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For the GM: Keeping it Spooky!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…Halloween! I won’t say it’s my favorite holiday (that title goes to any holiday resulting in a long weekend) but it’s certainly a close second. And it’s the perfect time for me to give you three tips to add spookiness and tension to your PFS game. These tips assume you have some control over your environment, if you’re GMing at a store your mileage may vary.

Set the tone early – There’s a lot of friendly joking and distraction that happens at the gaming table, and most of the time that’s cool. But not when you’re trying to raise tension. Make sure your players know what you are trying to do from the start, and get them to buy in. You might be surprised by how into the mood they’ll get; everyone likes a change of pace. Make sure you aren’t breaking the mood yourself. Stay serious, avoid tension-releasing comments and jokes. Use your body language. Sitting back in your chair shows you’re relaxed, and signals your players they can relax as well. Sit forward, lean in. If you stand during the game, great! Stand close to the table and loom over it. And this is definitely the session where players need to stay off their phones and tablets. If they need them for play, great, otherwise no surfing.

Engage the senses – Sight and sound are the obvious senses to go after first. If you can, dim the lights. Better yet, if you can do it safely, light the space using non-electric lights like candles, lanterns, or a fireplace. Can’t use open flame? Grab a bunch of glow sticks (available from most dollar discount stores) and light the table that way. Humans are animals who depend on light; take that away and we get tense and scared. Now that the lights are low, hit them with sound. Don’t describe the growls and screams when you can play recordings and let them actually hear it. A quick browser search will turn up any number of free sound effects you can download and use. Just don’t overdo it. We tend to become comfortable with the familiar, so if you use sound constantly they’ll lose their effectiveness.

Don’t forget the other senses. Smell is an easy one to stimulate, and is very powerful for engaging the players. It is also the one you should use the most sparingly; assaulting your players with a variety of different odors has the potential to make them nauseous. But briefly crack open that months-old container from the fridge and the players will know exactly how the ghoul’s lair smells. Other not-disgusting options include incense (market-place or fortune teller’s stall) or NPCs with specific perfumes/scents. Taste is linked to smell, and you can serve foods that set the mood or actually serve wine (assuming everyone’s of age) when an NPC serves wine.

Pick the right scenario – Some scenarios will work better for a spooky PFS session than others. Avoid scenarios hinged on puzzle-solving. These usually require the players to talk to each other, and talking releases tension. Shorter scenarios, maybe with a bit of time pressure, are perfect. You can keep the action going and keep the tension high. Here are some suggestions:

What tips do you have for running a spooky PFS session? Drop them in the comments below. And have a great Halloween, Pathfinders! May Pharasma gather you home before Asmodeus knows you’re gone!

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