How to Terrify Your Players (And Make Them Love It!)
Updated: Aug 7, 2018
Since the dawn of time, humans have been attracted in some way to that which terrifies them.
Why do we seek out such a primeval feeling? Perhaps it is for the simple novelty of it, the adrenaline and blood pumping, or perhaps it is a trial, of which we willingly undergo, in hopes that it will better increase our understanding of the dark and dangerous world in which we inhabit. Whatever the reason: dread, suspense and mystery can add an element to your game that your players will never forget!
Tabletop games may seem the least likely place for an adrenaline packed heart racing journey into the lands of terror. But, with the right preparation by the game master and commitment by the players, it will be an experience your players won’t soon forget!
Step 1: Understand What IS Scary – and What is NOT
Part of you, dear reader, may come to the conclusion that fear is a single, simple emotion, that can be triggered simply. However, that is simply not the truth, fear is a complex combination of reactions and curiosities, both biological and mental.
The first rule to making something scary is to figure out exactly who you are trying to scare. Take a look at the following scenarios, and, placing yourself in the players' perspective, decide which one you think would be the most interesting:
The party steps onto the broken raft and begins to ford the river, as they draw closer to the side, the unmistakeable sound of a woman weeping can be heard, getting closer… and closer…. Roll perception!
Lightning flashes in the distance, rain pours down outside, as your group looks around the castle. Approaching a room, which looks similar to many you have encountered before, you look inside, to see a small horde of zombies inside. Roll initiative!
As you open the door, you find a room, deserted of all things, except for a small music box in the middle, with an unmistakeable magic aura coming from it. As you approach the music box, all doors slam shut, and a faint white light permeates down from a crack on the ceiling, illuminating the box. As you approach it and select to play it, the Dungeon Master plays a short track on his phone or computer of a distinct creepy tune, one that sends shivers down your spine. He cautions to remember the tune, because – it may or may not be important later.
Most likely, you choose the 3rd option as the one that you would find the most interesting – and most likely you choose this option, not because it is truly the “scariest scenario” but because it actually invokes some connection and immersion to the player. While encountering a banshee or a horde of zombies in real life might be much scarier than finding a creepy music box, the experience of finding the music box and actually hearing the audio contained on it can create an immersion and connection that will stay with your players for a long time.
The bottom line is: Scare your players, not their characters.
Now that you know who you are trying to scare – remember the following quote from H.P. Lovecraft, and allow it to guide you in your creation of a terrifying game for your players:
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."
In order to best utilize the fear of the unknown, remember – less is more. Create spooky scenarios and step back and allow your players to fill in the blanks.
Step 2: Understand Different Types of Fear
For our purposes, we have broken down the different “Types” of fear that can be invoked by an effective medium (be it a novel, short story, video game, movie or TV show).