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Sagas of Sundry-Inspired Techniques for Spookifying Your Tabletop
Sagas of SundrySagas of Sundry

Sagas of Sundry-Inspired Techniques for Spookifying Your Tabletop

How does Ivan Van Norman make every episode of Sagas of Sundry so absorbing, nerve-racking, and downright creepy? He uses a number of techniques on Sagas of Sundry which you can bring home to your gaming group, such as music, lighting, and evocative description.

Author of the upcoming Legacy of Lies and gaming great Monica Valentinelli points out that

“Horror is both a mood and a genre, so to increase the tension think about the environment you’re running the game. Lighting, eerie instrumental music, sound effects…these extra bits are small, but they make all the difference between running a horror game and providing a scary experience.”


Sagas of Sundry uses music to make every moment tense. You can do the same at your table.

Music can take a hum-drum role-playing game, and make it into a memorable moment. In a Star Wars game, I once played the music from the scene where Han, Chewie, and Luke get medals when my characters were staggering out of an Imperial base, having just freed a thousand slaves and evaded Darth Vader. The swell of the trumpets, and the association in the minds of my players with that scene from the movie, accentuated that moment of triumph. One of the players, who had never played an RPG before, became a regular after that.

The most important thing in using music is matching the mood of the music to the mood of the scene. In the example above, if I had used the music from the cantina band, the effect would have been entirely ruined. Soundtracks, which amplify and echo the emotions of the viewer, are an endless resource for RPG sessions.

If you’re new to playing music during a session, it might take some getting used to, but it is well-worth the effort.


Sagas of Sundry takes place in a dim twilight illuminated only by the campfire’s glow. All the world’s foulness might be swelling outside the circle of light, and the darkness allows our imagination to run rampant with disturbing possibilities.

Although it can seem simple to the point of absurdity, playing an RPG in dim lighting can vastly intensify the experience. Millions of years of evolution have hard-wired a fear of the dark into our biology. Simply turning down the lights tricks the nervous system of players into thinking they may be in danger, even though they’re just in the living room with the lights off.

A number of role-playing games over the years have emphasized playing in dim or dark rooms. Vampire: The Masquerade, for example, recommended playing at night by candlelight. Dread also suggests playing with the lights down, stating, “To maintain a horrific atmosphere you should begin with the proper environment. A dark, quiet place will work best. You will need light enough to read by, but little more.”


Role-playing games are a “foggy” medium. In a painting or movie, the viewer is free to observe every object in the frame at their leisure. In a role-playing game, however, characters only know of the world what they are told of the world. The game master paints a picture of the world around the characters, whether that is a 20’ by 20’ room with doors on the north and west walls, and three dire rats ready to attack, or an alien city abandoned in Antarctica since before the dawn of humanity. Either way, it falls on the GM to make the world real through words for their players.

Cthulhu City is a Trail of Cthulhu setting wherein cultists run a throbbing metropolis for their own ends in 1930’s New England, and the players must avoid being the next sacrifice on the docket, and its author, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan knows a thing or two about running scary games. He recommends that when describing the world going beyond the five senses. He said, “RPGs let you get inside the skull of the protagonists. Don’t just describe what they see or hear – describe subjective impressions, sensations, disturbing intuitions.”

No Joking Matter

Lastly, consider that creating a spooky atmosphere is everyone’s job. You should feel empowered to tell your players this isn’t a game where they can just launch into a comedy routine about their dog’s penchant for eating soiled underwear.

Becky Annison, creator of the Lovecraftesque, the GM-less RPG of Cthulhu mythos horror, said of keeping things serious:

‘Comedy and jokes can be great fun at the gaming table but when I want to make things frightening, the first thing I do is lose the jokes and establish a more serious mood.  Think about how Shakespeare uses comic relief in some of his plays to provide a break in the dramatic tension – when I’m running horror I don’t want a break in the tension.  Just keep ratcheting up the horror!”

What do you do to make your game more scary? Let us know in the comments below!

Watch all of Sagas of Sundry: Dread on Alpha right now. Sign-up for your 30-day free trial when you go to Project Alpha.

Feature image credit: Geek & sundry


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