beyond the pale...