UK conversations about lrp game design have fragmented – there isn’t a UK-based forum, and they tend to end up on Facebook. Which is a shame, because the wisdom isn’t there to be found later.
So when a particularly good thread cropped up earlier this week, I thought I’d distil is a bit and stick it here… I’ve credited everyone, and if you want your name off just say. Original spelling is retained, any errors of cut-and-paste are mine…It started with Joe Rooney asking:
“I am interested in how to do horror in LRP. Not your “immersion through panic” running away from zombies horror, or “let’s sing a song about genitals to break the tension” horror, but rather the kind of godawful feeling I get when watching films like A Tale Of Two Sisters or whatever. Creepy, dread-filled, stomach-churning horror. How’s that achievable in the LRP setting? “
I quickly fired off “Sleep deprivation. “, but it got a lot more sophisticated than that. “Mess with their frames of reference. Ride the wave of LARP serendipity, particularly in terms of using knowledge players don’t realise you have.” said Andre Tcherepnine , and “Don’t explain enough.”
Ian Thomas: “‘scare the player, not the character'”
Mark Nichols “you realy need to play with the meta game to create true horror, you need people to actually lose the edge of “game” they know they are in. sleep depravation is the easist way to start that, get people tired and they start making shitty decisions, keep the adrelinin up and they will make shitty deciosns, and then get all gung ho about fixing the problem they have creatyed, allowing you to create situations they will walk themselves into. once you have them jumping through hoops they dont know are there then you can strt to set up horror encounters, things jumping out, creepy desertad rooms etc.
create clever expectation management about who players will find the game, we give people a safe word that they can use to get out of the game, but once out they cant necessseraly get back in, this tells people before the game starts that the game will be scary/ intense but that they should push their own limits to avoid missing out. People will use this asubconcisously as a little badge in their heads that they were tough enough to keep going through a game that needs a safty word, and acting tough means they make silly deciosns
i like to play with recognisabal things in general, it forces resonanace in poeple so they know what to expect and can set them up to be scared by it, then you can shift the goalposts which is a lot more disoreientaing when they thought they knwer wat was cming.
give peoople things to do that take them out of their safe spaces, so every movement is s deciosiosn of action vs safty, we managed to stop people going to get food and drink, so be carefull as its easy to over do this like we did, but onve they get tired and attacked they will go out making stupid decisions”
Lauren Owen: “Following lovecraft, never let the see the monster properly. Let their minds fill in the blanks. Wake them up in the middle of the night to ensure they’re fragile and disoriented. Make them helpless against the bad. Use sound or lighting fx to signal the coming of the big bad, sets them on edge for its arrival. Sensory deprivation helps with the above I think, of they can’t see it, they can’t escape from it but they can hear it coming…”
Mark Nichols summed it up: “when setting horror scenes try and uses as many sences as possible, it will make people remeber it in odd ways”
Lizy Townshend: “Multi-sensory experience. Most frightened I’ve ever been at LRP was at ODC, in a (unknown) god audience, at 3am, in the pitch black, with cold water being spritzed on me, with ethereal singing and a scary deep voice. Quite a few nightmares.”
Ian Andrews: “Non-visual cues – scent, sound. Can be very powerful if done right.”
Dave Wagstaff: “if they can see the protagonist they will react, don’t let them see…the unseen is far more scary. Odd noises, moving objects, slamming doors etc. trying thinking like a hitchcock film….what they cannot see, only hear will work on their imaginations. Cutting the power to lights at odd times, making them flicker is even better. Have someone who is trying to give them information scream when the lights go out, cut the scream short and slam a random door and the NPC has disappeared.”
Andre Tcherepnine: “Use effects that leverage hardwired reactions rather than suspension of disbelief (e.g. flash powder, pre-planned destructible props, etc.).”
Richard Polley: “The more senses you use, the more realistic it seems. The brain is hard wired to fear things it doesn’t understand. Play on that fear by making things seem real. We are all used to sight and sound being manipulated in games, it is easy to step back from that to maintain detatchment. If you can include touch, taste and smell in creating the horror it becomes so much more real.”
