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Most role playing games are fun ways to tell a story with some rules thrown in to give everyone a fair shot at impacting the story in a meaningful way. And stories are about eliciting a feeling. Your standard D&D style fantasy scenarios are about empowering the players to feel larger than themselves. Feelings of accomplishment, struggling against adversity and, feeling your own worth in the world are common themes here. But horror games are different. In horror games the feeling you're looking to instill in your players is, well, horror.
But what does that mean? It means making your players uncomfortable with progressing. It means making them second guess their decisions. It means making players know that there are real, lasting, irreversible consequences for getting something wrong. But how do we do that in a role playing game? When you watch a scary movie, the director is able to rely on things such as "scare chords" to startle you, visual effects to disturb your senses, and other tricks of high production cinema to elicit the desired response. Without these tools to work with, what is a GM to do?
Well we can recreate some of that with effects of our own; turning off the lights of the play area, putting on a mood-setting sound track, and only speaking in whispers are ways to enhance the horror experience for players that can be met with varying degrees of success. But that is approaching the problem from a disadvantageous position. We are trying to beat movies at their own game. Instead, we should focus on the strengths of the RPG medium; one of the biggest strengths we have is active audience investment.
Movies have to take a while making the audience care about the characters on the screen in order to get any payoff when they are put in danger. But your players inherently care about their characters. So let's ratchet up the tension by making the characters uncomfortable.
And the big word here is tension. The players have to feel impending danger without knowing exactly where it might come from or what form it might take. Consider the difference between a character opening a door to find a monster in full view, and a character opening a door to freshly mauled body parts. In the first scenario, roll initiative, action, fight scene! In the second, the player carefully and quietly investigates the room in the hopes of avoiding the action.
This all works best if four criteria are met:
1) The characters are vulnerable.
You can have the scariest monster imaginable stalking the characters, but if they are carrying heavy firepower, or they can be resurrected from the dead, or they can leave danger behind instantaneously, you will never get your players scared. Why should they? They can out gun and out run anything. You have to make sure they know that the thing they are facing is stronger than they are, and that there is no easy escape from consequence should they lose.
2) The characters have a legitimate reason to not just run away.
Whether this is because of duty, curiosity, or being trapped, so long as the characters have a reason to continue forward in spite of not wanting to, there will be tension.
3) The characters are in an environment where they do not know all of the information
This can range from the room being very dark to the characters not knowing why the room is set up a certain way. Consider a room where every mirror has an "X" put through it in red marker. Why? We don't know, and the players will jump to horrible conclusions.
4) The characters progress by doing something they don't want to do.
I am reminded of a wonderful video game that had a moment like this. Outlast is a survival horror game wherein you are trapped in a terrible mental asylum. At one point early in the game, the only way to progress is to walk past an obviously deranged patient sitting in a wheel chair. I spent 15 minutes carefully creeping up toward him, because I did not want to find out what happens when you get near him. Give your players similar situations.
Those are some of my thoughts on eliciting fear as a GM. What do you guys think? What scenarios or ideas have you had that legitimately scared your players?