When it comes to encounter design in horror games I think about this image a lot.
Horror games require really intentional environmental encounters in order to build tension. If this was moldvay I’d replace tricks on the stockings table with “environmental horror.”
It’s huge and it’s easy to forget. But if you put all your horror in encounters with monsters or other people then you’re 9/10 releasing more tension than you’re building.
Environmental encounters are questions. Encounters with others are answers. In mothership we call environmental encounters “omens.” They signal that something is coming. The question is, what?
The players ask that question out loud or to themselves. And their imagination lets them run wild. Asking the question gives negative space to the horror. But when you finally reveal it the tension is gone. The shape is solidified.
These omens are a way of sculpting your horror until you finally reveal it releasing the tension you’ve built over the rest of the session.
So next time you’re building a horror scenario for your game, remember that the environment is always asking a question. What happened here? Who did this? Where is everyone? Sitting with those questions unanswered is what creates tension and horror.
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