Katherine Roper: “Trap them in a mortuary full of smoke (poisonous) and the walking dead and then have the lights go out as they realise actually the door they thought was open, is locked. Oh wait, Dominic Carroll already did that, the git…
Sam Wood: “Remove/impair sight. (Darkness is the cheapest and best tool for horror LRP, in my limited experience of running it. It means you can get away with crappier monster phys-reps too!)
Feed other senses, but not enough to provide any concrete information. I’ve used soundtracks of whispering (the story of Cain in Turkish), metallic scraping, etc.”
Gerard Kurth: “Yeah darkness is an obvious one. Also play on common fears, small spaces, blood, guts, slime, creepy crawlies, odd noises, smells, people shouting BOO etc”
Mark Nichols: “play with lights, to disorentate them, at alone 1 we never let them see non red or green light, inside was all red flashing lights, to add tenmsion to their problems, outside was all viewd tghrough green lighting gell so monsters could get right up close without being noticed, and it also helpes to “visualy improve” thje monsters. for a weekend event end it sat night, nothing deminished horror more than the dawn”
Zeke Hubris: “I once played in a Cthulhu Live game set in a small terraced house. Unknown to the players the entire house had been wired with small speakers hidden in every room. They were controlled from a desk in a cupboard with one of the crew squashed into it. Over the course of the evening many small, subtle sounds were played through the speakers and had the cumulative effect of making all the players incredibly jumpy and on edge until the point where an actual ghost appeared was almost a relief.”
Andy Barnes: “EOS Sla – expanding on the audio effect, the players used to soil themselves when they could hear them but not see them. Mind you we did have very talented crew to make the noise!”
Tea Kew: “The ‘final encounter’ for Project Ragnarok was given sound by means of a crazy radio in the corner playing a mix of looped and live stuff, including lots of screaming and the like, and was lit only by a single irregularly flickering lightbulb. It was fucking terrifying.”
Tin Leper: “King Play with senses. and not just what they can see. Set up a big ol Bass woofer kicking out a really low sound and it will over time very very much set people on edge.”
Ellen Clegg: “Well, what worked for us was subtlety. Sounds that creep the players out – like a footstep in the hall when all the players are in the room. Objects that link to stuff in their back stories, or things turning up where they shouldn’t. NPCs who are just slightly off in their mannerisms. Stuff going missing or turning up unexpectedly. we were doing supernatural and psychological horror. So it really depends on your setting.”
Thomas E. Hancocks: “Music. Choose it carefully. It can be used for Pavlovian Conditioning. Alone 2 did this rather well. Light opera or piano music played in the background. Chinese orchestral ‘elevator music’ to play before things happened. Wagner for when the AI threatened to set the auto-destruct.”
Raz Agirl: “Get your hands on a copy of the Soundtrack to The Thing, and play that in the background.
Kill the lights, and give your players ONE lantern.”
Richard Polley: “One example I heard was in a game where there was a plague. The plague made people smell of Lemons. With the application of a can of air freshener to monsters, the smell of lemons became something the players feared more than they would have feared a shambling corpse or a monster.”
Dave Wagstaff: “Odd drops of blood on walls…bleeding walls or doors are even better. Something that in the dark they will touch and recoil from.”
No-one talked about taste on the thread. I’m reminded of a couple of events: one Dragon faction game in the LT system (I think) where a banquet had a load of bread – which when you cut into it spilled maggots. It had been hollowed out, and pre-prepped with “minibeasts”. Neat. We ran a banquet at an event once where some players were invited to eat with the fae. I don’t know if we managed the effect we were aiming at, but the plan was that when they’d sat down, and had a drink or two, two servants carrying in a human body mostly made out of pork ribs, and offal and serving it up… Would have been horrific.
Leading on from assaulting the senses: “No light. Light gives hope” from James Higson, finessed by Dave Wagstaff into “give them a small candle to huddle around…but no lighters of matches”.
James Higson reckoned “NO weapons.”, Ian Andrews disagreed “Weapons give hope. Weapons that don’t work create bitterness. Very, very scarce weapons (where players seriously consider savign the last nerf rounds for themselves) rock.”
Gerard Kurth: “ammo and healing beig in limited supply is good”
Harry Harrold: “Desperate scarcity of resources ftw. – particularly if they start with what they think is abundance.”
Ian Andrews: “Show them the cupboard full of ammo. Explode the cupboard full of ammo, ten minutes before they need the cupboard full of ammo.”
