5 Tips for Horror GMing

Hello future Scare Masters! If you want to learn how to terrify your friends, horrify your peers, and give cold shivers to the casual acquaintances that you sometimes play TTRPGs with then I have some wonderful news for you, check the title reader, this article is going to help you do all of those things and more. 

This article is more than just 5 loosely-affiliated tips, it is also a road map and a framework with which to build a creepy campaign or a hair-raising one-shot. Each tip is also listed in order of how they should be applied within a single one-shot. It’s like a two-sided jigsaw puzzle with a broad picture on one side and a much more granular picture on the other side.

I hope you’re ready to get scary!

#1 - Get Ambiguous

It’s the opening of a horror movie: we see some hapless victim about to meet their untimely end and a looming shadow with seventeen, glaring eyes. The camera pans away and the audience hears a scream as blood splashes into view. What was that?

At the table: 
Don’t worry about answering every question raised within the narrative because sometimes the truly scary thing is the lack of understanding surrounding events. Why was the eldritch horror able to command shadows but vulnerable to music created by instruments made of bone? How did it know about a character’s troublesome connection to wicked villains? Where did it even come from? You don’t have to explain why–in fact you probably shouldn’t, even if you know the answers to those questions.

There is horror in the dark… in the shadows… deep within the unseen. Take every bit of lore and prep you’ve created and dip it into more shadows. Obscure and obfuscate and let your players wallow in the horror of that which they cannot know. Anything is possible in the faceless void  and when anything is possible,  the real terror is in the imaginations of the players.

#2 - Create A Sanctuary or Safe Haven

The protagonists breathlessly collapse after a dead-sprint as they look behind them. The sun sets on the town gate where that Thing (Which Has Too Many Eyes) peers at the heroes from the shadows. It’s hot, moist breath had shuddered onto them, coming far too close. Everyone knew that Thing (Which Has Too Many Teeth) could never come past the gate without an invitation.

At the table:
Create interesting locations that the players can explore, interact, and plan from. A private library that contains a secret tome of knowledge is one example but anywhere that you could see yourself taking a nap at would work. Work to disrupt ever-mounting dread or else it risks overstaying its welcome.

A non-stop scarefest can be a little desensitizing. The players need to be able to come back to at least one  “safe room” that allows them to appreciate the light in spite of the darkness. Something that can remind them of why they are struggling so hard against the darkness in the first place. They need a place where the tone and pacing of the adventure can find a different beat, even if just for a few desperate moments.

#3 - Destroy the Sanctuary or Safe Haven

The protagonists look just outside the town gate at that Thing (Which Has Too Many Voices) knowing it would never follow them past the gate. The grounds within the wall have been warded against that Thing (Who Knows Everyone’s Names). A terrifying wail erupts from the creature lurking in the shadows and Old Hickory, a large tree just outside the town wall, is felled in one fearsome strike. It crashes through the town wall and as the dust settles the heroes see that the boiling shape of eyes and tentacles doesn’t need to come through the gate to enter the town.

At the table:
Essentially you are undoing the work of the previous step and  keeping the players guessing by removing the safety of the known in favor of the terrifying ambiguity of the unknown.  Add another line or two here about what is worth removing and what isn’t, like maybe killing the dog isn’t great but you can put it at risk or transform it.

Everything that you built from the previous step must have loopholes or ways to be subverted. This is the time to tell the players they were wrong to ever assume they shouldn't be scared. Give them a zombie that can plot and plan, a vampire that can walk in the day, or a dentist with a power-drill for a hand and a desire to create new types of cavities.

#4 Capitalize on Misdirection

The Heroes have escaped the wreckage of their hometown as that Thing (Whose Joy Sounds Like Wailing Agony) goes on an eldritch rampage that devastates everything they once held dear. They made it out on the southern side, into the Enchanted Woods. On the other side of that is their only remaining hope: the Haven. Except the hero that was given the task of orienting the team was wrong. They didn’t come out of the south exit–they exited through the east side–into the Abyssal Grove. A horrifying place  filled with monsters just as unearthly and terrifying as that Thing (Which Only Desires The Hunt).

At the table:
The best time to capitalize on misdirection is when the players are looking the wrong way. They will reveal their blindsides to you in ways that might not be immediately obvious but the key is to listen to what they aren’t saying. The gaps in their knowledge, the holes in their theories, and the inaccurate perceptions of events as they occur are exactly where the characters are their weakest.

You will hear your players do and say the completely wrong things, especially if there is enough ambiguity. They’ll wander into the Abyssal Grove, they’ll confuse a vampire for a werewolf, and they will want to kiss the Slender-Fae. Your job is to leverage that into the story, even if you didn’t plan for it, and find a way to make it take their simple mistake and turn it into something terrifying. Fill the Abyssal Grove with new fears, give the vampire a reason to play along as a werewolf, and have the Slender-Fae ask their kissing partner why their soul is missing. A world of horror is filled with wonder but not all of that wonder is wonderful.

#5 Get Specific

That Thing that has been plaguing the heroes from the beginning isn’t something they always recognize. Sure, it has features like too many eyes, too many teeth, too many voices, and other distinct attributes but nobody has ever managed to see it under a bright light and in safe enough conditions to observe it. When they stopped to help the injured grandmother on their way to the sanctuary, they had no idea that the frail arm they were wrapping a bandage over contained the darkness of that Thing (Which Has Too Many Forms).

At the Table:
Focus on the details that scare you the most as the GM. Make those memorable to the players in visceral and impossible ways. Your giant crab monster has feathered wings? Good, let your players hear the spectral resonance of tremendous gusts of air flapping away from the scene of its carnage that they were too late to stop. The next time they hear eerie, spectral wings beating their way towards the group, they will know to be scared. 

Not every detail has to be specific, but at least a couple of things should stand out in the ambiguity of the darkness and mystery. Make sure that the few things that poke out of the shadows are dreadful and terrifying. Truth be told, you’ll know if it’s scary because it will scare you a little too.

I want to end this by drawing focus back to the reason people play games: to have fun. Every horror game that I’ve ever run or played in have all had that one through-line in common, they were all so very much fun. In between the scares, the frights, and the creeps, it was always me and my friends telling a scary story together. Don’t listen to anyone that says that horror has to be something you don’t want it to be, because it should only ever be something you enjoy doing.

Connor (He/Him)
Twitter: @ConnodoreCrunch