GM Tips: It's easy to get into any number of RPGs as a new player, but getting started is a rocky, uphill battle for the Game Master, as he must wrangle player personalities, schedules, and the rules of the system in addition to developing his own plot. Hopefully, a few personal lessons will ease your GMing burden, or at least illustrate how one nerd shoulders the burden of the Game Master.
Last week I mentioned that I wanted to follow up on a search hit with GM tips for scaring one's players. With Halloween this weekend, now's as great a time as any to share my thoughts on the subject and impart a little advice. At first I had planned on sharing tactics to evoke a variety of emotions, but to keep this post focused I wanted to pare things down to scaring your RPG group. Fear is one of the harder emotions to evoke around the game table, so it's all the more important.
When players come together to play a tabletop RPG, they do so to entertain each other and socialize in a shared, imaginative experience. But that means that every role-player is interested in a certain amount of goofing off and chit-chatting. That's fine, but it makes fear more elusive because your players' mindsets are in the wrong gear. Fear is about anxiety, and anxiety is an emotionally taxing state--it requires your constant attention and imagination. A horror movie or video game can cheat anxiety by throwing a grotesque image or gore at the audience, but in an RPG session this tack can be problematic--and smelly. The GM needs to be deliberate and reactive to his players to keep them afraid for their characters.
While I haven't led a lot of horror-focused games, all of my campaigns have featured fear and suspense as important factors. My current RPG campaign in particular--the one in the Myth setting--is thematically built on three pillars of tragedy, duty, and horror. I've also played and led a few games in a low-powered mortals campaign of World of Darkness, with all The X-Files creepy goodness that went with it. So I've stretched these GM muscles a bit in the past. There's a lot of interactivity in an RPGs, obviously, so anything you do needs to be tailored and responsive to your group. An easy shortcut to tailoring is to find out what other stories your players like. Do they like psychological horror? Throw thought puzzles and philosophical paradoxes at them. Do they like gory violent schlock? Give them a red-shirt or two and have them die in meticulously detailed scenes. Responding to your players is about two things: correcting wrong assumptions you made in the tailoring process and letting your players have a legitimate sway over the direction of the plot. This is the balancing act of fear in an RPG--your players want to exert control over the plot, and in so doing they are out to destroy any atmosphere of horror you might create.
Tell The Story
This is a fundamental issue for most RPG sessions. GMing a campaign involves a lot of work: mapping out locations; plotting out characters and adversaries; hammering out the mechanics of player options in-game. But once everyone is at the table, you're all involved in a storytelling experience, so don't forget to tell the story. Tell the frakking story. Don't give your players a mechanic or stat-value unless they have a description to justify it--and sometimes if you give your players a thorough description of the action, you can make some of the mechanics unnecessary. And don't fall into the trap of describing only the mechanically important elements of the story. It may be important that the room has a conveniently heavy desk near the only door, but does it have pictures on it? What about interior decoration? Do the drawers have paperwork that might entice the player characters to waste time investigating? These details help create a three-dimensional story that draws the players in and helps put them in a place where they're more likely to feel the tension and fear you're trying to create. Yeah, you need to do some legwork to get your players into the right mood for your fear-mongering to settle. Deal with it.
Don't Name It!
By this, I mean don't use the official rules-related name for your game's adversaries. This is especially important when your players might have a good idea of what a NPC is capable of once they get the monster's name (a particular problem for DnD groups), but it applies pretty much whenever that antagonist's name or title will give a hasty shorthand of their capabilities and/or motivations. Nothing kills the mystery of your average monster as much as seeing its Playboy spread. Sure, it might be convenient to refer to that level 3 Ghoul as such, but once your bring your monster into the light, you generally can't convince your players that it's a silhouette again. So don't name your monster unless it's absolutely necessary: that isn't a zombie--it's a twitching, pallid trucker in a torn plaid shirt and broken fingertips; that isn't a ghost--it's a flickering cloud of sighs and soft crunching of bones. This ties in with telling the story, as filling out archetypal NPCs with detailed, unique descriptions are a good way to add depth to your players' investment in the story.
Extending this principal beyond the monster's appearance and name, you can take this as a reminder not to give your players cozy answers to unsettling mysteries. Most serial killers and real-life horrors are scary because of the fickle, unfathomable motivations behind their acts. Only a GM, speaking with the voice of God, can give you that authoritative answer of firmly knowing that person X did for Y reason. Any person speaking with limited knowledge in your setting can only speculate what made your game's bogeyman don a slicker and go on a killing-spree, and that will make the thrill of hunting him down all the more tense for them.
