View Full Version : Writing a horror adventure

Dr Berry
12-15-2009, 09:26 AM
Just curious...who out there has tried it? I am in the middle of writing one, and it brings up some interesting questions. Of course, for this type of adventure to work, the players have to be pretty engaged, and be able to feel what their characters would be feeling.

Also, any atmosphere of horror seems to be ruined the second the dice hit the table. When the terrifying spirit with eyes like smoking pits and a howl that splits the soul becomes a level 10 fighter with the ghost template, it loses a lot of potential.

Therefore, I think that an adventure that minimizes die rolling would be ideal.

Also, I am not a fan of just adding blood and guts to my adventures. D&D is just a game, and does not need to be overly disturbing. However, this makes it even harder to instill fear in the players, seeing as they are not there and it is easy to feel disconnected.

Note that by "horror adventure," I don't mean something that will make them sleep with the light on for a week. I just mean an adventure that makes the players imagine how scary it would be to fill their characters' shoes.

I am interested to know what everyone thinks on the subject. What horror adventures have you written, and how did the players receive them?

12-15-2009, 11:21 AM
(There's this thread (http://www.penandpapergames.com/forums/showthread.php?t=10938) over in the Horror/Dark Future section. And the first episode (http://www.thismoderndeath.com/?p=26) of "This Modern Death" talks about the difference between horror and terror. Decent starts to building atmosphere.)

Constructing a horror session isn't all that much different from other scenarios, with a few highlights.

The first is your descriptions: horror is built as much, if not more, on what you don't see than what you do. Engage the senses. Sight and hearing are gimmes, the staple of human perception; touch is another good one, as is smell. (I'd maybe avoid engaging the sense of taste, though it has certain ... applications ;)) Then, start playing with them; give them a familiar situation (even if it was just introduced a few scenes back), but remove a sense. I had a ghost-centric session in the Word of Darkness, where I had a ghost - mauled by a werewolf - trying to make contact with one of the PCs; he could be seen, wounds and all, but no sound. (It was going to progress in multiple encounters, where in each the set of sensory input was different, but the game didn't last long enough, alas.) Let the players piece together what's happening with prior experience (encounters) and the missing senses.

On the subject of knowledge, I'd say that it's not quite what you think. The whole point of horror isn't the boo! factor (which is more terror), it's the growing anticipation of an expected outcome. Even if the dice hit the table, you can still string 'em along (pardon the phrase) with horror, despite the PCs and players knowing what's coming. Actually, those are the more fun parts of horror stories, the characters acting on false assumptions (knowledge) that lead them to a more accurate piece of information. I'd avoid intentionally putting in more than one or two red herrings, though; let the players draw their own conclusions and act on them before you start correcting the inaccuracies.

12-15-2009, 02:56 PM
For D&D, consider denying the players a lot of the information that they take for granted.

No minis. Be vague about distances.

Keep track of hit points in secret.

Be vague in general. Use phrases like "could be," "it seems," "it looks like" and "maybe." Avoid using game jargon in descriptions and limit references to mechanics. Even more than most genres, think about what the characters can actually perceive.

If you find the dice intrusive, you can print out a page of random d20 (and other) rolls and cross them off one by one. (Gets rid of the clatter at the least, but some players derive a sizable portion of their enjoyment from rolling the funky dice.)

12-15-2009, 03:06 PM
if it is a tabletop game. dim the lights, open the windows if its cold, have a fan turning at a low speed. be precise in your wording to create images. Instead of saying you see an orc, you say you see a gnarled,twisted green humanoid with piercing red eyes, his armor makes a slight chinking sound and blood drips from his weapon down to his hand.

Talk in a quieter voice than normal, drawing your players in to hear. A soundtrack of unusual music is also of benefit.

12-15-2009, 04:24 PM
OK; Horror and D&D are bad matches. In general the characters in a Horror setting are not the masters of their fate. In general D&D character are powerful, informed and capable. All things that horror characters are not.

That said it is not impossible, but be aware of the steep climb you have.

I like the idea of keeping information to a minimum. And likewise, if they don't roll lots of dice all to the better. Or know what the dice are for.

A suggestion would be to ask for a will save, take the given number, drawn a kitty face on your note paper and say "OK". and keep going.

Atmosphere, description, a sense of helplessness.

However end it with a catharsis. That will keep them coming back.

Arch Lich Thoth-Amon
12-15-2009, 04:32 PM
I agree with tesral. Horror and DnD are definitely not good bed buddies... but it can be done. I love injecting goth/horror into my games and found that WFRP easily allows for this. My two coppers.

12-15-2009, 07:54 PM
Well, having run Ravenloft for 17 years, I totally disagree with Tes and Thoth that horror and D&D are bad matches. It seems to me that if you think they're bad matches, then apparently you're not doing it right. The above suggestions are all good however, and I use them all myself. But to avoid repeating what they have said or going on and on about the tricks and tools of the horror game GM, my advice simply is this: look around for a book or two that deal with GMing a horror-type campaign. There are a lot of good books out there (the Ravenloft books are just one example among many). And after doing it for 17 years, and writing a lot of the horror adventures myself, I still go back to the books (including horror novels) for good advice and new ideas.

