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Horror Campaigns / Running Horror Games

Unknown And Known

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 51
Tension is a part of every adventure, horror or not, and it is most often found at that moment just before a critical roll—before the unknown becomes known. The task before you is not to create tension so much as draw it out. You want to sow doubt, causing growing anxiety over the outcome. This is a balancing act between hope and despair. Shift too far either way, and no doubt remains.

You can use the unknown and the known as tools in this vein. This tactic works much like using the real and the unreal in equal measures.

Unknown: The truth behind the horror is hidden, unknown, the mystery to be solved. Not every horror story needs a mystery, but mystery is a classic way to build tension. Hide the true menace. Show the aftermath, like so:

Globules of blood and viscera float in microgravity. Everything else in the airlock is pristine.

Or, show the prelude like so:

The countless people on the city streets stop. As a unit, they turn to stare at the same distant point. An inhuman scream from that direction hits like thunder. Then, the people start to walk toward it.

The cause remains indiscernible in either case.

Because the cause is unclear, you can reveal that cause slowly. Let the PCs chase after it, uncover clues, find red herrings, and develop theories. Don’t place your true menace in a position where it can be forced into a confrontation sooner than you want.

Known: Great tension can be found in the known. The known is horrifying when the truth is plain, and it doesn’t look good. It might look something like this:

Down the tunnel, deeper into the asteroid mine, other survivors huddle at their own barricade. A few infected creep into the intersection between their barrier and yours. Then more come, and more... and more.

In this case, the players know what’s at stake. Show them the ghastly challenge before them. Prepare them for a Pyrrhic victory. Often this sort of tension hinges on the fact that the PCs can’t save everyone. They might even have to decide who to save, and who to leave behind to a known and horrendous fate.