Nathanael Rouillard: “Difficult choices; e.g. a limited supply of a drug that will save a life, but is desperately needed elsewhere in order to ensure other characters live.”
Matthew Jenkins: “Immersion and atmosphere are the keys to a good horror game IMHO.”
Lauren Owen: “I think immersion is an important point here. The less stretch there is to pretend It’s real, the more real the fear. Make them comfy in their world before you break it.
Sleep deprivation is certainly a good tool as then people’s minds will start playing tricks on them. There is a great fear of the unknown and as such darkness and unfamiliar surroundings will help create the atmosphere. This means that it’s better to use a site that people don’t normally use so that they won’t feel comfortable there. Visual queues are excellent, for example stumbling in to the serial killer’s lair only to find polaroids covering the walls with horrific images can be a great way of building anticipation of the killer. Also, causing a player to relax and then shocking them will have a great effect. Similarly a slow build up of tension can also work well.”
Andy Barnes: “I love the polaroids idea that Matthew suggested above, even better if some of them are your players sleeping.
Harry Harrold: “Oh, yes. Polaroids. Set-dressing, in fact. By which I mean – set-dressing as a replacement for roleplayed (NPC) antagonists?”
Tea Kew: “On the subject of set dressing as a replacement for NPCs, this was done to perfection at Project Ragnarok: A mathematically time-locked room, which we couldn’t get into until a certain point – so obviously cue panic building about what we’ll find in there, trying to get in early, etc. All of these attempts failed, and we only got into the room itself at the designated time.
It was empty. Well, there were no NPCs waiting in it for us, no Nazi attack when the timer ran out. But it was entirely filled with epic set dressing. Paperwork. Bottles of Vril. Bars of gold. Maps, memos, a typewriter with paperwork in it, a table covered with skulls and goblets. Barbed wire laced from area to area in a possibly meaningful way. A radio to hell. And a flickering lightbulb.
Not a very large room by any means – maybe twelve to fifteen feet a side. But phenomenally atmospheric to be exploring and investigating, far more so (I think) than if it had contained an NPC for us to talk to instead. We had to put it all together ourselves from piecemeal information and slow exploration, and it was consequently very tense and immersive.”
Richard Polley: “I’ve also seen a great low medieval game where the power level of the players was so low (I was a lockpick, a friend was a grave digger and so on) that the concept of a ‘walking dead’ made us cower in terror for hours. The immersion of the event helped, but the real excellence of the game was in the players acceptance that we were effectively playing ‘normal people’ so it was easier to channel the reaction of a normal person to the events (i.e. not having to consider the character response) Noone was a hero.”
Megan Williams: “Doubting what is and is not real is often a good one. I would be also inclined to absolutely minimise the use of realistic gore, stylised and symbolic stuff representing horrible injuries might work better.”
The consensus was that horror requires alight touch with rules. Matthew Jenkins continued… “the less ref calls and the less rules that are involved, the better….people need to be thinking about the situation they’re in and not their stats.”
Gerard Kurth: “the rules and setting need to be as gritty and real feeling as possible.”
Karl Jepson: “Simple rules – nothing stops me being scared quite like trying to remember how long before my leg goes septic or I get fever or my mana regens.”
Nathanael Rouillard: “You do not have hit points; you only have the choice between an area being cippled, functional but not effective, functional, or killing you. Every hit effectively takes you (or part of you) out of the fight, and the medical attention that is readily available doesn’t bring it back to full, just stops it getting worse. Or maybe even just slows down how long it takes for it to get worse. It’s the hope of being able to find some medical supplies that keeps people going, but there’s no guarantee that they will be able to get them in time (if at all)”
Joseph Homer: “Suspense, suspicion, surprise. Healing needs to be sophisticated. Most larps are 5 mins and you’re dead. Having to play maimed or crippled with the chance of recovery leaves your friends with the horrible choice of leaving you to die or carrying you and slowing down. Take clues from murder mystery weekends. Also sanity loss with roleplay affects works. You may need to coopt players to impersonate themselves at points and get xp based on how obediently they follow the guidance. That creates a more all bets are off theme. Reincarnation points when you die forcing players not to be reckless with their chatacters. Threaten xp and players will panic.”
