I’ve never thought of my game as a television sit-com. But it seems like a lot of people do. Then again, given the quality of most games I’ve seen people who aren’t me run, maybe it’s appropriate. But, the surest way to never run anything better than a crappy sit-com is to ever aspire to run anything better than a crappy sit-com.
I know what you’re thinking. What the f$&% is Angry on about this time? When will this Long, Rambling Introduction™ get to something resembling a point? What if it doesn’t? What if Angry has finally snapped and it’s going to be nothing more than increasingly disjointed and incoherent rambling from here on out? Well, calm down reader. My brain is not broken yet. The Long, Rambling Introduction™ is going to get to a point right now, in fact. The point is: why the f$&% do Game Masters always feel the need to run holiday-themed games like a f$&%ing sit-com?! See? Simple!
Whenever there’s a holiday coming up, I end up with dozens of questions about running holiday-themed games for the holiday du jour of the day. And in October – as we approach Halloween – that current of s$&% turns into a deluge! Tell us, Angry, how do we run horror games in D&D! We want to run horror games in D&D! We need to run a horror game for Halloween for D&D! Please! Tell us how!
First of all, if you really want to run a horror RPG for D&D, run a one-shot of an actual goddamned horror game. Run All Flesh Must Be Eaten or Call of Cthulhu or Dread or that World of Darkness crap or even Shadow of the Demon Lord if you want it to be horror that FEELS like D&D. Here’s the thing: D&D is not made for horror. It’s very bad for horror, actually. And the later the edition, the worse it is for horror. D&D is actually built around themes that are the opposite of horror. And no addition of optional “sanity” systems from the DMG will help. Because the proposed D&D sanity system is too much of a giant pussy of a system to have any useful impact. And that’s because D&D is afraid to utterly break a character.
But I don’t want to go into a high-minded rant about the themes in horror and why certain games can’t do certain things. Because you won’t listen, will you? No. You’re going to try and jump Springfield Gorge whether I try to talk you out of it or not. The best thing I can do with my time, then, is to tell you to wear a helmet and teach you to tuck and roll. Otherwise, you’ll just go to some other blog and listen to some moron telling you that all you need is tentacles and a sanity system and you’ve got yourself a horror. So, let’s talk about what horror is and how to do it right. Even if you insist on doing it in D&D.
What the Hell is Horror Anyway?
Horror is one of the most well-defined genres in fiction. That’s because, unlike other genres like “science-fiction” and “first-person shooter,” horror is defined entirely by the emotion response it’s trying to provoke from its audience. I’m not saying there are never debates as to what counts as horror and whether there are subgenres of horror or any of that crap. But horror has fewer of those. And that makes it much easier to understand the genre. All you have to do is understand the emotions that horror tries to instill.
Horror is about instilling visceral emotions. Emotions that you feel in your gut. And not happy ones. The bad ones. The ones that make you feel queasy and anxious and uncomfortable and, above all, afraid. But we have to be careful about claiming horror is just about fear. Because fear comes in different flavors. And to truly understand horror, we have to understand the basic flavors of fear that are most common in horror.
Fright is the most basic fear. It’s sudden, pants-s$&%ing fear. It’s surprise and startlement and sudden panic. It’s the purview of jump scares.
Fright’s power comes from biology. Your body is programmed to handle sudden, potentially dangerous things in ways that maximize your ability to survive or escape. Your adrenal gland starts pumping you up. Your heart starts beating to increase blood flow. Your senses focus and narrow so that time seems to slow down and the source of your fear seems to exist in a spotlight. Your body might even helpfully empty its bowels so your flight isn’t slowed by the weight of your last meal sloshing around inside your guts. And all of this can be a terrible shock to your system. That’s why you can pass out from fright.
But fright is a momentary fear. The panic and anxiety come from your body shifting gears suddenly from calm and relaxed to fight-or-flight. Your body is basically shifting from first to third gear without using the clutch. The problem is, your brain is slower to get on board with all of this. Your body panics while your brain is still casting around trying to figure out what the hell is going on. While you initially stand in paralyzed fear or throw a punch or panic and run, your brain eventually catches up and starts taking control. Panicked flight gives way to your brain trying to come up with a plan to evade your pursuer. Wild punches give way to more purposeful combat. And so on.
Fright doesn’t have to about fear for yourself though. Sure, fright is what happens when a bear jumps out from behind a Ford Taurus and brandishes a knife at you. But it’s also what happens when you see a car careening down the street directly toward an orphaned child walking her orphaned puppy across the street. It’s also what happens when you discover that your apartment is actually a simulation in a behavioral research lab and your whole life has been some kind of twisted psychological experiment. Fright derives purely from a combination of surprise, uncertainty, and urgency. OH MY GOD SOMETHING POSSIBLY HORRIBLE IS HAPPENING AND I HAVE TO DO SOMETHING RIGHT NOW!
