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I'm currently narrating a horror-esque campaign set in a dystopian future based on the Lovecraft Mythos.

My problem is that my players break their own sense of immersion often, making the game seem no more tense than a walk in the park.

I believe that fostering a more atmospheric playing environment around the table, and ratcheting up the in-game atmosphere and horror, can keep the players from wanting to break the tension. What strategies work to make players believe and invest in a horror atmosphere?

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It seems both questions are actually one. My players use to break immersion, how can I make a believable and immersive atmosphere for them? –  Flamma Jul 5 '13 at 17:06
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Related: Preventing saturation in a horror campaign? –  Sardathrion Jul 24 '13 at 16:25
    
This isn't enough for a full answer, but players who break immersion often do so deliberately, to keep things from getting too tense. Often, such players are more than willing to hold back for a session if you ask them, and explain that you want to maximize the tension and emotional impact of the session. –  GMJoe Jul 20 at 1:39

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This is a pretty large topic. I'll offer up my essay on Horror in Roleplaying as a partial answer. A quick summary of the approach:

  • Create personal investment in the story for the characters
  • Use descriptions and props etc. to make it more tangible to the players
  • Use information compartmentalization and PC conflict to remove feeling of safety
  • Leverage the unknown instead of the known in the story
  • Carefully use pacing adaptively to the group's mood.
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+1 for summing up the major points to an incredibly broad topic. It would probably take an entire essay (as you've linked) to appropriately answer the question. –  asteri Jul 5 '13 at 23:01

A few ideas:

  • Set the stage: Dim the lights, play appropriate music, and use props if possible.

  • Let the steam out: Allow for break periods and pre-game chat, so players can catch up and get the jokes out before play commences.

  • Stoke the coals: As a last bit of pre-game talk, perhaps ask the players to recount times they were frightened, what they find personally scary, etc. That will bring their minds to a darker place, and make it easier to set a mood.

  • Make it count: Make PCs actions count for something. If action have real (and possibly deadly) consequences, the players should pay attention. Allow them to get personally invested in their characters and then put those characters in peril.

  • Last: Describe, describe, describe!

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First and foremost you need player buy in. They must be on board and help you with setting the mood. Otherwise, it is a non-starter. However, realise that being scared is stressful so you will not want or be able to keep it up for hours and hours. Pacing is key. Most of the time, let your players have fun and do not scare them. When the time comes, have a tale that announced "here comes scary bits, please get into characters".

Disclaimer: When I run a horror game, I intend to stress and scare my players. Yes, you read this right players not necessarily characters. This is part of the contract they sign before playing in one of my games. You do not like it, do not play in my horror games. Clearly, there are things I accept as taboo if and only if the player talks to me about it. Running a rape scene with a rape victim crosses the boundary, even with the above note. So, make sure you ask your players if they have something that they want to be off limit.

As to what you can do: attack all the senses of the players and use what you know scares them.

Sight: Darken the lights, add diffuse colour (red is best), and cut out outside sources.

Sound: Modulate the tone and speed of your voice. Invest in some good soundtracks such as Silent Hill, Biohazard, The Things, et al and play them on repeat. Have a secondary player to play sound effects. This is a nice thing to play.

Feeling: Make sure the room gets colder. Play with that air con, if you have one. This is the hardest to do since unless you want to drop fake spiders down somebody's neck, you do not really have access to the players' skin.

Smell and taste, and touch really: Unless you have access to foetid chemicals and what to stink your house out, you have to reply on describing what the characters smell, taste, and to a greater extend feel. Remember that smell is the surest way to awaken memories. Use this to bring the character's background to the foreground and then mess with it. Associate old pleasant smells with horrible things.

This is where RPG excel at! the GM is the sole sources of what the characters's interactions with the world. Mess with that. Describes things differently to different players. Those strange little rock Bob is handling sure look like little baby fingers to Alice...

Finally, you should learn about fear. Find out what makes people afraid and use it on your players.

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Dammit! This is a paraphrase of this answer. –  Sardathrion Jul 24 '13 at 16:24
    
Your mention of The Thing (the John Carpenter remake I assume) reminds me that playing PC against PC where at least one of the players has been secretly infected with the alien virus, or been zombified, etc. could be a source of dread in a horror campaign. –  RobertF Aug 2 at 17:01
    
@RobertF: If could be but in most cases it is not. Players generally trust each other by default and thus the inflected PC has all the advantages. It can work well but in most cases, the rest of the players will feel cheated. –  Sardathrion Aug 4 at 7:06

Each session I let the players chat for 15 minutes before starting the game. It gives them time to socialize, and by the time the game starts they are ready to focus and actually play.

This technique has cut down out of game discussion by a massive amount, making it much easier to immerse the players in the stories I make.

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