Running Your Most Horrible D&D Adventure Ever

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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

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

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.

Dread

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.

Powerlessness

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.

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23 thoughts on “Running Your Most Horrible D&D Adventure Ever

  1. I saw this article, and my immediate thought was how a silly video game recently taught me, in very excruciating, personal detail, why my idea of running a sudden horror story in a normally fun and friendly game for an episode to shake things up was rather uncomfortable for the players.

    The game in question was “A Hat in Time,” and the level was Queen Vanessa’s Manor, interrupting the player’s Super Mario Sunshine-esque platforming fun to bring you Silent Hill’s camera angles and Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s fighting system.
    I’m good enough at resisting revulsion that I can talk about teratomas with malformed fetuses in them over meatloaf and peas, and dread is something I can prepare for, but fright and powerlessness are my weaknesses.
    So it was a good thing that the level took away my normally fearless character’s powers and pluckiness and left the two of us cowering in fear, hoping not to get turned into an ice sculpture.

    However, the most important thing I learned was that, despite being terrified out of my wits in the moment, I went into that level knowing what I was getting myself into.
    That level had a reputation for scaring the pants off of grown men with its E10+ tension, and while I didn’t quite know the specifics of the puzzles or anything, I knew who Queen Vanessa was, what she does to you, and that I was likely going to be unnerved.
    If I didn’t know about the level going in, I likely would have made a mess on my chair instead of going to the bathroom before continuing.

    Now that I understand that surprise horror can be quite uncomfortable, even if you know about it and even if it is fairly tame, I can imagine how much worse it would be to use on others who don’t expect it.
    That, combined with a recent, fairly bleh D&D session at a local game store involving a kobold warren, has taught me to be more generous with my players about warnings. Not many people like unexpected dread, powerlessness, and murder holes, after all.

      • Thank you!

        I’d also like to call attention to Angry’s ending statements regarding the set-up.

        “If you do horror, you should surprise your players. Don’t call it horror.”
        Combined with my experiences, that paints a picture similar to the issue of “almost-deadly encounters” being mistaken for “challenging” the players: you’re balancing on razor wire.
        Either you’re going to overshoot and cause a problem with a player who can’t handle it, or you’re going to undershoot and feel like you haven’t done enough.
        Also, you’ll typically have players whose tolerance levels can vary wildly between each other, and even with themselves on different subjects, or even variations of the same subject (see: me laughing when discussing Sydney funnelweb spiders biting through toenails vs me recoiling at the sight of a scuffed nail or a small, plastic spider toy).

        That’s why some groups have little cards that people can touch if they feel the game is hitting too close to home and they need to pack it up before they roll too far back into PTSD.

        That rolls rather nicely into his ending statement, “Just don’t run horror. In any game. Ever.”

        It’s hard to do well, you can do it TOO well, it’s nigh-impossible to know if you are on the right track or if this party just isn’t up for it…

      • yea, if a DM started describing spiders crawling all over me and in my mouth, my next statement would be “I pull out my dagger and slit my own throat. i am NOT going down eaten alive by spiders” that would be a short lived character.

  2. I’ve never DMed before, and I’m not quite dumb enough to try my hand at horror for my first time DMing, so my question is more a hypothetical one. On the D&D reddit group, someone mentioned the idea of a campaign where the PCs start out high level, and as they fight monsters, XP is subtracted rather than added, so that ultimately, players level down rather than up. Do you think this would, in theory, make for a good horror game? I think it instills a sense of hopelessness and dread because every monster they defeat only brings the heroes closer to their own powerlessness?

    • That’s… Not what experience is for. Maybe use level drain on the powerful monsters, or frame it as sanity loss for killing, say, ghosts of old friends. And do it for a one shot with experienced players, because leveling is also about learning the game system (or subsystems used by that character).

    • That is an interesting idea, I don’t see it as horror but rather as the adventurers aging out though. In their prime they could do amazing things, but now they are aging and have to chose their battles wisely. If the players were up for it that could be an amazing campaign. Though druids and monks may make trouble.

    • That won’t be a horror game.
      It would probably turn into a “So what’s the cleverly funny escape plan we hatch this time?” game, as the players would rather run away from monsters than defeat them.

      At least that’s what I’d do as a player. And for a group that doesn’t like fighting much, it might be a blast.

  3. If you want horror its not the campaign that makes it horror it’s the DM.

    Make the room dark with either just flashlights or a red or black light or a white light with a red sphere shade, or do it in the woods it night. Play the haunted house themed music if indoors and creepy nature sound tracks if outdoors. Immerse yourself in YouTube videos of readings of Lovecraft, Poe and other horror writers and make notes of when you’re scared and how the reader was reading when you were and do that.

  4. Probably the only good horror game I played, the GM didn’t bother with a system. We had no die rolls, no randomness, and in spite of what we thought, no enemies. He had some walkie-talkies, and had us each sit in an enclosed area in his basement, separated, with all lights out. He’d occasionally have us change over to a different channel on the w-t, which was the only flaw, but the isolation and utter darkness, combined with how he got us unwittingly turning on each other, was absolutely terrifying.

    • “Dread” is the best Horror RPG I have come across. It is designed for the tension… For the Fright, the Revulsion, and even the Dread.

      It forgoes dice to use a Jenga tower as the governing mechanic… If you topple the tower, your character is out of the story. They go mad, they run screaming to another city, or they die at the hands of the monster… Every game is a one-shot, and most characters don’t survive, if not all of them.

