We're a good way into October, in case you hadn't noticed. In October, there's a certain holiday that many of us like to celebrate, perhaps a little harder than is absolutely necessary. This holiday involves turning our homes into something resembling a place where a guy with a power tool fetish does nefarious things while we watch. You know, like the set of the classic sitcom Home Improvement.
But even if you've outgrown your 'Tim the Tool-man' overalls, you can be virtually anybody or anything you like in a game like D&D. With the variety of settings on offer and the resourcefulness of a good DM, you can craft together an adventure to give your players a scary good time, right?
Yeah, let's talk about that for a minute.
Dungeons & Dragons can do many things. In fact, if you look at the product's insane, decades-long history, you'll find that it has attempted nearly all of them at one time or another. "High fantasy" is obvious, since that's the default setting and the most popular campaigns often take place in either Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms. But D&D has done far more than this. Consider the dimension-hopping of Planescape (or its third cousin, once removed, Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica in 5E), the large-scale tabletop warfare of BattleSystem, the pulpy adventure style of Hollow World, or the apocalyptic sand-and-sandals Dark Sun setting. Want to go into space? Spelljammer. Want to introduce high technology into your low-technology world? Blackmoor. Want to simulate running a nation-state at war with other nation-states? Birthright. D&D has done almost every setting imaginable except for pure horror.
Forget A Little Setting Called Ravenloft, You Polearm Polisher?
No, no I did not, O fictitious commenter created by me to stave off the hordes of slavering goths storming towards the bottom of this article like a bunch of white walkers. You'll notice I said "pure horror" up there, and that's not Ravenloft's purview. Ravenloft, whether you're talking about the original module from the 80's, or the Curse of Strahd hardcover from 5E, is a gothic horror setting.
Gothic horror differs from standard horror in terms of atmosphere. Characters in a Ravenloft campaign aren't afraid to go outside (even if they should be). A Curse of Strahd campaign is about making the players feel the omnipresent pressure of a centuries-old adversary who owns his Domain and literally everything and everyone inside of it. Gothic horror is about tragedy and (possible) redemption. The tragedy is that Strahd's been alive for so long that he's forgotten what it meant to be mortal, to know your time on this Earth is limited, and to try to make the best of every situation. Immortality is not a blessing, it is a curse. And boy is Strahd von Zarovich cursed.
D&D is built for many things, but the one thing it explicitly is not built for is horror.
And that's...kind of a problem if you're looking to scare your players this Halloween.
That's Depressing. So There's Nothing I Can Do?
I wouldn't say that, but I would suggest that if your intention is to run a session of scares, you do it in some other system, because D&D is built for high-fantasy hijinx and heroism, not forcing your players to contemplate their own mortality.
In an adventure game like D&D, the words, "Roll for initiative!" always get players' ears to perk up, because it means they're about to get the chance to show off what makes their characters such world-altering badasses. You or I would probably shit our pants if we saw a horde of goblins charging down a hill at us if all we had to stop them was a sword and a shield, but for players, this is the most exciting thing in the world because they're built to slay the ever-loving excrement out of some goblins. They're built to take the kind of punishment that would leave us quivering wrecks, balled up on the floor and begging for someone to stop the pain. What's more, even grievous injuries can be shrugged off with the help of some fast-acting magic, and all it takes to recover from the dance of 1,000 sword slices is a solid 8 hours of uninterrupted rest.
D&D is both a fantasy system and a power fantasy system. We create people who do things we cannot, whether due to a lack of skill, a lack of training, or the fact that no one anywhere has ever managed to conjure up a geyser of searing flame using a few gestures and a couple of commanding arcane words. Power fantasy and horror go together like your racist old uncle and Thanksgiving dinner: a few hours once a year is about all you can handle, and that's assuming you have access to alcohol.
So my first recommendation if you want to run a horror-themed D&D game is simply: "Don't."
