Incorporating Fear into Your D&D Sessions
Updated: Dec 7, 2018
Horror movies are very popular and so are moments of terror in films and books. It can, however, be hard to translate this fear into a role-playing game for both you and your players. As a Quest Master, you must make sure your players want a horror experience. This is called “Buy-In”, and if your players aren’t invested, it won’t work.
Making your game spooky (it is Spooktober after all) requires that you know what both your players and their characters are afraid of. An example of this would be if you knew that you had players whose characters had a fear of spiders; including spider enemies or hallucinations of spiders would be effective in creating a fearful atmosphere.
This can be as simple as asking the players what works and doesn't work for them or as complicated as testing things in the long-run to see what you can discover yourself. Though, you should let your players know your intent so that you can establish consent for the experience. Otherwise, it could end up being traumatic.
If they do end up wanting a horror experience, these ideas should help!
Using systems such as Syrinscape or even ambient YouTube channels can be very effective. These can help to slowly build climactic scenes or jump-scares within the game by lending gravity to different encounters. Sounds such as high pitched whines, distant groans, or singing can unnerve the players.
By potentially detracting from their ability to solve problems, this adds a sense of urgency to traps and puzzles.
It is important to not over-saturate your soundscape. Too much music or background sound can confuse your players, and not in a good way. Using quiet and subtle noises in the background to poke at the senses, like distant roars or high pitched drones on violins, creates an eerie atmosphere. Combining this with speaking slower, quieter, and more deliberately will cause your players to take notice.
Lighting And Play Space
The actual play space that you use can be very important. For example, playing through a high Gothic horror adventure in your local gaming store may prove to be difficult, due to lighting and background noise.
Obtaining access to a home environment that you are in control of will make the horror experience easier to achieve. Dimmed lights, burning candles, or even star lamps to create alternative methods of lighting (whilst being able to see your character sheet) will make a huge difference for how you and your players at the table experience the game.
A few props, like skulls from a Halloween store might be useful, but make sure it fits the tone of the horror you’re aiming for or you might end up with comedy instead!
Mechanics & Game Sense
Finally, one of the best ways to create a sense of terror is your actual game itself. Using in-game mechanics can be surprisingly effective at unnerving players and creating a sense of fear. It is important to use each mechanical trick sparingly as overuse will get your players used to it, and familiarity isn’t scary.
A great example of this is putting your players in a setting that causes them to have to make saves against effects that they don’t immediately see. Situating them in a library of semi-sentient books that cause them to make Wisdom saves every so often can really unsettle a player. With each failed save, they begin to see things moving with their Passive Perception that no one else seems to notice. Role-playing off of this, their character could react by fleeing, leading their fellow adventurers into a much more dangerous part of the library.
Preparing non-combat encounters, such as puzzles that distort the players’ perception of reality, can really increase the creep factor. An easy way of doing this is to give the adventuring party a simple riddle from a cryptic and odd NPC. Perhaps they are a grinning, white-clad half-elf in a dark dungeon and have suddenly imposed a time limit on the party with their sand timer (which you can use by placing your own on the gaming table). You don’t have to make anything happen when the sand runs out (unless you want to), but instead, the half-elf wanders off into the dark, laughing to themselves about the foolish folks they’ve met.
Traditional horror can be helpful, especially with monsters and their abilities. Plumbing the Monster Manual for two monsters to combine, such as Vampires and Wraiths, can end up creating a frightening abomination. Perhaps the Wraith retained sentience after its transformation, choosing to turn downed party members into a Shadow instead of fighting on? Or a Vampire that discorporates to avoid attacks? This can make players think twice before starting fights, making them feel helpless.
All in all, scary moments in RPGs are valuable, whether in a horror campaign or interspersed throughout normal sessions. From creating thick layers of fog and yellow moons with dry ice and candlelight, to a Monster that ignores 2nd level spells, you can frighten your players by using in-game mechanics, out-of-game tools, or ambient description. Fear is an underused weapon by Quest Masters, ready to be wielded for your party's next D&D session.