Cheap Tricks For Horror Gaming

William T. Thrasher

Earlier this week a good friend of mine came to me looking for some advice. We was planning a Halloween party several months in advance, and the centerpiece of this party was to be a massive game of Arkham Horror, the renowned Cthulhu Mythos board game from Fantasy Flight Games. In his own words, he wanted to make the experience of playing the game to be "as creepy as possible." Also, there was no budget for decorations and special FX. But that's not a problem. Doing more with less is what great horror movies and killer parties have been doing for years. With that in mind, here are some cheap tricks to build an atmosphere of horror at your gaming table.

  • Keep out any unneeded light. There should be enough light to play and read by, but eliminate all other light sources (e.g., the hall light, light from adjoining rooms, that one window that catching light from a street lamp on the corner, etc.). The idea is to use light to create the illusion of a special, isolated place. An island of light in the cosmic darkness.
  • Creepy, but unobtrusive music is a must, but stay away from the soundtracks to well known horror movies. The atmosphere can be broken when someone at the table recognizes a signature piece of music (e.g., the scores for Psycho or Halloween). Being able to easily identify the music and its source robs it of much of its power to terrify. Instead, look for something atmospheric but without lyrics, like much of Midnight Syndicate's catalogue, or Sonic Legend's soundscapes. If your game is set in the jazz age, there are also a lot of period recordings you can add to the mix. A scratchy old jazz or crooner recording helps bring players into the period mindset.
  • If you're going to have refreshments, make sure they don't clash with the period of the atmosphere of horror. If people are drinking soda, serve it in glasses or plain mugs. Cans and red plastic cubs indicate a modern world of¬†convenience. The same goes for snacks. Nuts in a bowl are fine and create the impression of dwindling resources as they are eaten, but loud, crinkly bags of chips with bright labels rob the environment of its horrific potential.
  • If you're looking for a slightly cruel, cheap scare, and you're playing a game involving bags for dice or tokens, hide a plastic lizard of insect in the bag. Eventually, a player is going to reach in, feel it, and either pull their hand back, or have a look of "what the hell is this?" creep over their face. Not strictly creepy, but good for a fun, cheap scare.
  • Get some good, pungent incense to burn before your players arrive. Something mustym evocative of an old library or decaying seaside town is ideal. This may take some searching, but such scents do exist. I once used "old leather" incense to great effect in a Cthulhu Live¬†LARP.
  • If your game uses character sheets, investigator cards, or any other components unique to each player, take the time to prepare them ahead of time and give them to your players in envelopes, file folders, portfolios, or some other delivery system appropriate to the game. A game of horror and paranoia is that much more palpable when players are given dossiers with confidential information.
  • Finally, an idea borrowed from the showman and horror movie director William Castle. If you have a cell phone you won't need during play, turn of the ringer and set it to the highest vibration setting, then tape it to the underside of another player's chair. At the right moment, discretely call or text the phone, causing the chair to vibrate the spook the player. It worked for The Tingler, it can work for you.

So there you have it, a few cheap tricks to liven up your horror game of choice. I know Halloween is several months away, but if you're like me, you plan your fright nights early.