Scare, Shock, Gross Out, Entertain – Running a Horror-Themed RPG

By the time you read this article, my friends, I will have gone through the ultimate test of a LARP GM’s experiences. I will have run a weekend that was almost entirely developed by yours truly. From the rules to the setting to the story to the characters…this weekend is all about my vision of how to run a scenario set in a Lovecraft-based setting.

Even as experienced a LARP GM as I am, this particular event has had tons of challenges. It’s actually easier for me to run a game set in the Isles than it is to set a game in 1930s Massachusetts. The amount of research, prop-building (thank you Steve and Jay), staffing, rules-writing, and sheer writing this has required has been unmatched in my 22 years of LARPing.

One particular challenge to hit is how to evoke horror. To paraphrase and expand on a quote by Stephen King, I want to scare my players. If I can’t do that, then I want to shock my players. If I can’t do that, I want to gross out my players. And if I can’t do any of that, then I hope I at least get to show them a good time.

Let’s look at how I intend to do the above.

Scare ‘Em!

It’s horror. I want people to be scared. I want them to go beyond simply roleplaying that they are scared and actually scare them.

My first weapon in all this is darkness. On Saturday night, the creepy cult they’ll be facing will destroy the generator that’s been powering the hunting lodge they’re at. They’ll have to venture out, at night, in the dark, to find the pieces they need to have light, or else they’ll have to stay in the dark. In the dark, it’s hard to tell friend from foe, to see the monster that’s coming at you, to find the vital clue you’re missing.

Worse, in the dark, the monsters seem much more real…much more terrifying. We have a huge monster that my hubby Steve is playing, wearing a harness that allows the monster to sit like an over-sized puppet on his back and be manipulated by him with long pipes. The head is a horrifying apparition with many mouths, but I got used to seeing it, because it was kicking around our house for a month. When it was really dark, we went out to where we’re playing, Steve put it on, and we did some tests, with full sound effects, glowsticks, movement…it made the monster scary as hell again. And when you shine a flashlight on it? Yeah…that’s bad news.

In table-top games, you normally have to scare players through eerie happenings, creepy descriptions, and slow revelations over a campaign. I only have a weekend, so I have to try and pack it all in. There are some pretty creepy book props as part of our weekend, and disturbing images, such as a skeleton with roots growing through it, a burning Asylum full of shrieking inmates, a nurse being killed by the Asylum’s electro-shock therapy, red mist seemingly bleeding out of midair…

Should be a good time!

Shock ‘Em!

Shock is surprisingly easy. It’s the jump out and care you scare. We have plenty of examples. Nooks and crannies in our Aslyum for NPCs to hide and jump out of. Sudden, startling sound and light effects. And best of all…ghillie suits.

Ghillie suits are the military camouflage pieces that are covered in synthetic plant material. Put one on, and you look like a humanoid shrub. Crouch down, and you look like a normal shrub. Now imagine these things lurking in a dense forest. You’re trying to sneak through, when they uncoil, and a piece of foliage jumps at you. Yeah, I expect that to startle-scare some players.

Shocking your players is surprisingly easy. When I was running my tabletop Cthulhu game, I occasionally set up phone calls to come in at particularly tense moments…often just as I said the phone rang…or I would drop a book or hit the table from underneath when everyone was whispering and quiet. I once waited til no one was looking at me, then screamed…or played a glass-breaking sound-effect through a hidden speaker. Watching the players jump is a beautiful thing.

Gross ‘Em Out!

The big gross out centerpiece of our weekend is a dog corpse.

Let me back up and explain before you call the MSPCA. My dog Boo is going to be kenneled down the street from where we play. My housemate, Jay, is playing the groundskeeper, and he’s going to take her from the kennel, walk around with her…make sure people see her, etc., and then take her away when no one’s paying attention.

In preparation for the weekend, we purchased a dog plush that looks a lot like her and is about the right size. We decapitated it, hit it with tons of fake blood, inserted some fake bones, and made intestines out of sausage casings filled with a fake blood and gelatin combo that looks…yeah, pretty disturbingly real. These will be spilling out of a huge rent in the torso. Lots more fresh fake blood will be spilled where the corpse is found. The bones will have a powdery residue (white cake frosting) on them that should get on anyone’s hands who examines the corpse. Information tags will allow someone examining the corpse to find out that the head seems to have been wrenched off by great strength, and the white stuff is the residue of the bones decalcifying for some mysterious region.

Now that’s gross! Creepy and gross!

You can certainly make gross props for a tabletop game. Or you can gross out through description. Describe anything violent and anatomical at any length, and it will get gross. If you have squeamish players, be careful. Table-side induced vomiting is not cool. I’m a little concerned about it happening when they find that corpse in my game.

Is it wrong that I’m a combination of concerned and hopeful? I may just be a bad person.

Entertain ‘em!

Well, this is a goal in any game, tabletop or LARP. If everyone has fun, then I can feel that all our efforts have been worth it. It’s been so much work, but it’s also been a blast watching my husband and my housemate gearing up for their first time helping to run a LARP, rather than play.

At the end of the day, I want everyone, staff and players, to go away saying, “That was amazing!” and ask for another game of it for next year.

That would tell me I have certainly done my job.

Your Turn

Do you have any advice concerning running a horror themed game? Have you ever scared, startled, or grossed out your players, or had it done to you by an evil GM? Let us all know!

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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