Updated: Nov 1
Running a horror-themed game can be quite difficult, because unlike a movie or a show, you're directing the action and let's just say that joking around in your basement with your friends is a little less scary than watching a movie that has been crafted by a studio and includes ambiance, acting, and spooky music. So how can you simulate a dark and uneasy atmosphere while still allowing for the fun of a normal TTRPG table? As a horror author and someone who loves TTRPG's, I think I can help. Let's dive in.
First thing's first - you've got to make sure that your players are even onboard for a horror themed game in the first place. You might think you know your friends, but people don't always tell you what they're going through in their lives, even if they are your friends. For example, your friend Doug might be secretly feeling kind of depressed and the act of enmeshing himself in a gritty, dark, unrelenting TTRPG setting might send him into a spiral if he's really into his character. Or maybe Suzanne had a death in the family recently and would prefer not to be going up against undead or facing the deaths of countless villagers in one of Strahd's baronies. In any case, it costs nothing just to ask your players. If you think they might not be honest while in the presence of a group who may be listening and/or judging, you can always use a pre-game questionnaire to see what sorts of things your players are good with. Just be honest and upfront with your players about what they can expect in your campaign. You don't have to give away anything plot-wise you don't want to, but you can give them an idea of the themes, gore-level, and depictions they might encounter. Also tell them if there is a potential for character death that might be permanent.
KEEP THE STAKES HIGH
Pun intended. The best way to enjoy a horror adventure or campaign is to keep the players low-level. If the characters are high level, they're going to feel too powerful to really be worried about much. But if every encounter has the potential to be deadly to their characters, the players will already be acting with a baseline of anxiety. After all, one small misstep and their character is finished.
DEMONSTRATE THE DANGERS
One of the most effective ways to create a sense of urgency and foreboding, is to have the monsters or creatures demonstrate their violence against hapless NPCs. This happens in almost every horror movie or horror story or horror show, and if you pay attention, you'll notice it. For example, in the movie Sleepy Hollow - Casper Van Dien's character is really only there to get killed fighting the Horseman and to show what the demon is capable of doing even against a capable fighter. Poor Ichabod tries to help but is initially easily put down compared to the athletic and heroic Brom von Brunt, who is cut in half by the Horseman in single combat inside a covered bridge before Ichabod passes out, unconscious. Don't be afraid to scale up the dangers, but if you do - make sure their characters know what the evil creatures are capable of. A good way to make sure this happens is to create an NPC that is reliable and capable and then have them meet an untimely end in front of the PCs.
KEEP YOUR DESCRIPTIONS DARK
One thing you have to make sure to keep in mind when you're running a horror game is to be deliberate in your flavor text descriptions. Replacing just a few adverbs or adding in a descriptor that is slightly unsavory will make your world naturally feel grittier and darker. For example, take the following paragraph:
You enter the mansion, and the door creaks wildly. Inside, you smell the stench of decay. There are three zombies scattered throughout the room, moaning. When you enter, their attention shifts to you, and they begin to shamble forward.
Not bad, really, for a normal game of D&D. It gets the basic description across and the events currently unfolding for the players. However, it has lots of room to be touched up, to produce more macabre in the description. Here's a rework:
As you push open the heavy mahogany doors, the hinges cry out in protest sending a metallic shriek through the open chapel beyond. This is not good for you, as you notice three naked bodies in the torchlight swing their blood-covered faces around to look at you with their dead eyes at the sound of the door opening. Before you truly have time to register what's happening, the zombies move toward you with unexpected speed, leaving the priest's ravaged corpse bleeding in a pool behind them as they shamble toward fresh meat. That fresh meat is you.
The second version just sounds a bit scarier. I chose to use more descriptors and I added in a better description of the sound that might cause tension by saying it "shrieked" as they opened the door. It's not perfect, but that's not the goal. The goal is to make the scene into a character in and of itself.
LET THEM HAVE SMALL VICTORIES
Along the way, let the players have their victories when they come. The hallmark of every horror endeavor is that the heroes are simply overwhelmed in the end and have exhausted all of their resources in which case the evil entity or monster or people gain the upper hand. It gives the players/characters a false sense of security if they are thinking to themselves that with every small victory, they're going to make it out in the end. Maybe they will, too. Don't just kill them for the sake of killing them. Just make it very hard to succeed, and hopefully there will be plenty of near misses at least, if you've done things effectively. The sweet is never as sweet without the sour, baby.
It should go without saying but you need to have fun as the DM when it comes to a horror TTRPG setting. As with any setting, not just horror, you shouldn't be doing it just for the sake of doing it. If horror isn't your thing, it might not come across as enjoyable. Really get into it and your players will come along for the ride.
Anyway, these are some basic tips to help with Strahd, Alien, or any other TTRPG setting you create or use for your Halloween season. Hopefully you find some use for what I've written here, and if you have any stories of your own or tips to share, please do so in the comments! As always, thank you for reading! - Joe