Chances are you are gearing up for you Halloween game that will play out this weekend. Chances also are that you will use some kind of horror theme, or even a horror game. Now, I haven’t played horror games like Call of Cthulu or much of White Wolf’s games, but I have run some very successful horror themes before. I gave on player nightmares for at least that night. The gaming group was equal parts creeped out, horrified, or afraid of what was happening in the game. However, these are GM story telling devices that I use that don’t translate well to an article. What you can do is apply some mechanics that are easy to use and fairly universal that do work very well for horror games.
There are some basic ideas in horror. One is a sense of risk, which the character could come to harm or die. Desperation usually kicks in when risk is high and the opposition weighs heavily against the character. For instance, an injured character in a movie limps desperately to safety as a horde of slavering zombies slowly overtakes him. The desperation lies in the dwindling hope that the character will make it. They are slow, the distance not closing fast enough. In fact, the distance between him and safety is closing much more slowly than the distance from him and zombies is closing.
Hindrance is the best way to hold a character down. If a character is hindered through the actions or failure of the player, or that the dice just didn’t roll in his favor, the player is more willing to accept it rather than a GM who throws amazingly obscene challenges at the player. The player always has to feel like there is a chance of escape, no matter how bleak, not that the GM is there to destroy each hope.
Then there is the character point of view. Stay with me as these things will merge together. Now, you, as a player, may not feel much of a sense of fear the first time your new character sees, for the first time, some supernatural horror like a zombie. Think about it, does your character become nervous, fearful, or any natural emotion, or do you start attacking? This is a sticking point for me as our Meta knowledge sometimes overshadows our ability to play our characters properly.
Here’s how it comes together. As a GM you can add a new element to your game that reflects your character’s first impressions of a situation. Now, I am not talking about some kind of insanity check or restriction on how your characters are role-played. I am talking about a modifier that actually will change the way a player plays the character.
Try this: the first time a character sees a new horror, such as a zombie (for this example) make them roll a Wisdom test, or a Will save or some kind of mental defense test (whatever your game requires). The difficulty is based on your world, but lets assume that zombies aren’t something that is pretty common. Lets also assume the test is high enough for all players to fail. Now, take the number that they should have rolled, and compare it to what they did roll. The difference is now a modifier to any test requiring thinking, perception, etc.
In Sagas this changes quite a lot. It alters initiative, spell casting, tactics tests, etc. You could also affect attack rolls, suggesting that the character is more concerned with defense (i.e. protecting him as a natural instinct) to the point that finer combat ability is suffering.
Now, this seems a little rough. However, we are not trying to kill the characters. You may have to point out that your characters are afraid, and that because of this they are not themselves. The best thing for the player to do would be to play defensively, maybe even retreat if things are bad enough. Are one character’s modifiers so high that it seems safe to retreat alone than stand with the group, i.e. running in a panic?
What will begin to take shape is the characters actions. Start describing the lousy die rolls. “Your character hacks desperately at the thing before you” or “You can’t seem to focus on your spell, what are these things? What are they going to do? You’re not sure what you should do!” or “You desperately fumble to reload your weapon and drop the clip on the ground.” Describing the characters actions for the players may help them to get the picture of what is happening to their characters. Fear, desperate, confusion, all of these elements should be present in the descriptions and moods conveyed.
Now, imagine it from their point of view. The players actually start to get the picture. Their characters are in a desperate situation. They could die because they are rolling badly. They are rolling badly because they are hindered with a penalty. Their penalty is caused by fear. The characters are afraid and could die because of it. Now, the player is actually hindered by what has become an overwhelming force. Sure, the group should have been able to kill the zombies with ease. However, fear changes the environment, hindering their ability to think and act clearly. Now the player has a weaker character against a force he isn’t so sure he can beat anymore. Now the player starts looking for a way out too.
As in every situation you usually have a character with a more level head than the others. You will likely see that character cover a retreat or come up with a plan that allows the other characters to help with easy tasks. Eventually they will get away or defeat the encounter.
If they defeat the encounter it is likely that their fears will go away. You can choose to try this again, but lower the target levels significantly to reflect the new confidence. You may have one or two characters nervous, and hinder because of it. However, the overall group should handle things much easier.
Ultimately it feels like a cheap trick. Some players may hate the new test, but it will always work better than throwing overwhelming odds (i.e. higher level monsters or much more monsters than the characters can really handle) at the characters. That message is generally received as “The GM doesn’t want us to win here so run away” rather than any kind of sense of fear.
Give it a try this weekend and let me know how it works for you. It generally works better than “Your character has suffered from dragon fear and runs away”, or even “900 zombies come at you.” These things seem like contrived mechanics and don’t offer any real sensation. However, the contrived mechanic of adding modifiers that cause a change in behavior very well could.