I am currently designing my first horror campaign and what I've come up with so far is pretty dark and gruesome. I worry that if it is gut wrenching the whole way through, eventually the players will either mentally adjust, get bored, or pass their tolerance/exposure level. How can I stop that from happening?
Building Tension to Build Horror
I’ve played RPG’s since I was a kid, but I’ve also written narrative as a hobby for years. RPG’s combine the intellectual stimulation of board games with the deep engagement of storytelling (books and films). When the players calmly intellectualize their attempts to WIN, they’re in board game mode. When players FEEL something, they’re in engagement mode. As you’ve already guessed, horror can only be experienced by engaged players. Players experience horror as a form of tension. Tension engages them laying the ground work for horror.
The concern your question addresses is The Law of Diminishing Returns. For example, players may find zombies scary at first (a form of tension), but if they keep running into them, the zombies soon become familiar, then boring, and eventually comedic (a total lack of tension). Consider the zombie meme. It began with the fearful “28 Days Later” but was quickly played out by copy-cat films and computer games eventually producing “Shaun of the Dead” - a 180 degree shift from horror to comedy. Further, almost everything is subject to the law of diminishing returns. As the other answers suggest, a campaign seeking to remain tense by existing within the horror space for extended time, must tap the needs of tension to counteract the law of diminishing returns. Specifically, it must push high-stakes dilemmas on the players to build and sustain tension.
A dilemma is a difficult choice for the players. For clarity, a dilemma is more than a decision, which players make all the time. “Do I fire an arrow or cast a spell?” In contrast, dilemmas are the tough ones, coming in only two forms; lesser of evils OR irreconcilable goods. An irreconcilable good is when the player/s desperately WANT all of the choices, but they can only have one. This works great for treasure rewards in gaming by the way. Lesser of evils is when the player/s passionately HATE all of the choices, but MUST choose one. Needless to say, a horror campaign benefits greatly from lesser of evil dilemmas. With this focus on dilemmas, consider the following.
Pacing is not the scale of an event, it’s inherent drama, or the speed of travel. Rather it is the frequency of dilemmas over time. Many gaming sessions feature a battle-royale taking hours. Counter-intuitively, this can present as a slow pace. Why? Because of the lack of dilemmas while the battle transpires. Effectively the players make one choice, to fight, then play out that choice for hours. In contrast, a fast pace might look like this:
GM: A hoard of zombies surround you, closing in, but you notice a stair descending into blackness. Vapors seep from the opening. What do you do?
PLAYERS: We don’t like the look of those stairs, but there’s too many zombies. We’ll have to chance the stairs.
GM: You rush down the stairs, barely able to see. The sound of pattering feet signals the zombies pursue close behind. The stairs stop before a pit, water rushes by at its bottom, barely visible in the blackness. If you drop your backpacks you could leap across. What do you do?
PLAYERS: No way we’re dropping our stuff and we still can’t fight the zombies, but who knows what’s in that water. Damn, we’ll have to swim for it.
GM: You plunge into icy blackness, the water sweeping you into a large cavern. You barely make out zombies crowding either shore. As the current races you along, something slithers past your paddling feet. What do you do?
This quick succession of lesser of evils dilemmas constitutes a fast pace. Pacing, fast or slow, is not horror itself, but a fast pace creates tension priming the players to feel horror conveyed in other ways.
Many of the other answers detailed suggestions for establishing mood so I will not elaborate save to observe that mood can target the players (for instance, dimming the lights in the room) or the characters (descriptions of gore in the game setting). For maximum effectiveness, use both.
Alluded to in your question, rhythm is variation in the pacing and mood. Since both pacing and mood are subject to the law of diminishing returns, a GM must vary both to avoid draining the effectiveness of either. I’m sure you’ve heard that movie description ‘roller-coaster ride of excitement.” This references an effective variation of rhythm. Just remember, when varying pacing and mood, avoid repeating patterns. If the players detect the pattern, they’ll predict the surprises because the pattern itself is subject to the law of diminishing returns.
