The Scare Factor



Jun 20, 2007 18:10:03
Hey all, I'm back for more RL help.
I've currently got a great RL Campaign going on, but it's lacking "the scare factor", that is, it's not scary enough. My players are up for creepy/scariness, now I just need to deliver.

So, are there any seasoned (or even new) DM's who would like to pass on a couple tips?

Thanks for Everything.



Jun 22, 2007 2:29:25
The Ravenloft DMG has quite a few suggestions, Music, mood lighting, props, etc. I suggest you read it.


Jun 22, 2007 8:15:42
If you own the Black Box, the Realm of Terror sourcebook has a whole (short) chapter on terror tips. That's worth a look too, and they're going fairly reliably on eBay.


Jun 28, 2007 7:26:03
I've run Vampire: the Masquerade and Werewolf: the Apocalypse for a while and the Storytelling tips in most of those books are easily translatable to the Ravenloft setting - one thing that constantly draws me to RL.

Primarily, you have the most powerful tool in you box of tricks "players that are up for it". If yo can entice them to feel the fear, immerse themselves and give up the real-world for a while, you're set. Instil a 'ban" on mobile phones and other technological interruptions, insist on in-character behaviour and use lighting, music and the setting to create the atmosphere. If the players are willing to come aboard, you're set, because this isn't something you can use brute force upon and impose on them.

The biggest mindset change I've had to work on is that it is okay for your character to be flawed in some way, it is okay for them to be afraid. They don't have to be the unstoppable hero all the time - it is when they falter that good role-playing is created.

Make evil a gray area. If the players can relate to the evil, or even empathise with it, there is a level of horror in that as well. Many of my sessions have ended with the gasp of "there but for the grace of God go I".

Use the setting to yuor advantage. What makes a street in Barovia different to the 'generic fantasy' we can all imagine. What is different about how people act? What are the people afraid of? What do they want? What are their hopes? If the characters can make a few human connections it makes any atrocity hit harder. If you can put a name to a corpse, or the insane victim, it means more. When my party encounters someone they know as a victim of evil; I take a few quiet moments, play some low music (I like Enya), encourage the players to speak quietly as well and then ask them for memories about that NPC. Only take a couple of moments, sort of like a flashback in a movie, but it is worthwhile.

Use the weather as well. This is an excellent foreshadowing device and mood settign tool. Mix darkness, fog or thunderstorm together and you have a potent mix. Robbing them of a sense like sight, or distorting one like hearing can lead to the jitters.

And one final note - let the characters imagine what is out there. What they come up with will often be far better than what you have in your notes. This happens regularly to me. I remember one time when a character recieved a glimpse of the 'something' in the mist, I described it as glistening wetly (mostly from the condensation of moisture in the fog), but the player asked nervously "you mean like teeth?". I shrugged and had a few more distorted noises come his way. He spent most of the evening with his imagination doing most of my work.

Hope this helps and good luck with your games.

Game hard.


Jun 28, 2007 7:49:19
You may also want to consider mechanical changes to the game. I'm using a variant on healing magic, where a healing spell or effect restores hp by converting them to subdual damage instead. This means that PCs still have to stop and rest a fair bit between combats, which makes them very reluctant to enter a fight if they can help it. It also means that before they do enter a fight, they want to do as much background research as possible because the chances of them being incapacitated in a fight are much greater.

In terms of mood, I thrive on realism and details. Letting the PCs get to know NPCs, big and small, is good because it makes them care for these characters. When misfortune befalls an NPC, the PCs perk up and try to help if they're good, or worry about whether the same could happen to them if they're evil.

Much of my campaigns in Ravenloft take place in cities. There's a wealth of noncombat adventures you can have, mostly based on personalities and role playing and figuring out how to solve people problems without drawing a blade. My current adventure has some players who have just come back from an unusually violent adventure in Falkovnia (and by "unusually violent" I mean they fought maybe two dozen enemies over the course of the whole adventure).

Now they're in Il Aluk having been hired by a noblewoman to look for her stolen dog. My players can appreciate the humor in this somewhat bathetic fall from heroism to the mundane... but they also understand the motivations of each level of the chain. Even for something as seemingly trivial as a lost dog, you have layers of human dynamics:

The lady herself is largely unloved by her husband, an ambitious lord, and treated (as many women are) more as a trophy than anything else. This dog was like a child to her, being her comfort when she was not allowed to leave her house or to receive other guests because her husband did not wish it. Even if they can't get over her spoiled-child nature, the PCs have some sympathy for even a spoiled child who has lost a best friend.

The lady's maidservant took the dog in her care when her mistress left town. The maidservant secretly placed the dog in the care of a kennel, against the terms of her employment... but had a good reason for doing so. Her sick mother is fast fading at home, and having a dog around could kill her. (And of course the noble woman is entirely indifferent to this particular suffering on the part of her servant.) Now the maidservant faces dismissal from her work and a possible lawsuit for dereliction.

