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Running Horror Games

posted Wednesday, October 28th 2009 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Halloween always gets me in the mood to run a horror-themed adventure. There’s something special about beating up undead, werewolves, demons, evil magic users, and exploring gloomy ruined castles or dungeons filled with unspeakable horrors.

Of course, to many groups, that looks pretty much like the usual adventuring humdrum. D&D is predicated on tramping around thwomping back on the things that go “bump” in the night. There’s a lot more to a horror story than the monster of the week, though. Running horror well can be difficult, but extremely rewarding if it’s done properly.

Atmosphere: A substantial amount of horror is predicated on setting the right mood. There are a number of ways to create an appropriate atmosphere for your horror game:

  • Setting appropriate lighting levels is a good start—but don’t dim the lights so far you can’t read your notes or character sheets.
  • Atmospheric music from movie soundtracks is a nice extra touch—avoid choosing something your players will sing along to, and keep the volume low enough that everyone can be heard.
  • Narrative technique is the most important tool at your disposal—but don’t spend so much time on the descriptions that your players lose interest. Good descriptions don’t need to be long to set the right mood.
  • Keeping your players on topic is a key element to creating a horror adventure. If everyone is involved in side conversations about work or school, or cracking constant jokes, it will be extremely difficult to maintain tension.

Tension: Pacing and tension are vital to a good horror story. Think of your pacing like a pulse—you should aim to start slow and gradually increase the heartbeat of your story until the heart-pounding climax. If you can time it right, you’ll have your players’ pulses keeping time with the pulse of the story.

  • Start slow and gradually introduce more and more discomfort and horror elements.
  • Give your players time to breathe—at first. As the pacing ramps up, reduce the delays between rests to keep them on their toes.
  • Don’t be afraid to vary the pace—give your players a safe haven to reduce the pulse, then pull it away from them just as they drop their guard. This technique can let you build a higher amount of tension before it snaps.
  • Don’t push too hard too fast—much like anything else, if you put too much pressure on your tension it will break.

Creating Horror: It is possible to have a very atmospheric, tense adventure that is not horror, of course. This is where horror themes come into play. By using some or all of the following you can give your players a chilling experience—but always remember the purpose is to enjoy yourselves, not to traumatize someone or give them nightmares for weeks to come.

  • Choose thematic monsters. Undead of all sorts, lycanthropes, demons, witches, or even mad scientists can work wonders to fit in with horror. It’s somewhat more difficult to work with the dragons, orcs, and goblins that are more typical of fantasy, but with the right setup, even they can work quite well as horror villains.
  • Make use of imagery. Shocking your players is a bit of a cheap thrill, but it can be effective. Horrific scenes of carnage or dismemberment aren’t the only way—there’s a lot to be said for simple but disturbing. Be careful not to cross personal boundaries, though. If one of your players is deathly afraid of spiders, using a giant spider enemy may be all right, but describing the sensations of thousands of spiders swarming up over his body and into his mouth, nose, and ears may well be crossing the line. Make sure your players are comfortable…just not too comfortable.
  • Use tricks. Gradually lower your voice, until your players are leaning forward to hear you, then suddenly turn it up to 11 and watch them jump. If you’re using a soundtrack, consider using a computer to edit in someone whispering the character’s names over the music—then pretend you don’t know what they’re talking about. If you’re not using a soundtrack, record the whispers and have them play once in awhile, perhaps with other subtle, strange sounds like slow scraping on the wall. Special effects are pretty easy to accomplish with today’s technology, and these are just a few ideas.

The cost of victory: In the kind of fantasy D&D usually draws on, good triumphs over evil. In a horror story especially, this is not always the case. Unless you’re running with one-shot characters, it can be problematic to run an adventure that kills one or more of the PCs, but there are other ways to go. Don’t let them rest—make them feel like they’ve been run ragged and barely escaped intact. Kill favourite NPCs, if you can’t kill the PCs themselves. Scare them, scar them, and then let them escape—but leave them wondering if they’ve won, or been allowed to leave…

There are a few caveats that should always be remembered when running a horror themed adventure. Don’t ever forget that the purpose is to create something enjoyable—always make sure that your players are okay with the idea of a horror game and that you’re not crossing personal boundaries. If you are concerned that you may be too graphic or accidentally push too far, agree beforehand on a signal between you and the players and be prepared to stop instantly if anyone uses it. Don’t spring it on your players as a surprise, either—let them know. Horror is fun when we know going in, but can be unpleasant otherwise. You’re telling stories about monsters—don’t try to be one yourself.

Tycho Brahe’s Underdeep: Lethal Traps

posted Saturday, October 10th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

The latest Penny Arcade comic has a D&D theme. Tycho Brahe’s Underdeep presents some lethal traps to handle stubborn player characters who just won’t die.

