“The Drawing Room” by MidnightSyndicate.com 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"

Player Tips

It’s said that “anyone can be a natural role-player”, and I agree with that. However, based on my experience as a player, a game master and a writer/designer of Horror RPG materials, I would add that not everyone's a natural “horror” player. Having some sort of understanding about what makes a horror game work and how to get the most out of the experience is essential. This section of “horror RPG tips” is all about helping horror players get more out of their games and be better players in general.
Note: This is by no means a definitive listing of all the tools you need to be a good horror player. These tips are based solely on my experience.

Image of a BoschalaYou must be willing to suspend disbelief: This is rule #1 when getting involved with any horror themed game. Fortunately this isn't hard to do as the natural “interactivity” of role-playing games means that all of the players and GM work together to achieve this. Between the descriptions, the adventures, the settings, the discussions and interactions between the characters and Non-Player Characters (NPC’s) the suspension of disbelief should be easily accomplished. What’s important is that you've “bought into” the story from the very beginning.

Once you've begun the story with your character and have suspended disbelief, it then becomes a matter of continually doing it at every game session. This too can be easy and is more or less left up to the game master to handle, who for example, can reintroduce the suspension by starting the game session with something like this:

“When we last left the characters, they were investigating a secret underground passage they’d discovered under the mansion. They’d found what looks like a family crypt of some sort, but all of the skeletons are horribly disfigured looking; its hideous to imagine what they may have looked like in life. It was then that Joseph (the group's Psychic Sensitive) got a chilling sensation that they weren't alone… and that they were being watched.”

From here, you should already be back inside your character's head with this reminder of where your group left off and what you need to be thinking about, and what to do next. If you’re finding that your still having a hard time suspending your disbelief, I encourage you to try rethinking about the situation, specifically from the characters eyes. Don't throw up your hands in frustration and proclaim "This doesn't make any sense"; think out loud as if through the eyes of your character and reword your statement with something like "This cant be! How could this possibly be happening?"

I also encourage talking to more experienced players who are good at easily suspending their disbelief and discuss with them how they do it. In my experience, role-players love to share what works for them and would be happy to help you out, especially as they should understand that helping you also helps make the game more enjoyable for everyone.

Image from Boxed Nightmares by Kevin LongUnderstand the Nature of Horror RPG: For the most part, playing a horror RPG isn't that much different than playing in any other type of RPG game. The character will face similar challenges that they would in other game types, including enemies to outwit or defeat, mysteries to unravel, dangers to overcome, etc. In non-horror games however, the players usually feel that they have abilities, skills, talents and tools needed to deal with their challenges, that their characters are who they believe themselves to be, and that the game master is ultimately on their side. The difference in a horror game is one of mood and attitude; it’s a matter of intent as well as content.

The familiar backdrop of the modern day “real world” obscures the horrible things that hide behind it.
There are gibbering, cruel things in many of the shadows and crevices of the familiar world. There are dreadful creatures that pervert the familiar world your character knows, sometimes beyond recognition. Uncertainty and madness can bubble up in the dark recesses of a character’s mind at any given moment.

Monstrous abominations do exist, and they want nothing more than to tear you to pieces, or worse, play with your mind; sometimes to where you don’t even know your own name. Your character at times may face creatures that seem ultimately invulnerable, or at least out match the group’s ability. They may need to deal with situations that feel hopeless. They may feel as if no matter what they do, they’re doomed.

This can be the hardest aspect of a horror game for new players to grasp: when you get involved in a horror game, you’re ASKING for your GM to put your character and by extension you, into the proverbial meat grinder; sometimes a literal meat grinder. Beyond being a larger than life character, you are here to get scared. You will be put into scary situations. What's worse, your group is ultimately alone in what they do. If they get into trouble, get lost in the darkness; deal with things that are beyond them… no one is going to help them out. They're on their own. It WILL feel like the GM is out to get the group, and to a point that’s true, because we're asking the GM to get us. Were asking to deal with scary situations that feel hopeless.

However, the nature of a horror game also means that it’s never truly hopeless. The player characters are never truly victims. There’s always a path or two that leads out of the labyrinth. There’s always a ray of hope, even if you, the player and therefore character, can’t see it. It’s never hopeless, and it’s always worth lighting a candle against the darkness, no matter how bad it seems. The point is this: the fear-filled thrill of being lost, alone, desperate and scared is the point of the game, not a sign of defeat.

Horror that strikes so close to home and so personal is very effective, and that is the essence of Beyond the Supernatural. Knowing what’s real and what isn't in the modern world is something we all know and understand, so when something casually and hideously violates the ‘rules’ of your world, its horrific! But your characters have to deal with it, because only they can. So few people in the world believe in the supernatural, and those who don’t and cant… well they simply aren't able to deal with it, and they all fall like dominoes before the supernatural, every time. They are the true victims in this game, unless the group comes between them and the supernatural.