Remove Safe Ground
Like mood, this tension-building technique can target both the players or their characters. Don’t provide the CHARACTERS convenient ‘home bases’ (such as a room with a door they can lock) to sleep or heal in, where they can control their safety to turn off threats. Even more important, deny the PLAYERS safe ground. Avoid quantifying opponents and environment when feasible as this allows players to intellectualize their odds of success, taking emotion out of the equation. Also, it is common for GM’s to allow players the ability to stop game time while they tackle dilemmas. This kills the tension horror demands. I often employ the prop of a cooking timer to drive home the point. “Do you fight the zombies or run down the dark stair? You have 10 seconds to decide. tick, tick, tick, tick...
Easily the most common way game masters defeat their own efforts to raise tension is by making monsters fight to the death; for once monsters are destroyed, relief replaces tension allowing players to relax. These easy victories also sabotage the players’ sense of triumph. Consider a pack of undead wolves pursuing the players, employing hit or run tactics. Met with strong resistance, the wolves melt into the forest, but the threat remains. “What happens if the wolves attack while we’re fighting the zombies?” If the tension starts to wear off, the wolves attack again, or maybe it’s enough to hear rustling in the bushes.
My point in all of this, is that horror requires the players to FEEL tension as opposed to dryly KNOWING that a monster is there. When the players know what’s going on, they feel in control, and mentally switch into board game mode. Pacing, the removal of save ground, and denying closure build tension. Variations in rhythm prevent the tension from wearing off allowing mood to transform the tension into horror.
The key to a good horror game/movie is the pacing; if the characters are constantly in peril and exposed to horrific things then it will become bland. From my Cthulhu games I've found keys to this are:
Build up Slowly lead the players into somewhere dangerous, use mundane things to build tension like smashed glass, scrawled notes, lightning blasted trees.
Secondary effects The players don't need to see the horror first hand for it to scare them; jibbering wrecks of humanity left by the horror they can try to extract information from or get a few words from before they are hauled off by the men in white coats can also help.
False scares One of the scariest Cthulhu games I've ever played in was where we investigated an empty house the atmosphere and sneaking around creaky doors, trees knocking on windows, broken ceilings, flickering lights and everything waiting for something horrific. Then... nothing. Damn we were scared!
Surprises Give them time to relax, interact with normality, try to make sense of it, get them all warm and safe in their lovely little beds and sleeping and dreaming, thinking they're all safe. Then send the blood-horror through the wall to scream into their minds.
Breaks But at the same time give them breaks from the horror where nothing happens so they can stay on edge and worried, or at least try and relax
Mundane threats Not all horror in the world is supernatural, a good deal of it should be from twisted humans, just to drive in the stake.
Blind media Media denial can help; or people trying to rationalise it. Or is it a cover up. Conspiracy is a good way to help them get really paranoid.
Any sensation, experienced in full without stop will eventually allow or force those who experience it to adjust to or move away from it. For a 'horror' campaign to be effective, memorable, and successful for a good duration of time it is necessary to have a solid understanding of two things, everything else is secondary and dependent on your performance skills. If you understand the two things, then your campaign can rise above poor performance skills. If your performance skills are solid, then you have a chance to go for a legendary campaign the players will discuss for decades.
1. The meaning of fear
We use the word horror to describe this genre, but all the words we have for fear have different meanings and describe different sources and sensations. This affects the games we run in both how we describe scenes and in how we plan them. Consistency in design will allow you to help you lead your players in the direction of horror. Be aware that you can only go for the physical jump, shock, or reaction a limited number of times, and that this may not be the biggest scare that your set-up can generate. Shaping the session so that you can get the fear in under their skin will hit them harder, and be remembered longer. By building through the stages of fear and the little things which produce it, your sessions subtly shift and grow in intensity, preventing things from becoming stale.
Know what effects you are actually trying to accomplish. For example, it is important to know that gore does not equal horror or automatically produce fear, particularly when imagined. As a long-term Call of Cthulhu player, I have written about this on my blog to some degree and would like to recommend this link on Fear, and this link on running long-term horror campaigns from my blog plus this excellent essay from mxyzplk as supplements to my answer below.
2. The players scare themselves
A horror game requires a certain degree of acceptance on the part of the players. All the efforts in the world to create mood will not counteract the person who opts to destroy the mood. It is far, far easier to destroy than to create. This acceptance does not require that the players want to be scared by the GM, it just requires that they want their characters to accomplish a goal or goals within the scenario despite the obstacles in their way. As the players are really in control of their own fear, leading them to it also works to prevent boredom or desensitization.
