The Pacing of Fear

I’ve been meaning to do some more writing on game design topics for Game Masters, having touched on aesthetics of play (specifically with traps) and negative possibility space in the past. One aspect of game design I’ve been focusing on in my own campaign prep is pacing. The Blog Carnival topic this month has finally inspired me to take a stab at writing about it.

The topic, What scares you? hosted by Reckoning of the Dead, is going to be a stretch for me. I don’t use horror very heavily in my campaigns, but fear is something I could stand to employ more as means of tension and story in my campaigns. Let’s dive in!

Though I hope to write individual articles for each pacing a scene, a session, and a campaign, for now I’ll give only a brief look at how a fear focused session can be paced for greatest effect. With fear as our primary source of engagement, the session described here will be light on action and our pacing achieved through the tension that builds from the promise of terror in its absence.

Near the beginning of the session, immediately if possible, there should be a brief but intense scene of terror to let the players know what the session is going to be about. This scene should set the players in the mood so the silence that follows will be full of tension and anticipation.

This scene could be ghostly wails in the distance followed by screaming. When the party arrives at the site of the screams, they find the bodies of a hunting party twisted with pain, their facial expressions locked in a stare of abject horror. Now the party knows what kinds of horrors they are facing, for the sake of this exercise we’ll say they bite down on the hook and pursue the cause of the deaths.

With the mood now established, the action should slow down significantly. Give them a hint that gets them moving in the right direction to get at the source of the fear, then take things slow. Some tables will wait for you to give them more before ever doing anything. That makes it easy. Talk slowly, leave long silences, describe in tone appropriate detail their surroundings as they proceed. Once, along the way, tease them with a fast phrase or two (not too fast, just back to normal) that they can act on, but dead end quickly and get them back to the slow walk.

Continuing our example above, the party sees frost on the trees west of the hunter camp. There, silhouetted against the moonlight is a tower like a tomb stone. How did they miss it by daylight? As they make their way toward it through the forest, the trees rattle, the frost on them turns slowly to shimmering dew, then to nothing, but the tower is still there. The leaves thin on the trees until, as the tower draws near, they are mere skeletons of trees. A sudden gust produces a deafening rattle of of branches and cackle of leaves across the dry, hard earth, but subsides. The ground grows rocky as it slopes up toward the tower. The trees fall away completely, passing quickly from leafless scrub oak to moss on the rocks, and then nothing. Soon they are in the shadow of the tower. It’s cold as they approach the mighty iron door, twisted and hanging from a single hinge that squeaks when the wind gusts.

As the tension gets high, the fear should peak again, not as high as the initial moment, but something similar. Let the players act on the new activity for a minute or two, but then settle things back into a tense crawl again before they get a look at the source.

As the party approaches the moaning door, they hear a scream of terror just inside, animal and wild, bursting through the door, they find the ground floor of the tower, all dust and broken furniture. Stairs lead up, with an internal door under them and an external door out the back. Through the door is a stable. In it, a donkey on the floor, eyes wider than any animal they’ve ever seen, ice all over its coat. It is saddled for gear and some of the equipment still there matches that of the dead hunters. On closer investigation, it is covered in small scratches, twigs and small branches still caught in the saddle and in its mane. Its legs are bloodied where it stumbled on the rocks. There’s no sign of what killed it and the stable looks otherwise completely unused.

The internal door opens on an empty closet. The spider webs there glisten with dew, and dead spiders hang from them. Up the stairs, the floor above is segmented with wooden walls. The timber floor creaks with every step and wind shakes the walls from time to time through unshuttered windows. Dust blankets the floors and furniture of the abandoned rooms and a skeleton lies in one of the beds, a key clutched in its hand.

We want one or two more peaks in terror before the climax. These peaks should exceed the original grab moment and each be higher than the last. To achieve these heights, introduce the actual danger itself, both through sight and direct impact on their characters. The danger should be real enough to hint at permanent outcomes for their characters, but shouldn’t engage directly enough for them to get a sense of their chances of victory. Don’t let them kill anything. Tensions should build again at least briefly between peaks and before the climax.

The key unlocks a door to the stairs, a heavy lock, clearly added after the fact. The stairs take the party to the floor above, where the wailing suddenly returns. Pale blue spirits descend through the ceiling, dipping among the party and touching them. Some are paralyzed with fear at the sight of them. Those who feel the ghostly touch experience strength loss in addition to damage. As quickly as they came, the ghosts escape through the ceiling, apparently unharmed. Their wails subside only to be replaced with cries for help from the floor above.

The climax for this kind of session is the peak of terror experienced by the players. After it comes the session wind down, which might include more action than the rest of the session as the players conquer the source of the fear. Alternatively, if the players are defeated (as may be the case more often than not in many RPGs focusing on fear), the wind down after the climax may be finding closure after a session well experienced.

Determined to save what they presume is the last remaining hunter, the party rushes to the floor above. There are the ghosts that attacked them, along with a kingly looking poltergeist who towers over the others. The large throne room that fills this floor is frigid and the ghost king’s stare freezes some or all of the party in fear.  In the fight that ensues, the cleric casts a spell that bolsters the party’s morale, allowing them to quell their fears and engage the enemy. In a costly battle, they succeed in slaying the ghost king and rescue the hunter. He tells them the king was trying him for poaching, using some of their game as evidence in the trial.

So there’s my first stab at an article about pacing and an article about fear based engagement, both at the same time! I hope it was insightful. Remember, check out the original blog carnival post to find more posts about fear this month.

If you are interested in spicing up a fantasy campaign with some fear themes and elements, you’ll most likely be using undead. I have two documents with seven flavorful undead each you might consider: Seven Dead Sinners and Whispers of the Dead: Undead Do Tell Tales.

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3 Responses to The Pacing of Fear

  1. Pingback: An Offering to the God of Knowledge | Mind Weave Role-Playing Platform

  2. Pingback: May’s RPG Blog Carnival Recap – Reckoning of the Dead

  3. Pingback: Social Pacing | Mind Weave Role-Playing Platform

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