Here are a couple of my own favourites:

The infamous Tomb of Horrors includes several nasty traps. Look away now if you don’t want spoilers:

  • Every door is a fake door which triggers a fusillade of spears. The real door is always a hidden door.
  • A dark portal which is actually a sphere of annihilation
  • A corridor with the floor on a pivot: past a certain point, the floor tilts and dumps the PCs into lava (20d6 per round)
  • Tapestries which turn into green slime if pulled, instant death
  • A cursed gem of wishing which not only gives the opposite of what you wish for, but deals 200 fire damage afterward

Any favourite traps yourself?

Product Review – Dungeon Deck: Quests

posted Friday, October 9th 2009 by Brandan Landgraff
Fourth EditionNews, Reviews & Culture

Dungeon Deck: Quests is a deck of cards produced by Gamers Rule that is designed to create a short, random dungeon, suitable for a single evening of play. The creators suggest using it when you want to play but haven’t had a chance to properly plan, for whatever reason. It is not intended to be a full replacement for adventure design, but something to enable play on short notice.

The deck itself consists of seven smaller decks, each of eight cards. The idea is that you draw one card from each of the piles, and that will give you enough to go on. The decks provide a hook, the dungeon’s entrance, the atmosphere within the dungeon, the type of dungeon, a map, the types of encounters within, and a reward. There are a lot of possible combinations for simple dungeons possible here.

According to the product’s website, the original design was done for 2nd edition (AD&D) but has been updated for 4th Edition.

What’s it like?

The cards are fairly high quality. The images on the cards are photographs, and don’t feel especially poorly chosen—I didn’t notice any major anachronisms that would feel out of place in a D&D game. The idea is sound, and a sample run gave me a dungeon I could easily have run on little notice. If you’re at all a tactile individual, the cards will feel like a great method of random adventure design. They may not be the deepest adventures, but they’re exactly what they’re advertised as being—a quick sub-in adventure for a single evening.

Unfortunately, while eight options for, say, dungeon atmosphere or entrance may be more than sufficient, it feels a bit thin on threats or treasures. The threats are generalized—humans, for example, or goblinoids—with no specific encounter breakdown. While this is simple enough to cover for by using the sample encounter groups out of the Monster Manuals, it’s fairly limiting and doesn’t really make use of a significant portion of the creatures that have been offered.

Furthermore, the deck doesn’t really scale very well at all. One of the threat cards, for example, suggests using goblin encounters. A quick scan of the available goblins, bugbears, hobgoblins, and orcs from all sources to date shows very few outside of heroic tier, and none in epic. Another problem area lies in the rewards. The designers could easily have applied the treasure package system, with reward cards like “One treasure package of appropriate level”, “Magic Item Level +2” or even magic items of their own design, applicable across all level ranges. Instead, there are suggestions of rolling for the amount of money or gems, or a level 11 consumable magic item—which, given that the adventures themselves may well end up restricted to heroic tier threats, is a bit problematic.

Another problem is that no matter how many different combinations of the dungeon map and atmosphere you pull, with only eight options for threats, if you make heavy use of the Dungeon Deck, you will almost invariably run up against the adventures feeling “samey”.

Final thoughts

For all the problems, the idea behind Dungeon Deck: Quests is solid and I could see paying $5-10 for a version of the product with some of the bugs worked out. Unfortunately the asking price is around $20, which seems a bit steep for what you get. For the DM that has everything and is willing to put a bit of work into expanding on the base Gamers Rule provides, it might be worthwhile, but all in all it feels like a good idea that would have benefited from wider playtesting and development.

EN World Needs Your Help!

posted Thursday, October 8th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

Veteran D&D news website EN World needs your help. EN World has served as the top D&D news site since the beginnings of D&D third edition, supplying regular daily news and one of the web’s largest RPG discussion forums. With popularity comes rising costs, and times are hard for the website.

EN World is offering several services to support the site:

  • Community supporter accounts: Community supporter accounts offer users free game products each month, a search function, remove ads, more private messages, a custom user title and avatar. The price is $3 per month.
  • EN World PDF Store: Sells PDFs via RPG Now.
  • Advertising: Large advertisements on EN World. Price ranges from 37c to $1 CPM (cost per thousand ad impressions)

Note: I’m not being paid to advertise EN World, just hoping to support a long-time dedicated provider of D&D news and discussion. If you haven’t used this site yet, feel free to check out EN World News and the EN World Forum.

5 Tips to Handle NPC Followers

posted Wednesday, October 7th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceFourth EditionThird Edition

On occasion you’ll want an NPC to follow the party. Perhaps a player is missing that week and you want an NPC to stand in, or the players have hired a henchman to fill a missing party role. They might call in a favour for an epic final battle, adding extra NPCs to help fight.

Here’s some advice on making the experience go smoothly.

1. Don’t overshadow the players

Newbie DMs sometimes make the mistake of having an NPC tag along and do the party’s job for them. It detracts from the players’ victory if your NPC wins all their battles for them.