Players scare themselves through being given the freedom to imagine the scene with few visual or aural constraints. Leading them to the borderline of sensory detail through implication and vague description produces stronger results and keeps the player actively engaged by putting them in a position where they do not know something they feel that they need to know, such as "Oh my God, what is that thing!?"
TIP: Be vague with sensory details. Let creatures, effects, the evidence of violence or madness, the trappings and costs of magic, and so on all be left up to the imaginations of the players. Suggest things, do not determine or mandate things. If a sacrifice was made and some human parts are left in a bowl, suggest it's shape, or colour, or size, or smell... and let them fill in the blanks. DO NOT be vague with empirical details of location. Denying information about the appearance of horrific things empowers players to create the details which matter to and lead them to horror. Denying information about distances, entrances and exits, stability of the floor, etc interferes with player ability to make choices and that is a barrier to generating fear as it leads to a loss of immersion and an increase of frustration.
Players scare themselves by making choices that neither they as players nor their characters as people would want to make. The obvious solution from a horror movie viewer's perspective when the heroine goes down into the basement to see what is making all of that creepy noise is to NOT go down into the basement. That is a meta-reason for not going. The character must have a compelling reason to push on into uncomfortable mental and physical territory knowing full well that something awful will befall them, and the player must have a goal to accomplish with and as that character in order to place themselves at risk of that fate... neither of them knowing when that fearfully anticipated fate will come.
Players scare themselves through realizing the consequences of actions and choices. As fear comes from many sources, so too does it have many shapes. Building fear through recognizing the fate of others, (first strangers, then friends, then loved ones, then finally themselves) helps the player and the character move from concern, to sympathy, to fear, to empathy and finally horror or terror. It is best if these realizations come a little too late as you near the end of a scenario or story, but that is not something you can always influence. Thinking needs to occupy two courses, starting with 'What do I have to do?' and ending with 'What have I done?' It doesn't matter if the characters survive, stay sane, lose their minds, or perish. A campaign does not have to be deadly to be frightening, and it does not need physical perils to cause fear. All it needs are choices and time to recognize the result of those choices before the consequences arrive.
Players scare themselves through attachment, and fostering attachment to the characters' contacts, family, friends, companions, and their own ongoing ability to operate against the horrors of the campaign are essential in maintaining that campaign. Not all games enable character longevity, which means that you may have to encourage the player to adopt a group of characters to connect with, but in all cases, creating attachment within the game world gives players something to lose, something to protect, and that again leads to them to a place where fear of one kind or another can begin to grow. As the threats of madness or peril slowly expand to affect those around the characters, so too do the ramifications of their experience, and that ensures that the story and its effects are evolving, not just being more of the same.
- The GM's voice is the players' primary access point to the game world and it needs to facilitate the development of the emotions and responses you hope to inspire in the players. It needs to facilitate, not create. It needs to suggest enough with tone, pacing, emphasis, and emotion that the players can project their own ideas onto it and ride that combination in the direction you want them to go. Words and ideas are your weapons, aided by volume and pitch. At times you will be the little voice in the back of their minds offering incomplete ideas and suppositions. At other times your voice will be a hammer, driving in the reinforcement of their own conclusions like nails in the lids of their coffins. You cannot tell them what to think, or what to feel. You cannot tell them what their character thinks or feels, but you can lay out the landscape of terror and watch those thoughts and feelings grow as the group steps out upon it.
People can tune anything out with focus and investment in a good story. You can help this by including small props like matchbooks, newspaper clippings, tickets, and the like, that help increase immersion.
Music gets in the way as often as it helps so consider its use carefully, particularly if it is familiar. Music you choose for a session will become tied to that session or story, so it might not work in the next one. Using music as a bit of realia works well to help with the necessary immersion. Looping a soundtrack can easily become a distraction or annoyance, and over long periods leads to a lack of reaction.
Being able to control rather than set the light level is nice, especially if you can arrange to have the players in a small pool of light, such as with candles on a table and the rest of the room in adjustable amounts of darkness, but this can interfere with the players' ability to take notes, read dice, examine clues and handouts, and check their sheets if it gets too dark, or stays dark too long. Anything which can create frustration in the player should be monitored closely. Fear leads to anger and all that... We want fear to lead to more fear.
