I don’t know about you but I love a good horror story. I especially like making horror in Dungeons and Dragons and actually making it scary. By this I don’t mean jump scares or gore. I mean a situation that causes me to start to panic and feel fear.
My favorite Dr Who episodes are the ones that could be called sci-fi horror. The situation plays out like a mystery. Something odd is happening and no one knows what it is. As the episode goes on weird things start to happen to people you don’t care about (NPC’s in our terminology). But then something starts to happen to the shows regulars (players in our terminology). It is unclear what exactly is happening and whether or not someone will die. So how do you do that in your Dungeons and Dragons (or other tabletop RPG)?
Introduction: how to make horror in D&D actually scary
As I eluded to above there are ways to make horror scary or boring. If you want to make horror boring do the following:
- Use lots of jump scares
- Use standard monsters
- Have a confusing plot
- Explain everything and leave no open loose ends
- Show the monster in the first 15 minutes of your game
Use lots of jump scares, Use standard monsters, Have a confusing plot, Explain everything and leave no open loose ends, Show the monster in the first 15 minutes of your game
Instead lets look at 10 tips to creating an actually scary horror story in your Dungeons and Dragons RPG.
Tip 1: Use suspense
Suspense is the sense that no one really knows what will happen. It also means not having enough information to truly know what is happening. Think of most mysteries and horror shows and movies you have seen. Things start off slowly with rumors. Nothing concrete is known.
The players may only know someone is missing or that place is said to be cursed. Then upon asking around they hear multiple conflicting accounts. Each could be more preposterous than the last one. There is a lead or two so your players have a couple of different options to move forward, but they aren’t sure what is happening yet.
Throughout the story drop hints and clues about what is happening. This could be done with physical props in your game. They come across a dairy entry in the woods or under a rotting bed. It talks about a monster but in ways that don’t really help anyone with a knowledge roll. Don’t let your players simply roll to know what the monster is. They get to see the evidence of what it is capable of first. Then maybe they catch some brief sightings of it but not close enough to know what it is. Finally they will encounter it but only at the end of the adventure.
Now that we have covered suspense what else could you do?
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Tip 2: Create a foreboding atmosphere
To create a foreboding atmosphere give good descriptions of what the players can see. Don’t stop with just the sense of sight. Use smells, sounds, touch and sounds.
You could look up a loop of 3 hours of scary music on YouTube to play very low in the background of your game. This will help set the mood of the game. Today won’t be a good time to drop your obligatory Monty Python reference.
The other ways to do this is to use their perception roles to let them notice that there are no sounds in the woods right now. No birds. No insects can be seen. The forest is dead quiet in the area you are in. Or maybe if they hear a small whimper in the distance. Or if you are going to ramp up the game it could be a scream in the distance for help.
The pacing of a horror game (or other media) is 85% timing. The best way to go is very slow but then speed things up just to slow them back down again. Carefully exploring and finding vague messages followed by a scream in the distance or an attack by a lesser monster or group. Then slow the action back to a crawl and have them find more information before escalating the action again. This sort of pacing helps create a foreboding atmosphere.
Tip 3: Make it mysterious
There are several ways to do horror in media. The advantage the media has is that they can shift the perspective to a 3rd person point of view. But in Dungeons and Dragons it is a 1st person point of view. Your players can really only know what they discover. It doesn’t make sense to cut to a scene of a murder 2 weeks ago before you start your game.
Instead your players will be approached by someone to investigate an incident that has occurred. This is your hook. It is like any other adventure and in some ways make it just like any other side quest. Except this side quest will slowly roll out into a horrific situation that could cause harm to the players.
So as they players arrive on the scene that the NPC told them about in the hook they will slowly figure out that something else is happening. Don’t reveal exactly what that thing is. Instead, hint at it but don’t outright state it until later into the game. If you are planning on running this as a one time 3 hour game. Then you would reveal what is actually happening in hour 2 of the game for example. You want to keep the players off their toes as much as possible.
If you need help creating an adventure for your gaming group please read our article on How to Create a Dungeons and Dragons Adventure.
Tip 4: Focus on the psychological aspects of fear
“The 3 types of terror:
The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm.
The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm.
And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…” – Stephen King
You can see that Stephen King defines terror as psychological. What changed in your home. All of your objects are the same right? What was behind you and now what will you do? Nothing was stolen or even moved, but something is wrong. Your brain knows something is wrong.
This is what you want to express in your explanations. Do they go to a village to look for someone and everyone is gone. There are no signs of a struggle. There are still warm coals in the hearths of homes. Food lies on the table untouched. No chair is overturned. All of the people are just gone.
Or as the players walk to the town they make a willpower save. Those that make the save notice that the forest they just came out of has changed. It could be subtle like all of the trees look smaller and shorter than they should. A knowledge nature roll of 15 will tell the players that the trees look 20 to 30 years younger. They can go back roughly 100 meters or 300 feet before they hit a magical barrier that cannot be passed through. Any attempt to teleport fails. Same with any planar travel.
Hopefully you can see how the two above examples provide an example of psychological horror or terror as Stephen King calls it. This is very different than fighting a horrific monster. Of course, there may still be a horrific monster to deal with or an evil mage or devil. That choice is yours. But I find it best to create the scenario and then work backwards to what could cause it.
Tip 5: Amp up the stakes
If you can trap your players or create a sense of urgency that helps to increase or amp up the stakes. The two examples above do just that. But that isn’t the only way to create this.
