While people continue to draw battle lines in the Pumpkin Spice Skeleton War, there’s just enough time to round up a group for a Halloween one-shot. That means candy, costumes, trope parades, and that elusive tabletop element: horror.
Horror is a tricky thing to engender at the table, since a lot of the classic horror tools that are so successful in other media simply don’t translate to the tabletop environment.
There’s no chance for a jump-scare, and the sense of a dark and inescapable fate makes players more likely to be angry than afraid, since it’s immediately reminiscent of plain old bad GMing. Even the staple literary tactic of separating what the audience knows from what the characters know to create a feeling of looming dread often fails in a game environment where it might more likely prompt a perception check than panic.
Add to that the tendency for players to be in a particularly party-ful mood (candy or no) on Halloween, where they’re even more inclined toward jokes and side chatter than usual, and you’re up against the wall when it comes to sending chills down anyone’s spine.
So with so little of the classic horror toolbelt to work with, how can you give you players a good and enjoyable scare?
Luckily, the one tactic that translates best from other media to the gaming table is such a perfect fit, it makes up for the absence in a hurry: the humor feint. If you’re familiar with Poe, Hitchcock, or 80’s slasher films, you’re already well-versed in the humor feint, the tactic of deliberately lulling the audience into a sense of comfort and ease with jokes and amusing moments so that they’ll be caught completely off-balance when things turn terrifying.
Poe and Hitchcock knew that any given work could, at most, get away with a scare or two before the audience was already somewhat numb to the idea and had raised their own mental defenses against further horror. Tricking them into thinking that the danger had passed and that they were safe similarly lowers the brain’s defenses and makes it more open to further fun – the perfect time to strike.
Even though all you have is a hammer, everything looking like a nail isn’t too far off the mark when it comes to horror gaming. Steering into the skid of your players playing peanut-gallery, you can set up several somewhat obvious horror tropes and have them end in surprisingly harmless, humorous places to establish a pattern that you’re clearly just here to have fun and make jokes with a vague horror theme, rather than really trying to scare them.
At which point, you really try to scare them.
Comedy follows the rule of three, but horror requires an even more nuanced sense of timing. Once you’ve set up two horror trope feints, it seems natural to do the same thing with a third and have it be genuine, but when it comes to horror, most people will be expecting it and mentally preparing to dismiss or counter it before it even arrives.
When to drop the horror moment is often either en route to the third trope (long before the promised pay-off based on the first two feints) or immediately after a feint, while everyone is still laughing it off. En route is often much more effectively simply because the post-feint scare is something of a trope itself and may not be terribly surprising to many of your players if they’re horror movie veterans.
The en-route scare, however, can be remarkably effective. Set up the third trope just enough for players to recognize it – a scratching at the window, a creak from the attic stairs, the lights going out, etc. – and then let them walk through the first motions of responding to it. Since they’ve had two feints already, they likely have a sense of the routine by now, which means they have an expectation of how it’s going to end.
Some will be expecting a third feint, others will be expecting this to be the first genuine horror moment, but nearly everyone will expect either to come at the ‘reveal’ point – when they open the window, when they get to the fuse box and turn the light on, when they shine their light around the attic, etc.
The trick is to break the pattern by pouncing on them early, while they’re off-balance, and from an unexpected direction.
The scratching at the window might just be a branch in the breeze, but as they get close, they spot the reflection of the creature behind them in the window glass. Or as they walk down to the basement to trip the main breaker and get the lights back on, they notice that the creaking of their footsteps on the basement stairs is just slightly out of sync with their footfalls.
The after-scare can also be effective if you give them enough time to register than the third trope is a feint, but don’t give them the punchline. They reach the window with the scratching and open it, discovering that it’s just a branch being blown in the wind. The player will wait for the other shoe to drop, but give them nothing – “it’s just a windy night outside.” No humor, no scare – just treat it like a mundane dead end.
Until they close the window, and see the reflection of the creature behind them that wasn’t there before.
They reset the main breaker, the lights come back on, they clench at first but the basement itself is empty and they’re still alone. Until they come back upstairs and spy a bloody message written on the wall in the hallway while the lights were out.
In short, a well done after-scare requires a longer delay than is the ‘movie standard’ so that expectations have time to fall on the floor. Instead of using humor, the delay essentially uses confusion and disappointment at the sheer nothing that came at the end of the trope to set up the scare that follows, and that means giving players a moment to stew.
Done well, a good horror game will often be at least half humor and lighthearted moments, a dash of dread toward the middle and then action toward the end when the enemy is named and there’s a chance to escape/kill it/set things right. But don’t underestimate the value of that dash of dread – it may not make up much of the playtime in terms of your execution, but it’ll often be the thing that resonates most with your players long after the game is done.