The Horror of It All

Well seeing how it is October, and traditionally in DnD land that means a month featuring horror stories and nightmare creatures I thought I should say something about running a horror story.

There are throngs of people around you and they’re all sobbing, and they are looking to you for your help!”
(@symatt #ukdndtweetup)

Horror is a genre of story telling that has changed and evolved over the years. When you look back at classic horror stories like Dracula and Frankenstein you see very different modes of story telling to what people expect to see now in a horror story. Set ups like that quoted above are typical of these sorts of classic horror stories. The conflicts of the stories are not about monsters leaping out and grabbing you, or hordes of zombies over running the world, they are stories about the choices of people. These are stories that are actually relatively easy to play out in DnD games, this “classic” horror is the easiest to set up because most of it happens in your player’s heads.

“In space no one can hear you scream!”
(Alien movie tag line)

Movies have of course changed the way we see horror as a genre, breaking things down and making a shorter more visceral experience. Yet these shorter experience often loose much of the narrative and feeling behind those older classic stories, and this likely relates to why the movie adaptations of the books are always so bad. The important thing to remember though is often your players are seeing horror through the eyes of movies and not the eyes of classic novels. The problem this creates is the experience of being at the table and playing DnD isn’t necessarily conducive to the sort of sudden events that movies use to provoke the adrenaline rush of a horror movie when something leaps out at the protagonist that is on screen at the moment.

“My mama always told me, someday I’ll be good at something. Who’d have guessed that something ‘d be zombie killin’.”
(Tallahasee, Zombieland)

Of course these days the Zombie Apocalypse version of the horror movie (and computer games) has emerged as a genre all of its own, and it is a genre that DnD lends itself to quite well. There are, after all, a plethora of zombie creatures already in the game that can hunt down the characters and eat all their friends. There are even rules for handling the disease side of the typical zombie apocalypse scenario! Of course these games are not necessarily going to build that sense of rising dread that good horror can do, but then again the movie versions don’t really do that either.

Due Consideration

Now with those thoughts out there lets take a little look at world crafting for a horror game.

The first thing to do with this is let your players know you want to play a horror game, and that you are going to try and creep them out. Some people like this, and others don’t. A good while ago I ran a Vampire game where I told the players that, I also told them I would be trying to work on their fears, and that the game would play on mature themes and go to dark places. I had 2 players who were all “cool” but didn’t really grasp what I meant, and so I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t come back for a second session. On the other hand I had a player who was all “you’ll never creep me out” who reported after their first session “that was awesome I was so freaked out”. Playing games based around horror can be more than some players are ready to deal with so be careful.

The world.

I’m going to borrow from the DMG1 and DM Kit and use their “Core Assumptions” to expand a world for a horror game.

  • A Dark World In normal DnD this means no empires etc, in a horror world this means more than that. The few sparks of light that are all of civilization cling huddle desperately around their failing fires. Orcs and goblins are not things that are feared here, they are huddled in the next room or gone altogether fallen prey to the true horrors that lurk in the darkness.
  • The World is a Fantastic Horrible Place In standard DnD this is about the Magic and the Gods, and where the strange stuff lives and how cool all that stuff is to see and kill. In a horror setting using DnD it is ok to have fantastic things, include all the powers and so on, but these things are a thin veneer over a dark under belly. Mists rise at night and conceals the horrible acts of people and monsters alike. The bright light of the fire giants lair is extinguished and replaced by the enshrouding mists of the Death Giants lair that echoes with the tormented souls of its victims.
  • The World is Ancient (And So Are the Vampires) The default setting is that Empires have risen and fallen through history and that leaves all these cool ruins around the place for adventurer’s to explore. Well all those things are still there, but in a horror world they are inhabited by people just as ancient as the ruins who want little more than to do terrible things to your body and soul.
  • The World is Mysterious This isn’t really changed, except the “points of light” are much less bright in this world and the mysterious stays out of them far less than in the default assumptions. When Vampires emerging from the mists of the night walking among you and claiming your loved ones until your whole village is gone is part of the themes of the game “the World is Mysterious” is a whole lot more scary.
  • Monsters are Everywhere This also remains true, but the focus of the monsters needs to be appropriate to the sort of story you are telling. Keep in mind that the Fey provide a number of good monsters, along with the ever popular undead, demons, evil cultists, and simple psychos.
  • Adventurers are Exceptional This is only true in so much as they survive longer. The adventurers are the protagonists of the story still, and so they still advance differently to NPCs and so on, but they are no more “safe” than the NPCs, they just might make it off the ship.
  • The Civilized Races Band Together (because otherwise they are all dead) Unlike the default assumption where it is the shadow of the last empire that leads the civilized races to band together, in a horror setting they band together out of fear of everything else. This can also have space for racial hatred and distrust to pull at the delicate balance of the tatty flames that are the points of light. What happens when terrible things start happening and the Dwarves and Elves start blaming each other based on some ancient and past slight?
  • Magic is Not Everyday, but it is Natural This one is actually one of the more difficult ones to handle in a game about horror. Traditionally in horror stories magic takes a role as a villain’s tool, and the “good” people are rightfully afraid of it. This is still possible in a DnD world, and Dark Sun gives some ideas about how this can be worked into a game. However I suggest leaving magic at the default assumptions.
  • Gods and Primordials Shaped the World As this has no real effect on the game or the world this is pretty much an “as is” assumption.
  • Gods are Distant Really distant. If your game features undead, divine characters should be rare. The gods don’t answer prayers in a horror setting, the people flounder in the hope of a miracle, and divine characters are the source of all too many miracles if undead are common. Turn Undead in particular is a problematic power. Still faith should be a rare and precious thing in a dark world where the gods are largely silent. Divine Characters need not be removed, but be aware of the strong effect they might well have on your game.