Fright is easy to evoke. Just sneak up behind someone and yell “BOO!.” Movies and video games start people easily enough. But the payoff for fright isn’t that great. First, fright is over with very quickly. Second, most people build up a tolerance to it very quickly. Every time you frighten someone in a work of fiction, you increase their resistance to future frights. Third, the people who don’t build up a tolerance become fatigued by it instead. Fright exhausts the brain. And constantly startling someone winds them tightly. Now, you might think that’s just perfect for horror. But remember that horror IS a form of voluntary entertainment. People find it cathartic to experience negative, visceral emotions. But they can only handle so much. If you wear their brains down, they get tired of it.
And in table-top RPGs like D&D, fright has another problem. Fright is about sudden surprise and the need for an immediate response before you brain catches up and figures out what’s going on. In TTRPGs, things happen too damned slow for good fright. Describing stuff takes time. You’re relying on language rather than images. And the players can take all the time in the world to calm down and respond.
To make fright work in a TTRPG – and you need to use it sparingly – you have to break a few GMing rules. First, you have to give incomplete information. Don’t fully describe the situation right off the bat. Be fast and snappy and vague and then gradually add information as the scene plays out. Second, you have to harangue people for immediate responses and make them suffer if they don’t have a response. For example:
GM: “You open the door. Suddenly, a huge shadowy shape lunges for you! What do you do?”
Alice: “I, umm… what is it?”
GM: “Too late! Make a Dexterity saving throw!”
Alice: “I… wha… I got a 16!”
GM: “You manage to throw yourself to the ground just in time as the hairy snarling thing leaps over you at Bob! Bob, what do you do?”
Bob: “I raise my shield and try to deflect it!”
GM: “The horse-sized wolf-thing hits your shield like a giant’s punch! It scrabbles and claws and bites and snarls at the metal surface. Carol? Dave? What are you doing?”
Notice how vague the description is at the start and notice how the GM gradually adds more details. That mirrors the “brain catching up to your panic” that draws fright out. And notice how the GM didn’t cut the players any slack. He basically yelled “something is happening, what do you do?!” And when the player didn’t have a good answer, they got passed. Also notice that the GM didn’t ask for initiative rolls. Nothing kills fright like an initiative roll.
The vagueness also counteracts a big problem specific to creating fear in D&D: the players aren’t scared of anything. D&D is a game about self-empowerment. The players know they are equipped to handle any threat or obstacle the world throws at them. They know they are likely to win. But when the threat is amorphous and the players don’t have time to think, you can get around that.
Revulsion is disgust, discomfort, or loathing. It’s the feeling you get from creepy crawlies. It’s the feeling you get from seeing a rotting corpse or a grisly scene of torture. It’s also the feeling you get from the end of M*A*S*H when that woman accidentally suffocated her baby when she was trying to stifle it’s crying so the North Koreans wouldn’t find everyone hiding in the basement. When we are repulsed, we want to pull away from something. We want it to go away. Or we want it to be untrue. We don’t want to accept it. Fear is something you feel in your bowels and your heart. Revulsion is something you feel in your stomach. It makes you sick.
How is that a fear? Well, revulsion is actually fear by implication. We’re disgusted by something because we are afraid of what it implies or what it makes us think about. We are repulsed by disfigured, diseased, or scarred individuals because that reminds us that we are fragile creatures. We can suffer. We can get damaged. We can get broken. And those things don’t always heal. And they don’t always come with the mercy of death.
There is always something behind revulsion. Always some fear. Some of them are biological hard-wired. We’re repulsed by rats and filth and s$&% because those are sources of disease. We are repulsed by reptiles and snakes and insects because they are alien creatures to our mammalian minds and often dangerous in nonobvious ways. Spiders and scorpions can poison us. Snakes too. And snakes are agile and unpredictable.
We can also be repulsed by the fear of losing our own humanity. As humans, we have an instinct to protect and treasure our children. The idea of a mother killing her child, even accidentally, even to save other people’s lives, is repulsive. It goes against our humanity. Zombies are repulsive because they are human beings stripped of agency and free will. Werewolves are humans given over entirely to animal rage and anger. Vampires are humans stripped of everything except parasitic greed. And each of those things forces us to confront the fact that it doesn’t take much to turn a human being into a terrible monster.