While it may seem like a small matter, the knowledge and understanding that the supernatural exists is a powerful weapon and defense in and of itself. And having the courage to confront it, even when they know what kind of odds they’re up against, makes for really memorable characters and adventure stories to share later on. That’s what it means to be a hero in such a horrible setting.

Body fo Revulsion: WormsBe willing to create and flesh out real “characters”: This is an angle that I've seen both players and GM’s neglect, and I don’t really understand why. What I mean by creating a real “character” is this: spend a little time thinking about why your character does what he does, what he’s done in his past and where he wants to go in the future.
We've all got skeletons in our closet, we all have dreams and goals we want to see accomplished some day, and you never know where you’re going until you know where you've been. The BTS character sheet already has a section on the back side that aids in this (as well as the “Rounding out the Character” section of the main book, between pages 147-158), but you can always add more details to help flesh out your character.

This doesn't have to be something you spend hours doing (but your certainly welcome to), it can be something you could spend an hour or two doing before you begin creating your character sheet (which is my preferred method) or after the PC is created. The reason I prefer doing this before character creation is because it gives me an early idea of what skills, traits and talents my PC should have, which also helps to expedite the creation process.
If you’re creating the back story after the PC has been created (which is fine and is probably a better method for beginner players), you'll have your character set in stone and can then create your PC background details based on what’s written on your character sheet.

As mentioned earlier, if you’re creating a character for a BTS game, there’s a section on the back of the character sheet that goes into some details about your PC, but there are other considerations you could look into.

The kind of information to consider could include:

-What kind of quirks, ticks, hobbies, tattoos, favorite kind of music, movies, goals, pet peeves, etc. does your PC have?

-What kind of vehicle would your PC enjoy using? Is he a motorcycle guy? Is she a jeep kind of gal? Does he like to use the same SUV he uses in his business when out on paranormal investigations? Imagine your PC going to an auto lot and picking out the kind of car they'd most enjoy using.

-What are his favorite kinds of televisions shows or movies? Do they influence his perceptions of the paranormal at all?

-How much time does he spend at the gym or performing physical activities (I require the players who like to load their characters with physical skills to really get in to bringing up their daily routines as part of their role playing experience).

-Is he/she spiritual in nature? If so, is he/she religious? If so, what’s religion?

-Does your PC work well with others? Why or why not? Note: as your playing in a group, its OK to play a non social character, but not to the point that your not able to be involved in the game or the group's activities.

-How close is he to his friends and family? Note: I encourage players to write up some basic notes about friends and family as they can make great contacts (and interpersonal relationship role playing opportunities at times). I've had players who are married with children who lead something of a double life due to investigating the paranormal, and this creates golden role playing opportunity.

Another great resource to consider is to look into books and websites that go into the psychology of people. This is sort of advanced are requires committing more time to the creation process, but its also a lot of fun in my opinion. One of my favorite books to use David Keirsey's "Please Understand Me II" when I'm not sure where to go with creating a character. Its got a great break down of main personality groups (artisans, guardians, idealists and rationals) that breaks down into variants the main four. Each variant offers insight and ideas in which to create characters from.

Notice to GM’s: I reward players who get creative and get into the “character” of their characters, usually with both praise and XP. I've been known to reward player(s) who performed a great bit of characterizing or in-game dialogue with immediate XP bonuses as opposed to tallying it all up at the end of the night. I do this to help the others players get an idea of what I'm looking for in my games or what I thought was a fun and memorable moment for that character. Occasionally this has enabled players to level up in the middle of the game, and the players enjoyed updating their sheet throughout the rest of the game session.

So for you GM’s who aren't encouraging your players to get into their character’s heads, I challenge you to try it. You'll be surprised with the results. I've had games where a combat roll was never made as the players were so busy (and happily) thinking as their character and trying to do things differently than simply going into combat actions, and these games have been some the most rewarding of my long GM career.

Art from page 6 of Boxed NightmaresHave a backup character handy: This isn't me trying to think negative or anything, but due to the simple fact that this is a horror game, and the character's physical & mental well being, and even their very lives are threatened by the supernatural regularly.

Over the course of a game night, your character deals with monsters, demons,  mages, psychics, crazy people, psionics, cults, occultists, ghosts, illusions, entities, evil minions, Cthulhu-like beings, local and Federal law enforcement, evil masterminds (in both government and corporate capacities), and pit bulls. Mix all that into a batter of bad player decisions and/or dice rolls vs. GM's having a great night of dice rolling or superior numbers & opponents and you have to expect that some characters will die in the line of duty.

Rather than pausing the whole game so you can create a new character (as the other players watch) or sitting the rest of the game out and watching the rest of the players have fun (which can sometimes be fun to do if your in the mood to observe player interactions that night), just have a backup character in the wings, ready to get involved shortly after your primary one expired. I encourage my players to work on a backup character during the lulls in the game as it gives them something to do when the spotlight's not on them for the moment,  and it helps keep their head in the game in some capacity.

