Well, for most gamers, usually October is when people dress up in the geekiest costumes possible and have geeky halloween parties.
However, for some of us, Halloween is a day best served up with a side of dice rolling and a good scary game, like Call of Cthulhu, Chill, or Vampire the Masquerade. Well, I have good news. Any game can be a scary game if you know how to use the mechanics right. I’m going to take some examples out of various genres, and we’ll give budding gamemasters some hints on ‘running creepy.’
1) Don’t be afraid to use the classic tools of the trade. You can make any adventure scary with just a few descriptive additions. Have a door creak, and the wind slam a window shut. Add a gratuitious noise that turns out to be a chipmunk. After a few chipmunks, owls, and other creatures, then hit them with the bad guy when their guard is down.
2) Don’t be afraid to have scary bad guys do things that make no sense at first. If they’re hunting Serial Killer guy, a guy who ties up women and carves them up is boring and done to death. But the guy who collects his victims fingerprints and makes graffiti art out of them in spray paint will make them have a “What the BLEEP?” moment. Everything you can do to freeze-frame the confusion of the players will make the scary scenario more enjoyable for everyone.
3)The innocuously placed, yet mostly irrelevant object is another classic. Don’t be afraid to use random ornaments for atmosphere. A bloody glove! Better yet, have the blood be from some creature that isn’t even remotely close to the place where the scenario is located!
At this point, it should be obvious that one of the keys to running a successful creepy/scary story is keeping the players off balance. Don’t be afraid to have that creepy old gardener show up at a key moment while they’re chasing the bad guy through one of his many-pre-planned escape routes.
4) The seemingly inexplicable: How does the scary bad guy DO that? It is important to stories like this, at least when running most roleplaying games, that you keep this information as secret from the players as possible. Knowledge is half the battle, and finding that knowledge should be difficult, but not impossible. Finding the secret lab where the monster was created, identifying the one thing that can end the monster’s reign of terror, uncovering the taxman’s scheme to defraud your dog, all this stuff can be pretty scary.
As soon as this is explained, the adventure becomes much less scary. It’s important that the heroes have enough information to fix the problem. It’s not important for them to have granular understanding of why.
5) Real Mysticism vs. Scooby Doo Mysticism: Every Scooby-Doo episode ends with the same thing. “I would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for those lousy kids, and that !@#$!!!! dog!” Both of these can be equally scary PROVIDED THAT, AS GM, you play fair with the players. There should be a reasonable expectation that most scary stories will have mystic scary bad guys, especially in superhero or fantasy games. Why use a fake werewolf in a game where werewolves are real? What reason would someone have to create a fake vampire threat?
That in and of itself can make a great adventure, especially if the villain has real motivation to create the threat, such as no vampires are currently active, but the time of their rising is near, so people are being killed in a traditional vampiric manner to create fear and raise awareness. Woe be to the hero who thinks he’s dealt with the threat only to discover that REAL Vampires show up a few months later, much to the chagrin of those who thought the problem was solved.
6) The twist: A good twist can help a scary story out a lot. Maybe that serial killer isn’t as one dimensional as the heroes first thought. Maybe he’s just a proxy, and the real killer is just a manipulator who uses the killer as his tool. Maybe the werewolf is really controlled by an evil business executive who has something that allows him to do so.
One of the most frightening and terrifying things about good horror stories is this: Men are the worst monsters. They will do things that no actual “Monster” would willingly do, and they do things that make people sit up and say “I can’t believe a human being did that!”
This is why Scooby Doo works, why it will always work, and why people will believe that it can always work. It is because the human mind contains the potential for both great good, but also incredible evil. And that’s why the scariest stories and roleplaying adventures sometimes have no monsters at all.