Screams. Quiet whispers. Dragging footsteps. Panicked breathing. Creaking doors. Cawing crows. Or even that jump scare shriek.
Sound and horror have a close relationship. Since roleplaying is largely an aural medium, it would make sense that sounds would play an important role.
And a lot of people use creepy mood music, manual sound effects, or tools like Syrinscape to bring the horror to the players. That's super cool and I totally encourage it, but let's talk about the in-game sounds today. How do you make players care about them?
Like making players care about most things, it's about setting up the stakes. The footsteps behind them mean more when the party is on its last legs, has heard rumors of the danger in the forest, or knows it checked everywhere. By leading with something familiar, where they can ground themselves, terrifying elements can make sense on an emotional level.
The other way to set up the stakes is my personal favorite: make the horrors into clues. In the best ghost stories, the thudding on the walls or the whispers in the night mean something, relating back to the story of the house.
In that case, the stakes are "listen, really pay attention, and process this or you'll lose." Encourage the players to open themselves up to the horror, immersing themselves in it bit by bit, rather than punishing them for dipping their toes in. We all know there's something scary in the basement, but there are also important clues. Going down there should be the right call, because it's the fun call.
Like the other senses, I think it pays to weave sounds through your descriptions. Whispers on the wind, dripping water, scratching on windows. See when the players bite, giving them a mundane explanation or a horrific clue when they ask for more. And if they don't ask, let it pass like those sounds on the wind, adding a bit of atmosphere while searching for other things to unnerve your players and draw them in.
Talk with you next week,
Landon Winkler, Shadows over Vathak Line Developer