5 Tips for running scary encounters

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With October starting, and Halloween coming up in a few weeks, I wanted to share with you all some tips on running scary encounters and make sure your monsters of horror are feared!

1) Don’t reveal what they are up against

Most players are intimately familiar with a wide array of monsters, and the signs of what they may be facing. If they see a statue of a person looking horrified, their minds will fill in Medusa, if they see large bear prints and feathers, they will quickly figure out it is an owlbear and a cave with webbing everywhere is a clear signal of giant spiders. No matter how scary the monster inherently is, as soon as it has been identified, their fear of the creature will be massively reduced.

That does not mean you should not show hints of the monster - if there are no tracks, they might not even believe anything is going on. Just avoid leaving traces that easily identify the monster.

2) Use the unexplainable

Use some effects that break the rules of the game, or even the rules of nature to put players off balance. As with the previous point, this plays on fear of the unknown and in some cases unknowable.

You do not want to overdo this one so try to keep it small if you can. Players will want to investigate and if they do, prepare to have some answers for them (even if it is just ‘magic’). It is quite alright, however, if the reason leaves more questions than it answers. For example, the mist in the graveyard may be explained by the graveyard being ten degrees colder than the rest of the area. And the cold may be because of dark magic engulfing the area. But what is the source of the dark magic?

Even if PCs do not investigate, the unnatural circumstances will leave them feeling just a bit uneasy.

3) Target their minds

Make the PCs doubt their own observations and perhaps even sanity, so they can never be sure of what is going on. By using either illusions and invisibility or even actual mind affecting conditions, it can become hard for the characters to distinguish real threats lurking in the dark from figments of their imagination.

The goal is to create a mix of false alarms and actual dangers, to make them always wonder if they are in danger or not. This is especially good if players are used to casting defensive spells at the first sign of trouble, as they will find them wasted on imagined dangers, and then fearful as they have to go up against the real thread unprotected.

4) Nowhere is safe

Do not give the PCs a safe place to rest. If they withdraw to town, have the monster follow them, if they bunker up in a place, keep them on alert, and so on. The goal is to keep the pressure and do not give the players an opportunity to feel safe and secure.

Exploit any weaknesses in defences the players create, but do not to diminish the players efforts - if they barricade the door, do not have a monster break it down. Instead, have them sneak in through a window, crawl through a crack or vent that really shouldn’t be large enough. The goal here is to make players feel vulnerable, not to make them feel useless.

5) It never ends

Just when they think it is over and they are finally safe is the best time to hit them with true horror. If they just defeated the villain, have the fiend rise again, reinvigorated by the demonic entities she worshipped. Or reveal the demon that was in control the whole time. For full effect, make the final challenge a mote harder then what turned out to be the penultimate challenge.

Alternative, slightly more delayed effects that fit the classic horror genre are resurrections by a minion who survived, vows of revenge by the villains organization or even the demonic entity that motivated the villain infecting one of the PCs. The latter requires a decent amount of cooperation with a player so might be hard to pull off in certain groups. But if you do manage, the look on their faces will be worth it.

Don’t take this one too far though - at some point, the story needs to come to an end… and there’s always future storylines to get back to!

Have you ever ran or played in horror scenes or games? What tricks did you use and what scenes were your favourite? As always, we’d love to hear on the Community Forum. While there, also check out this week’s changelog!