Over the years, I've seen a number of ways that horror games both build and maintain suspense.
The difficult part is making it suspenseful for the players instead of just the characters.
For years, I liked Chill and its method - characters essentially had fright-based hit points. Every scary or supernatural thing that hit them would whittle down these hit points, which were separate from the characters' physical health. And it would heal like injuries do in most games.
I thought this was clearly superior to Call of Cthulhu's Sanity system, which inflicted permanent "injury" with every exposure to Mythos beasties.
I have very fond memories of Chill.
So a few weeks ago, I ordered a fresh copy of Chill. Mine had gone missing, you see. And, when I started re-reading it, I found the overall system to be clunky and awkward.
One of my impulse buys at GenCon was a little game called Dread (If Amazon is sold out, Indie Press Revolution probably still has a few). Dread does an excellent job of making the players sweat. Because there are no dice - it's played with a Jenga set. And, when you knock the pile down, your character will die.
It's not for everyone - my hands shake too badly for me to be much good at it (it's why I don't paint many minis these days, either). But it's spectacular. And versatile - you can run nearly any horror or suspense-themed game with it. With a little tweaking, you can do action with it, too.
It's no secret that, over the last few years, I've liked story-driven games more and more. I've been gradually setting aside books with pages and pages of rules in favor of games with only a handful of rules that get the job done. The Gumshoe system has become a favorite, of late, as well.
I love the way the system keeps the story moving. Players will never fail a roll and derail the story. Have the skill? No roll necessary. Want to roll anyhow? Go ahead. Even a bad roll gets you the essential information. A good roll can get you more info that might make things easier down the road.
One of my recent acquisitions was Tephra - I'd Kickstarted it, and the copies arrived just the other day. It seems to have a bit of Gumshoe in its DNA. Low rolls aren't failures. They're Tier I rolls. And Tier I can be a failure, but it can also be a marginal success, depending on the needs of the story and the situation.
I like Tephra. Give me a few more chances to read through it, and I might learn to like it a lot. I should write about it in more detail sometime.