- The use of physical distance can have interesting effects on your players and when not abused or overused, having a mobile GM who can move around the room during descriptions sometimes near, sometimes behind, sometimes with his back turned, and so on can all enhance the facilitation of mood. In addition, the proximity of players to each other can build or deny the feeling of support, safety in numbers, and security. As an example, in some cases the GM may want to lead a player further from the others without explanation or comment. Simply have a chair further from the group ready, and without fuss or bother, imply the character needs to go there.
Knowledge of the Audience
- The goal is to help the players create an enjoyable experience of fear within themselves and that requires removing or not tripping over any of the barriers and obstacles to that creation of mood. Outside of the obvious planning of the campaign, it is important to get a sense of what enjoyably scares your players and what is off-limits. One might enjoy the idea of exploring maiming as a horrific story device, another might enjoy the threat of disease, but for another spiders might be 'no-go' territory; the line not to cross. Fear is not rational, and even the little things might cause a player to leave rather than have fun being afraid.
- While play itself will be varied, strike different chords in the players, and follow your creepingly increasing pace toward terror, players need to be able to divorce themselves from the outside world and clean their mental slate before embarking on the journey. Have a little sequence of events that signal the start of the game and have it be long enough that players can get into character, recap events if necessary, and consciously choose to shift their mood. This might involve the use of a theme song for the story, or a series of news reports, the setting of the initial light level, the taking of specific seats, and the presentation of the first scene. With the comfort of this familiar starting ritual, the new and interesting events of the evening more easily are seen as the part of a the story's thread, connected but different.
Fear Breeds Fear
- Once the players are displaying the physical cues of agitation, or unease, it is time to let things take their course. Do not try for a specific time limit, just let things build as they will toward the big scare, and the more horrifying aftermath. As you work to inspire fear, pay careful attention to the players to note the signs of your efforts bearing fruit. You are not giving them fear, you are trying to sell it, so you have to be acutely aware of when your fish snatch the hooks~
This may all sound very hard, but it is something most of us do all the time when we want to promote empathy in the listener. You want a certain amount of familiarity and repetition in the tale to allow the listener to make sense of things and draw conclusions. You want just enough ambiguity and variation to make them question their choices and actively put themselves in the scene. Reflect the fear you want your players to feel, let them fill in the blanks with their own experience, enhance the sense of a shared experience, and give them enough rope to hang themselves.
When they are doing the hanging, the players do not get bored~
Think about a horror movie for minute.
Pacing: most horror movies are pretty fast paced, and move from scene to scene quickly. This can help keep viewers (or players tense). But sometimes they slow dow
Mix it up: there isn't something gross in ever scene. Sometimes a chase is a chase and you get away. Sometimes there are moments for character development (not horror's strongest suit, but sometimes it happens).
Leave things to the imagination. Hitchcock was great at this, giving a different perspective and letting the viewer think about what the scene actually looked like. Give your players the silhouette in the shower and let them describe the gore.
Set the mood. It's no coincidence that a lot of horror happens in the dark, when it's stormy, with strobes etc. If you're not fortunate enough to be playing during a storm, make sure your descriptions of the environment are vivid, and dim the lights (if possible). Don't be afraid to have someone that's not playing suddenly cut off (or flash) the lights at a tense moment. Bringing the physical environment into play.
Build to drama. Someone might die at the beginning of a film, but a viewer may only have vague details. Let is simmer for a bit and build to your climax. Whether your drama builds mechanically (say like in Dread) or story wise (hopefully both). Don't rush right into the blood and guts. Drop subtle hints at the beginning, and then drop the hammer towards the end of the scene.
Most of all (like with any game), know and watch your players. Keep an eye out for signs of boredom, tolerance etc and use those moments to quicken the pace and kick the plot in the direction you want to take it. If you find that your players aren't as scared as you think they should be at a given moment, bump up your description, your pace, or give them a fright (have a scare prop or two on hand just for these occasions).
You cannot sustain a horrific setting all the time. Thus pacing is key. Allow the players some normal and fun times -- both IC and OC. However, there are a few things you can do to always unsettle them. Mostly they boil down to alienation. You want a disconnect between nice comfy reality and the game world. You want to mess with players' minds -- just enough -- so they feel their heart rate quicken.
