“Time Outside Of Time” by MidnightSyndicate from “The 13th Hour” © 2005. Used with permission.

"Horror, on the other hand, is fascinated dread in the presence of an immaterial cause. The frights of nightmare cannot be dissipated by a round of buckshot; to flee them is to run into them at every turn."
- Sigmund Freud, "The Uncanny"

Game Master Tips

Return to Horror RPG Tip's

Beyond the Supernatural (or any RPG horror game for that matter) requires a very different approach to GM'ing than playing something like Rifts or Heroes Unlimited or even Nightbane Supernatural pages 1 of 3 image by Darren Roche(which is like a superhero horror game). Modern day horror is arguably the most difficult type of game to run successfully, and GM's are effectively required to follow some basic procedures to do so. However, once you've practiced the following tips and use them regularly, you've be running a game that can run chills up and down your player's spines!

Imply rather than tell: This was a rule detailed in the 1st edition BTS book, but it's worth repeating here as I see this law broken constantly (at times I've been guilty of it myself). Simply put, NEVER tell ANYTHING more than you have to about anything. The more you imply without telling, the more the players have to think about what dangers might be awaiting them. This in turn causes their imaginations to run wild with fear and/or paranoia (both if your lucky).

Example: I once had this scene where a player walked into a dark room while his flashlight was busted, and naturally the power was out in the mansion due to an old generator. The scene was described something like this;

The room is too dark to make anything out, save for one spot; a sliver of moon light that squeezes in between a set of curtains and reaches across the room to a set of eyes. The eyes tower several feet above you and are obviously not human. They don't move, they simply stare at you. Whatever it is that's staring at you, it doesn't make a move or a sound, not even breathing can be heard. Roll a save vs. Horror Factor…”.

While the player saved on his horror factor (he didn't need a high roll in this case), the character was played as frozen in his tracks as the mental agility of the player dissolved into a primal panic and he started firing away at the eyes with his sidearm.

Turns out, it was a prized moose head proudly displayed on the wall across the room over a mantle (there was no fire lit to provide lighting). Point being, it was completely harmless. But the player didn't know that, I simply implied that there was something staring at him and then I let his imagination do the rest.

While I'm on this subject, part of my evolution as a BTS Game Master was learning to say things differently. Sometimes the way you ask a question can give away a lot of details to a player that can tip them off to what's at hand. Take Horror Factor rolls for example:

Asking for a save vs. Horror Factor (H.F.): In my earlier years I had this weird habit of requesting a horror factor by stating something like "Roll a save vs. Horror Factor of 16 or better." The rub here is that the save of 16 or better provides more details than you'd like to give at times.

Example: My players deal with Hell Hounds regularly, and they all know that a single hound has an H.F. of 11, but what they didn't know was that the acreage they were investigating had a spell casted upon it that heightens tension and terror to all who trespass on it (giving a +2 bonus horror factor bonus to the spell caster and his minions).

When they spotted the hell hound I said “Everyone roll a H.F. saving throw of 13 or better”. Immediately the group called me out on the number (not knowing of the area affected spell). While I gave a little detail with something like “While this hound doesn't seem to look anymore fearsome than all the others you've dealt with, something about it makes it more terrifying than expected”, the group was still tipped off that something strange was going on here, ruining a later surprise in the process.

Had I simply stated “make a H.F. saving throw”, collecting their numbers and responding with the outcomes of their rolls, this would have gone more smoothly and kept the playing in-character aspect easier to maintain. Meta-gaming moments like the example above can distract from the game and character experience and completely ruins the mood at times.

“It is with words as with sunbeams.
The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.”
- Robert Southey

Use your words well: This tip takes more practice and responsibility than any other I'll ever offer you, but it can mean the world in your game. The short answer would be to say build your vocabulary. I know good GM's who have a bad habit of taking minutes out of the game to describe a setting or a monster, and by the time he was done the players lost interest as he’d taken them out of the spirit of the game. Had he put that energy into the words he was using and the structure of his wording, he would have not only cut his description time in half, he could have kept us all on the edge of our seats listening.

