Saturday, 21 April 2012

Thrill of the Chase

In a recent episode of Zero Punctutaion, Yahtzee criticizes "Silent Hill: Downpour" complaining that it is a Survival-Horror game but is not scary.  He gives two reasons for this:
  1. "Chase sequences are scarier if it isn't clear what's chasing you" but here the game is too well-lit and the entity chasing you too visible
  2. About the monsters he says "they're just dudes.  They're not grotesque twisted monstrosities that stumble around like someone tied their knees to their tonsils"
Now, I've already made some suggestions how to make an RPG session scary in a previous post, but I'd like to examine these two issues Yahtzee raises in better detail.

Step 1: The Build-Up

As Daniel Obrien points out
"What's the point in every monster movie where it starts to lose the scary?  When they finally actually show you the monster full-on!"
The fear is greatest during the build-up, when the threat is unknown.

In addition, running away from such an unknown threat, increases the effect dramatically.  As soon as players make the decision to fight rather than flee, the fear-factor is reduced.

"So how do I make the players to flee?" you might ask.  You don't--the decision to fight or flee should be up to the players.  Nevertheless, in many gaming circles, fighting is the default option players consider.  With a little bit of preparation, though, the DM can provoke the party to at least consider the option of flight:
  • An old man in town tells the PCs "They say it can't be killed, that bullets cannot pierce it's rotting flesh!"
  • None of the superstitious locals are willing to join you as torch-bearers.  Finally you locate an out-lander who is willing to join for twice the going rate.
  • "One of farmer Yorgeson's cow's wandered off one night through a break in the fence.  They found it the next morning, at least, they think it was the cow--what was left of it."
  • Remains of another adventuring party, their fingers, toes, and kidneys, all conspicuously removed.
  • Hirelings forced to roll morale or flee at the first sign that the monster is near.
  • Wherever you go, you find a trail of freshly mutilated animals placed vindictively in your path (as per The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon)

Even if the players decide to face the danger head-on, the mood has been set and they'll be at their most fearful/cautious.

Step 2: Encountering the Monster

If and when the PCs finally do encounter the monster(s) face-to-face, you don't want it to be a disappointment.  They should live-up to the aura of fear surrounding them as much as possible.  There are two basic approaches to this:

Make it Alien/Other

This is really a continuation of the build-up in the chase sequence: even once the players encounter the monster, it remains alien, poorly-understood.   There are a number of techniques to accomplish this:
  • Give them alien cultures/psychology 
  • Describe the monster to the players, don't give it's name(especially if it's from the DMG etc.)
  • Invent your own monster, or create your own variation of a classic 
  • Not effected by normal weapons(Werewolfs,Vampires, etc.)
  • Not visible to the naked eye(The Dunwitch Horror)
  • Have it live in some outré location with strange Lovecraftian "cyclopean architecture" reflecting some "non-Euclidean geometry"
  • Lives in the dark/water/swamp

Make it Repulsive

Another point made in the video linked above is making the monster repulsive.  It should really make the players/characters uncomfortable.  Some ideas:
  • Make them viscerally grotesque/smelly/dirty/slimy
  • It's attacks are unsettling(Mindflayers sucking your brains!)
  • Make them contagious(i.e. Werewolf's bite)
  • Give it a proboscis, nictitating membrane, vestigial limbs
  • They bring nets to capture people and drag them to their lair below the earth for who knows what purpose

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