There are a plethora of other options for tabletop RPGs that utilize the horror setting better than D&D ever will. My personal favorite is All Flesh Must Be Eaten, a role-playing game of zombie survival horror. Pass out 'Norm' character sheets, tell your players to create the closest analogs to themselves that the rules allow, then dump them in the world and see if they have what it takes to navigate the Zom-pocalypse. The game master intoning, "Roll for initiative, please," in an AFMBE campaign will get everybody's heart pumping for all the wrong reasons.
Call of Cthulhu is another great choice for a horror-themed setting, because the players already know they're boned from the minute they start the scenario. There's no telling what anything is or does in a CoC adventure, because there's no telling who or what has been tainted by the rantings of old madmen, the writings in a crumbling tome, or the spawn of an Evil as old as the universe itself. The goal of most Call of Cthulhu sessions is to simultaneously learn what Man Was Not Meant to Know while avoiding doing so for as long as is humanly possible, because there's only so much sanity to go around, and once you've lost yours, it ain't coming back.
Despite this, using other games may be outside the purview of your group for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which may be economical. If your group already has the D&D rules, asking them to plunk down another $50 for AFMBE or CoC could be a hard sell. Doubly so if they know it's only for a one-shot. So if all you have is D&D, we can try to make the best of a bad situation by remembering the following things.
1) True Horror Comes From De-Powering the Characters
If you're going to run a horror one-shot, you're going to want your PCs as low-powered as you can get them. While there are mid- and high-level scenarios like the Tomb of Horrors which will allow you to grind up better-armed and more-experienced groups, scaring your players is far easier the weaker their characters are. First level PCs in 5E aren't exactly push-overs, but it's easier to take a horde of zombies more seriously if your players can't just Fireball them, then pick off the stragglers with cantrips. For a true ultimate horror experience, consider using older D&D rulesets. In the original edition of the game, level 1 mages didn't start with any spells and rolled a d4 for their starting hit points. Even first level fighters only rolled a d8, and even then nobody got the benefit of "maximum HP at level one". Characters survived to 2nd level by either being incredibly lucky with their dice rolls, or by approaching the game the way a real person would: with the knowledge that any fight could very well be your last, and even if it wasn't, you were unlikely to emerge without serious injury.
In Fifth Edition, most every class really comes into its own by the time they hit second or third level. Spellcasters get those 2nd level spell slots, and coveted class abilities come online all over the place: Fighters pick fighting styles, Bards pick their College, Sorcerers get Spell Points, Druids can Wild Shape, and so forth. First-level PCs, on the other hand, are as weak as they will ever be, and don't have the kind of abilities yet that will allow them to just "go nova" on an encounter like they'll be able to at higher levels. If you want to run a horror campaign, go low-level.
The PCs' goals over the course of play should evolve from 'winning' to 'surviving' when it comes to a horror campaign, and the weaker they are, the faster this will happen.
2) . . . And Also Their Players.
But the other problem with horror in D&D relates to player knowledge. Specifically, it's hard for most players to role-play a terrified character when they're sitting comfortably in a chair, reading their character sheet off their phone or tablet, sipping a cold beverage, snacking on Doritos, and thinking about their next shift at work while they wait for their turn to roll the d20. So how do you snap them out of this reverie?
I'll let Samuel L. Jackson help me explain:
If for some reason you can't watch the video or don't want to, I'll break it down here. In the film Unthinkable, Jackson plays a CIA interrogator known as 'H'. He's been called in because a man named Stephen Younger has claimed to have planted nuclear bombs in three different locations across the US, and the other interrogators have been unable to break him. Jackson, having been unsuccessful using normal methods, finds Younger's children and has them brought to the interrogation room. Younger, of course, freaks out and pleads with the other CIA agents to stop 'H' from hurting his kids, but 'H' refuses to stand down until they have confirmation of all three bomb locations, because his orders are to continue with his job until that happens and not a second before.
As he begins to truss up Younger's kids, 'H' asks, "Do you believe I can do this?"
Helen Brody, his colleague played by Carrie Anne Moss, replies, "He believes it, he believes it!"
"Faith," he shouts, "is not enough. He has to know it."
