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Phobia: Horror in Games

Timing, Placement and Horror

by Matt Cowger
Jul 02,2002

 

Timing, Placement and Horror

Undeniably, the key to any good scare is timing. A slow and plodding build to the final insanity or the chainsaw in the face as you turn the corner, part of the good scare is when it happens and what occurred before it. Today we look at the quick scare, how to get the blood pumping and how to make your players blink and go 'whoa'.

Some people think the quick care is easy, it's a matter of lunging out of a dark corner with a weapon and going 'BOO', nope, wrong and nuh-uh. The big part of the quick scare is environment. A little test:

-You are walking along a creepy, dark corridor full of spider webs, a door, unseen, pops open and something leans out and goes ROAR!

-You are strolling through a strip mall, you duck out of one building and something dark and unpleasant drops in front of you, claws ready.

Which is freakier and more immediate? If you said the second one you got it right. The second one is out of place and right in your face. The first, well we all saw that one coming didn't we? It's the set up of the situation, the first was meant for something freaky, you saw it coming, the second wasn't supposed to be there.

It was a matter of timing and placement, the same strip mall can be made horrifying:

-You are walking through an abandoned strip mall , nobody is around. In the distance you hear some breaking glass. Suddenly, a plate glass window shatters next to you, a lurching human form lumbers through.

A bit more detailed. Still it's a fast scare, if in your face and immediate. The goal is to startle your players and make them think fast. This is complimented by making them make fast die rolls (roll sanity!, roll fright check!, roll get the GM a beer!...ok maybe not the last one) you get the idea. Description followed by 'Hey Roll Fast!' puts the players on their toes.

In a fast and scary game that's where you want them. You want the players off balance and not sure of friend or foe or where and what. The secret of the quick scare game is players spinning, just when they think they have a foothold in anything you knock them another way. Think cheesy 80's horror film; the teens think they are safe in the cabin all together, the power goes out. Or Teen X hears his long lost brother calling to him from the lake.

Speed horror like this is relentless, no mercy, no quarter. This is a burden on the GM because she must keep the drum banging at a pretty merciless pace. But the whole point of horror is no mercy right?

Touchstones of high-pitched horror:

-One thing after another.
-No safe haven
-Death after death
-Being alone is death.

Hard to imagine a slower version of all this? It exists, and I'll show you the slow-paced side of fear next time.

Sweet dreams,
Matt C

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What do you think?

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All Phobia columns

  • Timing, Placement and Horror by Matt Cowger, 02jul02
  • Horror in Fantasy August 28, 2001
  • Don't Mind the Dark June 13, 2001
  • A Definition of Terror July 11, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

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