Horror games are scariest when the risks are high and the odds of success are low. It thrives against backdrops of overwhelming odds, tragic losses, and bittersweet endings. Of course, the indiscriminate death of player characters also destroy the immersion factor of the game just as the frequent loss and replacement of the main characters of a horror movie would generally grate on the audience’s nerves.
Let’s face it, horror is also reduced when the participants have a Care Factor Zero approach to the game.
So how do you make the risks terrifying without a character turnover that looks like a fast food joint on a really off weak? Well, there’s a number of ways:
Cheat. Yeah, the dice always happen to roll in the most cinematic light … except in those odd opportunities where you want the players to desperately stare at the rolling dice in dread anticipation of the numbers. They roll high when you need to deal juuuust that amount of damage. They roll low to allow that lucky escape. You could do this judiciously or frequently, depending on your player’s gullibility and your skill with lying. It does take some of the challenge out of the game and your player’s must never, ever find out but it’s certainly a possibility.
Scewing the environment. So the light adverse enemies are meant to harry your protagonists through the woods toward the road and you’re hoping to cause them a reasonable amount of injury without killing them outright. Keep a list handy of possible refuges / pitfalls depending on their needs. If the dice keep injuring them mercilessly, roll a d100 to check their ‘luck levels’ but regardless of the roll have something beneficial turn up. A campfire bright enough to buy them some time. One of those construction stand alone spot lights to injure the enemy. Or if their luck has already been fabulous, you could have them still manage to sneak through unharmed but have it so their cars have been disabled so they now have to somehow make it to town. That way the dice really do land when they fall but you can still make things easier or harder depending on the story’s needs.
Weaker groups versus a powerful antagonist. If you have one antagonist, ramp them up so that they’re powerful enough to hold against all of the protagonists while if there’s a half dozen of them they should be slightly less powerful than each of the protagonists. Also, bear in mind on how you’re going to use these threats. If you set it up right, they might end up being terrified by the sheer amount of environmental damage they’ve done even before a single blow is leveled against a protagonist.
Encourage tactics and guile. Don’t let them keep spamming that ‘Use Dynamite to Solve Problem’ button but do encourage them to use the environment to their advantage. A threat that could only be foiled by dropping a house onto it is far more frightening than a threat that could be downed with a few shotgun shells.
Let it drop but don’t let it die. Some horrific threats might drop when shot up but won’t die no matter what they do. I once had these Undying foes that could be chopped up but their gore and viscera would remain connected to all the pieces and would slowly pull them back together. The protagonists could delay the inevitable by continuously hacking them apart but they would soon grow tired. This way you can have the enemy be a little weaker, or at least a little easier to take down, while still retaining the fear factor. None of their attempts will last … at least until they find the key to the whole problem.
Well, those are a fair few ideas at least. Do you have any other ideas to add to this?