With Halloween looming, you may be considering a holiday themed adventure for your party. If you run horror games as a long-term affair, then like all good Halloweeniacs you probably consider this time of year your Christmas and birthday all rolled into one, and may be looking to do something extra special (and extra spooky) for your group. With that in mind, let’s talk a little more about making your players afraid, and specifically about making them paranoid.
When we talked about the various types of fear a few months ago, we touched briefly on a type of fear most people don’t consider: paranoia. Paranoia may not be the purest or deepest form of fear that a GM can instill in his players, but by God, it’s the easiest. Further, putting a little bit of paranoia into your players minds helps set the mood for a horror chronicle (or just a shorter form horror adventure). This can help keep giggles and comic relief to a minimum, but using paranoia as a kind of ‘gateway fear.’
So how do we take healthy, well adjusted heroes and turn them into shifty-eyed, shadow-watching, nervous wrecks? Simple: you erode their trust in things they take for granted. You can make them distrust one another, everything around them, or even themselves.
1) Hero vs Party
“Godrik the Warfiend: you don’t know me, but I know you. My adventuring party plans to assault your encampment at the Wailisch Falls in the upcoming weeks. I can make sure that you get adequate warning of our approach, if you will agree to reward me once they’re dead.”
Jazzak stared at the note, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. Only by the greatest of fortune had he discovered the letter on Godrik’s steaming corpse. The only question now was which of his companions had written it?
The bonds of the adventuring party are the foundation of the game. A party divided is easy to destroy. At it’s root, paranoia is about pulling the rug out from beneath that trust. Making party members distrust one another is, fortunately, an easy task to accomplish. A missing piece of loot or equipment can often be enough. (After all, the group was alone in a dungeon or on the road: who else could have taken it?) If the missing article can be found in the possession of someone who shouldn’t have it (especially if they coveted it openly) it can make the sense of betrayal deepen.
The savviest of adventurers might be above suspecting their boon companions of petty theft. I’ve gamed with Phil and Karac for years, and I know that they might play a character that skives off the party loot (and would be shocked if they didn’t), but I know they’d never steal equipment that my character actually needed.
In cases like this, you can introduce the very real possibility that the betrayal is beyond the control of the betrayer. Vampires, werewolves, enchanters, and a host of other baddies can control the minds of their victims. The suggestion that one of their own has been given commands to act against the best interest of the party actually works better with more veteran gamers: they’ve had more experience with this kind of thing, and more exposure to the laundry list of beasties that could make it happen.
2) Hero vs Environment
“That was a narrow escape,” said Cedric. The other knights nodded. If they’d not found the lifeboat, their escape would have been for naught, and the pirates surely would have recaptured them.
“Not narrow enough,” muttered the lifeboat. The knights barely had time to scream before the mimic lurched to the side, plunging them into the ocean. A minute or so to let them stop kicking, and he’d have a nice meal waiting…
We’ve all seen the thief who checks every square foot of floor, the sad result of a man burned by an untrustworthy environment. If you can’t trust anything around you, then you must lean in to your party and your own abilities, as they become the only stable territory left to you (giving a sadistic GM an opening to instill even more paranoia).
In it’s simplest form, an untrustworthy environmental factor simply lacks the supporting evidence that would accompany it. Imagine PCs exploring an abandoned tomb to a dark god. They venture into the dungeon complex, only to find horrific leering jack-o-lanterns waiting for them. If they injure themselves through foolishness, the faces in the next room seem to laugh and jeer them. If they lose a party member or hireling, then around the corner is a pumpkin with a carved parody of a mourner’s face, weeping mocking tears. The candles are lit, but there is no evidence of anyone placing them, or lighting them. This sort of thing builds the creep factor.
If you want to ramp it up, then the environment and its contents can be actually dangerous. The animated objects entry in the Monster Manual gives you the ability to turn anything into a potentially lethal hazard. Illusion magic can mean that nothing is what it seems.
There are even several monsters adept at using an innocuous disguise to lure PCs closer. The mimic is the current generation’s favorite example, although many a grognard can recall with a wince at least one PC who charged what he thought was an enemy that had failed initiative, only to run face first into the gelatinous cube he had been baited into.
3) Hero vs Self
The orcs came from the fog like ghosts. If Madrias hadn’t been able to get a warning cry off before they cut him down, the entire party would have been slaughtered. When the last of them had fled, Vorl and Sheiana had attempted to give a half-hearted chase while Orin used all of her healing abilities to keep Madrias in the land of the living. Only when Vorl and Sheiana returned did they adventurers realize that the corpses of the fallen orcs had vanished. No footprints marked where they might have run or been carried to. Only their shed blood and fallen weapons proved that they had been there at all.
What’s worse than not being able to trust your environment or your teammates? Not being able to trust your own senses. If players are unsure of their own base abilities, then they cannot be sure of anything at all.
The soft pitch version of this is NPCs or articles that vanish. Treasure that the PC thought they had, a corpse of a fallen victim, or even a trusted friend: anything that is there one moment and gone the next leaves the PC wondering if perhaps they’ve gone mad.
A more vicious reading leaves the PC unable to be certain of his own motives. A PC who wakes up not in his own campsite, but underneath a random villager’s bed while they lay sleeping, drooling in hunger and clutching a knife in his hand is a PC who is going to have severe doubts about his own sanity.
The sudden (and temporary!) loss of abilities, spells, or skills may lead a player to suspect something is amiss with themselves. Discovering lost information about their own background can sometimes shake a hero to their core, as they discover that their own identity is not what they thought it was, and that by extension their entire self-image may be a lie.
4) Hero vs Society
The innkeeper smiled as the heroes slammed their mugs down.
“Thanks for the business,” he snickered. The heroes stared at him as his chuckles grew to full-bellied laughs, even as their vision began to swim and their legs grew weak. The burning in their stomachs rose, and the last thing they heard before everything went black was the bartender’s roaring laughter.
I rarely use this type of paranoia. Filling your world with enough people who are going to lie and betray the PCs is a great way to isolate them and convince them they can only rely on one another (and if your game is that way, then by all means, this is a great tool to have). However, many older gamers tend to skew towards the ‘muderhobo’ side of the spectrum, (guilty as charged!) and for those kinds of groups, a GM usually needs to lead the PCs to engage with the game world more, not less. Isolating the PCs from other people limits the relationships they can have outside the party, which limits the emotional resonance you can create with your stories.
Be careful if you try to do this, though. There are certain avenues that players expect treachery from. ‘Questgiver who betrays you’ is such a tired plot twist, it’s scarcely even a twist. If you do want to make a betrayal stick, then it should be something that really hurts: either an NPC that is very close to the party, someone they’ve grown a serious attachment to, or someone with no attachment at all, who betrays them for little to no gain. The first makes them wary of intense attachments, while the second makes them wary of even casual contact.
This kind of game isn’t sustainable in the long run. You can’t run on paranoia forever: eventually that kind of constant fear turns into resentment and desperation. However, for individual stories or short term adjustment of PC behavior, paranoia is not only one of the easiest emotions to evoke, it’s one of the most effective.
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Quoth the Raven. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter.
Picture Reference: http://witcher.wikia.com/wiki/Ethereal
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.