And while I'm on this subject, please take your character's death with dignity and grace. I know it sucks when your character dies, I've lost many a character in my years (some of them I cherished so much I was nearly in tears at their passing). But at the end of the night, its only a game. So certainly have a moment of silence and then say a few words for your fallen, but then get back on the horse and start getting to know your new character, looking forward to experiencing where the life of this new paranormal investigator take him/her.

GM's: I encourage you to have pregen characters on hand, in the event that a character dies and the player doesn't have a back up. Coincidentally, you can find lots of characters in the House if you need them.

Image of the NacarantThere’s no shame in retreating: I’m not sure when or where this became such a dilemma, but I’m puzzled as to how some players just refuse to stop fighting a losing battle, especially in a horror game.

In any horror story, no one is ever truly safe (especially the protagonists). So it should come as no surprise that the players will come across some just plain bad situations that are too hard to deal with. Sometimes this is a case of bad dice rolling, a case of the player characters not being prepared to deal with this particular enemy or situation, or in some cases the GM has tricks up his sleeve the players were expecting, or sometimes it’s just the nature of a horror game.

I admire the enthusiasm and determination of players who yearn to save the day and destroy the monsters, no matter how tough or dangerous the enemy is. But these same players should also know when to quit and strategically withdrawal from the battle. There is a saying that goes something like “Run away today to fight another day”, and it’s a true statement. If you’re dealing with something that you didn't plan on and aren't prepared to deal with (like bringing wooden stakes to a werewolf fight), get out of the danger zone, get the proper equipment and deal with it again later. This is not a game about harboring foolish pride, this is about a horror game, the advantage will almost ALWAYS be in evil’s corner. That’s why teamwork, a variety of tools, talents, abilities, and quick thinking are keys of survival in horror games.

But on the other hand…

“If you can’t go beyond your borders, then push your boundaries”

In nearly all situations, no creature is ever truly unstoppable! For those who have the Heroes Unlimited book, there is some great info on page 73-74 that goes in the vulnerabilities of juggernauts, and there are a lot of sound ideas that apply in BTS.

Explosions will knock down and slow most monsters up, many of them still need to breathe air (making bodies of water a great problem solver), they can be trapped or restrained by cars, trucks, debris, shoved into pits or elevator shafts, blindness can impair them, etc. If you HAVE to combat or deal with the supernatural and you’re not carrying the right equipment for the job, compensate with intelligence. The majority of supernatural beings rely on their natural abilities over their smarts, which makes their vulnerabilities and weakness that much more debilitating on them! Even if it’s only to pin one long enough to make an escape, it’s still a weakness to exploit.

To quote supernatural private detective Cal McDonald;

“I think one of the key things I've learned over the years is THERE ARE NO RULES when it comes to killing freaks. Sure, some die from a bullet to the head, some by burning, and evidently some by the original superstitions like stakes and silver bullets. The key is to improvise. The key is to adapt to the situation and destroy the threat by any means at hand.”

Quick thought on the Reason for Paranormal Investigation table: While a lot of players shy away from looking at it (especially seasoned players), I like the optional “Reason for Paranormal Investigation” table on pages 149-150, and encourage you to at least look it over while creating your player character.
  To me, a character's reason for investigating is just as much about what drives him onward when others would turn back as it is about making it harder (if not impossible) for your character to be a reluctant participant.
  It really adds flavor to the characters, and makes a great fall back when logic dictates you should turn and run right now (I'm doing this out of curiosity, and I know what curiosity did to the cat. But still, all of these dangers and the mystery fascinates and intrigues me more than frightens me.)

Avoid the temptation of creating loners and antihero characters: Another trend that I don't enjoy seeing as a GM are players who create loners and antihero PC's, particularly as a way to avoid conflict or peril. Character's with family ties, close friends, colleagues and contacts are better grounded characters, and are always more interesting characters in general (both playing and for other player character's to be involved with).

Having them gives your character visible people to talk about (or to) during in-game dialogue, they provide potential alternative resources (I have no idea how to bypass this kind of online security, but I've got a hacker nephew who probably does... I should give him a call), and at times a PC's friend's and family may be the only stability they can rely on in such a crazy world to help keep their mental facilities from slipping.

For those who want to create these type of characters out of fear of the danger and drama that comes with them; danger and drama is inevitable in a horror game. Embrace it. Make it part of the experience (friends and family get in trouble ALL the time in every ongoing story you read or watch because the drama works). Rescue mission based adventures are usually some of the most memorable ones you'll ever get involved in.

From the Rifts: Good Role-Playing

Palladium pals Big Will Johnson and Carmen Bellaire have been producing videocasts detailing a variety of Palladium Book titles, but in this cast they're focusing on
“Good Role-Playing” and offers some great thoughts and ideas on the subject. Check it out!

More tips coming soon