“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.” -Stephen King, On Writing
Horror gaming can be tough to DM. Not all players are created equal. Some can be much harder to put a scare into than others, either through personal experience or through a difficulty in connecting with the game world deeply enough to truly be scared. Fortunately, there are several different types of fear, which increase in their scope and universal effectiveness as they decrease in severity. Once you’re familiar with what the different types are, and know which kind you’re going for with your encounters, you can exert a greater degree of control over your group's emotions.
When you successfully terrify a player, you scare them in a way that has a long-term, lasting effect. This is possibly the hardest form of fear to inflict on a player, and may not be possible to do purposely. Terrifying someone depends on a lesser form of fear touching a nerve and creating an association that’s hard to shake. When you successfully terrify a player or character you’ll see a shift in their behavior that will last for months, if not years. After a particularly gruesome encounter with a Kyuss worm nearly a decade ago, I over-react to zombies in D&D, usually refusing to engage them in melee. Especially if the group is underpowered or the cleric is down. The truth is that this is the grand slam of player reactions. The catch? You can’t force it to happen. All you can do is apply the other types of fear correctly and hope for the magical connection to cause the niggling sense of dread that just won’t leave.
The little brother of terror, horror is the best form of fear most DMs can achieve purposely. Horror is deep, resonant fear that broadly affects behavior for a short time. It’s caused by your players forming a meaningful connection with the fearful encounter. In the first campaign I ran for my wife, I found myself stymied by the fact that she was very blasé about most in-game threats. Once I started threatening her animal companions and made it clear through one tragic encounter that her magic couldn’t fix all the wrongs, she began responding much more honestly to their peril. That encounter successfully horrified her. The best way to arrange a horrifying encounter is to know how your players think and feel. Once you can know their motives and predict their actions, you can create a much greater amount of emotional resonance with your scenes. Crafting situations which are fearful in a way that connects with your players on a personal level becomes easier. Be careful using actual phobias or mental traumas as leverage against a player, however. Such things are usually best left to close relationships where the other party is comfortable being manipulated in such a manner.
Anxiety is a fear of what is to come, rather than a fear of what has already happened. Anxiety is next to impossible to create, but there’s a trick: players create anxiety themselves. All you have to do is feed those sparks, and you can turn their reasonable concerns into a nail-biting, ulcer-burning inferno of anticipation. If your players are smuggling illegal items through a kingdom and one player mentions that they don’t want to get caught, you can seize the opportunity to create anxiety. Maybe you can show a few beggars, pleading with their stumps, and then mention that hand removal is the common punishment for smuggling. You could have them pass a merchant being scourged in the town square for avoiding trade duties. Maybe a border guard eyeballs the party suspiciously and starts walking nonchalantly in the same direction that the party is. These add gradual fuel to the fire, increasing the initial fear. It spreads to other players as well, who begin to wonder if the first person was onto something after all…
Fright is the jump scare. It’s not a fear of something that has happened or will (even potentially) happen, it’s a fear of something that is a clear and present danger. Frightening players is quite easy, it’s just a matter of presenting a threat of uncertain magnitude. Frightened players don’t know if they can defeat this monster and aren’t sure if they should engage in combat or flee. The razor’s edge between fight and flight is where fright lives. Unfortunately, fright is also usually short lived; it lasts only moments on screen, and no more than a round or two in game. Like a drug, fright also loses its potency with repeated exposure. The more you resort to it, the more players will begin to expect it, and the less uncertain they will be.
Paranoia is very close to anxiety. At its root, it is the fear that something is not what it appears to be. The good news for the DM is that paranoia is the easiest form of fear to inflict on players, and can have an impressive duration. Even players who are inured to most kinds of fear through experience or lack of immersion can be made to engage in paranoia. Gamers are by nature a perceptive and suspicious lot, which is the basic recipe for paranoid fits. Simple set them up and wait for the avalanche to start. For instance, check your text messages, then ask everyone to give you a written copy of their inventory. After an innocuous conversation with an NPC, ask everyone what their Will saves are. Pass a secret note to a player that says, ‘Read this note without speaking, then look at me, shake your head, and say “Not now.”’ Call a player outside for a separate scene. It takes very little to make players think that the world around them can’t be trusted. It takes a little more work to make them suspect that one of their own can’t be trusted, but this kind of paranoia is the most biting, since it undermines the bedrock of stability their entire little world is formed upon: the sanctity of the party.
We don’t usually think of being grossed out as a form of fear, but it is. Even if you find yourself with the most jaded of players whose personal experiences have left them numb to the ravages of most forms of spine-tingling scares, you can still hit them with a situation gross enough to make them wrinkle their nose in disgust. NPC allies who are particularly revolting are a good start. Persistent slobbering speech patterns, deep hacking coughs, or harsh growling voices can all cause a player to recoil. Your objects of fear can be more visceral, too; when using these tangible sorts of scares, really hammer the descriptive points to drive the sensations home. The stench of rotten meat from a carcass that the PC just can’t get off of their hand no matter what they do, the slippery entrails that stretch and flop every which way as the character tries to move them, or the tingling itch as scores of insects climb through their hair and clothing can all be enough to make even the most hardened adventurer push away from the table to pull themselves together.
The types of fear are like tools in a safecracker’s kit; sometimes you can’t use the picks and you’ll need to go to the drill. When the delicate tools don’t work, the broader types of fear are still available as a fallback. Of course, in the same way that veteran safecrackers know that sometimes you just have to resort to the dynamite. Savvy DMs always have a stinking, oozing monster in the wings, just waiting to wrap its clammy fingers around a PC’s throat.
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.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.