The Art of Fear

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How to scare your players in order to scare their characters…

Nowadays, it is rare for anyone to be frightened by a horror movie. They have big budgets and are full of special effects, dramatic shrieks and incidental music, but the clichés are faced against the suspension of the incredible that is required for a spectator’s proper immersion. Within the more budget-limited world of roleplaying games, where we depend on imagination almost exclusively, we can also find some useful tools to make players feel even a fraction of the fear their characters suffer. RPG Blog Carnival’s theme for March is “Things in the Dark” hosted by Moebius Adventures, so let’s take a step back and have a look at what horror and suspense novels and movies have taught us and how we can introduce these details into our little DM toy box.

When confronting our heroes against villains who want to conquer the world, we must clearly establish the tone of the campaign. Eberron has one of “film-noir”, well established since its introduction. That is why the villains must be threatening, preferably from the penumbra granted by the unknown.
One way to accomplish this is to make clear to the characters that, as they observe and chase the main villain, he also observes and persecutes them. The trick is to demonstrate this to the players indirectly, so you have to figure it out. My favorite tool is given by the Chronicle of Korranberg, or the Inquisitor of Sharn: a brief news about a cruel murder after an obvious torture could go unnoticed by anyone in such a large city, until law enforcement discover according to some witnesses that the victim was physically very much like one of the heroes. Was the hero the real victim?

Keep up the volume…

Many DMs have adopted the method of playing background music during their sessions. There aren’t many things better in quality and excitement than Rhapsody on Fire for fighting big, fierce creatures, including dragons, and the Sharn: City of Towers supplement also brings select, original and very appropriate pieces of music to meet this goal. Midnight Syndicate did the same for D&D, including a track where distant voices seem to be performing a ritual. This is all well and good, but if we really want to make it hard for our players, there are few things comparable to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. It is a pity that it is so linked to The Exorcist, so my second best recommendations are the instrumentals included in the Stigmata soundtrack. If the threats are related to some kind of religious element (which is extremely common, after all), the soundtracks of “Angels & Demons”, “Supernatural” and the most recent “Season of the Witch” will prove themselves very effective. I will probably dedicate a full article to this item in the future.

… and then turn the lights off

No, it is not necessary to do it literally; in fact, some players still use sheets of paper for their characters, and making it harder to read them is not a good idea. However, describing a scene in terms of lighting can make all the difference. For example, research scenes, strategy discussions and even equipment purchases can be placed in sunny days and well-lit rooms. On the contrary, danger and paranoia soar whenever the description includes a moonless night (none of the twelve, in the case of Eberron), windows covered with heavy curtains or even a dimly lit corridor. Sometimes even unconsciously, players will notice and their characters will react differently.

Daemon ex Machina

Both “The X Files” and “Supernatural” (two of my favorite series of all time along with “Fringe”, all of them excellent sources for the development of this article) recurrently use a simple resource: the malfunction of technology. The radio of the car that starts transmitting only static is probably the most abused of all. Eberron offers us prodigies that lend themselves to be used in this way: the conductive stones of the Lightning Rail are my favorite (“Hey, why is the train just slowing down by the edge of the Mournland?”). In general, though, any magic object can be of help. This tool, of course, must be properly planned: no one likes that their equipment simply stops working for no reason. On the other hand, it can become chilling that eternal torch titile without totally extinguishing when entering a temple dedicated to the Dark Six. In the British miniseries “Bedlam”, the protagonist usually receives ominous calls and text messages of an unknown number. Perhaps the heroes receive something similar through the communications service of House Sivis, or a mysterious package through House Orien. In any case, investigating their origin should lead the adventurers to a house abandoned for years, or to a sender buried in the last years of the war … or better yet, one that never got buried because his body was never found.

War of (dis-)Information

No horror story would be complete without mysterious symbols drawn on walls, floors and victims, made with dark ink, salt or blood. The detail is so cliché that any researcher would look for them, so … why not hide them? Here we can become highly unpleasant, tending to use gory elements. One of my more elaborate details (and celebrated by my players) was to hide the marks on the victim’s flesh, but covered in their own skin (meaning that the cultists had partially removed the victim’s skin, etched their symbols in their muscles, bones and organs, and they had put the skin back again). If we do not want to cross certain lines, the mystery can fall into substance: a Heal skill check can tell us that this is not human blood (“By the Sovereign Host, what could it be?”), or a Nature skill check could indicate that this ink-tone can only be achieved by using pigments from a tropical flower that only grows in Xen’drik (“It is amazing how quickly these damned cults of the Dragon Below have scattered”). The symbol itself can also be used to create latent discomfort in players when they can not recognize it, but it is composed of clearly malignant elements, such as bones and viscerae.

