David Jackson is a real estate photographer and model train hobbyist, living in Lakewood, California.
Invoking terror in your players during a roleplaying game is very difficult—most of the time, it’s impossible, given the risk followed by reward patterns. But with a little bit of planning, and keeping some basic tips in mind, you can do the impossible and instill a sense of pseudo-fear in your players. When you’ve managed this, any accomplishments the players achieve will seem monumental, and they will walk away from your game with a sense of satisfaction, feeling like they’ve just played one of the best games of their life.
So here are some basic tips on invoking terror in your otherwise impossible-to-scare players.
1. Eliminate Distractions
Try to keep your players focused on the game, which means sorting out how to keep them from wandering around, playing on their phones, reading a book, talking outside the game, or making Monty Python jokes. This might be difficult for your group, and an entire article could be written on how to deal with this problem alone. But it’s vital if you are going to create tension and a feeling of dread or suspense in the game. I use the mighty DM Dice of Justice, but not everyone will be so interested in causing dice-infused head wounds or the tedious courtroom appearances that accompany random violence. We all want the players to come back, so it’s probably best to be diplomatic. Gentle, but firm.
2. Setting and Environment
The setting that the game is played in and the ambient environment are important for keeping the players in the right (terrified) frame of mind. Dim lighting, candles if possible, eerie ambient music. This should be on low, just loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to be distracting. Preferably something without words, and appropriate for the setting in the game. Avoid pop music, techno, or anything by a boy band. This last one is probably good advice in a more general sense. The music should be neutral, but ambient.
Try to get the players to crowd around the table. You can do this by talking low, and hogging the snacks. This will also help you “eliminate distractions”, by putting them in range.
3. Force the Players to Make Quick Decisions
At critical moments, give the players literally three or four seconds to make an important choice. Test it out a few times at first, so that they get the idea. For example, when the characters encounter a deadly foe for the first time, immediately say, “What are you going to do?” and then start counting. At the count of five, have the foe take an action. Do this enough times, and the players will frantically race to “beat the clock”.
This will increase the tension and will keep the players off-balance. Remember to not be excessively cruel, unless you’re having a lot of problems accomplishing tip number one. The goal is not to punish, but to put them on-guard, on their toes, tense and alert. Once they’ve failed this test once or twice or made a rash decision, their minds will be on high alert for the next time this might happen. They’ll be paying attention, and the tension will be high.
4. Speak Softly
This will require the players to pay close attention to what you are saying. If they miss what you have said, exploit this (use the excuse that they were distracted by something else). Once they have missed a vital clue once, they will try not to let this happen again. Just another way to keep the players on their toes, off-balance, and making panicked decisions.
5. Don’t Take Breaks
The first time that you take a break, the tension will be broken. The players will drift back to reality, and no longer be immersed in the action. If you must take a break, make it a short break, and urge the players to return to the action. This one is difficult to manage, sometimes, and if the tension is especially high, the players may be desperate for a break. It’s up to you to decide at what point they get some rest – and that is precisely what taking a break will be.
So there you have it—five tips for invoking terror in your roleplaying session. I hope that it brings a new level of intensity to your games.
© 2016 David Jackson