To help out with this problem, my first advice is to read as much as you’re able, simple as that. NOTHING builds a vocabulary like reading does. Taking this idea a step further, read a lot of horror novels and pay close attention to what words are being used and how the authors use these words. I strongly recommend reading books by Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Dean Koontz, David Niall Wilson and Brian Keene for the best examples I can think of off hand.

My next bit of advice is to write down difficult descriptions of a particular scenario you have planned for a future game, then practice and recite it out loud until you feel capable of stating them yourself. I know this can make you feel like a newb, but Horror RPG’s more than any other requires planning ahead of time. So taking the time to write it all down helps to get your thoughts and plans in order and therefore improving your ability to tell a tight, concise scene and scenario. In fact, even with twenty years practice I’m still known for writing things down and reading when out loud when needed. Of course, reading it like you mean it instead of simply reciting words straight off the paper makes a huge difference as well. Be a story teller, not a bank teller.

Another good writing and vocabulary practice exercise would be to write a description that’s as long as possible, then write a second practice trying to use as little words as possible to tell the same thing, using more descriptive one the 2nd attempt. Don’t be surprised if the shorter version tells the scene better.

supernatural pages 2 of 3 image by Darren RocheUse all the senses: This is another one I can’t stress enough (and it came from the 1st edition BTS book). Don’t rely on just explaining the visuals of the scene. Get the nose, ears, tactile (and in some cases, taste) involved.  In the course of a year, players may be given a description of a monster at least a hundred times. The players eventually acclimate to the descriptions and will get bored with them and the monster at hand… unless you mix it up for them.

For example, when describing a monster, mention that its breath is HOT, and REEKS of stinking, rotting meat. And when grappling with the thing, mention that its hide FEELS slimy, and that its shrieking SOUNDS like nails on a chalkboard. If the player gets a good punch in the mouth by the fiend, mention that the blood they now TASTE in their mouth is a reminder that makes their jaw ACHE that much more.

This method works just as well when describing scenarios:

“The storage room is thick with dust, which kicks up and floats about freely as you disturb it while walking in. Your eyes are already getting itchy and you can taste the mustiness of the dust as you breathe it in. Your attention is taken away from your discomfort when you hear a scratching sound that echoes throughout the grey cement paved walls. The thick dust swirling throughout the room is affecting the clarity of your vision as it dulls your flashlight beam”.

Point being, these description, although familiar, allows the player to imagine the scenario (and what could be making the scratching sound) in much more vivid detail, and imagination breeds the fear and chilling sensations that makes for a good horror game. Note: This can require a juggling act with the “use your words well” tip mentioned earlier. Don’t feel as though you have to hit EVERY sense every time. Again, mix it up and hit what’s pertinent to help get the players get into their character's head.

Use the players own weaknesses against them: In essence, find out what scares your players and incorporate those elements into the game at every opportunity!

This should be an easy one as most horror game players love to discuss their fears with one another (I know my group loves to share). All you have to do is listen to them and notate their fears. Even better is that after the group has shared and discussed their fears with one another, their fears can be incorporated to bring out that same fear in the other players.

I've got a gal in my group who is absolutely FREAKED OUT by creepy crawly things. So (he he heee), creepy crawlies show up at every opportunity in my game. In fact, I created these "pestilence beasts" creatures, which were basically a homunculus of bugs concentrated together, just for her amusement (insert evil chuckle here). I have another player who hates the idea of being paralyzed, so I use paralysis or moments of helplessness when I can and I can just see the distress on his mug when we play. In other RPG games this might be a distasteful approach to running a game, but in horror its not only appropriate, it enhances the game in many cases.

There is one last avenue to exploit here: your own fears! You know what scares the crap out of you, so why not use it to scare your player’s silly as well? Why should you have to suffer your fears all alone? If something you read or saw in a movie creeps that you out, then by god use it! If you’re giving yourself the chills describing the setting or situation, chances are you’re doing the same to your players.