  5. I know that being a DM under normal circumstances is a challenge, the holiday centered games have become more trouble than they are worth in my group. My group, if lucky, gets together for 4-5 hours every Sunday. Due to my over the top story telling, most of the game time is spent role playing in response to the story being told.

    The whole concept of “selling” your vision and/or feelings about a holiday to the PCs, can become frustrating and overwhelming. Especially when the players don’t share your joy for the season, whichever one it is.

    Sure, the concept of a holiday themed game sounds fun when you start thinking about it, it quickly becomes a pain in the @$$…

    For me, and that is just me speaking. I feel adding horror aspects to the campaign allow the games to fit the seasons all year long. For Halloween, I may add a zombie or Vampire threat. Thanksgiving, a inn related game with food and celebration. Christmas, winter based sessions with generous loot opportunities. It is possible to add aspects of your favorite holidays to your games/campaigns, without the holiday being the focus of the session.

  6. Nice article. After reading I was wrapping my head around what mechanical tweaks I would implement on a 5e game to increase a little bit the sense of dread and powerlessness on the players side. I decided to share my thoughts here because I don’t think they are obvious when people think of horror. This is because they’re not horror mechanics, they just make the game more grittier and the consequences more dire.

    SAVE OR DIE: I think there is a little sense of dread before you see what number the die will show when you know the consequence is really serious. There is definitively powerlessness involved because there is nothing you can do to affect the outcome. I would rule that those spells and effects that take 2 saving throws before the really bad outcome occurs, like the medusa gaze, now take full effect when the player fails the first and only save.

    NO AUTO REPEAT SAVING THROWS AGAINST DISABLING EFFECTS: I’m talking about spells and effects that take characters out of control but let the players repeat their saves at the end of their turns. The rationale is similar to the save or die case. I would rule that if you failed your first save the spell last for their duration, unless some special circumstance, like an ally doing something to help you, would grant a second saving throw.

    SLOW NATURAL HEALING: Is hard to impart a sense of mortality when the characters are ever so fresh. I’m not set on any of the healing variants offered by the DMG, nor do I have any rule of my own that is worth sharing, but surely I would restrict the amount of healing the players get after a short or a long rest.

  7. First off, thanks for using two very good examples of horror (Alien and Nightmare on Elm Street). Those two movies absolutely do present some of the core elements of horror. In fact, I often have to “correct” my friends when they say that Alien is a Sci-Fi movie. I explain that while it is set in space, in the future, the story doesn’t revolve around technology and science. It is, at the core, a suspense-thriller movie. And a very good one at that. Anyway…

    My next game session is in 2 days and it will be the final session in a town that has been “zombified”. Yes, I know it is a cliche, but it is one that works. The players bought in early to it and have enjoyed it so far. And so far it has been the (more or less) typical “chop through these undead” then “avoid those undead” along with some “uncover a few cryptic clues about why the entire city rose as undead overnight”. I’ve had the players recognize that these undead are definitely the animated bodies of the city’s residents. Shop owners, blacksmiths, innkeepers, etc. They’ve been suddenly attacked by undead, stalked by undead, and they’ve even seen undead rats and an undead shark. I’ve set up that generally something is Very Wrong (TM) and given them the clues to either try to run from it or try to find out what caused it.

    They still get to face the “undead adventuring party” and finally the “big bad undead” before they have a chance to escape. The twist is that their expected route of escape will not be there for them. So, we’ll get to see what happens.

    This article comes at a perfect time for me to be reinvigorated about what I wrote for the adventure and put even more DM-gusto behind it on Sunday.

    Thanks for the inspiration and information, Angry!

  8. Angry, this is probably the best essay on horror writing I have ever seen. Oh, and the comments on gaming are spot-on as well. Thank you!

  9. I think the closest to horror in D&D has been running Strahd but its not really horror or it is horror but it doesn’t have the same strength as most things in the horror genre. We’ve had some good frights and it is a lot darker than our other games but especially since its taking so damn long to play through since half my players can’t make it very often it loses some of that dread because its usually a week to two months between sessions.

  10. One of the ways I have run a horror campaign in D&D involved zombies, but only sort of. I built up the relationships of the player’s with key NPCs (inn keeper being the most important in this). , while dropping hints that something was going wrong. I introduced a zombified cat that jumped out of a players’ window after startling them, gave them little tidbits of moving shadows and stuff. People were dying at night, devoured, and no one knew why. The players had the choice of a common room with many people in it or private rooms that were much more expensive (and at least one or two players ALWAYS choose the common room for one reason or another). The town couldn’t remember anything that was going on, then I turned it on them.

    They naturally had to stay up at night to find out what was going on, being heroic… The innkeep, who was noted for being an ex-adventurer, had been zombified. The party has a small threat from the fight, with only one of enemy, but were expected to win… with some damage to one or two of the players, but that’s about it. They dispatch the zombified and desiccated inn-keeper and have to run from those in the common room that also became zombified (less the players). They hole up somewhere in the night to ride it out.

    The next morning, the inn-keep is found dead, but not decayed. Murder no more than a few hours old, only the wounds that the players dealt still showing. Evidence leads to at least one of the party members being implicated, and they end up arrested… This is how I stole the player’s power and agency. I made it so they weren’t really able to do what heroes generally do… Kill the evil… They had to evade it. They couldn’t kill the townsfolk, but had to investigate what was going on… What cursed the city…

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