Matthew Jenkins: “I couldn’t disagree more. For me variable XP breaks immersion, instead of focussing on the situation and the scenario I focus on the XP. Further, if you force someone to roleplay something you haven’t created a genuine response. The best roleplay moments (from my experience) are the ones that are player driven rather than player forced. People will choose to go insane without prompting if you set it out in your mission statement. Being the person who goes crazy and blows his own brains out is a win in my opinion. As long as people “get it” they’ll go with it.”
Mark Nichols: “somthing good but very very hard to get right is the genre shift, so thing get desperate and fall into horror, the problem with doing this in the lrp world is you have to let people book for the event they play, again we got this right at alone 1 buy billing it as survival horror, and they styared the game in a crashed ship so the survival was them against the enviroment, and then we added aliens so it was then them against aliens”
Lauren Owen: “Is there something to be said about control too, or rather, lack of it? Realising there is no puzzle to solve or way to kill the monster can focus the mind on just being scared. Though there’s a balance with being railroaded and useless I think, that can become more frustrating than anything else I think. Not sure where that line is…”
Grayson Angus: “I think Horror is a lot about culture shock and confusion. It is about extending players the Olive branch of a trope or other situation they think they understand and then subverting it so that their instinctive reaction is the one that gets them killed or horribly mutilated. Further I don’t think death per se is scary I think finding a screaming howling piece of flesh that probably was once human is terrifying as it is a visceral warning of what awaits around the next corner. Also fear begets fear if someone is running away from something the herd instinct in human beings is to run too. The others posters point about light or the relative scarcity is a good one. Humans are very hardwired to find a lack of light makes them nervous.
I like building up and building on paranoia and suspicion, especially if you can do it by offering some kind of devils bargain that not everyone will accept.
Nothing I am saying is new but these are the threads we have found recently that work.”
Andre Tcherepnine: “Affect their agency – allow the situation to slip out of their control, or reveal to them, gradually, that they actually didn’t have the power they thought they did to begin with.”
Kai Grosskopf: ‘Unfortunately the thing that will get you is intangible and cannot be fought by any means you possess. Also it knows where you are and is coming for you. Yes. YOU. Personally’
(no I don’t still have nightmares about Sadako Yamamura why do you ask)”
Mark Nichols: “remember movie pacing, it has to go up and down and hit recognisabkle beats over the timeframe, players will respond to the lull with fear of whats upcoming as they have typicaly been conditioned to do so by films”
Grayson Angus: “Remember to ramp it down as well as up. Adrenaline has nice cushioning effect from shock if you keep them running on it constantly things will shock them less and they will react faster. Instead take the pressure off for a couple of hours let them get warm and fed and chill a bit and start making plans of their own and then screw with them again.”
Ian Andrews: “Infection. The enemy within. Doubt and mistrust of your so-called allies. Alien is a masterclass in all of this.”
Charlie Harrison: “Not letting people know who your NPCs/DPCs are helps – gives you insight and the ability to mess with them. Make them feel vulnerable – darkness, lack of ability to defend themselves, mood music / background noise/white noise all help set a tone for sure!”
Graham Jackson: “PCs that are actually NPCs…”
Tom Smith: “yeah let them trust no one would work well”
Mark Nichols: “set up 1 or 2 players as baddies, any npc interaction should be more awkward for them as they are the baddies, this will suggest to other players that somthing is wong, but because theire isnt actuly any reason fdor them to be baddies, it will just add a scence of unease.
force players groups to be small, encourage reasons for them to bicker and infight and work across purposes to each other, it will create more argumenst and tension when they are sleep deprived, and planing to do somthing, and then fiding out somone else has already gone to do it but knowing they wont do it as well as you has an awsome sence of dishartenment, that you can IC control by doing more things
good tensioner is a baddie that they know they can hurt if only they can get their shit together, but lrpers always have probles gettign their shit togher so they will bicher abiout the right thing/ way.
i was/ am planning on having a npc in with the players whos only role is to make bad suggestions and keep breaking up groups”
Nathanael Rouillard: “It’s a bit of a trope, but the amnesiac with implanted memories thing can work too. Chose one of your players, and make it them. Drop hints that the big bad is one of your PCs (maybe plant a secret DPC in the players to help set up a red herring). Feel free to wait until you need to make the reveal to actually decide on who the baddie was all along. Maybe you don’t make it one of the PCs, but just make it a DPC who they don’t know is not one of them.
