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How do YOU run a successful horror game?

The Bleak Harvest

With the recent release of 'The Bleak Harvest,' I was asked:

"How do you run a successful horror game? How do you keep the horror aspects effective in a game? My players tend to steamroll over things and the horror gets lost."

Now, I love horror. I don't do a lot of Call of Cthulhu or that sort of game, but I do interject a ton of it in my games. So let me break down some of my tactics.

1) Session Zero. Make sure your players know you want to run a great horror game. Ask them to get on board with respect to the roleplaying.

Choose the optional rules that you want to use and run them by everyone before the game starts. It's important that you get the player's buy in before running the game. Then, if they begin doing things that are contrary to the feel of the game, you can gently remind them. Usually, players are pretty receptive to this, and especially if you explained your goal during session zero.

2) Choose the right system. Some systems are just designed mechanically better in regards to horror. You know your group, and hopefully you've tried a number of game systems. Choose the one that works best for you. In fairness, you can inject good horror into any game, it just helps to have the mechanics to support you.

I think 5E Dungeons & Dragons is pretty scary out of the box. The monsters are deadly, and it's a gritty game. But even in a more optimized, crunchy game like Pathfinder, you can do some awesome horror. They have a plethora of content like monsters and occult and horror sourcebooks to really get what you need out of the rules.

3) Cut them down to size. This is a prime tactic to make games more frightening. Give your players less. Less stats. Less magic items. Less potions. Less time to heal. Less knowledge. When you do this, the mechanics support fear. The players become less certain that they have the upper hand. Sometimes they don't.

4) Keep them in the dark. I mentioned above that you should give the player's less knowledge. What's scarier, announcing a random encounter with a couple ghouls, or hearing the blood-curdling growls of the unliving, reverberating down the dungeon corridor. The sounds of shuffling feet echo to you, and you cannot be certain of their number or distance. Are they zombies? Ghouls? Ghasts? Sometimes the player's own fears are worse than what you had planned. Go with it.

Don't tell them what they are facing. Let them make assumptions. Let them be wrong. Worse, sometimes you should let them be right...

5) Use fear like it was real. I feel strongly about fear in games. Yeah, you are heroes. You've slain untold goblins and orcs. Good for you. But, that ghoul over there is chewing the face off your friend who's been paralyzed. How's that treating you? Do you still have the will to fight on? An important element of horror games is supernatural fear.

You can use supernatural (and sometimes instinctual) fear as a saving throw. When your character encounter something that requires their characters to make some sort of fear check, the players themselves take pause. You want to affect the player's psyche as much as affecting the character's statistics. When you cause a character to become shaken, or frightened, that has an impact on the character's effectiveness and seeds doubt in the player's confidence.

Don't overdo it. Use this tactic for supernatural horrors and for things they may not have faced before. If you call for it every time your players fight something they can clearly handle it loses it's effectiveness and your players will become annoyed.

That's just a few of the tactics I use when running horror games. What do YOU do to make your games more frightening and keep true to their horror themes?

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