In horror stories, whether they take the form of movies, television shows or books, the thing that goes bump in the night doesn’t often appear out of nowhere. Instead, it appears after the audience hears that bump, increasing suspense, as well as the eventual scare. And that’s something you can do during your tabletop adventures by having your characters make perception checks.
For example, consider the science fiction/suspense classic Alien. The movie’s iconic facehugger didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It appeared after the crew of the Nostromo picked up what they thought was an emergency beacon. It happened after three members of that crew travelled deeper and deeper into the derelict spacecraft which seemed to be the source of the beacon. It happened after one of the characters discovered that signal might have actually been a warning. And it happened after another character found a clutch of eggs within the spacecraft, one of which began to slowly open. At each point, director Ridley Scott and writer Dan O’Bannon ratcheted up the tension. So, by the time the facehugger erupted from that egg, the audience was ready to be frightened.
So here’s an example of how you might use that same technique in an adventure. In my upcoming module Blind Man’s Buff, the characters visit an abandoned manor house haunted by a spectre. If certain conditions are met, the spectre could attack the characters. But, before that happens, each party member makes two perception checks over the course of several minutes. Those that make the first one feel the air grow colder around them. And those that make the second one hear a wailing sound amidst the howling wind. By the time the spectre arrives – his elongated mouth and razor sharp teeth having locked his face into a perpetual scream – what could have been an ordinary combat encounter has become a little more suspenseful and memorable. Moreover, it has the added bonus of making the encounter a little more tactical, giving particularly perceptive characters a chance to prepare for what could be a difficult fight.
This technique, where perception checks gradually reveal more and more of the doom that awaits the adventurers, is great for quests set in Ravenloft or any module that has gothic or horror themes. Even an unsuccessful check can increase the tension at your tabletop as players wonder what bump they might have missed and whether there is a thing lurking just out of sight.