Over at The RPG Site, there is a thread about people finding some genres more difficult to run than others (here: THE RPGSITE THREAD). It is an interest subject and I have to admit I find it hard to run science fiction and super hero RPGs. I’ve managed Doctor Who but never succeeded at Star Trek or Star Wars. Played in tons space opera games, I just do not feel confident running them. I noticed a number of posters had difficulty with horror RPGs, and I do think it is one of the trickier genres to run well, especially over a long campaign. But I believe the difficulty sometimes has more to do with expectations than the ability of the GM or the enthusiasm of the players.
Beginning in 1990 or so, I started running pretty regular Ravenloft campaigns, sprinkled with several one shots of other horror systems. These days I don’t run it as often because I like to focus on GMing games for our own system. Prior to starting Bedrock Games Ravenloft was by far my favorite thing to run, followed by Colonial Gothic and Call Cthulu. In that time I also played in a lot of different game groups, enjoying everything from Innsmouth to Orrorsh. My Ravenloft adventures were not weekends in hell, but instead served as my default campaign. So I got used to running weekly sessions set in the demi-plane of dread. Some of my campaigns were more successful than others. This is what I have observed about running multiple successful, long-term, horror RPGs.
I believe many people put horror on too much of a pedestal when they set out to run a scary RPG. They want each session to be a masterpiece of terror that maintains a certain mood and lives on in the nightmares of their players. But any horror fan knows, it’s virtually impossible to maintain that mood and terror at all times. Certain movies or books will stun you with their ability to inspire dread, others will feel more vanilla or even corny. Even within a masterpiece like Silence of the Lambs, Dracula or Rosemary’s Baby, it isn’t uniformly frightening and suspenseful, you need some amount of contrast to even notice the horror when it does occur. So my advice boils down to this: relax, run the game, and don’t worry about every session or every moment being as terrifying as you had imagined. The masterpieces should be rare gems that crop up from time to time and take you by surprise.
I learned the hard way, running Ravenloft each weekend, you can’t force that mood every single time. It actually gets dull if every session feels that way. So I mixed things up. Some adventures were meant to be more basic, and serve as filler. Some were more whimsical and fun, others more serious and scary. This worked. The lighter adventures provided a much needed break and lowered everybody’s guard against the more spooky ones. It also took the pressure off me to be Bram Stoker anytime I ran a game.
I think this is also a much more realistic approach. Really working horror into a game session is hard, and takes not only a lot of forethought during the prep but a lot of energy during the session. I found myself burning out rapidly trying to maintain that every weekend, and it wasn’t worth it because after a while the players were getting immune to it anyways. It is like serving someone a rich chocolate cake at every meal.
What I found was I could dip in and out of a more intense style, and became better at sensing when was an appropriate time to do so. If a terrible horror lurks behind every door you open, opening doors stops being scary after a while, because you are putting up all your defenses and desensitized. Let the players relax, unwind, enjoy their characters and have some fun. That only makes the horrifying moments all the more scary. If they have three light-hearted adventures that are more on the corny side, it can be a lot easier to scare them when you decide to change tone.
So sometimes I might sprinkle genuine horror into an otherwise corny adventure. Or I might run a series of deliberate corny and light adventures then deliberately make a more frightening one to mix in. Other times, I just let it happen naturally depending on the mood of the players. Horror is a two-way street, and it makes sense to react a bit to the mood in the room. That meant some nights I knew I could crank it up, but others I accepted would be more Freddy Krueger than Roman Castevet.
This may not work for everyone. I find horror is a very personal thing and have seen different GMs work wonders with it using different methods. For me, this approach enables me to run long-term horror campaigns that give you the full span of the genre and make the real frightening sessions all the more memorable.