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Sometimes when I design scenarios, I realize that my mental image of the adventure is only exciting because it takes place at night. When the players actually play through the adventure, they might foil my plans by simply deciding to investigate the haunted forest during daylight hours.

In horror movies, they always find a reason for the scary parts to take place at night (even if that reason is just sheer stupidity). In a tabletop RPG where the PCs have free will, things aren't quite as easy.

When an adventure needs to be set at nighttime in order to be dramatic, how can I make sure that it actually takes place at night?

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16 Answers 16

up vote 28 down vote accepted

I hate railroading and GMs breaking immersion to enforce their hackneyed vision of "the plot" so I figured I needed to contribute another perspective in the answers.

  1. Try not being completely in love with the specific idea of "there at night" you have. So they can go there during the day, and it's still scary. You can employ fog, rain/snow, and/or thick underbrush - it's just as gloomy and vision-reducing as night. (similar to @Ravn's answer) Or a very heavy hand of "the sun moves supernaturally fast and disappears over the horizon!"

  2. The local authorities don't want people going there, and sneaking there under cover of night is the only way to evade detection. (A common justification in horror stories).

  3. Are they going there to specifically confront/see a ghost or interact with the supernatural? Well, "They mostly come out at night." (similar to @evilcandybag's answer)

  4. Have the forest be large enough you can't get through it in a day - thus by necessity, they'll be in it at night. (or, @OpaZitiZen's suggestion of inserted delays) You can trap them there too, by a party member or NPC or pack animal being sick or wounded, physical hazards blocking progress or retreat, or other more tangible dangers (damn, an orc warband! Well, spooky forest is less directly fatal, let's go to ground here...)

  5. Like most event driven adventures, have some kind of time pressure on where they have to go there tonight or else lose the chance/someone else will die/etc. (Also a common horror story justification)

Why does Buffy patrol the graveyard at night? 1. It's when the vampires come out and 2. It's less obvious to the locals that doing it during the day. Why is Ash in the spooky forest at night? In Evil Dead, Ash is out there at night because 1. he gets KO'd most of the day, 2. the bridge is out, and 3. the sun sets with unsettling rapidity. Not all horror stories have people in the scary place "just because," well written ones do have justifications for it - actually read some of them and take the ideas.

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There are several choices.

  1. Just make it night. No matter how long it looks like it should take them to get there, they get there just after sunset. Might feel like railroading, but in a horror setting your players shouldn't mind too much. You can even use it to play up the creepiness factor: in the movie Army of Darkness, at one point the sun sets incredibly fast, going from early afternoon to sunset in what seems like seconds from the hero's perspective. Alternately the distance could inexplicably be much longer than what it looks like, so what should be a 30 minute hike ends up taking all day, with the haunted forest apparently not getting any closer until the party suddenly stumbles over a root on the outer edge just as the sun drops over the horizon.

  2. Don't let them wait; give them a reason why they need to go into that scary place right now rather than waiting for morning. Maybe they need to find something, or rescue someone, or escape something. Remember, just because the party isn't stupid enough to wander in doesn't mean important NPCs aren't that stupid (or unimportant NPCs carrying important MacGuffins).

  3. Check with the players: would anyone's character march right in at night, even if the player knows it's a bad idea? In my experience, many players meta-game a little bit without realizing it, but if you ask them if that's what their character would really do, they'll realize they're meta-gaming and get back in character.

  4. For broad areas like forests, if Mohammed & Co. won't come to the mountain, bring the mountain to them. If the players decide to camp outside the region, then at one point the watch falls asleep, and when they all wake up they're in the scary forest or whatever, and it's still night, even though they feel like they got a proper 8 hours rest or whatever. Hard to make this one work for haunted houses/castles/caves, unfortunately.

  5. For one reason or another, it's always night there; this can be like Dark City or like 30 Days of Night.

Finally, remember that once they're in the scary place at night, there's no reason for it to ever stop being night. The sun doesn't come up until the plot says it does (and by plot, I mean GM).

Edit: To clarify 1 & 4, I'm not talking about the party being incompetent, I'm talking about creepy supernatural stuff. Space & time simply don't work right around the scary place: either there is no path through space to get there during the day (no matter how much it looks like the place is right over there), or time is distorted, and the sun drops an inch or more in the sky in the time it takes you to walk 5 yards towards the place.

Also, as Vorac pointed out, certain perfectly natural optical illusions can cause distant objects to look much closer than they really are.

