Horror can be a really fun and engaging genre to use for a campaign, but it’s also a tricky one to run because it requires a very specific atmosphere and tone. This is expressed through your descriptions, the kind of scenes you set up, and how you handle dangerous situations. So, now that Halloween is getting closer is a great time to talk about how to run a terrifyingly amazing horror DnD game!
0. Make sure everyone is on board for a horror DnD game
Having a session 0 is important for any sort of game, but horror often touches on topics that can be more sensitive than your average hack-and-slash game. That’s why it’s so important to make sure everyone’s on the same page! Even if being scared is the point of horror, at the end of the day you still want to have fun. So before starting, make sure your players are comfortable with this kind of game and ask them if they have any red lines or topics they would prefer not to deal with in-game. If your game has a core mechanic that’s potentially sensitive (like sanity in Call of Cthulhu or death in Ten Candles), make sure your players are aware and ok with it!
Check out these tips to create a dark campaign setting from Chris Lockey, writer for Wizards of the Coast, Kobold press, and Critical Role!
1. Take advantage of your players’ paranoia
Many players are paranoid even in non-horror games—take advantage of that! In a horror DnD game, you want them to be as paranoid as possible. A great way to increase their paranoia is by introducing details that stand out in your description and repeating them several times. For example, you can associate the color blue with the “monster” (which I will use to refer to the scary elements of your game). Now, from time to time, use the color blue in descriptions even if the monster is not there. You can also apply this to language rather than to specific elements. For example, choose an uncommon word (like “undulating”) and use it to describe the monster. Then, use it in other places too, and watch your players freak out!
Depending on your GMing style, you could take it one step further and use NPC voices or even your own body language. If every time the monster appears you use a very specific posture and tone of voice, the next time you use it your players will be expecting the monster to show up. And finally, use game mechanics to make them paranoid though! Roll dice behind the screen without telling them what they are for, and ask them to remind you what their passive perception is from time to time.
2. Build anticipation in your horror DnD campaign
The reason the section above creates a scary atmosphere is that it builds up anticipation. But why is anticipation so important? Well, if you’ve ever watched a horror movie or series, you’ll know that often the scariest part is not the jumpscare but all the build-up that leads to it. And the proof of that is that sometimes there’s build-up without an actual jumpscare, and it’s just as scary! Making your players think that the monster is coming (even if there’s no monster) is very powerful. You can of course use prompts like candles, sound effects, music, and more, but in an RPG these are not as important as they can be in a movie!
So, how can we implement this in a horror DnD game without resorting to just sound effects, music, and other props? With description! Come up with descriptions that are unsettling, for example by having things that shouldn’t be there (a burning candle in a wet and abandoned cave, for example). Or you could also resort to describing things that are unsettling by themselves to most people, like emptiness. And remember to use different senses beyond sight! Saying “the cave is big and empty” is much weaker than, say, “you hear water drops echoing through the confines of the quiet cave”. Notice how I didn’t mention the word “empty” and yet you immediately felt the emptiness? Appealing to feelings rather than objective understanding is your goal here!
3. Leave room for imagination
Imagination is one of your most powerful tools—and in this case, I mean your players’ imaginations! By leaving holes in your description, you’ll give their brains a chance to come up with something that will probably be scarier than anything you could say. That’s why in many horror stories, like some Lovecraft books, you don’t get a fully detailed physical description of the monsters! But of course, you still need to give them something they can hold onto, so the tricky part here is to figure out what information can you give them that will let them create a horrifying image in their mind.
The details you give will highly depend on what kind of “monster” you have in your game. If it’s an actual physical creature, you could do what some movies do and only show small parts of the creature, or the footprints or trail it leaves behind. If the monster is something that is less tangible (a ghost-like creature, a plague, a curse…) play with the vibes of your descriptions. Maybe when the monster is in the scene there’s a very specific sound or smell, for example. In most horror DnD games, getting the vibes of the monster across is more important than giving an actual description of the monster.
4. Go back to the regular world from time to time
If the entire game is scary, being scared will become normal—and you don’t want that! If scary becomes normal, your players will no longer feel as scared as they should when you want them to. So make sure they have a clear image of what the world is supposed to look like in everyday life when the monster is not there! For example, the beginning of the game (and the end, if they’re still alive) are good places to introduce the normal “safe” world. But you can also have safe scenes mid-game: for example if they’re investigating a monster and go ask for help from a friend of theirs who’s a detective, the scene in the friend’s house could be a good place to rest and be sure that no monsters will come to get them.
Now, should these safe scenes be 100% safe and not scary? Absolutely not! Even if the monster isn’t there, you’re still playing a horror DnD game! Don’t add actual danger to the scene, but make sure to fuel your players’ paranoia anyway. You can use what we talked about in section 1. If you previously linked a putrid smell with the monster, maybe this detective friend has a putrid smell in their house—but it turns out it’s just some spoiled food! Make your players feel like they are being watched and give them a sense of impending doom.
5. Maim the characters, but don’t (always) kill them
Sure, death is dramatic, but in an RPG, death usually means that the player either stops playing (which is not fun) or that they get to create a fresh new character (which means death doesn’t really have consequences). So, instead of straight-up killing a character, give them a permanent condition. Maybe they lose a finger or even a whole hand! Or you could go the psychic route—systems like Call of Cthulhu have great sanity systems, but you can add similar effects to any other system!
Now, there are many different ways to maim a character. If you want to scene to really have an emotional impact (and it should!), connect the pain to the character’s backstory. For example, if the character’s parents died (so original, I know) and your monster can take on multiple forms, maybe it takes on the parents’ forms when hurting or killing the character. Or if the character’s theme is that they don’t accept who they really are, maybe the monster acts in a way that represents what the character is hiding from themselves. And yes, you can also kill a character if you want to, if you know the player will be ok with it, and if the scene asks for it. But when you do, make it a really scary and emotional scene applying everything we’ve talked about here!
Create the ultimate horror D&D games
So much of the best advice about horror D&D games is about immersion, and if you want to immerse your players, worldbuilding tools like World Anvil can help you level up your game. Give your players the ability to learn and read secrets that their fellow party members don’t have access to. Create creepy maps, secret timelines, and use terrifying imagery in your articles (this is a great example!) And of course, embed music and sound effects in your articles to set the mood.
If you want to explore some scary or dark worlds, check out these: The Web (by Dylonishere123), Cathedris (by Stormbril), Creation (by Graylion), Daemonium (by Shadow Malachi), Ravare (by Oneriwien), and Qet (by Timepool).
And of course, World Anvil supports a variety of specialized horror systems, such as Call of Cthulhu, Vaesen, and Alien RPG. This means that you can create character sheets for these systems and play or run a full campaign using our campaign manager!
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