Revulsion is ultimately driven by symbolism. And that can make it tricky to deal with. When it comes to simple revulsion – like the revulsion caused by rats and creepy crawlies – not everyone shares the same revulsions. Not everyone is going to respond the same way. And that brings us to another problem unique to table-top RPGs when it comes to horror. RPGs are games of words and, unless you’re dealing with a very strong phobia, very few people will have a strong response to just the name of a thing.
It’s not enough for the party to fight a giant rat. The rat has to be mangy. It has to be missing patches of its greasy fur. And the fur it does have needs to be matted with filth. Its bald tail has to drag in the mud. The rat’s cold, beady eyes have to glitter in the torchlight. Its breath has to stink. The whole rat has to stink. And you have to describe it all. You have to repulse your players.
And you can’t do it all at once and then expect it to last. Revulsion has to be sustained. You have to add small, repulsive details throughout the scene. When the party first encounters the rat, describe it’s matted fur and the mites and the filth. When someone tries to cut it with a knife, describe its stink. Or that the knife cuts through the greasy fur and the mud and s$&% that’s covering the thing. When it lunges to bite someone, it goes for the face, and they can smell its rotten breath.
Be gleefully descriptive in short, sickening bursts. If the players are fighting a swarm of rats and spiders and they don’t feel nauseous, you aren’t doing it well enough. I mean, think about dealing with a swarm of spiders. You would be COVERED in spiders. They would be in your clothes. Tiny, hairy, clawed legs prickling your skin. They would be biting you all over. Hundreds of burning, stinking bites like tiny, fiery needles. They are all over your face. They are in your eyes. Are they crawling into your nostrils? You ears? If you open your mouth – even just to scream – you can feel them crawl over your lips and into…
You get the idea.
To go beyond basic disgust at creepy critters, you generally have to lead people from the thing to the horrible fear it represents. If you just tell the players they are fighting zombies, that has no impact. If you just make them disgusting – they are rotting corpses after all – that’s as impactful as fighting bugs. You need to get the players to see the zombies as broken human beings. Humans missing something. The zombies should be wearing clothes. This one is a peasant wife. That one is a merchant. And they should have ages and identities. That young girl has a wedding ring. The old man was probably someone’s grandfather, recently dead. The rot hasn’t taken the laugh lines from around his empty eye sockets that are oozing putrefied flesh. Take every moment to remind the players that the zombies they are fighting were people once. That they were fathers and daughters and sons and wives and mothers. They were innkeepers and kings and soldiers and beggars and paupers. And now they are just an inexorable mass of flesh that feels no pain or fatigue and simply exists to kill and consume.
Fright is primal, biological fear. Revulsion is fear that comes from a rational understanding of the implications of a thing. Dread is the fear of the unknown and the uncontrolled. Dread is the fear you feel when you know something terrible is coming. But you don’t know what it is or you don’t know when and you don’t know how it is going to turn out. And dread is the single most important emotion to understand when running a horror game.
You know how the first Alien movie spent a long time just getting to the part where there was an alien running around murdering people? And how you barely saw the alien until the very end? And how even after the alien was revealed, it could pop up anywhere and at any time to kill anyone? That’s dread.
Dread is slow-boil fear. And it is the most sustainable fear. And the longer it goes on, the more powerful it becomes. Fright is a quick fear. One-and-done. Revulsion is about being stuck in a situation. When the situation is over, the revulsion abates. But dread is about knowing or imagining something unknown and terrible is going to happen in the unknowable future. That unknown bit is important.
Think again about Alien. It starts with the team investigating a distress call in the middle of nowhere. They have no information except the fact that something has gone wrong somewhere. Then, they find the strange alien ship. There’s a lot of questions, but no answers. Something terrible happened. But what? And what’s going to happen? Then John Hurt gets attacked by the facehugger. What is it? What’s it doing to him? What’s going to happen? Who knows. But suddenly he’s okay. But the facehugger is gone. Where is it? Oh, it’s dead. Why? Is everything okay? No. Everything can’t be okay. Something bad is going to happen. Then chestburster! And then people start dying. And then the alien. And it can come from anywhere and kill anyone. And the escape. And the confrontation.
The dread builds up because we know SOMETHING is going to happen but we never have enough information to know what and when. And everything we learn either fails to answer any questions or leaves us with even more we don’t know.
And that brings us to why dread is so important. Dread is actually the twisted, evil twin version of dramatic tension. Dread provides the pacing for a horror story and pulls the audience along in much the same way that tension provides the pacing for any other story and pulls the audience along. Revulsion and fright provide the story beats. Those are the high-point scenes. Dread moves the story from scene to scene.
