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Creating a Spooky RPG Mood
Rain pounded against
the shutters as we sat around the gaming table. The characters had just
asked the mysterious, hooded figure his name. I looked down at my gaming
"You can call me..."
I said, slowly lifting my eyes but not my head.
"YOUR DOOM!" I sprang forward, and suddenly lightning crashed
and all the lights went out.
We all jumped a foot.
I hadn't planned it.
Nature and the perversity of Italian electric wiring was on my side. With
nervous laughter we all lit candles and continued to game by candlelight
until the electricity went on again. But that moment was one that was
referred to over and over, one of the scariest gaming moments in my history
with that gaming group.
If I coulda taken credit
for it myself, I would have.
Running a scary game
is difficult. Fear is an uncomfortable emotion, and people instinctively
try to avoid it. As soon as a game starts becoming too engaging, too tense,
too spooky, players' defensive mechanisms kick in. One of them will make
a corny joke, and suddenly everybody will laugh with relief that the mood
has been broken. The fear settles; everything has been put back into the
And the GM silently damns the joking player to a thousand agonizing deaths.
Of course, it isn't
always the players who break the mood. A phone ringing can do it. A mother,
sibling, pet, or roommate walking in can do it. Loud noises from the street
can do it. Even being too scary will do it—as soon as you've made
the players start, immediately defensive laughter will kick in, and the
mood is lost again.
What's a GM to do? How
can a GM create a spooky mood for a scary RPG session?
Ambiance, player cooperation,
and GM roleplaying are all necessary to create a spooky RPG. The GM has
fairly good control over the first and third, and the second can be established
with willing, enthusiastic gamers.
AMBIANCE: Humans are
hardwired to find certain things disturbing, and the GM should take advantage
of this. First, darkness is a fundamental source of discomfort for almost
everybody. Plan your spooky RPG for evening or find a room in which the
light can be blocked out (most department stores sell black-out shades,
or you can make your own by tacking a dark blanket over the windows).
Turn off all large lights. The GM should have a small desk lamp to read
by, preferably the kind that will cast eerie shadows over the GM's profile.
Candles can be set in the center of the table to provide dim lighting
for players to read their dice by. I suggest getting covered lanterns
for this, to avoid any accidents involving open flame and too many papers
on the table. Inexpensive candles can be bought almost anywhere, including
most grocery stores, and black iron candlesticks are also fairly easy
to find. If you anticipate that players will need more light, consider
buying some emergency glow sticks from your local hardware or auto supply
store—they cast an unnatural green light strong enough to read with
but not bright enough to ruin the mood.
Second, props can help
build a mood. Even doing nothing more than throwing swaths of black fabric
over your furniture and non-gaming piles of stuff can help reduce the
number of visual distractions and make everything look darker. If you
have money to spend, drop by Alchemy for some inspiration. Halloween is
an excellent time to shop for props; Halloween costume and accessory shops
are gamer candy stores. Pick up fake weapons (good for props year-round),
skulls, gargoyles, even some of those foam tombstones (write the player
characters' names on them!). You can decide how elegant or cheesy you
want to get; elegance usually works better for real spookiness, even though
it costs more.
Third, music can be
invaluable, especially if you can put on several CDs at once to avoid
needing to change a CD in the middle of a tension-filled moment. Instrumental
scores from horror movies are best ... some of my favorites are scores
from "Hellraiser," "Gothic," and "Omen."
Avoid soundtracks that include vocals, unless they're uniformly creepy
vocals—thus, an entire Dead Can Dance CD might be appropriate, whereas
the Guns'n'Roses version of "Sympathy for the Devil" at the
end of the "Interview With A Vampire" CD always destroys a quiet,
creepy mood. Classical music is also a bit difficult to work with, since
it often changes mood and volume; unless you know the work well, don't
use it for spooky games. Modern movie scores are more consistent.
outside noise is important. If you live with others who aren't in the
game, ask them to please refrain from making much noise or coming in while
you're gaming, or try to find another place to game for that session.