In order to increase the sense of urgency among your players you can do one or more of the following:
- Encountering a monster
- Hearing a call for help or a scream in the distance
- A countdown (i.e. they need to get out of the area in the next three days or be trapped forever in the mage’s time trap, or need to find safety before nightfall)
- Kill the entire party only to have them wake up to repeat the same thing over and over again until they can figure out the way to escape (typically killing the thing / person that is causing the time loop) – Think horror version of Groundhog Day or the Star Trek Next Generation Episode Cause and Effect from 1992.
- Have a player go missing (be careful with this one and have the player be found within 5 – 10 minutes in real-time)
- Split the party with a trap (if they don’t find it, a good pit trap that leads to a different level is a great way to do this, be careful as you could kill a player this way)
Tip 6: Make the players feel powerless
One way to do this is to bring them to the brink of death. I saw it just the other week as a player in our D&D 5e game. We encountered giant spiders that had the ability to paralyze the party if you failed a Con 11 save. Well, eventually the party was paralyzed minus the wizard and artificer. Needless to save all of us were worried that we might die.
The Dungeon Master realized that the spiders could easily kill the paralyzed members of the party and had them move on those of us that were still able to move. That bought time. He also brought down the rounds for paralysis as well that gave us hope. The point is some of us were very worried we would have to roll up a new character in a small random encounter.
The other way to make them feel powerless is to force them into situations without given enough time to prepare. You can do this by having a large monster show up that is obviously too powerful to fight and win.
Hiding information or forcing the players to be not in control creates a feeling of powerlessness as well. In many ways, if you have followed the first 5 tips you are already creating this in them.
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Tip 7: Don’t let them rest
This is perhaps the best way to create horror in Dungeons and Dragons.
If they can’t rest, they can’t regain spells and health.
To do this make the environment unsafe to rest for 8 hours. If they try to rest then interrupt them by attacking them or making the area unsafe to stay.
Make a deadline in order to save people or themselves and remind them that they may not have time to rest if they don’t want the bad thing to happen.
Tip 8: Make the stakes high
The stakes should be high. You know your players and what they value.
Some groups may not care about NPCs or anyone but themselves. If that is the case then the stakes are their characters. If, on the other hand, your players have some empathy for NPCs or children or animals then make that the stakes.
A note here. Many of the themes in horror are potentially disturbing or triggering to people in real life. If you have noticed I have encouraged you to steer clear of gore, jump scares, and the like (especially if you have players that are not ok with these things). Instead, the concept that the world isn’t quite right is where you want to focus. You want to stay away from things like torture or horrific death. I may threaten it but would never show it or describe it unless I knew that all of my players were ok with that (and I know for a fact that they aren’t, so I don’t do it).
I keep the stakes high with my players because there are consequences for their actions. Maybe not for a month or two but there are consequences. So if they failed in this quest and NPC’s were killed there would be some sort of issue the players would face because of it later.
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Tip 9: Evoke player empathy
If you are able to use voice inflection (not necessarily accents) you can evoke player empathy by role-playing the NPC in the hook and flavor text.
You see a frantic woman come into the tavern in tears. You notice that everyone looks down quickly into their cups to avoid eye contact. As she looks around the room she notices you looking at her. She runs over to your table. She has been crying recently and it looks like she hasn’t taken care of herself in days.
“Please, I need help! My children have gone missing and no one will help me. They are cowards but you look to be brave….please tell me you are brave.”
Then go from there to explain where the children were last seen and unless your player group are all evil characters they will take on the quest.
Use your voice inflection and acting to pull on the player’s heart to take up the quest.
Tip 10: Use disturbing imagery
See my note about knowing your players. Disturbing imagery can be overt and in your face. Describing in detail the blood and gore that the players find in the wake of the monster’s attacks. Rather, paint that in broad strokes instead.
Just say, “You see 5 halflings ripped apart into this room. It smells of death and you can almost taste the iron smell in the air. It is almost overpowering and the bodies have been here for at least 3 days. There is an audible buzz in the air. There are swarms of flies crawling on literally every surface.” For this, you could then have them roll for initiative to fight the two swarms of insects (LOL).
You don’t need to go into detail. And in many cases, it is best not to. Let them imagine (or not) the scene.
Instead, use imagery that incorporates as many senses as possible. Describe what it is like to be there and as I did in the paragraph above I glossed over the gore and focused on the flies and smells and sounds not the sights. Do likewise where possible.
Bonus Tip 11: Make your own monster
If you have a player like I do who has memorized the monster manual then it is a great idea to take an existing monster and change it to have a special ability. You could also look at mixing in different types of monsters into an existing one to make it unique. Is it part fiend or aberration? Did a wizard mix an owl bear with a displacer beast (gotta love mad wizards)? What would that monster look like?
In conclusion, if you want to make horror in Dungeons and Dragons actually scary, consider following these 10 tips. With a little effort, you can create an unforgettable and spine-tingling experience for your players that they’ll be talking about long after the campaign is over.
About the Author:
Dwight Scull has been playing tabletop role-playing games (starting with Dungeons and Dragons 3.5) back in 2001. He started being a dungeon master around 2005.
He loves to play many different types of TTRPGs, including Pathfinder, GURPS, Shadowrun, Vampire: The Masquerade, Mage: The Ascension (and other White Wolf Games), Nights Black Agents, and others.
Fan of mysteries, light horror, co-op board games, true crime, sci-fi, and fantasy.
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