More Than Cheap Thrills: Keeping Horror Scary

kitteh-krueger: ideally, your antagonist will be scarier.

Call it horror fatigue. For those of who grew up cutting our narrative teeth on spooky books and scary movies, we can cite, reference and recite the appearance of numerous common horror tropes without ever having to bust out a smart phone. If you have one of the Children of the Genre among your players, they’re going to prove one of your hardest nuts to crack in a horror game.

Follow me through a whirlwind tour of some of the top tropes many horror fanatics at the table have already seen play out numerous times, and how to shake them up.


Hiding in plain sight

  • “The killer is… one of us!”
  • Hiding in the backseat of the car.
  • Your flashlight reveals the killer is standing RIGHT THERE.
  • Phone call is from inside house.


The betrayal of the group by one of their own should be potent and intense. For a near deadly betrayal for everyone present, see the start of The Italian Job (the 2003 remake), and for a one-of-us betrayal so vicious and well hidden I didn’t see it, Scream 4. (Or Scre4m, as my fellow Children of Genre will point out.) If they’re one of us is a plot point you’re busting out, you get one chance to not screw it up.  Study betrayals in media—any media. This can be a turn in narrative your players never forget, and if it’s one that is purely from the GM (betrayed by an NPC), it’s on you to make this good. If that betrayal is coming from a player, and you know it’s coming, your job is to not reveal this before it happens. I can say from experience that as a player, I was very nervous about providing the table with a killer who was among them. My GM gave me good ideas, a pep talk, and then acted like they knew nothing at the table till after the session I turned on my fellow players. Study pacing of these kinds of reveals. You may get ideas for how to pace the narrative to lead to a strong beat for it to happen on.

In movies and television, physically hiding a killer in plain sight is an effective way to show things to a viewer.  It’s strongly about using the visual nature of the medium. This is one of the things that doesn’t port well to table top. Instead of a sudden surprise attack roll on the part of a killer triggered by one of those Damned Kids with the green van snooping around, you can leave signs of the killer in plain sight. When the school yearbook editor goes to see his girlfriend, who’s leaving the cigarette butts across the street from her house, under the old oak tree? If there’s a mystery element in your horror games, follow the subtly of the mystery genre.  Steady pacing can lead to some good payoffs.

As for the killer in the car? I have seen this done once in a way that scared me spitless. In the short film Suspicious, released in 1994, Janeane Garofalo plays a woman experiencing an escalating series of paranoia-inducing encounters, coming to a head at a little gas station miles from civilization. Moral of the story: you can use recognized tropes,  but you need to compensate by doing your best to wow your players with setting and tension.

Now,  for the phone call coming from inside the house. Unless you’re playing a game set in a particular location or time period, this plot point may net you the least buy-in from players, particularly ones in communities where cell phones have become so ubiquitous that many have given up a land line. The phone call from inside the house is often a crescendo event in a particular horror story. The victim is about to get killed, or the fast on her feet baby-sitter is going to haul ass with the kids straight out the front door, into the arms of the cops 911 called. With things like Skype apps on phones and integrated video in many laptops, yes, calls from an antagonist can still happen—but utilizing the technology we have right now will make it scarier. When a threat is relevant, it becomes sharper.


You have got to be kidding me


  • All the clues leading to that guy were WRONG, it’s actually SOME OTHER GUY.
  • Random puzzles.
  • Overly ambitious and/or impossible to follow trails of clues, props or motivations.
  • Inexplicable overkill or complete lack of response to preternatural events by the authorities.
  • It was all a dream!
  • The antagonist motivations make 0 sense.
  • The killer is mentally ill!
  • I thought the killer was dead!



This is a category with a number of themes that frustrate consumers of horror media, and players in horror games. If you have clues that take them to one guy’s doorstop, only to have it be Ted, the neighbor who was background noise the entire run of the game, your players may be pissed. One of the reasons horror is scary is because of the room for doubt. They caught the killer but no one leaves the island for another two days? I smell upcoming chaos with a dash of bloodshed! And I have no idea where it’s coming from.

Leave room for players to have the opportunity to theorize about what could be in store if they didn’t actually catch a killer—or even the right killer. You don’t need to lead your players to the nose to the possibility. The gesture of leaving that room is enough. They may also have a fabulous theory about the truth that you never thought of—and can now roll with if it makes the story even better.

Speaking of trails…puzzles, props and a path littered with clues are awesome. But puzzles can kill a game session like nothing else. Players can become frustrated if they feel like the mysterious puzzles are taking too long—or make even less sense once they’re solved. The puzzle taunts them by saying they’re not smart enough to catch the Big Bad, but its deciphered contents need to give them clues about how to stop them. If you’re running a cat and mouse campaign, Big Bad might want to play with their food. They can’t if the detectives trail goes cold as they track down an obscure book on the other side of the world, battling death watch beetles to do so. Every puzzle cannot be combination unbeatable skill check/Saw-like death trap.

If you bust open a few psych texts, the “crazy psycho killers” of horror movies and suspense flicks aren’t terribly present. In a game, you can still start in reality and then magnify real life disorders. A number of patients with  delusional illnesses are recorded as having specific delusions. Their paranoia may center on a class of person (milk man) or on times of day (at three o’clock the aliens are going to read their mind.) They have set patterns of behavior that go to great lengths to avoid the object of their fears and paranoia, and ways to cope if they’re forced to unexpectedly confront them. Keep in mind: many gamers have issues with mental health, or loved ones who do. If you drop one of the horror genre’s “crazy psycho killer” tropes you don’t just risk a lack of buy-in from horror vets. You risk offending and hurting friends.

The “I thought the killer was dead!” thing can be clever, but it’s heavily dependent on context. “Dude, I blew up Mr. Hardy. I stood there, and watched it happen” being followed up with Mr. Hardy’s return from the dead may not be as scary as intended, if you don’t play the scene right. In I Know What You Did Last Summer, a group of teens have a murder happy person gunning for them after they hit a guy on the road last summer and dump the body afterward. Delayed consequences are your friend in narrative.


As for it was all just a dream: please see every Nightmare on Elm Street movie. It is the grand daddy for cinema-raised horror fans of dreams acting as a nightmarish sub-reality that aren’t safe. In their waking life, protagonists in the Elm Street movies have to deal with adults and other kids who don’t believe them. In their dreams, they fight for their lives. Adults tell us sleep is restful, and non-negotiable. Unless a bogeyman is in the dream, waking up from a deadly dream that seemed real can be seen as a cheap thrill. If you’re trying to tap into a player character’s anxiety, or even reveal clues a player character could process while asleep—go for a middle ground. Anchored in reality, and just enough off that they know they have something unexpected and possibly deadly on their hands.


Have ways you keep horror fresh? Other tropes you hate to see in action or wish someone would retire? Leave a comment!

About l

L is a freelancer currently working as a writer, editor, journalist and game designer. She hauls a suitcase decorated in stickers as she blogs, travels, and tours. She makes her home in Washington, California, and wherever the tour stopped last night. You can follow L on twitter (@lilyorit )

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