James Higson said “Give them a dog. Then kill it.” Ian Andrews agreed “+1 on the dog.”
Tom Smith: “make an awesome character who they all love eventually, make it take a while, and let the character break”
Stephen Cowley: “I was going to just say – make sure they have something they care about more then anything else and put that under threat. Very slowly.”
Adrian Giblett: “To a horror campaign I would say body count. Make survival a challange let alone actually defeating the “bad guys”, hard to be scared if you all keep winning.”
Mark Nichols: “keep death very achavable for the players, if they think they cant die, or relise that its only NPC’s that die before a certan time players will start to not worry. we did that by making a cool death the” way to win”
Nathanael Rouillard: “Survival requires characters to sacrifice the lives of other characters (or sacrifice their own to ensure the survival of others)
Maybe the only way they can “win” a fight is by one of the characters involved in the fight dying. (And that includes if someone just jumps out and attacks them – they’d better have a buddy willing to die, or they need to run really fast).”
Lauren Owen: “Nathanael, not sure I agree about sacrificing others. For me, that’s usually a pretty easy choice. Far worse is hearing or seeing your friends die slowly without being able to stop it.”
Nathanael Rouillard: “It’s only an easy choice if you let people make that decision themselves. If you have a system that singles out the people who you need to make a choice between, it’s a lot less straightforward, especially if your criteria make sure that they are both vital/irreplaceable characters in some way.”
I think this is a really interesting area, but my only comment was “Onions.”, by which I meant exposing layered elements to the story. Mark Nichols mentioned “odd routes of information discovery, think of how they pull the plot together in the ring, try and emulate that.”
Lauren Owen: “I like revelations too, where the players have unwittingly done a bad thing. “what have we done?!” Works wonders for making it real and personal.”
Mark Nichols: “for me laurens revalations only wook if the players have dove the bad thing in game through their own “free choice”
Lauren Owen: “Ok yes, Mark, you have to let the players innocently kill the puppies/summon cthulhu/launch the nukes to make it horrible”
Sam Wood: “Make the ‘horror’ outside of the players understanding. Never fully answer their questions. If their questions are answered, make them lead to further questions. (Compare Alien, where we have no idea what the alien is or where it comes from, to Aliens, where we are shown the Queen, given explanations of the biology, and have Ripley there as the voice of experience.) This is also a good way of effectively driving a ‘plot’ for a long-term game, I’d have thought.”
Matt Bridge-Wilkinson: “Misdirection and vulnerability are at the heart of all good horror”
Peter Morgan: “When watching horror films, one of the major sources of fear, I find, is knowing something the protagonist does not (e.g., the door that closes silently and unseen, of its own accord, behind the person after they enter the room). Replicating this is easy in table-top (tell Player 1 “the branches outside the window tap a staccatto beat against the glass”, then hand a note round to all the other players “There are no trees outside the window”), but transferring this to LARP is probably more difficult. Maybe give certain PCs information which, for whatever reason, they cannot communicate. Let people *know* there is a monster outside, and know that the group that went out five minutes ago to get ammo are going to run into it, but not be able to get word out.”
Colin Stuart Love: “Have future reveals paint past choices/discoveries/victories in a different light. Keep the plot forcing the PCs to split up.”
One-off vs. Campaign
Joe Rooney: “This is all awesome stuff, thank you. It occurs to me that most of the advice works much better for a one-off than a campaign – Alien is a great horror movie, but Aliens is a great action movie, after all. Any thoughts on a horror campaign?”
Ian Andrews: “Very different animal and the devil is in the details. Long-running evidenced threads of information building into a coherent, horrible whole. This is lovecraft coun try.”
Stephen Cowley: “Horror campaign – don’t tell then its a horror campaign……”
Dave Wagstaff: “In a horror campaign do you need to see the villain you are hunting? knowing her/she is there and hunting you back, is there a spy in the midst? all of these things can be done to heighten paranoia in a campaign and so increase fear. Horror is other people”
Colin Stuart: “Love In a horror campaign as opposed to single event you probably want high survival rates. Hence you need different tracks for failure/defeat rather than death. Curses, lasting injuries, wrecked dreams are all possible options. It depends what genre of horror you’re aiming at.”
