First of all, it is fair to say that not every player can handle a horror theme. It’s human nature for many people, when faced with stressful situations, to alleviate that stress through humour or other potentially disruptive techniques. Roleplay is meant to be fun, so it never feels right to chastise a player for having fun, even if it breaks the mood you’re trying to create. It’s better to outplay the player by weaving your horror in a way that establishes and maintains the right mood. That said, some players strive to be disruptive, and at times it's best to concede that until the group dynamic changes, horror stories won’t work.
It’s important to listen to players and get to know them. Using their real life fears is something that can be used to get under their skin and creep them out. However, you have to use such knowledge very, very carefully. One of my groups included a player who was creeped out by scary little kids. As the GM, I love using scary kids as a horror element, however this revelation meant I suddenly had to shelve the use of kids in my horror stories. Why? Because regular use of that technique would burn one player out and make them the subject of ridicule by others. Instead, I used the ‘creepy kid’ concept very sparingly. Instead of a creepy kid being a primary antagonist, I relegate them to a plot device instead. Essentially, out of respect for the player, I use the device with finesse.
A way to use real life fears responsibly for the people in your group is to simply make connections between what they are scared of, and what you want them to be scared of. If someone is scared of spiders, then dropping their character into a pit filled with spiders is ham-fisted and irresponsible as a GM. However, having a spider crawl from the eye socket of a skull, or slipping in a description of brushing away a spider’s web, can create little moments of tension for a player which helps build the sense of unease. You might even use spiders as an analogy for something else, such as saying “The vampire’s nails feel like the needle point legs of a spider as he walks his fingers up your arm.” Play it subtle, or you lose the impact.
Avoid Tropes, Embrace Archetypes
I personally despise “Jump Scares”, both in movies and most especially in games. Most of the time it doesn’t work on me, and when it does it just makes me angry, not scared, and often any previous enjoyment gained, is thereby lost. Needless to say that means I cannot enjoy the majority of Hollywood horror movies. The Jump Scare is poor man’s horror as it’s nothing more than a glorified game of Peek-a-boo. I find that most tropes are like this, they are tired and juvenile, and quality settings like World of Darkness deserve better.
Tropes also make a game predictable. I’m currently playing in an official published adventure for Dark Heresy. Every time we encounter an altar, we know there will be something hidden in, under or behind that altar. It’s sad, but every single time that’s where the clues are.
Yet there is one cousin of the trope that has a very powerful place in horror stories, and that’s the archetype. While a trope is nothing more than a common and tired old device, an archetype instead lives in the subconscious mind. Put the characters in hip high murky water and you can trust that the fear of the unknown below the surface will have players on the edge of their seats. You don’t even have to put anything dangerous in the water, just use the archetype to slowly build tension.
There are a wealth of archetypes, and with only a little research into the subject, you can find they have the potential to embellish all aspects of story telling. Simple things, like the symbolic meaning of passing through a gateway, can enhance gameplay on a subconscious level, drawing players into a story and evoking primal associations.
Create Immersive Environments
Horror doesn’t have to take place in old graveyards or abandoned houses. The best horror puts people somewhere familiar, then makes that place no longer feel safe. In an abandoned house people almost expect the eyes of a painting to move, so if it happens, it’s boring. However, what if in a busy nightclub, the PC bumps into a giggling woman who then turns to the character and in a deadpan serious voice says, “We’re watching you,” before she goes back to partying like nothing happened. Suddenly you’ve made the entire crowd feel like a potential threat.
It’s important to properly apply the consequences of an environment. In one particular D&D session, as GM, I had the party attacked by zombies in a semi flooded cellar. Because the zombies had been submerged under the water, their flesh was rotten and sodden. Describing the squelch as weapons impacted the dead flesh had the players looking almost physically ill. Suddenly, comfortable dry old generic zombies felt like creatures of horror again, just because they were given more impact by using their environment for a different effect.
Harness your Player’s Imagination
Some people seem to think that good horror is created by graphic volume; the more blood, the greater the scare factor. But good horror is built incrementally, with lots of little things each adding up to make the world feel strange and unsettling. Fear is a strange emotion, because the unknown is almost always scarier than the known. What makes the writing of H. P. Lovecraft horror is not the tentacle monsters, but the threat of those monsters. It’s the anticipation, not the encounter. The longer you can delay and build the anticipation, the scarier the end encounter should feel.
Picture the party having stalked a killer in a castle. Upon reaching the scene of the murder, the scene was described to the players; the walls dripped with blood, organs lay strewn about and entrails hung from the banisters. None of that was particularly scary though, it was almost expected. What terrified the party was the was one place the blood was not. Sitting on a chair beside the bed was the victim’s maid uniform, folded neatly and without a drop of blood upon it. That one tidy, out of place item, engendered far more fear than buckets of blood possibly could. Why? Because it spoke of something not wild and violent, but of something incredibly organised and violent. It ticked some box in the player’s heads that said this wasn’t going to be an ordinary encounter and it had players wracking their brains trying to find new ways to approach the invisible threat.
Make the Horror Believable
The less real something is, the less frightening it is. A Gibbering Mouther from AD&D should be terrifying, but to most players it’s just a sack of HP and XP with an annoying special ability. I’m not saying a Gibbering Mouther cannot be scary, it just takes more work to build the encounter. However, a grinning baby with a cleaver feels more naturally disturbing because we all know what babies look like. We also know that babies shouldn’t be brandishing cleavers and we especially know that they shouldn’t be grinning about it when they do. Suddenly, a goblin disguised with an Alter Self spell just became a horror encounter.
I find people to be the most terrifying of all horrors. People are easy to overlook because they are everywhere, and they could be thinking and doing anything. If a dragon eats a village it’s just following its nature, it’s not actually scary. However, if one person poisons the well and kills everyone in the village, then they are truly evil and might be capable of anything. In a game where you can tie in highly emotive elements such as any of the seven deadly sins, there is no end to the depths of depravity a simple human can stoop to. In essence, there is nothing that is really predictable about a human antagonist, because they could do anything, and the bad guy could be anyone.
Putting it all Together
Horror is something that is carefully built, piece by meticulous piece. You cannot just slap a fear rating on a monster and say you’ve written a horror story, that horror has to be truly expressed to the players. Build towards the climax by carefully burrowing into the subconscious using archetypes, and creating an immersive environment. Put players in the shoes of their characters, and make them emotionally connect with what’s happening. There should never be a line drawn that says, ‘scary part begins now,’ because everything leading up to that scary part should be helping to create that moment.
Don’t be afraid to borrow from real life fears, but do so very responsibly, and never force it on players if you think there is any chance it might go too far. Horror is a game of subtlety, and the moment you try to push it, it actually releases tension rather than build it. Players will want to stay engaged if you draw them in and let their imaginations create the horror for you.
Ultimately it’s still all about having fun. Even if your efforts at horror fail, as long as people had a fun experience, then there’s no need to get upset about it. Just take what you can from your efforts and build upon it. Every single group will have a different dynamic, and what works in one group might be a complete flop in another. It generally takes months, if not years, to get to know a group well enough to create real horror based stories for them. In the meantime, don’t let the other elements of good story telling be forgotten.