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I like your suggestions, but it feels difficult to use some of them more than once. Number 1 and 4 seem likely to turn into running jokes or constant frustrations that the characters always miscalculate their travel time by 12 hours and constantly fall asleep on guard duty. –  Jakob Jul 28 '12 at 13:40
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Have you considered that maybe you use night-based horror scenarios too much then? If I have trouble coming up for reasons why my players should get stranded on desert islands all the time, perhaps I use desert island strandings too much (just an example, rigid as it may be). Horror is good in small doses, a campaign of traveling from one dark forest/castle/cave to another would (at least in my opinion) get significantly less frightening with time. –  Ravn Jul 28 '12 at 14:32
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@Jakob: They're not miscalculating their travel times, and they're not falling asleep because they're tired. It's supernatural, and it's creepy. –  Oblivious Sage Jul 28 '12 at 15:24
    
@Jakob: To clarify, for #1, the scary place simply can't be entered in the daytime. No matter how long you walk towards it, you can't get within a certain distance of it while the sun is up. For a forest this might entail it always appearing to be a couple miles away, while for a house it might entail a hedge maze outside the house where every path takes you to back outside the property. –  Oblivious Sage Jul 28 '12 at 17:14
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@Random832: No matter how many paths they burn through, it only takes them to the outside of the hedge maze on the other side. People seem to be missing the point: It's not that there are barriers keeping the party away, it's that space is twisted around the scary location. It's kind of the opposite of a black hole: you can see it, but no matter how fast you travel you can't get to it, you just get pushed back outside its radius or redirected around it. No matter how much it may look like it, like there are no straight lines going there while the sun is up; it's surrounded by a discontinuity. –  Oblivious Sage Jul 29 '12 at 15:00

An appeal to role would fit very nicely here.

  • Lawbringer: The bad guys will only operate at night. It is your job to catch them in the act.

  • Msytical Ingredient: The mystical ritual can only be completed under the jet black sky of a new moon.

  • Appeal to masculinity: "I double dog dare you to spend the night at [X]!"

  • Appeal to Curiosity: "You can hear crying from the upstairs window of the creepy house across the street from yours. You're sure that it's been abandoned for months, so who could be in there?".

  • Appeal to Greed: You are paranormal investigators. I'll personally pay you 10,000 each to investigate the most haunted places on earth. At night. During the solstices.

  • Appeal to Security: "You've just stolen the Mayor's priceless family jewels. The closest unoccupied house at this time of night is the old Mac Greagor residence - the one that's been haunted for eons by the ...."

  • Appeal to Relationship/Friends: "The ghost kidnapped Daphne! We have to go back and save her!" "But Fred, that place is haunted!" "Rah, Reddy! Raunted!" "Well we can't just leave her there! She's our friend!"

  • Appeal to Relationship/Significant other: The waify image of your husband/wife wofts across the threshold of the haunted hill after you have been chasing fleeting glances of him/her all night.

If you're looking for more Hard and Fast ways to do it I recommend following Maslow's heirarchy of needs. Following from top to bottom, it may be easiest to use: Spontaneity, Achievement - respect of others, Friends/family, Bodily security - financial resources, food/water/a place to sleep.

As an inverse, you can always 'punish' the player as the environment or an antagonist to force the characters to visit at night. Some of the earlier examples definitely apply here:

  • Car breaks down, nearest building is the one you want them to visit, but they don't get there until sunset or later.

  • Villain holds NPC companion hostage in his haunted evil lair. Secret passage accessible only at night.

  • Solar powered death robots roam the streets during the day. The only safe time to travel is at night.

  • It's 167 degrees in the daylight, hot enough to cook eggs on the sidewalk. The machine that causes this is only accessible at night, when walking outside won't start COOKING YOU TO DEATH.

In a nutshell: Make them want to visit at night by giving them goals to complete and rewards to receive during a time-frame OR make them want to not visit at day by giving them strong encouragements against doing the active bits when the sun is up.

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+1 in particular for Maslow's hierarchy. That's outstanding, if I want to know how to motivate the players, I just need to check where their characters are (and maybe remind the players that their chars haven't eaten in days). Awesome tip! –  Jon of All Trades Aug 2 '12 at 4:31

Oblivious Sage already made a perfect reply, but I just wanted to add that scary places can be just as awfully scary in daylight. Perhaps the players get to the haunted forest and experience all kinds of unsettling stuff as they travel through it by day - something moving beyond a cluster of trees, objects and people appearing and disappearing where they couldn't, dead animals, completely silent areas with no bird chatter or wind rushing - and then when night falls, the horrors starts to seep in for real. See Blair Witch Project as (a controversial) example. At least you can always use this tactic when they get to the place to stall them until it's night.

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Make it so the PCs have to go there at night.

E.g:

  • The door to the temple of Bflaghnrwtw only opens when the unholy plaque of Xloptox is hit by moonlight.
  • The ghosts in the haunted house on the hill are only active at night, so daytime investigations will yield next to nothing except clues that stuff is going down nighttime, yo.
  • The PCs' friend gets kidnapped at sunset and they have to save her during the night, because at dawn she will be sacrificed to some eldritch horror from beyond time.
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If you're tied to it being night per se to make it scary, many of the other suggestions here will serve you in good stead.

