Surviving Creepy Campaigns for GMs – Part 2October 12, 2018 Off By TK
Welcome back to my humble swamp hut, adventurers! This is the second installment of our month-long examination of horror storytelling for tabletop roleplaying games, especially designed to assist new or less experienced Game Masters. Last week we talked about setting the tone with communication and pre-session comfort zone discussion, as well as crafting enticing hooks for individual party members. This week, we chat about engaging setting and monster description.
So, let’s get started:
Dressing the Scene
“Okay, you walk into the cave.”
“And do I happen to see anything?”
“Nope, it’s pretty dark.”
“Oh. Can I light a lantern?”
“The lanterns don’t work.”
“Do I know why?”
The issues with this interaction should be obvious: no sensory description, little interest in maintaining tension or atmosphere, and—most importantly—neither the Game Master nor the character are really sure what this area looks or feels like. Too often newer GMs in horror-themed games wait until there is gore or a monster to set a scene, but if you begin early, with a description of the weather and scenery, you can craft an air of unease well before you introduce any actual danger. And don’t forget to let your players help you dress that scene!
Let’s try this one more time and try to create a sense of foreboding from landscape and weather alone:
“You stand before the entrance of the cave, a great yawning mouth with jagged stones that ring the edge like teeth. The mist that circles your ankles is damp and dense, and it seems to draw you forward into the dark gullet of this stone beast.”
“Okay, do I see anything?”
[failed Perception check]
“You know that after a long day of travel, the sun has set behind the cave, so even with squinting eyes and a furrowed brow, you can’t seem to determine much more than the long shadowy fingers of stalactites and the dripping of water further in. There is a short breath of chilled air that sends a tingle up your arms.”
“Can I light a lantern?”
“Again and again, you strike the flint for a spark to light the oil inside of your lantern, but whether from the damp or some mysterious magic, the fire refuses to remain steady. It snuffs itself out every time, but not before you catch a glimpse of a massive, hulking shadow that hovers just outside of the anemic ring of light.”
The Thing Inside The Cave
“Okay, you walk further in. There are some noises.”
“Do I see anything at all?”
“There’s a monster in the cave. It’s a werewolf.”
“Oh. Okay, I pull out my silvered longsword.”
“Well, your character doesn’t know it’s a werewolf. It just looks like a monster. I’m just telling you that it’s a werewolf.”
“Okay, well, just in case, I’ll pull out the silvered longsword anyway.”
Horror games are unique in that, if you have already made your players afraid of the setting, monsters will come almost as a relief, since that is something tangible with which they are familiar. Monsters that they recognize are monsters that they can do battle with, that have only one outcome. This is something that they know, and thus, something they cannot fear.
Take that away from them. In a horror themed game, players should feel relief when your characters do. Removing the safety net of familiar monsters through detailed description that avoids their well-known weaknesses, reaching outside of the module or campaign for inspiration, or creating something entirely new. Reel them in with the discovery of something new, twisted, and—best of all—utterly terrifying.
This past Wednesday, I had the distinct pleasure of being invited to play in a horror-themed one shot for The Blood Plague on Scratticus Academy with the exceptionally skilled Kienna (@kiennaS). Because I cannot truly do her description of one of the creatures justice, I have linked to a particularly brilliant moment here. Our party was enraptured, not only with sensory manipulation (the sound of plaintive sobbing, the matted fur and smell of rotted flesh, the horror of a strange experiment gone wrong), but with Kienna’s deliberate cadence and choice to draw out the reveal. It was a masterful performance and one that clearly paid off for the participants.
That’s all for this week, adventurers! Join us next week for maintaining pacing and tension during non-combat narrative!
About The Author
TK is a speculative fiction writer and part-time eldritch horror. They can be found as a cast member of The Demonplague, Unearthly Twilights, The Land Between Two Rivers, and Hell’s Belles on the Don’t Split the Podcast, WebDM, and Dungeons & Dragons networks, respectively. Their gothic and cosmic horror stories can be found at tkjwrites.com and very soon in print in a collaborative set of short stories and comics with artist Kayla Cline. TK themself can be found on Twitter @tkjoinsthefray.