The Cardinal Rule of Horror: Cheat

As the last post on Horror Week, let’s get into some GM talk. It’s all good and well to design a horror game — really, it’s fun! — but the heart of the horror game is the same as in any game: the performance.  The playing. The GMing. And my Cardinal Rule of Horror: Cheat.

Horror, more than other games, is about the emotional beats impressed on you by others. In a traditionally structured RPG, that’s the GM impressing the beats of anxiety, dread, fear, hope, etc. on the players. Since that’s job #1, you need to use any means necessary to pull that off, even if it’s something that has nothing to do with the game. Here’s a goodie bag of tricks. (Like any goodie bag on Halloween, some of these will be sweet and some will be sour, so handle with care.)

Atmosphere tricks like mood lighting & music are often cited, and they’re total cheats. Awesome cheats, since they aren’t about the game providing mood, but the surrounding environment.

The mechanics of the game can also be a cheat if they’re tied to the more primitive part of the brain. Dread’s use of Jenga causes anxiety because of Jenga, which is a total cheat. But it’s a great cheat! That’s why people love Dread. Similarly, making resources tangible goes a long way toward provoking anxiety when they’re taken away, more so than abstract numbers reducing. When I ran D&D, everyone had their hit points out as poker chips, and I would reach across when they were hit as the Hand of Death. It was great. (And for my NPCs, all numbers on paper they couldn’t see, so they couldn’t do it back.)

Hidden information in games that don’t call for it is a great cheat. Hide hit points & sanity.

Make hidden rolls for things like perception checks, or when dealing with what foes do to the characters. Roll at times when it’s not needed. Roll more dice that you need to, just for that disturbing clatter of dice. Hell, you can even get really trippy, and have the facial reaction you’re projecting also random with the rest of the roll. Chessex makes facial expression dice that are great for this. (Yes, I am in fact telling you to lie with your facial expressions.)

Shorten the roll boxes to keep the emotional beats of discordant mechanics from taking hold of the game. One of the reasons that sanity in Call of Cthulhu works despite it construction is that it’s a really short roll beat with no fiddle, so you can push in hard with whatever other emotions are there and take the reigns riding out of that. Hell, handwave rules when you need to.[1]

Be discordant. Create expectations and then violate them. The world in a horror story cheats from the perspective of the real world (though the good ones keep to their own  internal, unknown consistency. Or intentionally done, a la Lovecraft).

Get physical. Scare the player by suddenly shaking the game, and use that beat to weave the fictional fear.

Whatever it takes to create and sustain the right emotional beats for the moment is fair game. You might not view some of these as cheats, of course, but depending on the game, these are. Depending on your gaming group or the folks at your con game table, these are. And just like in any performance, audience[2] matters. More than in other genres, you step into the role of the magician, and the audience is looking forward to you manipulating and misdirecting them for their amusement.[3]

Happy Halloween, friends!

– Ryan

[1] Later I get to talk about why this is a horrible idea most of the time. :) But it’s a horrible idea I employ often in horror.

[2] Just happens that this audience also are your co-creators. I’m sure I have some people wincing at my use of this word, but it feels apt in a GMed horror game.

[3] Remember: not all emotional manipulation is negative. We consume stories & get romantically involved for that ride.


2 Responses to The Cardinal Rule of Horror: Cheat

  1. Judson says:

    One thing about cheating though: there’s the sharper risk that your players disconnect from the game – in another game, if you catch the GM cheating, it’s easier to say “whatever, fixed, moving on.” In a horror game, it can break the association with character, and if your goal was actually to put the fright on, that’s done.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Sure, totally. I never said these techniques didn’t come with risk or require skill to pull off. After all, I am calling it “cheating”. But it’s still a good point, like a warning label: “Warning: Know what you’re doing.”

      – Ryan