How to scare your players

So last week we talked about why you might want to add a dash of terror to your games, so now let's talk about some ways to do just that. Making your game scary is very difficult as I've talked about in the past,  but here are a few good ways to get started.

Challenge: This method I've covered already a little bit. Make the players feel outmatched and threatened. I don't just mean the sort of general feeling of being weaker than someone, like standing near an important or powerful npc or person. I mean have something far deadlier than the players trying to kill them. An ancient vampire prince against their new turned whelp. A retired boxer in the presence of an ancient writhing horror from beyond the shadow of the world. A low level hero being chased by a raging T-rex. This is a situation where it's actually a good idea to try to use metagame knowledge against the players. That player who memorized the monster manuals is going to be way more scared of a monster 8 cr higher than them. A world of Darkness veteran is not going to handle the presence of something called a "True fey" nearly as well as a first timer. Of course, it should be said, don't get your players into a situation like this without at least two good ways to get them out alive!

The disturbing: Frightening and spooky imagery and symbolism are abundant in horror based media, and for good reason; they work. The little things, the things the players can't explain, can't really get a grip on, the things for which there is no answer are often the most haunting. When the ranger on watch realizes the night has gone utterly silent, there's nothing they can do but wait. When the hunter preparing to face the vampire prince  finds even fresh milk curdles in his coffee, it can only be taken as a grim omen. There are no limits to the number of creepy and haunting events. One of my favourite books, Heroes of horror, has a huge abundance of them, but almost any good horror media has plenty to work from. The important thing is that these small bits of mood setting don't become quantifiable, identifiable, and overpowering. If the Hunter spends an entire day trying to figure out why his coffee curdles, you've sidetracked the big battle. Likewise the ranger who goes out looking for animals should be promptly redirected back to their watch (possibly after a long enough search that something slipped past)

The unknown: People, and especially players, fear what they do not understand. Nothing is more sinister than being acutely informed of how little you know. This can be anything from a pitch black room, to knowing something invisible is watching, to having just enough information to know something changed. A protagonist walks across the room in the dim light only to stub their toe on their end table. They know without a doubt that it has been moved, but no one should have been inside. A cough in an empty room. A single subspace radio signal stating only "do not proceed.".  Being injected or slipped something before the culprit escapes. There are any number of ways to create a sharp sense of dread and terror just by creating a simple X factor for the players to worry about. Their imagination will always be better at scaring them than you could ever be.

The unexpected: Sometimes all it takes is a shock to put some fear in a players heart. An enemy, neither exceptionally challenging, nor disturbing, nor unknown can still become quite a terror when found under one's bed. Something sudden, something unexpected that deviates from the plan is a spectacular way to instill some unease in a player.

Hopefully this article has led to some fun and thrilling times for your group. Stay tuned for more articles all month long.