Notes on a Mystery (Part 2): Creating Tension

One of the players in my Call of Cthulhu game was an experienced GM who had been playing tabletop RPGs for years, with way more experience than me both when it comes to playing a character and crafting a fun story for players. When I first brought up the idea of me GM’ing a game of CoC he was intrigued but said that, in his experience, he didn’t think that creating horror was possible in an RPG. After our second session of CoC had ended and my group stepped outside for fresh air he admitted to me, shaken, that I had proved him wrong and that’s all thanks to one word: Tension.

I’m a horror fan. My favorite author is Stephen King, I hold a scary movie marathon every year on halloween, and I frequent subreddits like r/horror and r/writing to understand the nature of spooky storytelling. I guess that’s why Call of Cthulhu was such an appealing system to me. And, from all my experience learning the craft of horror stories, I can tell you that creating a gripping, tension filled environment is key to scaring your audience; in Call of Cthulhu or otherwise.

Here’s what happened.

After their first in-game day, the players found themselves being questioned in connection to a grisly killing. The night before, they had heard a woman’s scream and, running to investigate, found a young man who was covered in blood and looming over the savaged body of a young woman. The killer fled into the darkness when the party had found the murder scene and half of the players ran after him while the other half tried to save the doomed victim with First Aid (she was still barely alive at this point, but died seconds later from blood loss). Two players rolled a successful Track roll and caught up with the killer only for him to disappear into a cloud of smoke. They Party regrouped at the murder scene only to be handcuffed and taken into custody by the local cops for questioning.

They were released the next in-game morning, free to investigate the murder of the young woman and her strange killer who could vanish like some stage magician. Two of the players, The German Professor and Ms. Price the journalist, heard rumors that there was something wrong with the body of the victim and went to the county morgue to ask questions. What they didn’t know and what I only knew, however, was the nature of the killer: a vampire. This meant that the victim was set to reanimate at any moment.

The trap was set, my prey were walking straight into it, and it took every ounce of will power in my body not to grin and cackle like a lunatic.

Of course, I played it cool; acting as if the entire scene at the morgue was a straight up questions-and-answers-type deal with no hint of danger. The Medical Examiner greeted the players, traded jokes (“you came at the right time,” the M.E. said, “it’s positively dead in here.” Yes, bad puns are my specialty) and lead them downstairs into the basement where the dead bodies were stored and autopsies were performed. The M.E. lead the party passed the body of the victim on the operating table, a blanket draped over her lifeless form, and into the office adjacent to the operating room. More questions, more vague answers. Finally, the players concluded that they had learned very little but may have made a possible ally in the M.E. so they left the office, expecting the scene at the morgue was over. That is, until I fed them one last detail…

The operating table with the murder victim on it was now empty, the blanket previously covering her cast aside onto the cold ground.

“Oh, shit;” was the collective response of The Professor and Ms. Price.

The description was soon followed by the sounds of bare feet pitter-pattering against the linoleum floor and then concluded with all the lights in the basement going out. Something I emphasized by getting up from my chair, running to the light-switch next to me, and flipping it off.

Before I had even gotten back in my chair The Professor said, “My character runs for the exit.”

Here’s where I made the one mistake I regret from that encounter. I told him to stop and think instead of just letting him flee for his life. If I did, I could’ve had the newly risen vampire ambush his character in the dark while he was away from help or just attacked the remaining Ms. Price who was now a friend short. But, instead, I told him to stay where he was while I explained the situation to the players. They could either run for their lives and risk fighting a vampire in the darkness  or they could try and find the circuit breaker in the basement to bring the lights back on and even the odds for the coming fight ahead. I even had the M.E. lend them a flashlight to help them navigate in the blackness.

I know, I coddle my players too much. It’s a fault I’m working on.

This is basically how I view my players

Anyway, both players agreed to find the circuit beaker, which was located in a supply closet, and turn the lights back on. I could’ve just let them go straight for it but instead with each step I tolled them to roll for Spot Hidden while I played ominous music from the Rule of Rose soundtrack to set the mood. The players cringed and made their rolls, expecting an unseen, undead monstrosity to ambush them both each time. But I had other plans for them.

The first time, only Ms. Price rolled a successful Spot Hidden. I told her that her flashlight had found a smashed container of donated blood on the floor, nothing that could induce a Sanity roll but it helped keep the players on edge as the maneuvered their way around the puddle of blood.

They both rolled successes on the next Spot Hidden and found a pile of blood, human teeth on the floor; as if freshly pulled by a dentist. This one did cause a Sanity roll which they both failed but I only made them lose 1D3 SAN. Mildly perturbed, they moved on.

Finally, they reached the supply closet that contained the circuit breaker. Shaking, both players were convinced that the vampire lurked inside. The Professor held the flashlight steady while Ms. Price readied her derringer. They threw open the door to the closet and I paused for dramatic effect when describing what was inside, leaving both players quite literally on the edges of their seats.

Nothing was inside. There was only the circuit breaker and some cleaning equipment. Breathing a sigh of relief, they turned the lights back on, turned to leave, and found standing in the doorway of the closet they were now both squeezed into/trapped in the looming form of the newly vampirized young woman.

It looked like both players nearly had a heart attack, quite the opposite reaction of their characters who succeeded their Sanity rolls. The fight after that was actually quite anti-climactic. Unfamiliar with the combat system I was unsure how it would go but a two-against-one fight is never good odds for anyone, even a vampire. It also didn’t help that I rolled poorly while the players almost always had successes.

Worse, the players were regaining their confidence in the situation. The Professor shouted for rope after he successfully grappled the vampire, wanting to tie it up and examine it safely. I had to turn my vampire into smoke again, however temporarily, to prevent that near-plot-derailing event from happening. My players were forced to kill the vampire, as I intended which was when I hit them with the final Sanity roll which they both lost.

Ms. Price was shaken while the previously brave Professor fainted at the grisly act of re-killing the vampire. There were no more combat encounters after that, only more mystery and storytelling, but with that first encounter engraved in the party’s collective minds’ every time I called for a Spot Hidden left every player trembling with fear and cuss-words being muttered on shaking lips.

Basically, in the words of the great poet Ice Cube:

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