Running a D&D horror game is hard for most dungeon masters. We want to run a scary adventure or make something special for Halloween but with all these monsters in everyday adventures, how do you make the game scary?
Running a D&D horror game for Halloween or any other time must follow 1 rule. Monsters are not the main horror, the mystery is.
If you focus your game on making an amazing mystery then you are on the right track. If you take that mystery to the next level and incorporate unknowns correctly, you are going to make a memorable experience.
The mystery, not the monster
I recently ran a game where the players had to fight a horrific monster. It was a demon who looked pretty horrible, had abilities that made it last forever, and the players almost couldn’t kill it. The fight made the players almost die and grow to be more creative players due to the difficulty. This monster was not that terrifying to fight for 3 hours.
A D&D horror game will not become awesome from an epic boss fight.
You might be thinking that I just did the boss wrong. A 3 hour boss fight is a bit much and any horror would be drained from it. There are not enough descriptors in the world to make a 3 hour boss fight stay horrifying, but what if the fight is more than just roll and deal with the same thing?
I have done this with a monster that was invulnerable and another that when it died came back stronger. These still did not invoke a sense of horror.
Monsters all have mechanics. Players know this and will do their best to figure out these mechanics. Once the mechanic is given away, they will not be horrified and instead work on dealing with the monster appropriately. Giving the players a monster that they cannot kill makes the monster just an obstacle to be evaded or overcome. It is like an extended trap and not nearly as terrifying as other alternatives.
What other alternatives am I talking about?
Making the game a mystery with a resolution that gives more questions than answers.
Before getting into the mystery we need to talk about the environment.
Most dungeon master when running a D&D horror game decides that a haunted mansion or spooky setting is best. This is a way to do it, but there are many better alternatives to creating an environment that compliments horror.
Instead of using a cliche’ just use everyday places. If the players are taken to a specific location that tells them ‘it will be scary’ the players will try to not be scared. If the world around them spirals out of their control and everything they know is questionable, they cannot decide to not be scared. It will happen naturally since it is being shown through pieces instead of told right away.
Some might not consider taking players to a spooky environment ‘telling them’ that this will be a horror game, but it is. You have told them what will happen just from the environment and you can do better.
Use the normal environment that the players are in and start manipulating it. Add inconsistencies to small things at first like a table.
It is weird that there is a little mark on the table, but who cares at first. Now start adding that symbol here and there to make the players start to question what is happening.
Why is that symbol on the wall? Who is causing it and what does it mean?
These are some questions that will pop up and the players can start to go a little crazy trying to figure out what to do. Just keep adding small little inconsistencies here and there to make the players more uncertain about what is going on.
This will not be hard. The lack of knowledge and small inconsistences like a story changing every time that person tells it will make the players go a little insane. Speaking of inconsistencies, you should flip conventional things on their head!
Random rolls and the mystery
Randomly rolling every once in a while for no reason is a great way to make players paranoid. It also is a great way to make players question everything. You want the players to feel like they don’t know everything that is going on. This builds a sense of mystery and tension that will lead to horror if it can affect them.
That is why you want to make sure that if you use random dice rolls, you don’t have a predictable pattern. When you roll every time they investigate the players will catch on. If this was intentional, then the players will start to piece together parts of the puzzle and eventually solve the mystery.
If you need help learning how to make a mystery check out this article.
Once you have a mystery laid out you can start to decide what pieces of information the players will learn. You need to give players a little bit of information. Just make sure to add more questions than answers with each piece they get.
The resolution itself should not be something that the players can feel confident about. It should give birth to more questions than answers. Did we really stop the evil? Does this mean that there can be other events like this in the world at any time?
Keep the players on the edge of their seats by learning enough information to make them curious for more, but unable to. These ending questions should not be pertinent to solving the plot, just something else for the players to consider.
This is also why the players should not know what is going on until the very end. If the players have to find a MacGuffin to end a creature, leave the creature’s name and origin obscure. Refer to it as the evil or something other and try to distort the norm.
If the players see and kill a vampire they won’t really care too much afterward. If the players have to kill the vampire and a phylactery they have no idea what is going on. You can also give the vampire different abilities, like immunity to sunlight and instead vulnerability to necrotic.
Flip the player’s expectations on their heads until the game is over.
We talked about how players shouldn’t fight a BBEG (big bad evil guy) for 3 hours straight, but what about normal combat? Should there be normal combat or even an ending fight? Ideally, no. The best horror games are made without combat for a few reasons.
If you use combat the players get a breather from the scene, plot, and environment. They can focus on something that they understand and that feeling of control/normality is given back.
You do not want this is a D&D horror game. Players should be on the edge of their seat and unable to comprehend what exactly is going on. But at the end of the day, D&D is a combat-based game.
You and your players might want to have combat and there are a few good ways to do so.
- Make combat short.
- Make standard mechanics unimportant
If you make combats short the players can get back the horror theme. They might get a brief breather but not enough to take them out of the immersion.
As for the second part, make stabbing something give a different result than expected. If a player stabs a goblin have the goblin smile and thank the player. Instead of creatures being afraid of dying have them thank the players.
