Environmental Evocation: Spellcasting for suspense

Putting a creepy atmosphere into your games adds a whole other level of fun.

Some games, such as Cthulu and Vampire: The Masquerade, have much darker tones, while others do not. For those where you want an extra edge, adding this layer can help enhance your players' experience and keep them on the edge of their seat.

Rule 1: Setting the Tone

The tone helps your players settle into the environment they’re about to experience.

 In person, you can turn down the lights, or even turn them off completely. Light some candles to illuminate the room, adding shadows. This can also be done if you are running the session virtually. Request that each player play with minimal lights, including the Game Master. Alternatively, you can have just the Game Master’s face lit up from the bottom, like you’re telling a ghost story by the campfire. In doing this, you’re setting a scary tone from the get-go for your players. You’re visually telling them that this will be scary, letting their fears take over and let their imaginations run wild.

 Playing some music in the background can also help set the tone: if you’re in a dungeon, play some dripping sounds as if the water is falling from the rocks. In other scenarios, perhaps there is a light breeze coming in, echoing in the chambers, or crickets in the night chirping with an owl every now and then. There are plenty of options out there for you to choose from. Be creative. Playing slight music that can barely be heard makes the players almost forget that something is playing in the background, but when something intense happens, or when you stop the music due to something happening in game, all of the sudden, the room seems much more empty and terrifying.

If you’re playing in person, sit in a circle with an empty space in the middle. Try not to play at a table, but instead, a sofa or chairs where people can look around and see emptiness. Put your snacks on the outside of the circle. Having something between everyone gives the impression that this is just a hangout, or a gathering. Having an empty space in the middle adds to the fear of being surrounded by nothing. By doing this, it helps keep your players engaged.

 Rule 2: Playing the Mystery

NEVER reveal a photo of whatever creature you’re using. NEVER. Doing this removes all of the fear, mystery, and paranoia the players have. A player will always imagine something more terrifying than whatever image you show them. By just doing brief descriptions of the creature, you let the players imagine the thing that they would fear most.

 Take this example.

“A crouched creature lurks in the shadows. You catch a glimpse at what it looks like. It’s limbs seem long and thin, as if just made of just skin and bone. Thin hair comes off the creature’s pale head. It grins at you, as if you’re its next meal, its mouth only containing 6 teeth, all of which are decayed. Its eyes stand out and they almost seem to be bugging out of the skull.”

Now, imagine what this creature is. Fill in the blanks. How large is the creature? How does it act? How does it move? Is it fast and deadly, or slow and cunning? What about its feet? Are they webbed for swimming to pull the prey into the water, or shaped like an ape’s, allowing it to climb with speed?

Now, what if I showed you the creature? You see it, and you see Gollum, the old hobbit from Lord of the Rings. Now think, is that what creature you were picturing? 

Rule 3: Building Suspense

All great stories have you learning and figuring out what it is the players/readers are doing for most of the adventure. Leaving clues to a secret past, or having something lurking in the shadows, close enough to instill fear, but far enough away to not be a current threat. This peaks the interest which in turn, builds the suspense.

Waiting until the second or third act until revealing your monster allows the players the time to fully understand the situation, and possibly give them a “why” as to what you’ve sent their way. Revealing this in the beginning makes it difficult for the players to be afraid, as everything is already revealed to them. Waiting allows them to have the fear build and fester, creating great suspense the entire ride, until finally, it’s revealed to them.

By following these 3 simple rules, you can get your players more engaged, and possibly give them a little fright in some of your games. 

Hopefully this helps with creating a very creepy environment with your players during the month of October. Be sure to check out our creepy one-shots coming this month to try out some of these practices.