Horror Role-Play – Setting the Stage

Hello and Happy (Canadian) Thanksgiving! Now, I know many of my readers are American, so to them, Happy Monday! Or I guess, Happy Day, because who knows when you’re reading this. Maybe it’s night. Day designations are random anyways, but not so random that they don’t mean something. We often look to the genesis of an event to define its meaning, but doing so can make us forget that its current meaning is equally as important, especially considering our tendency to twist meanings with time. We are born without context, so it’s easy to forget that history is just… ridiculously convoluted.

Anyways, here’s this week’s story. It’s sooort of my take on a Thanksgiving tale. I did something a bit different with this week’s video in preparation for another thing I’m swimming around starting. I’m not going to announce it until I’ve got at least three segments finished. Shhh…

As you may know, it’s Halloween month, and so you might be curious about why I’m not doing a big Halloween thing. I mean, horror blog, right? Well, truth be told, I haven’t been strictly horror for a while, but aside from that, every month is Halloween month for me. I write, think and talk about horror almost every day of the year. So, I’m letting other people have a go at it, while I… okay, maybe we’ll do some horror stuff. But, not video games. This week we’re going to talk about roleplaying.

As some of you may remember, I started to write down my horror roleplay system. It’s in the links of this blog, but it’s not really extensive. The reason for this is that I began writing and, as I wrote, I started editing the system. Eventually, it got out of hand and started turning into a video game. And the game became a project. And the project lost its programmers. It happens. I’ve been a part of a few orphaned projects, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. No way. Where was I…? Right!

Today, I thought I’d give you a few of my favourite tips for setting the mood for your horror roleplay. If you haven’t done a horror roleplay session, then I can’t recommend it enough. It’s like telling an interactive horror story that you can change on the fly in response to your players’ moods. It takes some experience to pull off, but that just means it’s better to start practising now than later! What better time than Halloween month? (Don’t worry, most of these can apply to the telling of horror stories, as well)

First, do your planning way ahead of time. It’s important to stay spontaneous in the game, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also do your homework. Figure out what kind of horror experience you’re providing. What exactly is horrific about your setting? Your antagonist/challenge? Your situation? Try to get inside the minds of your players and figure out what you’re asking them to visualize and the responses you’re going to be asking them to make.

Let’s choose a running example: a horror story set in the woods. With something lurking between the trees and in the leaves.

Alright, so we know where we are. What scares people about the woods? This is an important question, because it’ll affect how you should set up your room. You see, when you experience something, it sensitizes you to related ideas. There’s plenty of research on the subject, but I won’t recount it here. What I’ll tell you is that you should be organizing your space such that it reminds your players of the most salient aspects of the environment you’re asking them to imagine. But, not just any salient aspects, focus on the ones that inspire fear.

Back to the woods: Obviously, the best choice would be to actually be in the woods around a camp-fire. The light from the fire will obscure the shadows in the woods. Ambient noises and gaps of absolute silence will do a lot of the work for you. However, if we can’t be in the woods, we can bring the woods inside. Step one: Plants. Just, ’cause, plants. Step two, gather your group together, around you, facing inwards around a light source. This does two things: it focuses your players’ attention on the light source, thus obscuring the shadows behind them. The other thing is that it leaves their backs vulnerable. You can remind them of that ever-so-subtly by dropping words like “back,” “behind” and “stab” into your descriptions. They don’t have to be direct references. You can say things like, “We have to go back!” or “There’ll be no turning back.” Be sure to look over their shoulders occasionally.

You can do this for almost every setting. Dark, claustrophobic tomb or the underground labyrinth of an abandoned hospital? Pick a smaller room with a tall ceiling, sit on the floor and point a light directly at the ceiling, producing the illusion of an overly-claustrophobic environment. One famous example involves a horror story set on Mars. They wore gas-masks for the authentic view-obscuring,, uncomfortable, hot, claustrophobic feel. Dystopian universe full of the gleaming white lights of arbitrary death? Get a bright room, but find a way to splash colour into it. Basically, find a way for your room to visually embody your brand of horror.