The Theme

Having outlined the core assumptions of the setting the most important thing to decide on next is the theme of the game. DnD really lends itself to classic horror stories where the choices of the characters are the critical elements (save the child, or the mother but not both, do the horrible deed to save the town etc) and zombie apocalypse style stories. The “surprise” based horror that many movies use isn’t well suited to the default DnD rules, at least not in 4E. So unless you want to significantly change the damage and healing rules I suggest staying away from it.

Themes such as “what will you do to survive?” are very easy to work into DnD and allow a wide selection of monsters to be used.

Getting Ideas

Take the usual survivor horror stories and mine them for ideas, the PCs are going to be the survivors (or at least some of them are) and you can use elements from all the popular genres. The zombie apocalypse works well at low levels to begin driving the PCs across the country side, this then is leads them to new towns that can be threatened by demons or more potent undead and so on. The Feywild has things like Spriggans, Quicklings, and Lamia that can be used to break from the usual sources as well. (Not sure about Spriggans? Consider that Spriggans or Red Caps create their caps by dipping them into the blood of their victims. It is just a matter of presentation.)

When looking for skill challenges look to thrillers and suspense horror to build your challenges around. Things like the Exorcist are also great places to mine for ideas as well. In short skill challenges where the PCs need to escape from things, stop things, investigate things to learn the truth, and stop things from happening, are all part of the horror genres and can be made to work well in DnD.

Building Encounters

Finally one of the important things about making horror work in DnD is throwing out much of the usual rules about building encounters. Normally you wouldn’t put first level PCs up against a level 10 creature, and when you look at such creatures normal damage (18 average) it is clear to see why. But this is the game where you can do that. The gloves are off and the PCs need to start finding other ways of defeating their enemies than standing there and using their powers until the bad guys are dead.

In a horror game zombies and skeletons only die when they take a crit, they might go down for a little while from a normal hit but it will take more than that to kill them dead.Vampires don’t die just because you do a lot of damage, you need to do more to bring about their end. Mummies unleash horrible plagues and turn your erstwhile allies into zombie like slaves.

These are the ways to “mess with the rules” don’t change what PCs can do and how things work from the PCs side of the table too much if at all. Their experience of “this is different” should come from how the monsters and NPCs interact with them. This will help with the alienation to build the horror.

Don’t Trust The DM

This is probably the biggest thing, in a normal game the players should be able to trust the DM to be fair. They might be angry and unsympathetic normally. But in this game the gloves are really off and you should tell them that. They shouldn’t trust you to be fair. This will help when the 10th level monster turns up that they have no hope of defeating. This will help when that zombie gets up “again”. This will help whenever you break the normal expectations about how an encounter “should” work. Just be up front about it, remind them that it is a horror game and that in horror stories not everyone lives, and those that do might never be the same again. In this game they aren’t heroes, they are survivors.

That also means no going soft on them. Seriously. If you go soft the game will not work. They will not need to run away, and you get Predator 2 (& 3).

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