"He knows it!" Brody yells.
"Knowing is not enough!" 'H' counters. "He has to see it."
You can tell players you're going to let the dice fall where they may. They may even believe you. But knowledge and belief are usually not enough to get your players' attention. Sometimes, they have to see it.
If you want to run an effective horror scenario, the one thing you must be prepared to do above all else is kill characters. I don't mean make it impossible for the PCs to win the day, and I don't mean throwing enough bullshit at them to TPK them on the first encounter, but you have to take the little voice in your brain that tells you to fudge dice rolls or tone down encounters out behind the shed, stake it to the ground, and leave it there, mewling in the cold.
Did they take a liking to a certain NPC? Are there clearly innocent folks around them who have done nothing wrong and are counting on the PCs to protect them? Those are your targets: seek and destroy. For the party into making choices for which there are no right answers, and make them choose who to sacrifice. If one of their PCs bites the dust, let them roll up a new one, then bring the animated, undead form of their old comrade back to haunt them as an NPC commander leading another battle. Make them see there are no guardrails or last-minute deus ex machina saves. Once they see it, they'll believe it, and once they believe it, they will know it, and then you've got them by the short hairs.
Don't be capricious. Don't be cruel. Don't set out to destroy the evening or ruin anyone's fun. But if they want a horror scenario, they need to know slaughter is on the menu, and they're making blindfolded selections. Play your monsters to the fullest range of their abilities, and if the players put their PCs into possibly precarious positions, pithy, permanent, prescriptive punishment is your prerogative.
3) Forget The Obvious
I've read lists before by people who advocate using custom playlists of music, dimming the lights, and all sorts of other gimmicks to "create the right atmosphere", but ultimately this is worthless if your players aren't interested in being scared. If the players don't want to be scared, it won't matter how much incense you burn or candles you light or props you bring to the table.
Instead, use the rules as given to force the players to make hard choices where there are no easy answers. Play encounters fast and mean. If someone suddenly kicks in the door and startles them, go for initiative as usual, but then ask players what they do and don't give them long to respond. If they ask what the threat looks like, assume their action for that first six seconds is 'trying to see what this guy looks like'. If they stammer and look at their character sheet, assume they're combing through their belongings to pick up a weapon or something. If someone asks for an out-of-game clarification about the rules ("Now, if I want to attack it, I roll the d20, right, but what do I add to that?"), that's different and should be handled normally. You don't want to do this every time, but having a fast-and-furious encounter style that forces players to think on their toes will push players out of their comfort zones and pull their attention away from their phones when they realize they better have a move ready by the time the DM gets to them.
Want to know what really winds up 5E players? Exhaustion levels. You can seriously muck with the tension in the room by denying your PCs a solid rest, and the cumulative effects of a couple levels of exhaustion can turn even finely-tuned PCs into jelly by cutting their effectiveness. If you can craft a scenario where the PCs enter the game with 1 exhaustion level, they will suffer Disadvantage on all of their ability checks.
News Flash: Initiative rolls are Dexterity checks.
The only way to remove Exhaustion levels is to take a Long Rest...and that only reduces Exhaustion by 1 level, and only if food and drink are available. Well-rested, well-fed, well-hydrated PCs may be well-oiled machines, but PCs who haven't slept in two days and who can't just crack off an eight hour nap because the zombies are smashing their way into the log cabin right this second are going to suffer for it.
Exhaustion is your best friend in a 5E horror campaign. Your players will hate you, but as long as you can justify it with in-game reasons, there's no reason why their PCs have to get a good night's sleep every night. If you want to see abject terror on your players' faces, watch them try to get anything done with their speed halved while also suffering disadvantage on all ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws. That's only exhaustion level three.
The chart goes up to six.
Thanks for reading, and happy spooking! If you use any of these ideas, or have run successful (or unsuccessful) horror-themed games in the past, I'd love to know how you made them memorable for your players. Got tips or thoughts I overlooked? Leave those too. I got upvote power, and I'm not, ahem, afraid to use it.