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.