This all being said, a word of warning. If a player is so terrified of something that they ask you to not inflict it on them, please respect their wishes. Some things are so tragic or detrimental to some people that their personal terror takes the fun out of being scared. I've encountered this with a player who had a near drowning experience once and has a full blown phobia of drowning since. After I made his character suffer through a drowning threat, he had confided in me about his phobic issue after the game was over. I never used that angle on him again and kept it to a minimum with the rest of the group. No one wants their phobic underbelly exposed to others, especially during a game. It’s fun to be scared while playing a horror game, but not to be personally terrified by revisiting a horrific experience you had in life.

Lastly, DO NOT inflict personally mind scarring, horrific encounters upon the characters simply to get an unnerved reaction from the players. I detest GM’s who think that a character getting raped by the villain to unnerve the player is appropriate. I've seen this done several times, and not one of them was appropriate or even fit the psychology of the villain at hand. The GM was merely out to unnerve and gross out the players for gross out sakes, and its uncalled for.

Use the "Situational Modifiers"!: This one may sound obvious to some, but I've seen entire games where the modifiers were outright ignored when there were times they would've been appropriate. I find that they can add great moments of tension and raise the urgency of a given situation, regardless of how small of an amount the modifiers are. Example: One of my favorite moments of using situation modifiers required the group to perform a couple of actions to escape an underground passage that was starting to collapse around them. As if this wasn't bad enough, the characters were being chased by monsters that were out for revenge as the characters had just killed off their master. This is shorthanded, but it played out something like this:

G.M: "Lucy (the group's mechanic), the exit from this room is blocked by a heavy duty shutter door located on the far wall. It requires a motor to open this shutter, but you notice that the motor was in the middle of being repaired, and it seems that whoever was working on it didn't finish the job. Parts and tools are scattered around the motor base. You could probably get it up an running in a matter of a couple minutes."

Lucy: "I'll explain this to the others as l get started on putting it back to together so we can get out of here."

G.M. to the rest of the group: "You'll have to buy Lucy some time to put the motor back together to raise the shutter."

From here the players started asking about the materials in the room (which appeared to be an underground storage area the more they investigated) and decided to start barring and rigging the door with traps before the monsters started bursting though it, which they will be doing soon enough.

For the skills needed to pull everything off, such as piloting the fork lift (used Pilot Automobile) to block the door, the Fire Walker attempting to find a bottle of liquor in the adjacent office (Find Contraband) to make a Molotov (using skill Fire Knowledge) while the weapon expert rigged a spare propane tank to explode (Demolitions) while the construction worker began rigging up a barricade (Carpentry) for the characters to hide behind once the explosives and fire bombs began going off by the doorway, I added a "Pressure Situation, serious" penalty of -15% to all of their rolls.

And as for Lucy, she suffered -5% for using "unfamiliar tools", a -10% due to being "distracted by outside forces" and finally another -15% for the "pressure situation: serious" situation. As the group at the other end of the storage room were all dealing with fighting back monstrous creatures, Lucy was having a mini crisis of her own as I threw little wrenches in the works here and there, such a including a ruined part that wouldn't work in the motor properly, and in the end she reverted to using her Jury-Rig skill to put the motor back together.

Needless to say, the tension was cranked up considerably, but Lucy eventually opened the shutter and the group fled the room (closing the shutter behind them to slow down their pursuers), eventually escaping the underground passage and the building that stood above it before it all collapsed.

Note: As the group breathed a collective sigh, one of them realized that they had the tools to blow up the shutter door instead of having to go through all of that. But being the ever aware G.M. that I am, I reminded the players that the way it played out was more exciting, it gave the mechanic character a moment to shine, and had earned them all more experience points than if they had gone the other route. Encourage your players to act as a group whenever possible.

Supernatural page 3 of 3 image by Darren RocheThe thrill of the hunt… and being hunted: The night was free of clouds, allowing the light of the full moon to bath the scrap yard with enough pale blue light to create menacing shadows everywhere one looked. The shadows only put Mark’s nerves that much more on edge than they already were. He didn't want to be here anymore than the other investigators, but the investigation over the last day or two revealed to them that this was where the group of Gremlins was hiding out.

