Gloam: Entry 1 – Day 2 – Status: Apprehensive

Gloam is the time immediately after the sun has set. It is the time when the light has fled. Darkness covers the land and the day is far off. In essence, gloam is horror. Rather, it is the beginnings of horror. It’s running-through-the-woods, trip-on-a-root, go-into-the-basement, check-if-he’s-dead horror. Gloam is my method for running RPGs.

Now, I’m not an expert on horror, but I do play one on the internet. If you’re here, reading this, then you’ve probably fallen for that cunning illusion. Let’s get down to it…

In this series of blog posts, I’m going to assemble some of my thoughts on running horror RPGs. Those posts will then be assembled on a page for ease of access. You can feel free to use any of the ideas you see here to improve (hopefully) your next horror table-top gaming experience.

Things to know before we begin:

Horror is a special kind of difficult. Much like comedy, it relies on timing, atmosphere, meaning, delivery and engagement to truly make an impact. All of those are important, really. Losing one damages the others. It’s so, so easy to screw up. It doesn’t take much. You know that tension that builds up in a room, that stress, that permeates the air in an awkward or dangerous situation? That’s the kind of tension you want to be able to create. Remember, also, how easy that tension is to break and, once broken, how difficult it is to pick up the pieces afterwards. It goes downhill pretty fast. However, that does not mean that your game needs to be all tension, all the time. In fact, that’s detrimental. See? It’s a special kind of difficult.

This is the reason why so many horror movies make asides for sex and comedy. They’ve got the same type of physiological arousal, but they have totally different tones. They let you stay ramped up, while also letting you relax. If you do all heavy atmosphere, then it’ll become routine. Routine, my friend, is the last thing you want.

Horror is about keeping people on their toes and guessing. Of course, this is just one way to engage. There are others, and we’ll cover those, but this will be your bread and butter for a horror role-play. You see, you’ve stepped into an intricate problem. Horror role-play is its own special kind of hell. Unlike video games, you’ve got every command a person can think of at their disposal. They can get up and walk away. They directly affect the atmosphere. If they’re not on-board, then it’s just not happening. Unlike movies, you can’t do jump-scares very effectively (although, I’ve got some tips on that coming up), you can’t sell yourself on gore or visual effects. You won’t (always) have a specifically-timed score helping you out. You can’t control where your audience looks and when. You can’t lock them into a story without a damn good character/player reason (We’ll talk about how they’re different later Pro-tip: horror is aimed directly at the player, but has to interact through the character. That’s your point of attack). Unlike a book, you can’t lock someone into a narrative or guarantee their attention at a scene. There are no do-overs. You don’t have control of most of the characters. Contrivances need to be subtle; your players will know if their characters are getting rail-roaded.

In other words, you need to re-think a lot of the methods that we’re used to seeing being used to scare people. We can still learn from them, and even use a few, but role-play is a whole different beast. Hopefully, you can learn a thing or two from my experiences and add a few of your own. Maybe, together, we’ll even create moments of true horror.

Getting Started:

Even a single night of horror role-play begins far before you ever roll a die. (Hell, you may not even use one.) First thing, you’ll need a group of good role-players. This is absolutely crucial, because, unless you’ve just gathered a group of people to tell ghost-stories to, the success or failure of your attempts to horrify will rely on your players. They need to be able to engage the story and the happenings within it directly and have their characters act like a person would in that situation. Here, meta-gaming will do nothing but melt your atmosphere. Your players can do it, and, hopefully, if you’ve managed things well enough, that will work against them (We’ll get to that part later, too. It’s my favourite). Because, your players will meta-game. They can’t help it, especially if you’ve really got them. Then, it will be their only escape. That’s why we’re going to head them off at the pass.

Okay, you’ve got your group of players. That’s excellent. Keep the group small. The more players you have, the more chance there is that someone will get bored, feel left out after they die (Oh, there will be blood), break character, break the tension, or just use player numbers to overcome your obstacles or atmosphere (a type of meta-gaming). Plus, smaller groups are much easier to organize and fit places (which will make more sense later).

The next thing you do is figure out what kind of story you want to tell. You’re going to need the What, Why, When, How and Where or things right off. Then, if you can, get a basic sketch of your players’ characters. You’re going to need all this information to craft a sterling experience. You want a certain unity of elements to help your players become absorbed by the experience. We’ll cover that in atmosphere, but, for now, we’ll cover why each of these things is important.

Who- Gives you the ability to write personalized encounters, story-lines and decent reasons why your group gets together. Work on creating character dynamics.

What- Knowing what’s going to happen will let you keep things theme-appropriate. Try for “what CAN happen.” Overall, this is the trickiest.

Where- Adds the proper flavour to your events. Is it a familiar place? Easy to visualize? Is it foreign? Is it classic horror? Massive impact on atmosphere.

When- Time of day, passage of days in game, anachronisms need to be weeded out. This is a good place to start your research, since a break in continuity can shatter atmosphere.

Why- Your players don’t have to know this, but (hidden) motivations will help you keep play consistent and events unified. Why DIDN’T it stab him with those scissors?

How- Knowing the series of events leading to your story will let you add, subtract and modify elements of your story on the fly, while retaining a unity of purpose.

Now that you have a loose out-line of the kind of story you want to tell and its elements, it’s time to get writing!

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