The maidservant placed the dog in the care of a personal friend, a kennel-owner who used to be a ranger in a previous career. The ranger is conscientious and careful with the animals in his care, but can only afford to secure against the usual methods of harm - theft, breaking and entering, etc.

Whatever stole this dog did so by somehow entering through a high window, bypassing a locked door and opening it from the inside, and then smuggling the dog out without alerting the other dogs in the kennels in the middle of the night. Strange...

With mundane features like the day-to-day concerns of the NPCs, the PCs are lulled into a sense of dealing with the everyday, the average, the unexceptional. Then you throw in a little detail that would start to make their skins crawl. Wait a second... that can't be right...

Everything I've outlined above is good for the opening stages of an adventure, to instill a sense of realism and "being there". When it comes time to playing encounters, whether they're hard or easy, you're going to want to keep the level of detail high. Make easy encounters nonetheless seem menacing and uncertain by keeping your PCs unclear as to what they're facing exactly. (One other poster said at a game she played, the DM put her character in the dark with strange grazing feelers flicking across her face and limbs. She thought she was about to have her brain eaten by a mind flayer. Turns out they were just centipedes.)

Make hard encounters memorable by having smart enemies keep the PCs off balance. Ravenloft can be brutal and unforgiving, but more often you'll succeed by having a villain who can perceptibly be seen to adjust tactics and strategies to the PCs' behavior. Instead of having your vampire wait for them to come to his coffin, have him send spies to their camp and figure out their travel plans. If his spies succeed, the PCs should eventually get to the coffin's resting place and find it's gone, perhaps even with a trap in its place and a goading note from the vampire.

Likewise, if the PCs succeed against the spies, weaken the vampire. Make everything they do have an effect on the final outcome, and you'll have created a villain that evolves and has to plot against them. This is far more rewarding than just having PCs act against an oblivious, static enemy.


Jul 02, 2007 15:46:22
Thanks for the Help! This gives me a better sense of how to go about running RL.


Jul 05, 2007 6:22:37
Thanks for the Help! This gives me a better sense of how to go about running RL.

Cool. Let us know how the game progresses! Perhaps we'll be able to learn a thing or two from you.


Aug 02, 2007 5:30:49
What can also help, as long as your players are willing to be vulnerable and not be the invincible hero all the time, are two methods critical to instilling horror in almost any kind of story or setting. Two things that people fear the most are being helpless, and the unknown.

The first part, being helpless, depends greatly upon your players willingness to "cooperate" with the setting. I have gamed with a number of power gamers who just wanted to step into my Ravenloft game with something to prove and it always got messy trying to explain to them just why those mega-powerful spells and enchantments from other setting dont work here. You have to come up with different methods of (at least temporarily) robbing the players of their significant power, and then let the action commnce. This will force the players to think on their feet and not rely so much on spells and weapons, but rather their own ingenuity and creativity, not just high damage possesions. Think about the Colonial Marines from the movie "Aliens"; in the beginning of the movie they were the galaxy's biggest badasses. Take away/limit their guns and you've got people terrified for their lives, regardless of occupation. IMPORTANT: Use this method sparingly. It's really easy to overuse once you see that look of genuine fear come across your players face. If overused, your players will feel like they never gain any kind of power or abilities and will feel useless, to a degree. This technique works best if used every once in a great while. Also, don't simply strip them of their powers and then shove a tough enemy in front of them; make the encounter something that can be resolved through creativity and not just brute force. I once used an encounter with an unkillable undead revenant (think Jason Vorhees) and his only weakness was seeing his own reflection. The players had to figure out how to trap him in front of a mirror...This scenario actually became one of my most successful encounters to date. In situations like this, Base Attack bonuses and weapon damage dont matter, but survival is still the goal. The revenants' name is even known in other friends games to this day!

The second technique, thankfully usable much more often, is the fear of the unknown. Now, how many of us have had the DM begin to describe what a monster looks like that we come across and have half the table go "Oh, it's one of those. No biggie." Now take this same situation, and take away that monsters' glaring weakness. Dont just give a monster a template, give it some other actual powers. Sometimes its not just how much more damage something can do, its how it does it. The Book of the Walking Dead is a great recipe book for creating all sorts of odd and different undead, and many of variants could be apllied to living things as well with the right ideas. Time and time again I've caught my players off guard with something that looked like a zombie, until it does something crazy like ignite in blue ghostly flames, crawl up a wall, or rip off its own head and use it as a weapon. When players can finally rid themselves of the confidence of knowing everything out of the Monster Manual, they will start taking each battle much more seriously and start taking notice when things just "don't seem right"

I hope these two techniques help. I've run a Ravenloft game for several years and recieved a lot of praise for using things like this and not treating every encounter like "You see an Orc. Blah Blah roll initiative."