Creating Nightmares: The Ups and Downs of Horror

Elevator Button

Elevator Button (Photo credit: Michael Schubart)

The most important thing you need to do is know what amuses your players and yourself. You need pockets of happiness in your story in order to give people time to breathe. A beautiful example of this in the movies is the elevator trick. Oh, you’ve seen this trick used.

The monster is on the heels of the survivors. Be it sea monsters, zombies, or just a crazed man with an ax. The survivors’ only chance to escape is via an elevator. They all slam into it, slapping at the buttons, and watch in horror as the predator comes closer! The elevator door slams shut just in time leaving nothing but the smell of urine in the box and silence. Cue elevator music, an awkward beat, and then someone saying “I like this song”.

This gives your listeners, players, and yourself a moment to breathe! Relax. Tension is only good for bouts and when you’re stuck on it, it becomes less of a tool and more of a hindrance. Not only that, but it allows you to reset the scare. In one of my first podcasts, NYC Zombiepocalypse, the main monsters were hordes of zombies. If I just had one continuous chase scene for four hours, people would get bored. It wouldn’t be fresh.

By breaking the zombie chase up via moments for the characters to breathe, and even find some humor in the situation, it allows you to reset the tension. When you have a podcast audience listening in, it allows them to breathe, too. It gives everyone the false hope that maybe the horror is over now, only for them to be sorely disappointed when those elevator doors open again.

If you are running a game where you find your characters are being hurt a lot, break up the violence. Give them a crossword puzzle to solve or a safe haven for a bit so that their characters can collect their wits. Remember, characters are people and people are like rubber bands. Too much pressure and they can snap.

A fun little thing that I do in some of my games is called the Insanity Meter. Basically, I tell my players to start around seven sanity. The more good things that happen to them, the higher the sanity goes. The worse things get, the lower their sanity goes. And of course, when their sanity is low, there is no reason for me not to mess with their heads!

So, how ever you do it, make a balance! Horror is only as good as the happiness that a victim can potentially lose.

The children of Founder’s Falls faced off against the Ink Monster. The students of His Holy Light University found themselves face-to-face with the Glass and thus themselves. A douchebag and his two friends found terror in the Plant of Honey Branch. We witnessed the horrors of the Meat Doctor as he tortured our poor inmates at a mental asylum, and we got to meet up with a group of despicable ghosts stuck in a cycle of revenge. Creating Nightmares is a series of articles sharing some of my tips and tricks for crafting the psychological horror New World of Darkness games featured on the Fandible podcast.

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About the Author
Billy started out his roots like many roleplayers - D&D. Playing it and then Vampire all through highschool and college, Billy picked it all up again when he made the move from Michigan to New York. Now working in publishing, Billy does what he can to view roleplaying games through a narrative's lens. Does that sound classy as balls? It should.

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