Thursday, October 20, 2011

Balancing Act 9: Scaring the Players

In a horror game, your goal is to scare the players as much as the characters. Of course, don’t expect to scare them every session and certainly don’t expect to terrify them. At the very least, each session should have a basis in the players feeling concerned for their character's safety or worrying about what's around the next corner. Creating a check-list of what taboos and issues the players are happy / unhappy about dealing with in-game is always a good idea to determine sensibilities before creating the plots.

Anyway, here are a number of ways to make this happen:

· Anticipation.
This is an easy one. Let them know what's about to happen and then draw out the time it takes to see the revelation. Daddy comes home to find the front door open and a slight smear of blood on the carpet that leads into the bathroom. You can bet he'll be worried about what's in the bathroom. When he comes across his wife's corpse in the bathtub and a photograph of his son at the playground with the words: 'Come find me' written on it, you just know he'll be anticipating the worst when he goes looking.

· Discomfort. NPCs with unpleasant mannerisms, confrontational body language, and worrying back stories can encourage a sense of discomfort in the players. As can locations that embody certain moods and themes designed to unsettle the players, such as taking a typically cheerful place and adding peeling paint and sagging doorways.

· Threat to Significant Others.
Have unpleasant things happen to the protagonist’s friends, family, possessions, and important locations. Be cautious with how you target those significant to the protagonist as the player might grow callous if it’s guaranteed that anything they value will be damaged. Generally, you’re better off using this option sparingly and giving the protagonist the opportunity to save the loved one.

· Pain. It’s easy for the players to feel disconnected from any pain that the protagonist experiences. However, good descriptions and audio cues can help combat this and discourage them from seeing their character's health as simple hit points. So never say 'You take 3 damage.' Tell them how the arrow strikes home. Hide their hit points if you can by taking care of that book keeping yourself. Also, props are your friend. Don’t just describe their leg snapping, snap a twig!

· Disgust.
Vivid descriptions of inventive uses / appearances of bodily fluids and body bits can help disgust a player. The easiest option for disgusting players with bodily fluids, of course, is to make a prop. Sure, it’s easy to say your protagonist will eat the worms to make the ghost happy, but it’s harder to eat the boiled spaghetti while blind folded – or to eat chocolate mouse styled to look like doggy poo. You'll need Player Buy In for this as players rights should be respected. Still, it makes a good point if your player says that his character wouldn't give a damn about eating dog poo when the player is grossed out by styled chocolate mousse. Also, beware, some players will make a point of devouring it happily just to squick the other players, so use with care.

· The Surreal. Where nothing can be predicted, the players can expect anything. Of course, the players will attempt to come up with a list of rules for whatever strange and surreal location or NPC you throw at them so feel free to change the rules now and again. It’s better if this isn’t done dramatically. Abide by what the players assume, mostly, but change a rule here or there, and then change it back.

· Body Horror. A mixture of sympathy toward pain, dread, and disgust can be evoked through body horror which involves visible mutations of the body in out-of-control and hideous ways. Left 4 Dead is an example of Body Horror, but it's even better when the character remains sane right up to the end of the mutations. To make it as scary as possible, make it slow (to build anticipation), seeming irreversible (to build up dread and expectation), and force major personality changes (to evoke paranoia).

· Paranoia. Describe a location to one player and then pass notes to all of the others. During a party split, separate the players into two rooms and then have one set of players behave strangely when they return to meet the others. Have the players show you how they would open a door or a jar. Take one player aside during a Zombie Apocalypse and have a character return with a suspicious cut that could be a bite mark. The players should never be too sure about what they're facing or who they can trust. Of course, it's often better to make NPCs the targets of character paranoia unless you're happy for the characters to wipe themselves out.

· Direct Threats. Direct threats to a protagonist are such a firm staple in the genre that they rarely work anymore. If you assure the players that Anyone Can Die, use set piece events to reveal the terrifying power of the antagonist (did that werewolf just body slam that car over?) and describe injuries to emphasise the pain and the characters might have their protagonists shy away a little more frequently. Bear in mind they may also flee rather than face threats if you do this too well.

· Revulsion. Certain behaviors are repulsive and those who indulge in such behavior are considered as such. Monstrous acts such as rape, pedophilia, cannibalism of the living, and non-consensual incest are the obvious few but they’re not the only taboos. Bizarre taboos such as pyrophilia (say, someone masturbating over burning themselves), regular incest between first cousins or siblings close in age, eating bodily fluids (say, feces) off a plate, or certain forms of self-mutilation can all repulse us as well. Just take care with your use of these and ensure your players can cope with the subject matter.

· Shocks. These are the scary events that happen suddenly and unexpectedly. These are predominately visual in videogames with something jumping out at a player. Due to the pacing of a line of description, it’s harder to fall back on a visual scare. Even suddenly producing a picture of a monster is hardly going to frighten. So look to audio cues. Suddenly yelling at a player, slamming a fist on the table, dropping a book, or setting up a scream amongst the otherwise softly moving soundtrack can all provide these possibilities. You can also set up a milder form of shock by having something sudden and unexpected happen, such as a mild-mannered NPC pull a gun and shoot someone.

· Dread. Construct a sequence of revelations to heighten the player’s fear with each new revelation making the players feel like things are getting worse, not better. Apply tension to your voice like what you’re describing is the most important thing in the world. Build the anticipation, as before, but rather than emphasising curiosity, discourage it so that they really don't want to see what's around that corner. Avoiding clichés (such as blood would be in that example) can increase the dread as it raises the ambiguity of later events.

· Disconcerting facts. This can be set up with certain clues that foreshadow later events and it works well alongside attempts to draw out feelings of dread or anticipation. Use plenty of respites so that both the players and protagonists wonder what will happen next. Show little oddities about NPCs and the situation so that the players will begin making assumptions. Throw their assumptions on their head and keep them off-balance.

· Fake Scare. Often found in movies to release the immediate tension and allow for underlying tension to be raised, this is why cats jumping out of cupboards have become such a terrible cliché. When using these, try to make them interesting and organic to the scene at hand. At all costs, avoid clichés, or else the players might be laughing OOCly about your game world rather than ICly about the foolishness of their own paranoia.

· Suspense. Describe things nice and slowly to give a sensation of time dilating due to their stress. A desperate race across town to stop a murderer can be extended from the usual one-line “You drive to Morrigan’s house” into 2 minutes of hair-pulling terror. Be cautious not to over-stretch the suspense or else the player will snap down on the anxiety and shrug it off. Or worse, grow bored.

· Known Threats. Sometimes players knowing the statistics of a monster can work to your advantage, like a vampire being circled by werewolves in World of Darkness. Of course, the trade off for this is that the players may feel more in control of the situation as they understand the enemies’ capabilities. So where possible, make the threats unknown. Make the werewolf use rites that make them think it might be some sort of Mage or have them use mortal weapons like a Slasher.

So that should hopefully give you something to think about. Can you think of anything else that could be added to scare your players?

No comments:

Post a Comment