But if you want to make it scary and creepy, there's a general formula:

Make things almost, but not quite, normal.

Sure, darkness is scary because you can't see. But what if you suddenly stopped casting a shadow? Or if you stopped hearing your footsteps, or the background noise around you. 'Quiet' and 'silent' are two different things, especially out in nature! What if you had the sneaking suspicion that rooms were moving around you? What if you saw people, but they made no noise and didn't react to you?

The Uncanny Valley is the principle that things that look almost normal, but not quite, flip a natural switch in peoples' minds. It's like how silly physics in Call Of Duty can be very annoying, but in Halo it's hilarious. When things don't seem remotely normal, one more strange fact wont be terribly upsetting; it's the new normal. But when things are normal, your brain runs through a checklist of your expectations - and notices when something doesn't fit. Which would be creepier and scarier; a six-legged animal with fangs, or a six-year-old girl with fangs?

One of the greatest tools a DM has isn't knowing what's scary - it's knowing what's not. And then nudging just a little. Because that's terrifying.

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This is difficult to answer in a system-agnostic way, but you should remember that horror gaming also relies on how you use your 'safe' time too. If you're getting near the big finish of your story, then waning daylight becomes a giant, nagging clock that ticks down to 'What a horrible night to have a curse' time. Give them X number of things to do before the bad thing happens, but only time enough to do X-Y of those things. That helps give you that urgency that gives rise to dread, and dread is your BFF when running a horror game.

So how do we keep them from just taking care of the bad thing during daylight happy time?

  • Maybe they're not aware of the bad thing yet, and it'll only come out and attack after nightfall and the rest of the adventure will be escape or defeating it right here and now.
  • They know of the bad thing, but the bad thing is only accessible or active at night, so they've either got to sack up and go in after it or it'll keep doing what it does with impunity.
  • Bad thing has prepared some horrible thing to happen at time index Z. If it's not already night time, then the party should have to do event A to stand a chance at defeating the bad thing. Event A's completion with coincidentally advance time enough that it will be scary time when the party gets to the conflict.
  • They can set out to attack the bad thing during the day, but get delayed somehow. Their transport breaks down, they are attacked on the way, someone is injured, something really bad chases them to 'safety', etc. These also work for trapping the party in the bad place and making sure they stay until the bad time.
  • The bad place/thing just straight up craps on your petty notions of the laws of nature and the flow of time. Oh you thought it was noon? Midnight now... Cry about it; it won't help.

Also remember that it's not just the light level that makes dark scary, it's the unknown and the isolation from other friendly people. The Sahara desert at noon is brightly illuminated, but it'll still kill you just as dead as Jason with a machete. Unfriendly locals (see Innsmouth), underground, abandoned areas, forests, or powerful storms (thunder, hurricane or blizzard), can all be as isolating and scary as night if you play them right.

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Ask the players if they are interested in how going in at night adds to the horror sort of theme. If they are interested, ask them why their characters would go in at night - let the players make up the reason! After all, they are interested in the horror.

And if they are not interested in horror and simply want to do as they will, don't get too invested in a particular idea of a scene. No plot survives contact with PC free will!

In regards to notions this will 'spoil the mood' or is metagaming, these are contradictory concerns. If you want horror, the players need to know what they need to do to aid in that - otherwise 99% of the time they will wander in some other direction and miss out on horror. There is no 'mood' if they wander off somewhere else, and no point in avoiding 'metagaming' if the game session becomes meh because they wandered in some random direction. Collaboration is both necessary and necessarily 'metagame' (technically it's just 'metafiction', it's not outside the game, just outside the fiction).

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Have a few semi-relevant (part red herring), backup plot events prepared that you can insert into the daylight part of your adventure to delay the PCs. Use these to make the story deeper and even more credible, and to build up / lay the groundwork for the tension - and to give them further reasons to enter the forest at night.

(Delay is good for other reasons as well: It's always creepier if you have time to immerse yourself in a world and in a character before the actual scary events take place: starting too soon usually leads to the bad Hollywood effect where filmmakers start their stories with too huge a bang (a heated chase etc) without giving reason to the audience to root and fear for the protagonists.)

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Piss them off.

The best game I can ever remember being in was a home game my Dad wrote for a charity event a few years ago. Long story short, a butler we'd been interacting with killed someone for money, then ran down into a trapped underground passage, then escaped.

The fact we'd interacted with him before, the fact he was always one step ahead of us, and a few other things, meant we wanted his head on a pike. By the 3rd or 4th trap room, we were taking risks to get at the retreating form we could see in the distance, leaping onto spinning, bladed gears and things.

