The advice here was written for a side project I struck up work on this week called The Manse of Bad Memories. After chewing on what "horror OSR" looks like, I think this advice is broadly applicable.
Advice for Everyone
If you sit down and play a horror game, you’re making a commitment to your fellow players that you’re going to try and make the experience downright horrific. In the same way making the game comfortable for everyone is a shared responsibility, making the game scary is a shared responsibility.
The single most important part of a horror experience is universal buy in. If somebody at the table wants to play another type of game - a heroic game, a silly game, or just look at their phone the whole time - the tension necessary for horror evaporates.
Think of it like being in a play. You’re part of the cast. Focus on saying your lines, broadcasting your expressions, and hitting your cues.
If everybody is invested in the experience, the pay off can be huge.
Play to Lift
If you’re playing a board game like Monopoly, you’re playing to win: get the most money, get the most properties, block your friends’ progress. If you’re playing a horror game, you’re playing to lift.
Playing to lift means that your roleplaying choices elevate the experiences of other players. Creating special moments for the people at the table with you will be your primary motivation.
- Do put the spotlight on another character when a particular scene, conflict, or test is in their wheelhouse. If one character is particularly strong, ask them to make a test requiring strength for you. If you need help with something, ask the character best suited for help.
- Don’t intrude on another character’s scene unless they ask you to. If the baron has pinned another character against the wall and offered them a Faustian bargain, see what they say before you try and “rescue” them. Let other players’ moments play out.
- Do put yourself in a position to fail. The consequences of failure can be dramatic and interesting to play out. Lean into the consequences of your actions.
- Don’t tell other players what they “should” do. You can strategize and brainstorm your plans as a group, but nobody is the boss in an RPG. Collaborate with other players to figure out what everybody is going to do.
- Do interact with the horrific environment. You can’t get out of the manse unless you dig into its guts. You can be cautious but you cannot turn away from the evils here.
Not every moment can be tense. Some moments can be even funny. I mean, think about your favorite horror movie. There are moments of dialogue, moments of relief, moments of advancing plot, moments of backstory revelation—all culminating in those sweet scenes of shocking content.
However, there are behaviors that minimize other players’ experiences. Practice decorum by avoiding some common anti-horror pitfalls.
Minimize Out of Character Chatter: When you focus on the game, the game world becomes real. When you chat about things out of character, the real world intrudes. Stop reminiscing about the renn fair last year. Stop making Monty Python jokes (I beg you). Only talk if you’re talking in character.
Note: This is very different from talking about the game or encouraging an atmosphere of openness. Checking in is not “out of character chatter.”
Appropriate Jokes: I’m only friends with my friends because they make me laugh. But a joke at an inopportune moment can ruin the feeling of tension that everybody has been working towards. When stakes are high, don’t make jokes.
Advice for the Referee
(Note: The Referee is called "La Manse" or LM in the game text.)
Concerning the factors of silence, solitude and darkness, we can only say that they are actually elements in the production of that infantile morbid anxiety from which the majority of human beings have never become quite free. - “The Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud
The vampires are not nice. They are not heroic. They are not romantic. They are horrible.
The players might expect a tragic backstory or humanizing factor to be found among the residents of the Manse. There are none. These are villains and they want to literally eat you.
It’s your job as La Manse to make the castle and its residents feel scary to your players.
Stephen King provides us the following three definitions of three kinds of fear:
- Gross-out is a feeling of revulsion at something disgusting—a pile of maggots or a dismembered body part
- Terror is the feeling of dread that proceeds horror—the lights suddenly go out and everything is unnaturally quiet
- Horror is a feeling of shock at something transgressive or unnatural—a spider the size of a Volkswagen or a head spinning all the way around
Here are some dirty tricks for stimulating each of these emotions.
Cheap tricks to evoke disgust.
Spit out stuff
We are grossed out by things that were once joined with us but have become separated.
For example, imagine that you take a bite of bread, chew it up, and swallow. Totally normal. Now imagine that you take a bite of bread, chew it up, and spit it out. Imagine putting that chewed up piece of bread back into your mouth and swallowing it. Gross right?
You can elicit gross-out with all sorts of similar stuff. Basically anything that was once inside you and is now outside of you. For example:
- A clump of greasy hair
- A chewed up piece of steak fat
- Extracted teeth
- Flakes of dried skin
- A blood clot pulled from your nose
- Shit, mucus, spit, vomit, tonsil stones, breast milk
Signs of disease
We have an evolutionary disgust response to stuff that encourages sickness and disease. This includes things like violations of hygiene norms, disease-ridden animals, signs of infection, and contaminated food.
Make the players feel “unclean” and unsafe by placing these sorts of events into their path:
- Asked to eat something decaying or contaminated: partially decomposed rabbits, sharing food with an animal
- Asked to eat something culturally taboo: fish heads, human meat, living maggots
- Pus in an abcess in your throat
- Open, infected wounds and lesions
- Chewed on, sore, bleeding lips
- Bitten off fingernails, raw nail beds, long strips of missing skin on fingers
- A plucked crow, can’t fly, piteous
- A deer covered in tumors
Cheap tricks to evoke dread.
Describe, don’t name
Knowledge, as is so often said, is power. Knowing what something is gives you a sense of control. Not knowing what something causes tension and terror.