Nightmare on Main Street

To impose a bad night on certain characters (preferably the one who performed the ritual of divination a few hours earlier) will only have real effect if we impose a certain mechanical grievance on it. Having been harassed all night long by all sorts of night terrors can leave you without a couple of spell slots or even a penalty to Wisdom checks or saving throws. Do not be afraid to metaplay: give the player a description of his dream in written (“You do not remember anything, but you do feel shivers even though it’s a hot day”) and ask him to give it back. When others ask you to be sincere, you will not be able to, and all the characters (hopefully also the players) will be wondering is what can be so terrible that it can not be commented on.
dao_elfcommon
Common Elf, by Jason Chan

Signs and Portents

One of the many horrifying moments in “The Exorcist” is when Linda Blair’s character announces to one of her mother’s dinner guests that she “was going to die up there” in what appears to be a kind of trance. Then she does not remember saying such a thing, and of course, the guest in question dies soon after. D&D offers us a plethora of opportunities to achieve the same effect: from the temple clergyman visited to obtain clues or holy water, to gypsies found in a part of the way, to the rituals that the same group can use to their advantage trying to see the future, a veiled threat to the integrity of the characters will always have them on their toes… and after any encounter we can add the detail that gives meaning to the warning. Always remember: the more general the threat, the more pervasive… and the rhymes are optional.

The Unnatural

And another scene from “The Exorcist” that gave me the chills back in the day was cut from the original version, and reincluded in the re-edited version, and is widely known as the “spider-walk”. Such strange and bizarre behavior is particularly effective because it is something that no sane person would do under any normal circumstances. Making any character die to reveal an important detail is usual and will not compromise the reality of the adventure … why not make foam come out of their mouth, or even making them start cutting their hands or tongue before revealing the truth?

A Game of Shadows

When the 3E “Tome of Magic” got released years ago, I fell in love with the Shadowcaster. A side text in that chapter of the book described that, optionally, someone paying attention to a shadowcaster could realize with a Spot check (now, Perception) that his shadow did not seem to correspond to him precisely, sometimes appearing to make distinct movements. This type of perception is even more effective now that we have passive Perception and Insight checks. Again, metaplay in your favor: It raises the paranoia informing the player whose character does not have the highest Wisdom score that he saw a shadow (in the case of Perception) or an almost imperceptible wink (in the case of Insight or Sense Motive). Nobody on the table will know what to believe.

Make them shake with fear

This is just a brief advice. If the characters are affected by some “fear” effect and this causes them to suffer a penalty, do some math. Whenever they fail because of that penalty, describe such failure as a tremor in their hands, a chill that makes them lower their guard or cold sweat that makes them unable to hold their weapons.
soi-keyart-tyler-jacobson
“Shadows Over Innistrad”, by Tyler Jacobson

The Others come with baggage

There is a reason why we fear the unknown. Actually, there is no reason, but it’s precisely the lack of knowledge about anything which makes us fear what we don’t  know. Devils, demons and cosmical entities are much more than just monsters who lead a random encounter. The devil must be sought (and probably he knows that he is being sought, remember what we said at the beginning of this article about the mutual attention given by adventurers and villains). Dragons have their dens, demons as well. Make them look and fill them up with all the elements we have seen so far: lights, sounds, magic that does not work, cultists behaving erratically (“Why are they all cutting themselves? Is that a circle drawn with the blood they are spilling?”), skinned victims, and a long etcetera. The more recurring elements you have, the more it will make sense for everything… and the more terrible it will become. Describe the actions of the demon in an incomprehensible way too: Make them sniff out the heroes with their tongues or their tails, make the heroes realize that they do not blink and that their eyes seem to see through them… the more powerful, the more inconceivable.
Finally, and in a few words, always keep in mind that humans fear what we do not understand. It is true, and it is a valuable tool for any DM.
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