Niel Johnson: “Allow your self room to introduce more unknown stuff into the game at later events when writing the initial setting and rules, putting in folk lore or back ground with a view of not touching it until game four or five can allow you to shift the world under the players feet putting them on edge in a way that doesn’t feel forced or against the established setting. basically plan for the long term before you really start.”
Horror vs. Terror
Ian Andrews suggested ” J- and K-Horror. Show them the protagonist. Have it move slowly but inexorably. Horror rather than terror.”
Matthew Jenkins: “Alastair Christie is the man to approach. His Scavenger games near broke me.”
Joe Rooney: “Matthew – I really enjoyed the one Scav I played, but it felt more panic-driven to me…”
Matthew Jenkins: “The later games were more panic driven. My first game, Cannibal Holocaust was all about the human condition (with frantic panic thrown in). People were forced to cannibalise or starve, people did a lot of soul searching. I was insistant that I wouldn’t do it until I was on the verge of starvation. I accepted food from people who were closer to death than me. It was the bleakest game I’ve played and worked incredibly well on the “creepy” side of horror rather than the mad panic. His 1930’s games also dealt with the creepy side of horror rather than mad panics. He had a set piece dream sequence where a mermaid-like creature spoke to us. We never saw her face throughout. When we met her again the next night she had a god awful grotesque mask on showing us that the dream images were just idealist reflections on the twisted alien being she actually was. I was really freaked out.”
A couple of last comments…
Ben Mars: “A game from which I stole most of my ideas for assorted linears and public Halloween scaring events…
Wendigo game at the Tower, Burnley played. Started at midnight when people were fairly sleep deprived. Constant wind noise soundtrack. Confined spaces and pitch dark. Only light was the two candle lanterns we carried.
The Bad Things were only kept away by light. Constant fingernail scratching on the walls all around in the darkness. Now take the party down narrow, twisting spaces where you’re not always able to keep close to the light, with the Bad Things scrabbling towards you if you’re in the dark.
Have a party member grabbed and pulled screaming into a side tunnel we hadn’t seen and never come back.
Realise you only have short candles in the lanterns and not enough time to get through the labyrinth. Then have the rear lantern go out (gaffed candle or just coincidence
So in summary, dark, time pressure, background audio, cold, limited vision, confined and unfamiliar space
A sense of Bad Things half glimpsed/ heard /smelt but constantly near, insufficient safety for everyone in the group.
The occasional sudden fright (physical and noise) too quick react to. Then remove large section of what is providing safety”
Jessie Holder: “A bunch of thoughts, let me show them to you:
- Multi sensory stuff has already been mention but temperature is hugely important for this! If you’re indoors and some rooms are colder than others, or you can manage a gust of wind / cold patch in a particular location, that will create an awesome visceral effect.
- Your characters should be in a situation outside their comfort zone. The situations that characters are facing should be outside their experience and beyond their skills to deal with. But, importantly, players should also have a chance to experience those characters in an environment which is safe and familiar to both players and characters. This gives you a good starting platform to build tension on.
- You want to play with “Unheimlich”, the Uncanny. Things that are just a little off are more likely to creep players out than things that are big and dramatic. In terms of a campaign, this means its really really important to establish ‘normal’ well, so that things that go against normal create the right effect and atmosphere. Otherwise you end up with demon-of-the-week syndrome.
- Periods where you leave it to the character’s imagination are likely to be quite effective. Less-is-more territory where bad things don’t happen but the characters stew anyway. Like, a ‘quest’ type encounter with no real opposition. Players can work themselves up with very little input, and if nothing is happening now then what is clearly going to happen later will be even worse!
- Narrative uncertainty is a big feature of that sort of horror. Was it a ghost or not? Or are the protagonists just crazy? Or WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON ARGH? In order to replicate this in larp, I have this feeling that the universe itself needs to not have a truth that is out there, and the people running the game need to be writing scenarios with multiple possible interpretations and being very clear that all or none of them could be true. That will create that sense of narrative dislocation that you get in that sort of dreamy-effective horror film”
Daniel Williams: “Some good advice up there. Kinda leaves me with little to say except you can’t go wrong with a white sheet and eye-holes and going “woooo”
Mark Nichols: “im starting to feel if i tell much more i will have more aswome horror hames to play”