Player characters can obviously recognize things that are part of their mundane world: crows, horses, children, elders, tax collectors, clergy, etc. Player characters will not be able to recognize things that are part of the dark world of the Manse.
Don’t name the monsters the players encounter. Don’t say “You see a werewolf.” Say “A huge wolf stands in the hallway. It seems to straighten like an old woman sitting up from the spinning wheel and walks towards you comfortably on two feet. Less a wolf and more like a monkey with a wolf’s face. In one of its five fingered hands is the dangling arm of an infant. Its muzzle is wet with blood."
Use vague descriptions
Relatedly, frame your descriptions in shadow. Give players just enough information to understand the scene but show they don’t yet have the entire picture (see “horror” below).
Do this by engaging all five senses. Humans can only experience a narrow band of reality. Highlight what people can’t see, can’t hear, can’t smell, etc.
- You look out of the window and see something moving across the castle grounds far below you. It glides like a waterfowl through the water but across the ground itself. It’s human shaped, but you can’t see any details.
- You look into the hole and can see nothing. It is pitch dark. You hear something breathing inside the hole. You hold your breath to listen better, and the thing holds its breath too.
- You press your ear against the locked door. Inside, you hear the sound of something wet suddenly dropping—like a trash bag full of spaghetti falling.
- You smell the baron’s cologne nearby. Is he outside your door? Has he been listening to your conversation this whole time?
- You hear something moving inside of the walls, like rats but larger.
Note: Being vague is not the same as not giving players enough information to make decisions. Games are fun because players make choices. The LM should always give the players enough information to make informed choices; this is what makes the game “fair” and the consequences of player actions thrilling. However, your description can hint at dark truths in a way that elicits a terror response.
Exploit the real-world environment
A lot of horror RPG advice forefronts making an environment similar to a child’s Halloween party:
- Low light
- Atmospheric music
All of that stuff is good. Do that.
Next, kick it up a notch.
- When something startling happens in game, blow the last candle out.
- Have a queued up sound effects for things in the environment: a scream, a squelch, a whisper. Use them as tools as you describe the scenes.
- The LM should curate their music list: maintain different looping songs for the different areas of the Manse.
Cheap tricks to evoke the fear of the uncanny.
The key to horror (or any art, really) is surprise. Players who encounter unexpected and terrible things will feel the thrill of danger that is the essence of horror. (The thrill of disgust is the essence of gross-out, above.)
The Manse of Bad Memories is genre schlock. It attempts to provide surprise by subverting genre expectations. Clever LMs can build on these themes.
- The Rumors set some (known) false expectations. Players attempting to exploit an untested and unproven rumor will be in for a bad surprise.
- Fantastic creatures can be recast as having grounded realistic elements that make them disgusting. Mermaids now all look like the Fiji mermaid.
- Creatures you assume to be evil can be benevolent. Creatures you assume to be kindly can be malevolent.
Body horror consists of grotesque violations of the human body. It is immediately recognizable as a danger and provokes the thrill of fear. For example:
- Too many body parts: a second mouth at the nape of the neck, a swollen eye with two pupils competing for space, a single long eyelash that grows infinitely long the more you pull on it
- Too few body parts: a face with smooth skin where the mouth should be
- Reversed body parts: a face with upside down eyes and mouth, legs that bend backwards
- Wrong size body: long fingers with an extra joint, a smile that literally extends from ear to ear, a face with all of its features “smooshed” to the left
- Inhuman body: body swiss-cheesed with honeycomb holes, eyeless face with spider living where brain should be, human body with a beehive head
- Body ignoring natural laws: a person walking around despite the cannonball-sized hole through the middle of their face, person “crabwalking” backwards
Psychological horror presents unstable, unexpected, or outsized reactions in non-player characters. Because the actions of the NPC are upsetting and don’t conform to the players’ expectations, the game takes on a nightmare logic quality. For example, the ghosts of the manse unwilling to accept the existence of vampires, despite the obvious evidence, strains the players’ ability to understand the world around them. Other examples you can introduce include:
- Rat bashing its face against a stone—just bashing and bashing until its little rat head is wet meat
- Person eagerly, happily, hurting themselves as they perform extreme actions, e.g., leaping down from a second story window, driving themselves headlong onto a spear to grab at you
- Mother deer biting and killing its fawn
- A child smiling and laughing at a gory scene
Freud describes the uncanny as an unfamiliar item in a familiar house. For this game, you can introduce elements of the unnatural into your narration or transitional scenes to add to the suspense, drama, and unhappy feelings of the players. For example:
- A character sees their doppleganger proceeding them out of a room, turning a corner, and disappearing.
- A character has a dream of their dead mother pleading with them to do something, but they can’t seem to hear or understand her.
- A character sees their image in the mirror as a dead corpse.
- A character is suddenly beloved by spiders. The spiders bring them things, little presents and wrapped up bugs, make webs across their fingers and toes as they sleep, snuggle into their boots, etc.
Sidebar: Be Respectful
You’ll note that none of the horror suggestions are based on real world situations. Play up the explicitly preternatural, don’t stigmatize the bodies of real people. Avoid casting real world speech impediments, handicaps, phobias, disorders, or medical conditions in a dehumanizing light.