  Mark kept watch as Randal prepared to work the lock of the management building’s front door. But his nerved were making him twitchy, his eyes darting around without taking everything in. “Crap, someone jammed gum or something in the lock” Randall commented, rising to his feet. “We’re gonna have to go in the scrap yard without power and lighting unless we break in some other way.” Randal pulled a radio out of his trench coat to let the other members of the group know this as they’d already split into other group to look at the other side of the yard.

  While Randal debated with the others, from the corner of Mark’s eye he saw a quick flash of shadow along the office wall move. Spinning himself around, he peered through the sights on his Glock to aim at whatever it was that moved. Nothing was there. Then a slight, but sharp sound of metal falling upon metal spun both him and Randall towards the bowels of the yard. The shadows of all the stacks of long dead cars and mountains of metals conjured overbearing shadows throughout the yard. Mark’s imagination was getting the better of him as he could have sworn that the yard was indeed like a giant shadowed mouth that was ready to swallow him whole. “Hey Randal, just break in already. I ain't going in there without some light.”

  Moments later, the door was starting to give under Randall’s barrage of kicks. Mark was still watching his back, but again from the corner of his eye he saw something move. Something small, and maybe childlike, blurred between two car stacks in the distance. The crashing sound behind him made Mark jump, spinning around and ready to gun down whatever caused it. He then signed in relief that it was Randal finally kicking in the door, and relief that the others didn't see how over reactive he was being tonight. Mark was a pretty brave guy, surprisingly so in the face of the supernatural. But something about Gremlins always got under his skin, but he could never summit what it was exactly.

  The light switches by the door didn't respond, which wasn't surprising as a lot of small town managers tended to shut off the power box when they left for the weekend. So arming themselves with flashlights, they both went in to find it and switch it on. The management office wasn't much more than a small two story building with a couple of old mobile homes attached to it for office space, and Randall stated earlier it should be easy to find. However, the mass of clutter and mechanical parts and pieces all over the place made searching for anything a serious challenge. “Mark, Ill go upstairs and look, you check the offices over there” said Randal, gesturing to the left. Mark didn't like the idea of separating from him, but they would be within shouting distance, and his flashlight had bolstered his courage a little.

  The mobile home office space was a little less cluttered than the main building area, and was even a little better lighted due to the couple of windows that let in square patches of moon light. He made it halfway into the office area when one of the patches of light flickered, as if something had ran past the window. Once again Mark spun and aimed his Glock, but there was nothing there. A sudden thud sound on the roof nearly made him jump out of his skin. As he recovered his senses as he listened to the sound of something small running towards him, then over him, and now past him across the roof. He trained his gun to follow the sound, his senses now locked in a battle with his trigger finger, which yearned to open fire towards the sound of the running.

  A loud slapping sound caused his head to swivel back towards the window, catching a small, clawed hand upon the glass for a brief instant before vanishing back into the night. Fumbling with his flashlight, he clumsily and frantically reached into his coat for the radio. Once he had a solid grip, he jammed the button with his thumb and said “Everyone, watch your backs. We’re being hunted.”

Something that I've noticed with newer GM’s is the method in which a lot of their monsters act and react to the player characters. I think a lot of it has it has to do with the fact that many of them cut their teeth on fantasy games, and most monsters reactions in a dungeon is either wandering aimlessly or is hiding in the treasure chamber at the end of the dungeon. Well, that’s not very scary says I.

Supernatural monsters LIVE for the fear and torment they cause upon humankind, in fact you could say in most cases they exist to do so. And in the case of a group of investigators looking for trouble, they will certainly find it, but that doesn't mean that the creatures wont be looking for them back. Rather than the group wandering around and gunning down whatever they find, why not let the creatures work their nerves and fears awhile first. It’s one of the best ways I've been able to invoke fears into a party that’s sees them as ho-hum by this point.

In the example above, the Gremlins knew that the group was there, they knew they had the advantage of the shadows and darkness on their side. Between shifting and moving around in the dark (creating the shadows), the unintentional or maybe even intentional fearful reaction one of them created by running across the roof of the mobile home, the quick palm slap upon the window… these are all methods of getting the players to realize that not only are they not alone, but the creatures know they are there, and they are hunting the players back!

