Sunday 30 December 2012

How to Scare your Players' Pants Off

Image Courtesy of @ Rakesh Rockey via 500 px
Okay, let’s face it. Any GM with any common sense knows that trying to scare their players is something like trying to rob Fort Knox: doomed to failure and almost guaranteeing future ridicule. However, it is certainly possible to use elements of fear to enhance the fun of the game. Most players show up to have fun, not to be scared of a guy rolling plastic dice and talking to himself. This article will outline a few tips and tricks you can use to—well—not scare your players—but use fear to enhance the game, and (with luck) scare their pants off.

Kill off Henchmen: Nothing says ‘this is supposed to be a scary adventure’ like killing off a half a dozen unimportant people accompanying the group. Sometimes it helps if the people dying off just kicked the butt of the party and were sent with them to ‘keep track’ of the player characters. While no player is bound to sweat much if a peasant falls in a pit trap, if a trained warrior wanders off and screams—things are bound to get interesting.

Split the Party: Normally, there’s nothing worse you can do than let the party split up. It’s tantamount to saying ‘I want this game to go down the tubes with random cut scenes’. However, separating just one cocky player from the group (and preferably his weapons, light source, and way back) can do loads to add to the drama in the game.

Employ the Cliché GM Chuckle: Yes, it’s a cliché. Yes, you’re an experienced GM who never uses it. Yes, that’s why giving a heartfelt chuckle while rolling a load of dice will make your players virtually piddle their pants as they try to cover exits and bar the room.

Hide the Mystery Monsters: Nothing kills the uncertainty and fear in a game like knowing what’s going on. If you say, “Ten orcs ambush you”, the only one liable to be scared is the guy walking past the cafeteria. Saying, “A 78 ft., oblong shadow with tentacles rips the thief in half before disappearing”, is bound to be a little more interesting.

Try actual Danger: There are few things as scary as actual danger in a game. If your long-term campaign story is too precious to risk killing a single PC, you might want to run a one-shot and let the players know they might die. Then you can feel free to use actual danger without which fear is like peanut butter without the jam sandwich.

Describe things Fearsomely: Players often take most of their cues about the game world from the GM’s descriptions. After all, it’s all they have to go on. If you start rambling on about how deadly, dangerous, mysterious, gloomy, magical, and purely insane a location would be to enter; the party will most likely think twice. However, think carefully before using this advice, or the group might just skip your adventure location completely.

Remove Key Reference Points: This may sound like I’m advising you to destroy the party’s lecture notes. However, I’m actually suggesting knocking out their key lines of support and defense. A good party will often maintain several key elements for their survival such as: knowing their location, marking exits, maintaining light, keeping ready food and water supplies, maintaining equipment for the venture at hand, and so forth. You may have gotten into the habit of just letting them have this stuff and not worrying about it too much. A good way to make them sweat is to allow them to lose a couple key references. If the dungeon shifts like mad and makes them lose their bearings, their torches run low, monsters rip/steal their food and supplies, and the temperature suddenly (and unexpectedly) drops to -100 degrees Celsius; the party will probably have some trouble on its hands. Expect the group to complain loudly if you do this kind of stuff. Remember, you don’t have to take it all away to make them sweat. Any one thing should do nicely.

Use Elaborate Magic: Otherwise known as ‘being cheap’ magic is there to be abused. Don’t just settle for teleporting the party to random locations. Have magical traps inflict bizarre forms of insanity, possession, or warp the laws of physics and reality. Endless corridors, reverse gravity rooms, and more are all options. Make sure you leave a way out and allow such afflictions to be cured eventually. In the meantime, unexpected magical effects can really mess with the party’s strategy.

Allow the Party to make a mess of things: Opportunity to enhance the fear element of a game may be no farther off than the party’s next bogus maneuver. Instead of saying something unhelpful like, “That’s impossible” or, “Do you really want to do that?” consider letting the party try to dive to the ocean floor, swim across the lake, jump the chasm, or enter the storm at sea. When they’d normally die, you can invent something absolutely bonkers to get them in trouble and enhance the game. When the thief is swimming a sea monster drags him to the bottom and a secret chamber, the ship is destroyed but the party washes up on a deserted island, the fighter falls in the pit and breaks through fifty feet of fungus into a hidden chamber, etc.

While it may not be realistic (this is a fantasy game, right?) it can sure add a whole new dimension to the game when you offer whacky solutions to otherwise certain death. When the party insists on taking on an army (and fails) consider having them sold into slavery or something else interesting rather than just killed or told off (by you).

Strike at the Heart: Nothing strikes fear into the hearts of experienced players like the loss of their most prized possessions. If the magical turkey explodes any gold or gems he gets near, if the wraith drains 57 levels with a touch, or if the evil wizard can destroy magic items; the party will likely become very angry. It’s probably just to hide their fear, or maybe they just hate the GM for being so arbitrary towards them and destroying all their hard-earned spoils for no good reason.


Like I said, most savvy GMs don’t try to actually scare their players. They just ‘set the mood’ and hope for the best. Oh, yes… “Heh…heh….heh.” *Rolls too many dice*.

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