Alien isn’t just about dealing with the terror of being trapped with an incomprehensible, murderous alien monster that can attack anyone at any time. The alien’s attacks are frightening. They startle us. And the entire storyline with John Hurt and the facehugger is total revulsion. The creature beings by latching on to his face. Not any other part of his body. It covers his face. Why? Because humans connect face and identity. To lose your face is to lose your identity. And your senses. It makes you a shell. And that’s precisely what the facehugger does. It makes him a shell. A cocoon. John Hurt is just a warm baby womb to the alien. It is utterly dehumanizing. The chestburster scene takes something most humans find beautiful and wonderful – child birth – and twists it to something horrible. Humans can die in child birth. And children can be born twisted abominations. Even if we don’t understand it on a conscious level, we do feel it. You might not have noticed, but your brain did.
Ultimately, dread, fright, and revulsion have to work together to produce sustained horror. Moments of fright and revulsion are connected by a wavering sense of dread that rises and falls in each scene, but trends ever upward to the moment of climax.
If you know how to work with dramatic tension to build a story, you can also build a horror story. But you have to know the magic thing that turns dramatic tension into its evil twin: dread.
In a normal story, we want the heroes to succeed. And we are pretty sure they will. We follow along because we want the story of how they succeed. Tension rises and falls as they get closer to or farther from success. Ultimately, tension reaches a high point and the story reaches a climax. And then we get the ending we wanted.
In a horror story, we still want the heroes to succeed. But we’re pretty sure they won’t. Or can’t. Not really. They won’t succeed. They can merely survive. Or escape. Even if they defeat the villain, it isn’t really a victory. It’s just an escape. The question we are interested in is how much will they lose before they escape. If they escape at all. How many people will actually survive? Will anyone survive? And what sort of shape will they be in when they do? And what will they have left of themselves when they do? Will they lose their friends? Their family? Their children? Their sanity? Their humanity? What sort of scars will they walk away with?
In a horror story, the heroes do not have the capacity to win. And we know that going in. The best they can hope for is to not lose too much before they escape. Before it’s all over. The heroes are essentially powerless to create the outcome they truly want. Instead, they can only nudge the outcome in their favor.
Consider the classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. Even though Nancy does eventually learn enough about Fred Krueger to “defeat” him gradually through the course of the movie, it has cost her a lot. She’s lost her friends, her mother has become increasingly lost to alcoholism, her estranged father has become more distant, she’s exhausted, and she’s scarred emotionally. She will never be the same. And her victory has only earned her a return to normal life with all those scars. If the movie had not turned out to all be a dream, it would still be a horror movie. Because she didn’t win. She escaped. She survived. And the fact that it did turn out to all be a dream would have negated its status as a horror movie if not for the stinger at the end when we discover she didn’t escape at all.
A Nightmare on Elm Street and Alien both provide a classic example of one of the most common ways that horror movies disempower protagonists. Through isolation. The crew of the Nostromo is in the middle of deep space, months away from any help at all. They are alone and trapped. Nancy’s boyfriend proves himself to be completely unreliable. Her mother is an alcoholic. Her father doesn’t believe her. Neither do the doctors. Even in the face of hard evidence, the doctors and her parents scoff. Nancy is utterly alone.
Disempowerment can also come from a lack of information. Our greatest tool is our ability to understand the world around us. If we can understand something, we have power over it. We have control. A major theme of Lovecraftian horror is that we literally cannot comprehend the terrors we face. Our brains just can’t grasp reality. On a fundamental level, we are powerless to deal with the terrible truths around us.
Agency is also empowering. We draw strength from a sense of control. And when that sense of control is stripped away, we are powerless. Mind control is terrifying because it robs us of our agency. But natural disasters are similarly terrifying because we have no control over nature. That’s why so many horror stories begin with a storm that traps the protagonists somewhere.
Dread relies on disempowerment. It relies on knowing that the protagonists do not have the power to control the outcome. It relies on the fact that the heroes only have the power to minimize their losses and escape. And they may not even be able to do that much. Without disempowerment, dread is merely dramatic tension, and all the fright and revulsion in the world won’t really turn the story into a horror story.
And THAT is why it’s so hard to pull off horror in a role-playing game. Especially Dungeons & Dragons. And not just for the reasons you think. RPGs, especially D&D, are very empowering by their nature. I already mentioned that. But disempowering the players too much or doing so in the wrong ways can ruin the game. Yes, even if the game is supposed to be a horror game.