Do the same thing to your players. Have someone constantly getting the upper hand on them. Betray them, sneak into camp and steal their stuff, frighten their loved ones, whatever. Then the players get a report from a friend that their nemesis is heading into those woods, and if they act fast they can catch him. If you have done it right they will charge in guns blazing.

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Silent Hill gives a nice twist to this: It's daylight, creepy, and all that... Suddenly, the siren sounds, the paint peels, and now it's night time.

What this entails is that your "creepy" bits are done in whatever time the characters turn up. It's just creepy. Suddenly, the whole world shifts to your survival horror setting. Of course, you need a reason for that to happen: dimension flux, third eye opening, whatever.

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Whenever it needs to be nighttime and the PCs end up there during the day, I cause there to be a very bad thunderstorm. Now it's much darker outside, much less pleasant to not be inside, and things like wind, rain, and lightning can do some pretty dramatic things to the mood. Even in the middle of the day. I've often had the players elect to wait the storm out, even, which always conveniently ends shortly after nightfall.

If they choose to wait until the next day there's nothing to stop them, but any DM should be able to think of a way to entertain the PCs (and himself/herself) when they decide to spend the night outside a scary location. Even if you don't get the whole dungeon at night you'll at least get an encounter or two.

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rpgarchive.com/index.php?page=adv1&advid=479 One of my favourite adventure plots, using your idea. –  Vorac Aug 1 '12 at 6:04

I'm not sure it needs to be night time. Horror and creepy settings are at night to obscure full view of the horror. But as far as ghosts go, a ghost in the darkness may as well be a human in the darkness. Try having spectral horrors during a time most people consider safe. If they can't see the true problem it might have the same effect.

Not all horror settings involve night or darkness. Some zombie moves use a effect called the [Uncanny Valley][1]: Humans naturally see things that look human as "like them self", but when the false human fails to act or react like a human it instills apprehension, disgust and fear in the observer. (Read the Uncanny Valley wiki article in that link for a better description.) It works with anything humanoid not just zombies, and robots. I ran a adventure in a town out in a secluded valley full of animated dead than moved like marionettes with out strings. The setting put the players through all manner of terrors. They expected just another town in a sunny little valley on the way to a more important objective, but still talk about the place to this day. The movie Sauna, was partially to blame for the inspiration.

A tactic I like to use to get the players into a nighttime setting is to not mention the time of day or allude to its importance. For example, making it seem like the villagers' fear of the bandits that hide in the woods is largely because the bandits use the woods' spooky legends as cover, might actually get the players going into the woods at night to look for bandit camps when their guard is down.

A lot of races in the games I play have night vision of some kind so day or night becomes a moot point.

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Perhaps a real nighttime isn't needed, but a magical one would do.

  • some sinister spell cast by the horrors that wait for the party within
  • damned to eternal nightfall by some super power, punishment for the atrocities committed therein
  • A curse
  • The side effect of a protective spell used to lock in the evil
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Tell the players that this is a horror game and that their characters should go at night. If they don't buy into that, they don't want to play a horror game.

Once they buy in, then you, as a group, can set how and why their characters are there, and so on.

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To me, this would really ruin the mood. Way too much metagaming. –  evilcandybag Jul 28 '12 at 11:21

So to make sure I understand, you have a group of players that WANT to play in a horror campaign, but DON'T want to have their characters do things at night?

Maybe, start by addressing that.

Next, a forcing technique: "Okay, everybody that doesn't want to go, I need your character to make a check of Intelligence minus Wisdom on two dice. If Int-Wis is a negative number your character packs their stuff to leave. If it's a positive number, and you fail your check, the characters pack to leave, if you DO succeed the check, you are lucky enough to stay here, at night..."

Intelligence (I know this is dangerous), Wisdom (I know WHY I have to do something that is dangerous). Use this logic to make this work platform agnostic. This way the Character stats are making the determination that the individual is going for you.

Also, time to use Slenderman?

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Anyone care to explain the down vote? I didn't violate any of the four tags OR the premise of the question. –  Everett Jul 30 '12 at 0:26
    
Maybe I'm just tired, but I'm having difficulty understanding your forcing technique... Could you possibly explain it? Oh, and I'm not the downvoter, I'm just curious. –  GMJoe Jul 30 '12 at 7:54
    
For me (I did not down vote) this answer is using too much abstract system. Since I do not use any system, it is not useful for me (-1). However, it can be useful to other that use rules (+1). –  Sardathrion Jul 30 '12 at 10:20
    
Possible reason for the downvote (also not the downvoter): Not all horror games require or expect the players to enthusiastically endanger their characters. Some in fact expect players to be very, very careful, such as avoiding haunted places at night unless absolutely necessary. This question isn't looking for a lecture, but for how to engineer that "absolutely necessary" part. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 10 '12 at 5:42

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