One of the most powerful ways to run a modern day horror campaign is to take the familiar and start blending in a little bit of strange. The differences don’t have to be dangerous right away, just strange enough to make the players feel threatened or at least ill-at-ease. This form of discomfort keeps the players guessing as to what you might have next.
Here are a few ways you can start pushing your players alarms without throwing a monster right away:
- Mystery Words – This is done best with NPCs or objects. Have your player characters start doubting their senses when NPCs tend to repeat a given phrase, inserting it in most conversation. Having them spot it in odd places like the nutritional information label of a soup can, or in the middle of a magazine article makes them further question their sanity. Something cryptic would work best. If you plan to work solely on written media, then a scrambled code or random-seeming letters / numbers / doodles would work as well.
- Displacement – Suddenly, somewhere or someone that the characters are familiar with is gone, and nobody knows about it. All other people don’t know what the characters are talking about. This is extremely unsettling when the disappeared person is a family member or close friend. Or when the place that is gone is something big, like a shopping mall, or a skyscraper.
- Watchers – Simply describing the fact that they’re being watched can set off all sorts of alarms for Player Characters. Making it so that the person watching them is always in a vantage point that makes them difficult to get to is even more unsettling.
- Time / Memory Loss – Waking up to realize you’ve lost the last eight hours of your life is another way to throw Player Characters off balance. Some GMs usually add on further complications, like waking up covered in blood, or some other immediate situation, but sometimes having them realize that they don’t remember anything is unsettling in and of itself.
These techniques are a great way to keep players off balance without having to resort to a combat encounter. They often serve as a hook to a greater mystery, which leads to situations where the GM can feasibly insert monsters at his leisure or just keep the players guessing and fumbling in the dark.