The Danger of the Hopeless Protagonist
When we watch a horror movie, we might know that the protagonists basically have no hope of winning. We might know that only one or two of them are going to get out alive. Or that even if they survive, the ending will still be terrible in some way. But that’s okay. Because the characters don’t have to know that. In fact, the characters can’t know that. If the characters realize their situation is utterly, impossibly hopeless, they will lose all of their motivation and stop trying.
In a role-playing game, the protagonists ARE the audience. And, even though they are playing a horror game, the players still need to know they have the power to affect the outcome in order to have any interest in playing the game. If they don’t feel like anything they do matters, they won’t enjoy the experience of being in a horror story. They will just feel frustrated.
And that means that, when you disempower the players – because you have to do so to create dread – you have to walk a very fine line. Too little disempowerment and you won’t create a sense of dread. Too much and you’ll frustrate your players.
So, how do you run a horror game in D&D?
How to Run Horror in D&D
If you’re hoping for step-by-step instructions for creating a horror game at this point, I’m sorry. You’re not going to get it. It’s just too broad a question. Consider all of the different things that can go into a horror experience. But what I can give you some general pointers.
First, obviously, understand that dread is something that you have to build slowly and that it relies on the unknown. In fact, accept that a horror game is going to be a slow build.
Second, decide what is at stake. Decide what the best possible outcome can be for your story. And make sure that outcome isn’t a victory. Make sure it’s an escape or survival. Make sure that, no matter what, something gets lost. For example, if the players’ survival is at stake, make sure that least one player is going to die. Sorry. You can’t let everyone out alive. In fact, it’s probably best to make sure only one or two people can survive. That’s the best outcome. The worst outcome, of course, is everyone dies. And because so many GMs are whining little babies who have a problem killing the PCs over the course of a game and forcing the poor little babies to sit and watch through the rest of the game, survival is probably not the best choice for what’s at stake.
Third, if anything except the players lives are at stake, you’re going to have to spend some time making the players care about what is at stake. For example, if you want to have a small group of villagers be the stakes, that’s fine. But now plan to spend an hour or more of the game in the village letting the players interact with the villagers. And make sure all of the villagers are nice people. They’ve had some struggles, they’ve had some losses, but they’ve come through it all okay. And they like the players. Humanize them. And don’t pull any punches humanizing them either. Include kids, elderly people, families, pets, everything.
Fourth, find ways to disempower the players. And don’t leave any uncertainty about it. If they are trapped in a location by a storm, make sure it’s a killing storm. Kill a bunch of NPCs with the storm just to prove it’s pretty bada$&. And if the players do try to brave it, kill them too. That’s what they get. If the monster is too powerful for them to defeat, make sure they know it. For example, if the story starts with the heroes leading a bunch of villagers into some nearby caves to take shelter from a horrible storm, have the PCs fight something just a little too powerful for them. Like an owlbear. They have to kill an owlbear in the cave. Later, when you want to establish the horrible monster is too powerful, have it utterly eviscerate three owlbears. And if one of the players doesn’t get the message and tries to fight anyway, kill them.
Fifth, pick out one or two strong themes to play with. Make sure those themes reflect strong human fears. For example, if you’re doing villagers trapped in a cave and being hunted by a horrible thing, maybe you want to deal with how people become animals or monsters when they are desperate or afraid. That combines well with loss of agency and mind control. The monster might be a spirit that drives people into murderous madness. The villagers might start killing each other over food and resources. And then, gradually, the madness becomes more severe. At some point, the heroes might have to kill someone they like because they have gone dangerously and incurably mad.
Sixth, use those themes to build revulsion and dread. Those villagers might resort to cannibalism. A parent might strangle her children to spare them the pain of dying from starvation. Best friends might try to kill each other over accusations of hoarding food. Meanwhile, other villagers begin to see shadowy shapes. Signs turn up in one of the caves of ancient people who sheltered here and killed each other. Don’t give away too much at any one time. Because…
Seventh, TAKE YOUR F$&%ING TIME. You CANNOT run a good horror story in three hours. If you’re doing a horror one-shot, it’s a long one shot. It’s an all-day thing. Or batter, an all-night thing. Have people over for dinner and run a good, long game. Four or five hours at least.
And finally, don’t let the players they are in a horror game. Never use the word horror. If it’s a special event, describe it as a Halloween game and let the players assume they will just be beating the crap out of undead to save the Pumpkin King from Oogie Boogie or whatever. Call it whatever you want. But don’t call it f$&%ing horror. Dread works absolutely best when it creeps up behind the players and wraps an icy hand around their hearts.
Or, you know, just don’t run horror in D&D. Or at all. Horror sucks in any game. Yeah, that’s right. Horror is never good in any game ever. I hate it. F$&% it.