On Scaring People
I think part of the reason I regard GMing as one part psychological warfare is because I started GMing horror first, not adventure or fantasy which is what I typically run now. Running a horror game is a whole other can of worms, because it isn’t enough that players have fun, they want to be scared. They don’t want to be genuinely afraid, but to get the rush of faux-fear for which a friend of mine coined the term “Delicious scary.” Scaring people is tricky, because everyone’s different, and has different desires and tolerances when it comes to fear. Still, there are some universal conditions you can manage that will make GMing horror a lot easier.
1. Play in a Scary Place
This one is obvious. Not everyone plays Dread in a graveyard, but do what you can to make whatever space you’re in a little more frightening. Dimming the lights is an example, but what it really does is make the space unfamiliar to people. It’s not what they’re used to, and that sets them on edge. Fear of the dark is one of the oldest and deepest, so playing with light is a good way to do it. So is introducing unfamiliar sounds. You can do this with music and sound effects, but I’ve had equal success leaving a pair of quarters in my laundry when I ran it through the dryer. The occasional metal clatter from behind a laundry room door can startle as much as rattling bones from your Halloweeen mp3 collection. Play in less comfortable chairs that keep people shifting about and don’t let them relax, or encourage your roommate to occasionally get up and wander about the house in the dark. Those things that scare you in your own house? they’re probably going to get to your players too.
2. Find Images that Resonate with Your Players
Not their characters, but with them. Maybe it’s masks, or clowns, or a hand on the back of the neck. You don’t want the things that trigger them, stay away from those, but the things that make them shiver. Some people are really aware of what these are, and will let you know. After all, they want to be scared. Some people aren’t, and you’ll spend a while dreaming up scary images to get to them. The way you arrange the space can really amplify this, making even ordinary fears like darkness and insects get to people. There’s rarely a need to go all Rob Zombie on them, but that can be fun sometimes. Really, it’s a game of limits. Once you find some imagery that resonates, you want to use it artfully to nudge at their tension. I find that the key to horror is curiosity and uncertainty. Their ideal state is when they want to find out more, but have to balance that curiosity with fear. Push too hard and it can put them on the defensive, barricading doors, burning all the books, and shooting first.
3. Create Uncertainty
Above all, create uncertainty. Fear of the unknown runs deepest. Otherworldly creatures are scary not just because of what they can do, but because we don’t know what they can do or why they do it. Haunted houses create uncertainty by having you not know what’s in the dark or what’s in the bowl that you just put your hand in. Sometimes I like to move around the room, fiddling with objects and making people uncertain about what I’m going to do next. Be wary of using this in really dim lighting, because the whole spooky atmosphere goes out the window when you trip over the cat. Still, when faced with enough uncertainty, people start to scare themselves. Relish in this fear, because it means your work is complete.
All of these are designed to get at your players, not the PCs. They’re the ones looking for the scare after all, and fear isn’t something you can just buy into. You don’t decide to experience dread, it sneaks up on you and seizes you. That’s part of what intrigues us about horror as a genre, I think. It nibbles away at our control, and the best invades our life, making us wonder if the thing we just read about is lurking in the shadows. We’ll definitely talk more about horror in the coming months, but as you can see, psychological warfare can be a big part of it.