If you do have an NPC join the party, be sure he’s only assisting the party and not hogging all the glory. Especially, don’t have a high-level character step in and solve all their problems. Nobody wants to sit back while you teleport Gandalf in and fight all your own monsters.

2. Use simpler game stats

NPCs don’t need as much detail as a full player character. Unnecessary detail makes an NPC more time-consuming to generate, and can slow down play by presenting the DM with too many options.

Since NPCs tend not to have many wild abilities (damage reduction, fear auras or the like), it’s safe to write down their base stats: HP, AC, Fort/Ref/Will, Initiative, any skills you think they’ll need, and their attacks.

Don’t bother with individual feats, skill points, powers or racial abilities. With 4E NPCs, one or two at-will attacks and an encounter power should be enough. More detail only slows NPC generation and detracts from the player characters.

3. Fill missing players with NPCs

If your group is missing a player this week, one option is to fill in with a “Biff the Understudy”.

Biff the Understudy is an NPC in the PC game Baldur’s Gate who replaces any plot-relevant NPC you manage to kill. Likewise, the DM can run a quickly generated replacement character of the same class. As above, you don’t need full stats.

4. Use character generation software

Some character generation software can throw together an NPC very quickly.

A particularly useful feature of the 4E D&D Character Builderis the “Quick Character” option, which lets you auto-generate a character in a few seconds. This is actually quicker than the in the NPC generation guidelines in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Similar software exists for third edition, or you can use the quick NPC stats in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

NPCs who join a party can be generated with full treasure for their level, but hired troops and opponents should not. If a player runs an NPC henchman, don’t let the henchman hand over his equipment to the player for free. NPC allies with full treasure may take a share of XP and treasure.

5. Give NPCs some character

Each NPC should be more than a set of statistics. Pick a name and at least two distinguishing features.

Drop a comment with your own suggestions for handling NPCs, henchmen and hirelings.

A Wizard Did It: Patching 3E to 4E Continuity

posted Monday, October 5th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
Fluff/InspirationFourth Edition

Many players derive great satisfaction from the sense that their game and setting continues to validate the continuity of old books and game sessions. If you’re one of this sort of D&D player, you no doubt cringed over the Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons books as page after page declared inconsistencies with classic game settings and established history.

It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with dragonborn, non-Vancian magic, or the Shadowfell, at least not as game elements on their own. What gets me is that that they showed up overnight with no explanation, just by writer’s fiat. Even a token explanation would make me happy. Something to validate the new material as authentic Dungeons & Dragons, by describing how we got from where we were to where we are.

For those of us who care (perhaps too much) about our D&D setting continuity, here are a few possible answers to major questions that 4E raises.

Where did dragonborn, eladrin, and other new races come from?

Old D&D settings like Greyhawk don’t feature the dragonborn or eladrin, but both are core races in 4th edition. Tieflings have gone from monsters to core PCs, and new books introduce races like the wilden and Eberron’s shifters and kalashtar. Where did they come from?
Continue reading this article »

Wizard Needs Food Badly: Eating Monsters (3E)

posted Friday, October 2nd 2009 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignThird Edition

This is a D&D third edition conversion of Monday’s article: Wizard Needs Food Badly: Eating Monsters (4E).

When a character eats the corpse of a monster, what side-effects await him? Will poison or magical effect make the attempt more trouble than it’s worth? Or, might he gain some strange and wonderful power?

Below are effects for several iconic monsters of D&D third edition. You are encouraged to invent your own.

As a general rule, monsters must be eaten promptly when slain to have any effect. Preserved corpses (frozen, pickled, etc) may provide nutrition, but lose their special efficacy when stored. A Medium creature provides enough vital body parts to feed two characters, plus one for every size class above Medium.

Orc or gnoll

According to the human barbarians tribes of the cold north, eating the liver of savage humanoids is a way to gain their courage. However, it’s not without risks.
Risk: Character risks acquiring blood parasites. Treat the parasites as a disease. (Savage bloodflukes: Ingested, DC15, incubation 1d3 days, damage 1d4 Int, 1d4 Wis, +1 inherent bonus to Str. If reduced below 3 Wis, victim must pick melee target at random each round, from all adjacent creatures, including allies, and must make attacks of opportunity against allies who would provoke one. If reduced to 0 Wis, target remains conscious but loses free will and enters a killing frenzy until slain.)
Effect: The next time the target scores a critical hit in earnest combat, he gains a number of temporary hit points equal to the target’s hit dice.


Dragon meat is tough to eat and difficult to prepare. Cooking red dragon meat is impossible without magical fire.
Risk: Dragon flesh is toxic. Character makes a Fortitude save equal to the dragon’s breath weapon DC; on failure, the character takes 1d6 damage per four hit dice the dragon has (minimum 1d6). This is a poison effect.
Effect: Gain energy resistance to the dragon’s breath weapon type, equivalent to half the dragon’s hit dice. The effect lasts until the character takes a full rest. Continue reading this article »

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