Surviving Creepy Campaigns for GMs – Part 1

Surviving Creepy Campaigns for GMs – Part 1

October 5, 2018 Off By TK

The low rumble in the belly of a hungry beast lurking just outside your field of vision…the cackle of a hideous coven of hags hunched over a bubbling cauldron…the whistling wails of ghouls, ghasts, and ghostly apparitions skulking in the mist at the edges of the cemetery…

Dance of Death, by Hans Holbein, ca. 1538

It’s that time of year, adventurers, and that means we’re sneaking out past our bedtimes and getting into the darker side of tabletop roleplaying games: the horror campaign. Some of us are veterans with years of spooks and scares notched into our vampire-hunting bandoliers, nightmarish trophies from settings such as World of Darkness, Ravenloft, Noctum, WitchCraft, or perhaps the infamous Call of Cthulhu. For those readers who haven’t run a skin-crawling, bone-chilling story before—or who have noticed that their supposedly spine-tingling adventure has left their players snoring instead—here is the first installment of a month-long series with some tips and tricks for keeping your adventures awake well into next week (just in time for the next session).

Setting the Tone

Early in my GMing career, I held a session that included a younger sibling who was very new to tabletop roleplaying. Her character included six additional NPC retainers and I couldn’t allow her to keep them, so I walked her into a scenario that involved these companions contracting a heinous corruption and forcing her character to mercy kill them. She didn’t speak or engage for the rest of the game. After the session, we talked and she confessed that she felt resentment and frustration, and she assumed that I was punishing her. It nearly made her kill her own character and quit playing.

Dance of Death, by Hans Holbein, ca. 1538

I felt like what I did had been terribly clever, if a little cruel. So, where did I go wrong?

This may sound elementary, but I cannot stress enough how important it is that your players know they are walking into a horror story. That means sitting down in your Session 0 and walking through some very basic pre-session questioning: what are their red flags? Some Game Masters employ house rules: the veils/lines (whether certain disturbing content such as torture, sexual assault, or murder of children/pets happens “offscreen” or not at all), red-yellow-green (stop, take it slower, good to go) consent systems of monitoring discomfort, and/or the X-card (I am uncomfortable and want this done but I don’t want to make a scene). Talk with your players and encourage them to be open about what they expect from this experience while telling them what the story will likely entail. Reward their vulnerability, shape your story accordingly, and listen to any new issues that arise during play. I guarantee you and your party will have much more fun after everyone feels heard and validated.

Baiting the Hook

I remember an incredibly elaborate dream sequence I wrote and walked a player through. Each door she opened led her to a myriad of surreal horror starring her fellow party members, including some prophetic foreshadowing that granted the barest glimpse into—hey…hey, where is she going?

Dance of Death, by Hans Holbein, ca. 1538

She shut the door after the second one, in spite of the rest of the party being enthralled. Wasn’t it scary enough?

What may be terrifying or impactful for one player isn’t guaranteed to be the same for another and, though it may be disheartening, we have to accept that. For this player, I wasn’t presenting her with a story to investigate…I was just showing her creepy scenes with no real meaning. My horror hook sank. I should have communicated just a little more with the player ahead of time and written a scenario that the player may have known about in advance, but the character would have felt compelled to follow through with. It would have taken the same effort and time, but without the disappointment on my part when neither player nor character was invested.

Spend some time with the characters themselves and figure out what irresistible ideal lies on the other side of that door—what makes them open it despite the voice screaming at the back of their heads? What steels their spine for a moment to tiptoe down those creaking stairs into the damp basement? What makes them swallow those screams and ignore the ice in their blood to reach for the closet with a shaking hand…? Find it and use it and savor the way the players peek between their fingers as they beg you for more!

Dance of Death, by Hans Holbein, ca. 1538

That’s all for this week, adventurers! Next week we’ll talk setting and creature design!

Happy Adventuring!