However, you’ve got more than just the visual to call on. Your arsenal is packed with every sense and thought your players have at their disposal. Every memory. Every association. Don’t be afraid to utilize them. Horror is something that’s best taken seriously in the planning stages, seriously in the telling and whimsically in the experience. Don’t be afraid to let your players have fun, but make sure you build the tension back up.

Soundscapes are a great way to build tension, because it’s something that people eventually lose track of. It fades to white noise, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still having an effect.

Woods: Try to see if you can find a track that has rustling noises on it that are punctuated very occasionally by twig-snaps or bird calls. Constantly play the track at a low volume, but make sure that the sudden sounds are loud enough to be heard in the background. If you can’t find a track, then see if you can find a close approximation. White noise punctuated by the occasional laugh. The wind. A crackling fire. One of those faux-fire videos is actually a pretty great tool here, because the fire snaps and crackles are random intervals, and it’s made to be played for a long time, so you aren’t going to get very much pattern repetition.

If all else fails, you can just pick some creepy music, and keep it at a barely audible level. That way, when the room falls quiet, the sound of creeping music will fill the air, encouraging your players to talk or filling them with the slightest hint of dread. You can also use soundscapes to simulate space. Huge echoes for large halls. Small, staccato ones for enclosed rooms. Slow fades for open spaces.

Smell is a powerful weapon, as well. I’m sure you already know that smell is a powerful memory evoker. Creating an alien smell can throw players off. Something sickly and rotting (like a piece of fruit) hidden in the garbage can be just enough to unnerve your players.

Woods: Pine-fresh candles. Fresh dirt. The smell of watered plants. Smoke from a pack of matches that you’re periodically lighting, like it’s a nervous habit (watch for smoke detectors). You get the idea.

The tactile senses are, in part, related to the embodiment of the room bit, but also consider the posture (vestibular senses) you want your players in. Lying down, sitting up, standing, whatever. Make sure they’re comfortable enough to last out a gaming session, though, or you’ll find that all the preparation in the world won’t protect you from player-fatigue.

Taste is another consideration. Want to really creep your players out? Find a way to link the food they’re eating to a description. The crunch of the leaves, like chips. The rending of meat from the bone, like a chicken wing. You don’t necessarily have to make it that obvious. In fact, it’ll severely damage the effect if you do, but consider something like…

Woods: “You hear the sharp whisper of a quiet crunch *bite chip here* from a copse of pine to your right, the sound of a pine-cone shattering underfoot.” “Its teeth digs into your leg, finding bone and tearing the chewy meat off the bone,” if you’re serving chicken wings. “The gag feels soft and chewy in your mouth.” -Pizza.

A large component of taste is smell, but it’s also tactile experience. If you can find a way to disturb your players through the intimate act of eating, one of the most sensual (literally, affecting the senses) experiences a human can have, then you’re well on your way to getting in their heads.

If you’re a good actor, then try tensing up when you want your players to be tense. They’ll mirror you slightly. You’d be amazed what has an effect. Air temperature. Low vibration. The occasional weird, halting speech cadence. Laughter from somewhere in the distance. The use of proper nouns. Horror is a blend of the subtle and the obnoxious. Tension and carelessness. If you’re careful, your players will never know exactly how much thought you’ve put into the evening, or the experience they’ve walked themselves into.

Remember, you want your players to be a little uncomfortable. You’re trying to create a strange and frightening environment out of a common gathering of friends. However, you don’t want to scar anyone and you don’t want to hurt anyone. Be safe.

Also, remember to use modern technology to your advantage, and don’t forget to account for it in your game. One of the most gratifying experiences I’ve ever had as a story-teller was sliding my phone over to a player with a text-message on it for them and having them fling it away in shock (phone was okay). It was just a picture of a cloaked figure, but under the right circumstances, the banal is terrifying.

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