Music: Horror soundtracks (Silent Hill, Biohazard/Resident Evil, The Thing to name but a few) are good but so are others (Delirium and Ugress for example). The trick is unsettling -- beat changes slowly but surely. Have a particular sound track for particular event types so you breed anticipation in your players. Every time song X plays, something bad happens. Then not all the time... But you can bet your players will get paranoid.
Sounds: Do you know the sound of flesh being torn from bone? No, get a whole chicken and strip it. Now, tape this. Play it when you describe cultist A ripping flesh. There are a zillion good sound bites on the net: rain, storms, screams, gunfire, baby laughing. The latter is wonderful to play in the cultist's lair amid horrible things. Creepy.
Light: No more bright lights. Use a red filter on your one lamp -- I used a red sheet on a overhead projector or a black light. Of course, no outside lights etc... Yes, this is bordering on sensory deprivation.
No food, drink, or other distractions. Oh, that does include heating. Being a little cold makes you a little on edge.
Scare the player(s) What are they afraid in real life? Can you use that in the game? Do make sure you get player buy-in on this and use common sense. You do not want to lose friends over this.
Wear dark cloths: No flowery summer dresses here! No clever XKCD shirts. Just dark cloths. You can even use subtle make up.
Voice: Vary your speech. Speak softer then slowly get faster. Build anticipation and then drop it suddenly with nothing happening. Or build it up to something horrific.
Learn from scary media: The Kingdom (the Lars Von Tiers one) is one scary show. You could learn a lot just by watching it (in the dark, at night, alone) and using some of the tricks that they use there. But look at what scares you: Can you use that? I bet you can.
Academia: fear is a field of study. What causes it, how to deal with it, and how to create it are all described in many papers. Go look for those!
A side note, your players will rebel at these. They will need breaks to relax, to joke around, to just breath. Let the characters have that as well.
I have found that the most effective way of showcasing horror is to contrast it with comedy or general happiness. À la Disney's Cars, "Sometimes you have to turn left to go right", the easiest way to set up a horror is with a bright and sunny scene with happiness and joy, then crush it to a pulp in front of the PCs. This doesn't work consistently, but is excellent in short bursts. For instance, if Cthulhu shows up to a game set in the grimdark horror future it's expected, but if Cthulhu shows up to the reception at your wedding screams will ensue.
Novel experiences are by definition anathema to boredom. They're new, and for the curious, they're interesting. If the giant monster stops chasing you mid-stride (for the first time) it generates curiosity. Curious people investigate. Shocking the curious is a way to progress both plot and action. Careless people also drive plots, occasionally. There is also the party sacrifice to create novel experiences. If someone has to be the "bait" you are sure to create a bit of excitement, especially for the chummy bait.
Talk About It
(Staying Within Players' Tolerance)
The safest way to ensure that you do not overload your players with abject scenes of horror, disgust, fear, and loathsome scenes is to talk about what's going to happen before hand and set limits. Good sense also plays heavily here. If it's super taboo in your culture, don't throw it into your game unless you have very specifically received verbal and/or written permission to approach those subjects. Subjects that can generate fear, but may not be necessarily taboo in American culture may include:
- Sudden Identity/Origin change ("Son, you're adopted, and from another planet", "Son, you're adopted, and we've always been flesh-eating aliens")
- False/Lost Memory (à la the movie Total Recall)
- Altered Perception (Similar to false/lost memory, but present tense)
- Unclear reality (A confusing and constant dream state that flips between scenes)
- Exposure to the "creepy" version of an individual or new individual(s) (Twins in the Shining)
- Ghosts of relatives or other close figures, especially in self-insertion gaming.
If you do decide to approach the latter mentioned subjects, please leave room in your game for players to excuse themselves from play or call an end to the session. It is more important to maintain friendships and acquaintances than it is to scare them, disgust them, or make them want to leave your table and cast you out of their circle of friends.
Subjects that will most likely be intolerable
(Warning! Get permission, get permission, get permission!)
These things would also most likely be taboo:
- Anything to do with normal children.
- Death of familiar figures after an established and intense relationship
- Sexual violence of any type of any figure including the character or any known relationships
- Mutilation of bodyparts of any of those aforementioned individuals, living or dead