Secret Dice Rolls
This is a simple one. I'm a firm believer in hiding things from players, especially to create a scary atmosphere. This dovetails with not sharing your monster's names with your players, as it's often important that your players don't know what certain dice results are. For example, if your players are making a check to detect whether that suspicious groundskeeper is telling the truth, it'd be pretty pointless if they got to see if their dice results yielded a success of failure in the 'detect lies' skill. Roll those dice in secret and then accordingly lie to the players about how charismatic and helpful the scraggly man is, and about how his offer of hospitality seems totally genuine. One of the potentially most immersion-breaking aspects of a tabletop RPG is getting to see how your dice fare--a meta-game indicator--rather than having to rely on the subjective report of actual effects--an in-game indicator.
I also like to sometimes extend this to making extra rolls in secret--that is, I roll the dice behind my GM screen for no point other than to make my players anxious. What was Ben rolling? Did we just spring a trap? If we did, why aren't we being attacked yet? What's following us? We should explore this room more. Maybe this NPC isn't everything he said he was. It's a way of subverting some of the mechanics of the tabletop experience to create a pavlovian response in your game group--secret rolls are a source of player-based tension, so it can be used to enhance the fear the characters should be exhibiting. Use sparingly--and not too much immediately after blogging about it.
Dice rolling and game mechanics are fun and deserve to form the lynchpin of your average RPG. But they're logical (hopefully), fair (most of the time), and balanced (somewhat), which are not really conducive to fear. When your players are thinking of game mechanics, they're thinking about modifiers, odds, and binary choices to narrow down the most likely route to success. They aren't thinking about mysteries or the mental image of the floating corpse with its lungs ripped out through his throat. And that's too bad. So do yourself a favor as a GM trying to scare your players by minimizing mechanics. Try not to look into your ten-pound gaming encyclopedia at the game table--if you can't remember a rule, wing it and double-check later. This won't work with some players without a good amount of persuasion, but I find it's a super helpful way to get players invested in the mood you're creating.
Add variety to the stakes
I hate saving the world. It seems like every movie, television show, comic, and game out there is interested in saving the world. Don't get me wrong, the world has some nice things to offer, but it's pretty boring to have stakes that are consistently raised to the max all the time. And it's also kind of hard to imagine what saving the world feels like, really. It ends up just being a ham-handed way for GMs to say that the players are now "Over 9,000!!!" How do they know they've reached the final boss? The GM gives them a narrative that it's all come down to this, the armies of the world are arrayed, and the final battle is about to begin. Then Shang Tsung descends and says "Fight!" and the players wade into a big arena fight with an over-powered yet obviously flawed boss character.
No thank you. How about a campaign to save only yourselves? That's a great horror objective. Or to save a loved one, if you have characters who aren't orphan-murder-hobos like those that are typically played in your average RPG? Or what about when the stakes are uncertain? Is this hostile trying to rob us, mug us, murder us, or kidnap us? Making the objective of the enemy uncertain throws a wrench into what retaliation is acceptable for the players, and that not only makes them hesitate but makes them internalize the details of the plot to digest the fearful elements better.
Also, the big bad doesn't need to be more powerful than the players. Making a threat boil down to someone who's simply more ruthless than everyone around him, or who has a better plan, or is more tactically cowardly, can be a lot more interesting than the huge thing that trades blows with the four champions of the free peoples of the world.
Control (or at least be mindful of) Ambience
I never GM a game without music in the background. I use it to set the mood of the game and also to fill in the silences in the action of game sessions. It's important to pick music that is spooky, scary, or terrifying and queue it up as needed to give your players the creeps, but I also think it's equally important to pick something that isn't too on the nose and overly popular. The Halloween theme is chilling, but everyone knows it and is inured to it, whether from seeing the movie too many times or from going to one too many Fright-Fests at Six Flags. Pick something relatively obscure and let it fine-tune your ambience. Also, remember that ambience is about more than just music. If you can, think about changing around your game room to make it spookier--dimmer lighting, closed doors, and even what's on your game shelf behind you can modify players' moods in your gaming space.
So those are my quick and dirty tips for GMs interested in scaring their players. Take your time to tell your story, go out of your way not to label your threats, use secret dice rolls, minimize the game and maximize the story, add variety to the stakes, and remember your ambience.