These are different results than expected and the players will instantly get back into the horror vibe. Just do not overuse these descriptors. Set the scene at first with how they will react. Briefly mention it afterward and reinforce it at the end to put them back into the horror setting.
If you are looking to up your ante and make this Halloween a special one for your group, there are other things that you can do.
Music is a big one to enrich the atmosphere. Not every D&D horror game needs to have music but it can help. I would recommend to not add music if you normally do not use music. It is hard to control and very easy to forget. If you forget about your music and the playlist goes to something else it can completely ruin the mood.
Music can be used to make a great Halloween session if used correctly. It can give an erie tone that sets players on edge. It can give the players cues to act on or know that something is coming up. This is done in horror movies as well, so you can take a page out of their book and learn from them.
Limited resources is a great 3rd variable to introduce.
If your players only have so many arrows, potions, or whatever it takes them out of their comfort zone. The goal of all horror is to make players uncertain of what is happening and lose control. If the players don’t have a solid amount of resources they will be in a panic.
You can do this by having them start out with half health and warts on their hands, a bag being taken with a not ‘trick’ where it should be or whatever. Just make sure to limit resources if you want to enhance your Halloween D&D game.
The 3rd enhancement that you can do to a horror game is to make the players have to deal with more than 1 unknown.
Adding in 1 variable that the players don’t know about can be a little scary. You have a monster that has resurfaced from the ancient past and the players need to stop it. That is fine and all, but what if the players also had to deal with reality being uncertain?
The environment is changing, there is a monster on the loose, and the players cannot even trust their own eyes. This is much more interesting and I would highly recommend adding more variables to your game.
The reason why this isn’t required is that adding more variables means that you have to take more things into account. You do not want your players to be taken out of the immersion because you didn’t properly plan and introduced something that didn’t make sense.
This is the danger of adding more variables. You are creating a mystery. A mystery needs to have everything thought out and even then it can be put in jeopardy.
If you are up to the task adding in extra variables is a great thing to do and will enhance your game. Just be careful.
Some people talk about one-shots and say that they are perfect for D&D horror games. I agree and disagree.
I know that is a weird stance to take, but think about your Halloween D&D experience. Do you want to make a one-shot that will get everyone most likely killed, or do you want to add more to the story? How much work does everyone want to put forth? Do they want to make a new character for a one-shot or does everyone want to play their normal characters?
In addition to all these questions that you need to answer, there is a problem. One-shot players will probably die. In fact, almost all players will die in a D&D Halloween game. If they don’t all die, the players expect them to all die. There is no attachment to these characters and creating a sense of dread is much harder.
It can still be done and good players can play along but for most groups it is harder to get invested into one-shot characters that will most likely die.
This isn’t much of a problem in most one-shots because players just want to have a fun time. They know their characters will die and it is funny when they do.
You see the problem here?
If your players think it is all fun and games they won’t have a true horror experience. That is what we are going for and that is why one-shots can be terrible for D&D horror games.
One-shots do have the strength where anything can happen. An entirely new place, new characters, they can die, etc.
If your group is able to overcome these issues and will get invested in the characters and what is happening, it can be a great opportunity for everyone involved. I just caution that this is extremely hard to do and most people will not be able to pull it off.
If you do a one-shot for a D&D horror game then just keep these issues in mind and check out our one-shot article here to help you craft a good one-shot.
I personally think 2 sessions for a campaign game or one-shot is perfect since it lets you create a setup, week to stew on it, and payoff.
Now, you might want a few good horror ideas for your game. I have you covered.
No Halloween D&D game is complete without a great plot. That is why I have a few ideas for you to steal.
The 1st is a false hydra.
This is an interesting concept that when done well incorperates everything that we have talked about. The False hydra origins are in the link, and it is a very interesting concept.
I first heard about the concept of a false hydra when I was watching this youtube channel.
In short, the false hydra is a monster that by itself probably isn’t that tough to defeat. It doesn’t even have stats on the origens article because stats are not important.
It instead is a monster that is made to create a mystery. This mystery gives a sense of unease, lack of control, and makes the players not know everything.
This is pretty much the formula for a great D&D horror game and will be using it in my upcoming Halloween D&D games.
One other classic concept is a murder mystery.
This is a trope that has been done a lot, but is rarely successfully done in D&D. If you want to learn more about how to run a murder mystery read our article here.
The last idea that I have for you is to use a festival.
Festivals are uncontrolled areas that naturally introduce a lot of variables. The players have an idea of what it should be like, but they really don’t know. That is what makes this so easy to flip on its head and I would highly suggest using a festival at some point in your D&D horror games.
Making a horror D&D game is something that many dungeon masters fail on. They make a game that involves a scary monster or a cliche’ environment that is not conducive to horror or what the dungeon master wants.
You need to be careful to make the focus of your game a mystery. If the players lose control and are uncertain, they will have a scarier time and you will get the desired result.
We can make games that are fun, by not usually terrifying by ourselves. I hope that I have helped you learn a little bit about how to craft a truly horrifying session.
Happy Halloween D&D!
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!