Pacing is a vital consideration in all genres, but especially so in the horror genre. This article will focus on the slower build ‘chilling horror’ genre as opposed to the more frantically paced ‘action horror’ and ‘splatterpunk horror’ genres as they are a little more easily paced. Boredom, frustration and confidence are all the enemies of the chilling horror genre but to avoid one often leads you to inducing another. Unfortunately, unlike the artist in any other medium, the ST has no control over the most important members of the cast who may attempt to decapitate the threat that should be fled, cower from the enemy that should be faced, or even flee at the first scent of wickedness and try their hand at sunflower farming in the Midwest instead.
So what do you do?
You rely on pacing and you use every trick at your disposal to try to sculpt the session around their actions so that they’re lured into danger with their curiosity, reminded of their vulnerability to make them run, hounded when they grow complacent, nudged when they grow confused, and caged when they try to leave the threat zone for that peaceful sunflower farm they wish for heart and soul.
On the plus side, unlike the artist in any other medium, the ST can observe the audience and judge whether they are scared and want more, whether they’re overloaded and need a rest, when they’re squirming in their seats in horror, when they’re distractible and bored, or when they’re leaning forward excitedly.
Bearing in mind the Three Act Structure helps, though be aware that in roleplaying, the structure is more evoked by the character’s actions than used as a constraint for them.
I’ll discuss using a Three Act Structure in roleplay in a later article, but in short, it can be summed up as Hook, (Threshold of No Return that throws the character into the plot), Body of Escalating Conflicts / Obstacles, (Threshold of No Return that throws the character before the Threat), Final Confrontation / Escape. You can’t pre-set when each instance will happen but you can ponder different possibilities and squee with delight when your characters inadvertently hit those triggers.
The basic rules of pacing a Three Act Structure – and anything can be given this vague structure – is that with each new obstacle the risks increase and with increasing risks you get increasing tension. Allow a few respites here and there. Then heighten the tension to a fever pitch at the Ending.
Do remember, though, that while a game is most satisfying when the most dramatic and tense moments are at the very end, players are far more forgiving than audiences and will understand if it’s not as you can’t control their character’s actions. In fact, they would prefer to stumble across an extremely tense moment three steps from the start on their own rather than be railroaded into a theoretically tense and epic moment at the very end. Let them stumble along and experience things organically. Just do your best to develop the tension toward the end and leave your best and most dramatic scenes until the end.
Every so often the tension must be released (with a temporary win, an IC joke that clears the air, a safe place to hide) but it must only be a partial release that allows you to build the tension further. IMPORTANT NOTE: If you don’t allow these respites, the tension will become unsustainable and will peter out. You can’t expect that incredibly high levels of tension can be maintained throughout even a single session. It can’t. However, a respite of indeterminable length in a place that may or may not truly be safe can also add an anticipation factor that can keep the tension high.
People are interested in the unexpected. When the unexpected could deprive them of something they want – ideally their character’s own survival – then their interest turns to anticipation and fear of loss. Therefore, unexpected plot twists and deviations from “standard” plot timings are important. You don’t want the players to be able to predict how long a respite will last or when the next scare will happen. Yes, the Three Act Structure does play against this, but knowing that the best comes at the end shouldn’t stop you from twisting the rules. A safe place could become unsafe in an instant. An area that appears to be unsafe, such as if it were littered with bodies, might actually indicate that the enemy has already been and gone.
This is especially true in campaigns. For players to really be affected by the unexpected, you need to create a sense of normalcy. One way to do this is to examine plot progressions in previous games you have run so that you can figure out your own patterns and then use that against them. Do respites generally last for twenty minutes? Cut it shorter or have it last longer. Do you always have the bad guys’ first attacks only be to test the characters’ mettle? Then have them aim to kill next time.
Do have at least one ‘ending’ in mind. Preferably, think up multiple ‘endings’. Never decide on The Ending. It won’t happen. In fact, it probably shouldn’t happen as it won’t accurately reflect the plot thus far nor the character’s mentalities by the end. Writers who write by a synopsis will often change the endings if their novels end up deviating significantly from that synopsis so why should you be any different?
So why come up with an ‘ending’ at all? Well, that’s just so you know that there is at least one solution. It clues you in to how difficult the adventure is and whether the characters have a chance at solving it and will clue you in to when you might be approaching the ending. It’s far too easy to create a plot that can’t be solved without a ridiculous amount of ingenuity and luck. If you still want to encourage an ingenious solution, well, include a greater reward for the Good+ ending but always consider a mere Good ending based off logical reactions.
Happy horror gaming!