You can only crawl through so many dungeons!
I started my role play career on the good ol’ meat-and-potatoes high-fantasy worlds, most often seen in Dungeon and Dragons. I’ll always check in on D&D and Pathfinder when new editions are released. That said, I think it is very important to push yourself into new areas and challenge yourself. You can only crawl through so many dungeons!
In order to expand the options at your gaming table, let’s look at something that might entice you to try something new, or revisit something that you could push even further — horror!
But why start with horror? The genre of horror has such a primal effect on us. It pushes us into our characters and evokes a sense of bewilderment and discovery. Our actions have consequences, we are in grave danger, and, likely, we are not at all prepared! That’s the reason why I love it so much!
How do you implement horror in your adventures?
This was one of the biggest learning curves that I ever embarked on as a Game Master (GM). Horror is very atmospheric and you need to go the extra mile to paint the scene in the theatre of the mind. You need to focus on ALL of the senses. What do they smell, what is the temperature, what do they see, or more importantly, what don’t they see? I’m a fan of H.P. Lovecraft (not the racist stuff) because he pioneered a very specific type of ‘horror of the unknown’. Using your words to paint a picture of dread, and using the scene to build an air of fear. This is a dance that you play with your players and the material at hand.
Your players limits and the horror genre
It’s worth repeating that horror is a very personal thing and hits everyone differently. If you are going to use horror in your game session please let your players know at the start of the session and let them know the themes that you are going to play with and make sure your table is age appropriate and comfortable with the material. If you get everyone’s blessing you still need to make sure you are not pushing too hard and ‘check in’ if you see the table start to turn. If you are able to ‘push’ the table into this mind set and have the right players at the table to support it, it will turn into an unforgettable play session.
Setting the table for a horror session
Your level and how you implement horror is a personal choice. My ideal table setting for horror is some mood music (Two Steps from Hell: Halloween), possibly some dim lighting, and less background noise, if possible. I also like my horror to be very visual and I like a medium to ‘high-at-times’ level of challenge.
Branching away from the d20 system to something more… adaptable
Imagine being at the apex of a great horror scene… there’s a loud crash in the next room and you hear a scream. Your players spend the next ten minutes looking up rules about what to roll to open the door… They consult the 400-page book. Tension, anticipation, suspense – gone.
Game systems like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder fit game settings the system was built around — with elves, gnomes, goblins, crawling through dungeons, and fighting dragons. These systems don’t work well, however, for horror.
If you are working in horror you want the checks and the rules to get out of your way. My favorite for this is Savage Worlds, a rules-light and flexible system to do whatever you need. They also have an official horror book. It’s also the system used in the most memorable game that I ran at Sword in the Stone. In the session in question, I pushed myself to play with Horror in new and creative ways, and wrote a Savage Worlds add-on called “Dark Star” that is almost like roleplaying Dead Space.
As far as other “horror” based systems there are several out there! Personally, I am not a fan of the Call of Cthulhu style of game play as it has a very ’I will kill you within a few sessions, so don’t get too attached to your character’ feel, but it might work for your gaming style. Most importantly, your players need to know they can die easily and then drive them to the edge as close as you can while keeping them hanging on in a “They just made it out of the room, the ritual was almost complete, did you see Steve’s character? He almost lost his head!” style.
- Horror is a personal thing and not for everyone. Check in with your group to make sure it is ok and let them know the themes you will be diving into
- Horror affects ALL of your senses and should be painted that way. Smells, sounds, body feelings, what you can and can’t see
- Horror centers on loss of control, heightened danger, and personal and raw feelings.
- Horror works best when you ‘maintain’ the scene and the tension. Don’t let rules break the tension and only stop for checks if something major hangs in the balance.
- Horror is enhanced if you can augment it with some mood music, dim lighting, and sharing the story telling with your players.
Thank you once again for diving into my mind and seeking out more tips to sharpen your GM skills! Reach out to me in the comments and let me know if you have ever experimented in horror. What were some challenges you faced? What worked the best! Until next time adventurers: Keep your table inclusive, exciting, and keep empowering your players’ voices!
Wesley Allen is in a long-distance relationship with Sword in the Stone Games, having run countless adventures at our Wilkes-Barre store before relocating to Clinton, Tennessee with its booming adult population of 7,889. (He’ll be back?) He is a self-described Horror DM, Player of Goblins, and Lover of Fantasy Dagger Weilding Rats. He can be reached at @wesjallen.
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