Suddenly, even something as indirectly harmless as a group of Gremlins seem to be (at least harmless until you spring one of their traps), they suddenly don’t seem to be so quite so harmless now. They’re active, they’re using their advantages (such as small size, agility and Nightvision) and they’re obviously not afraid of the group. Nope, in fact it’s as if they’re playing with the group before they close in for the kill. And finally, keep in mind that they've accomplished all this even before they've unleashed what they are known for best, creating death traps out of mechanical and electronic items. In a yard scrap yard, the possibilities for disaster and destruction are endless, but why simply let the Gremlins lie in wait for them?

Other frights in the scenario written above could include an old telephone suddenly ringing in the office, followed by others until they are all ringing (something Gremlins could easily rig up), the power box itself may be booby trapped, trip wires in the building or scrap yard can slow the group down, other quick flashes of creatures moving in the distance or in the shadows, but are never there when the players take aim, a car alarm in one of the old cars could suddenly go off when the players get close, an old candy or soda machine could start loudly spitting things out, grocery baskets could start rolling down an incline or hill towards the players, toilets flush on their own in the bathroom, computers powered up by a mass of car batteries and wires could fire up suddenly, TV's could fire up and begin depicting gross or horrific images of victims they've killed in the past… the possibilities for frights like these are endless! If you build them, the frights will come.

Unknown Saving Throws: Another method that I've used with great results is to have the player make a saving throw roll, but don't tell them what its for! Instead, I keep a copy of the character sheets in my notes, and when the player makes a saving throw roll, I look up the roll needed myself to see if they succeeded or not. In doing this, the player has no idea what he just rolled for, or if he even made the saved successfully or not.
   An important aspect of doing this is to NOT react to the roll; merely describe the outcome, if there's an immediate outcome to give. Example: Joe's character needs to make a save vs. psionics against an NPC using Telepathy on them. I merely ask Joe to “make a saving throw roll”, but I don't say for what. If he failed to save, I don't react; keeping my poker face, I simply ask, “What does your character think about this situation, artifact, person,etc.?”  
He has no idea what he just tried to save against, and if he succeeded or not. The mystery and suspense of doing this is well worth the effort.
   This also works well for rolling Horror Factors: Right before a Horror Factor moment is about the take place, I ask the play again to “Make a Saving Throw Roll” (and notice I specify saving throw, not roll a D20) again, once i have the number, I check it myself and explain the outcome. Example: I ask Joe to make a saving throw roll, and then I look up if he made the Horror Factor before I even present the situation. “Joe, your character is still lost within the maze, it seems to be boxing you in, as if the brick walls are moving when your not looking. Suddenly, as you round a corner, you spot a tall and hideous looking creature with eyes that glow like the moon, its looking down at you. (Since Joe failed the Horror Factor roll) The creature reaches out for you with its right hand, its long fingers, tipped with deadly looking nails are fearful to even look at. You want to move, get away from it somehow, but your frozen in place, simply flatfooted and overcome at the sight of this horrible creature and your situation!

Consider updating and keeping track of your player's character sheets: This advise on the surface might come off as controlling, but its not about being a stat-monger or anything out of spite or a lack of trusting your players. I do this with my group for a few reasons.
 -I use quite a few house rules in my games, and updating the characters info on the players behalf makes sure that they are getting all the bonuses and benefits available to them.
 - It allows me to keep a copy of their stats, skills, psychic abilities, weapons, and so on. Doing this helps remind me of what the players have available to them, which allows me to tailor certain adventure scenes to highlight them. This enables the characters to use more of the eclectic skills they haven't been using, or their more obscure psychic talents, and so on. In short, it helps me help each player have moments to shine at times, it helps them understand what their eclectic skills and abilities can be used for (which usually helps them use them on their own in the future) and it allows me to keep notes on what saving throws they have so I can use the “Unknown Saving Throws” method mentioned above.
 -And finally, it helps me to keep on the players to update and note their character sheet as needed, particularly the back side with all the background info and the like. I've had players who never wrote down a word of any of this info, and then they'd forget aspects of their character. Having this basic info to fall back on when needed only helps to remember what their character is about, how far they've come, and where they want to go with them.

More GM tips coming soon

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