Hello, this is a framework I have adapted from Brennan Reece’s Dark Depths doc for Cthulhu Dark. I’ve had success with it and thought I would share. It is used as a guide when deciding how much and what kind of information to reveal at a given stage in a horror mystery investigation such as mythos, urban fantasy, etc.
This framework is in addition to whatever plot notes or other tools you are using. For example when I write a horror mystery, I use this, a doom clock, and conclusion/clue list.
The goal is to build tension by revealing the horror little by little. The mystery has levels that you move through and get more revealing and scarier. You don’t have to spend the same amount of time on each level and some can be brief. Don’t go back to a previous level if you can help it. You can replace the word “creature” below with “phenomenon”.
Level 1. CURIOUS (something to peak their interest but nothing gruesome or too weird).
Examples: Second hand information (newspaper articles, folk tales, unreliable witness accounts, grainy footage) about weird stuff (traces of the creature’s passing, artefacts of unknown or disturbing origins).
Level 2. UNSETTLING (something to give them the creeps but nothing dangerous).
Examples: Ambiguous evidence. Direct encounter with weird stuff (see previous examples). Indirect pushback by the creature, its minions or other interested parties (spooky stories, threatening note, feeling of being watched).
Level 3. CONCERNING (something to indicate further pursuit would be dangerous but nothing scary).
Examples: Direct pushback by the creature, its minions or other interested parties (friendly or unfriendly warnings, direct attack by minions, lunatic ravings).
Level 4. FRIGHTENING (something gruesome or truly weird but not the cause).
Examples: Glimpse of the creature (fleeing, probing attack). Horrific remains of victim. Clear evidence.
Level 5. HORRIFIC (the cause of the horror first-hand).
The creature itself. Try and be somewhere that is at least two of the following: dark, underground, ancient, alien.
Here is an example of how the same scene may vary depending on what level you are at.
Scenario: finding the body of someone who has been killed by a vampire.
Level 1: the body is dead and basic cause and time of death can be guessed at. It is unusual there is not more blood around considering the wound on the neck.
Level 2: you realise the body has been completely drained of blood. You get the feeling you are being watched.
Level 3: there are signs the assailant is unusually dangerous (e.g. was very strong, is probably a vampire, has help, disappeared without a trace, etc.)
Level 4: something about the wound is horrific (e.g. indicates high aggression, torn in half, clear bite marks, etc.). You see a figure watching you from a rooftop which then leaps impossibly away.
Level 5: the vampire is still feeding and you are isolated somewhere.
Here is an example of how it can be used to give you a sense of flow to the events of the mystery.
Scenario: a haunted house where anyone who enters is eventually possessed and acts out the horrific events that previously took place there.
Level 1. They hear about a house that no one wants to move into because it’s haunted.
Level 2. While in the house they hear faint conversation and arguing.
Level 3. They are possessed for short periods but have no memory of it (end up in a room but don’t know how they got there). Have strange conversations with friends.
Level 4. They start having bouts of uncontrollable rage.
Level 5. One of the team is possessed and tries to murder the others.