Turn your phone's volume down or unplug it entirely. Ask your players
to remove and turn off their phones and pagers, or to at least keep them
on buzz if they're expecting an emergency call. Keep the TV and computers
off. You can't do too much about outside noise, but using your music as
"white noise" to help drown out the neighbors can help, as can
using a white noise generator set to something appropriate, like "rain"
To carry off a scary game, you must get your players' cooperation. Don't
be afraid to explain to them that you're trying to set a mood for this
session and want them to help you out. Some good ground rules are to ask
them to try to avoid breaking the mood with jokes or out-of-character
comments, to turn off the volume their phones and pagers, and to concentrate
on their roleplaying. Ask them to make their refrigerator and bathroom
runs quietly. Most mature players won't mind these requests at the beginning
of a game, and will want to help you create a memorable gaming experience.
If you promise extra rewards for good roleplaying (experience points or
whatever your RPG system uses), that also helps.
If a player breaks the
mood, don't complain about it but, within a minute or two, refocus their
attention on the game. You might want to repeat what you were saying right
before the mood was broken just to "suture" the break in mood.
GM ROLEPLAYING: The
most important factor in creating and maintaining a spooky mood, however,
is you, the GM. Many skilled GMs fall into an automatic-drive mode where
they're thinking several steps ahead, processing character actions and
planning reactions rather than concentrating on the here-and-now of the
game. This intellectualization is fine for most games, but when your goal
is to build emotion, then you must slow down and concentrate on the game
moment-by-moment rather than mentally rushing ahead.
Providing thorough descriptions
helps paint a picture in the players' minds. Take a minute to describe
the scene, and don't forget all five senses. Describe not only what is
seen, but what is smelled, heard, tasted, and felt. You can write these
descriptions out beforehand if you want, but don't read them off a sheet
of paper—describe them as if you were a player character standing
there, relating what you are experiencing.
If you find it hard
to slow down and concentrate on descriptions, set a watch behind your
GM's screen and force yourself to spend a full 30 to 60 seconds describing
Sitting back and distancing
yourself from the players is a mood-reducer; leaning forward and putting
yourself into the players' personal bubbles is a mood-intensifier. Look
at the players when you speak. Lean forward slightly, so you can drop
your voice slightly. Catch a player's eyes and hold the gaze a few moments
longer than is comfortable. Silently count to five or 10 as you do, so
that you don't look away too quickly. We've all been trained to respect
others' space; breaking those rules helps make the players uncomfortable
Concentrate on the nonplayer
characters you are playing. Again, slow down, stop thinking ahead, and
put yourself into that NPC's shoes just as if you were an actor. Use your
voice and hands to create memorable signature vocal or physical gestures
that will bring the character to life. Sob, chuckle, raise your voice,
lower it, snarl, stutter. Get up from your chair, just for this session,
and act. Touch the players. Again, that invades their personal bubbles,
makes it uncomfortable for them. Touch their shoulders as you roleplay
the earnest NPC. Caress their hair or cheek as you play the romantic or
threatening NPC. Thrust your face into theirs as you play the insane or
aggressive NPC. Pace back and forth around the table as you play the lecturing
NPC. Use your pencils and sodas as props if they're appropriate. The idea
is to reinforce the game's illusion by intensely becoming the NPCs for
a few minutes, and to increase the players' discomfort by giving them
a taste of what their characters are feeling as the NPC touches or stares
Do be careful, of course,
to make sure that you don't touch a player who will react violently—some
people have phobias, so make sure you don't trigger one (this tactic is
best used on gamers you know pretty well, in which case you should already
be aware if they have problems with a hand on the shoulder or a finger
drawn across their cheek). Also, you may want to suck on some mints or
something as you game, so that if you breathe heavily on your players
they'll be repelled as a result of your aggressive roleplaying, not your
There's no easy way
to create and maintain a spooky mood, but these tips ought to get you
started. In addition, an excellent book on running horror RPGs is "Nightmares
of Mine." I highly recommend it.
originally written October 27, 2000
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