12-15-2009, 08:14 PM
I have Ravenloft. I've even run it. I simply find that the average D&D character is too competent to get a feeling of dread into. It's not "eeek! Run away!" It's grit your teeth and ATTACK!. Fear is not horror. Fear is relatively easy to do.

I use to have a player that was good for horror. I currently have players that suck for it.

12-15-2009, 09:36 PM
Before some people repeat themselves, you may want to read this thread. (http://www.penandpapergames.com/forums/showthread.php?t=7211)

As far as Ravenloft goes, I think it is a great source for inspiration and ideas on what can be done when trying to run a DnD Horror game.

Dr Berry
12-16-2009, 01:12 AM
Sorry if there are already threads for this...but I think those are some good points. The feeling of empowerment present in D&D is the major stumbling block of horror adventures. However, I think it is an excellent medium nonetheless, as long as the players are willing to use their imaginations.

12-16-2009, 01:48 AM
Players are superstitious cowardly lot.

You want to give them a since of dread? Describe every blow that make against a creature as having little effect. Describe even the simplest kobold as a foul dragon-fiend with sharp teeth, unflinching to your sword. They will panic from the flavored text.

It doesn't hurt to shake things up a bit. D&D heroes can still be the masters of their destiny, until they come across a overwhelming evil that even the Gods dare not challenge. When the NPC's and divine beings suddenly are absent and every healing spell just won't heal that scar from that zombie you fought, you build the sort of tension that is classic horror.

I personally wouldn't have a purely horror campaign, but I like to throw one in just to make RGP life interesting.

12-16-2009, 09:18 AM
It is certainly helpful, it is true, to have players who understand what a horror campaign is all about. But for those who don't, this is one reason for horror checks. Horror checks are always something players should be concerned about. I've had a character die because he could not overcome the effects of a failed horror check, and he simply wasted away. Now, ideally, horror checks are a last resort if players fail to act appropriately in certain situations, which is why I often remind my players that they can avoid having to make horror checks if they act appropriately. Once they realize this, and what a failed horror check can lead to, they'll start acting more appropriately. However, as a GM, I get the most satisfaction out of seeing genuine reactions from the players, an expression of disgust on their faces, ooo's and awes, or even a visible shudder, which do occasionally happen. I tell the players that if they act in this manner, it is a good indication that their characters will be horrified as well.

And as far as the players not feeling threatened or intimidated by the monster they are dealing with, run them through a nightmare sequence against the monster, without letting them know it's only a dream, and gradually wipe out the entire party. Obviously your monster has to be powerful enough to actually do this. Then let them know it was only a dream. They'll begin to fear and respect that monster.

12-16-2009, 10:11 AM
I haven't been brave enough to try it yet, but you could use the taint mechanic from the 3.5e supplement Heroes of Horror. It adds some suspense, and the book has plenty of great horror ideas.

In principle I agree with Tesral's comment that at face value D&D isn't particularly well suited to horror. However, if you have the right audience and RP it right (and throw in some mechanics changes, secrecy, etc), I think it works just fine. If I want horror elements to work, I'll bend 3.5e to make it work rather than find a new system.

12-16-2009, 01:53 PM
I'm not very familiar with Ravenloft but there were some major rules changes for that setting. Some sort of Fear/Terror check. Healing spells nerfed, maybe other divine magic too. I was under the impression that not knowing whether or not a spell was going to do what it was supposed to do was part of the setting.

Change the rules. The players should not know what the monster can do before it does it. IIRC, wasn't Strahd the first monster with levels in a PC class published? do the unexpected.

Don't name things. If there's a graveyard full of shambling corpses, the players shouldn't know whether they are zombies, wights, ghouls, flesh golems, demon possessed bodies, vampires or something else. At least not until they get closer, and maybe not even then.

Don't pull punches. Give them a chance to flee or to talk themselves out of a situation, but don't let them assume that just because they can see something that this encounter is in any way balanced or tailored to the party's level.

12-22-2009, 03:59 PM
Echo TAROT who hit the nail on the head. His response is spot-on. It's the exact same formula I used when I ran a couple horror games probably over 20 years ago. I had my players so scared, they didn't want to go to bed will the sun came up.

Players are brave and gutsy because they have knowledge and logic on their side. Remove them. Change the rules, make the illogical happen to throw them off their toes; get them to think twice and don't let them get comfortable with anything. The moment they discover acid kills your creatures, they'll be strapping kegs of it to their backs attached to hoses.

Good horror revolves around some central puzzle or riddle that must be solved; or simply that the players need to get the heck out. Don't make it too easy but don't make it hopeless either. This isn't Call of Cthulu. :)

12-22-2009, 10:46 PM
The first step is to make your players believe, quite strongly, that their characters are very mortal. The swagger in D&D comes from the knowledge that death is temporary at best in most games. You have to convince the players at the table that death is very likely, and resurrection is almost impossible.

The easy way to do this is to kill one of them and sacrifice the corpse on some foul god who consumes souls in game. That's a bit mean, but a serious fight that leaves them beaten and bruised, followed by another serious fight that leaves them even more beaten and bruised starts to get the message across: Rushing headlong into things is dumb.

Couple that with atmosphere and other elements that put the foreboding into the game, and you will snap the average cocksure D&D gamer into attention and fear. Good places for them really... :D

12-22-2009, 11:16 PM
Even cosmetic changes can be quite effective at making players nervous.

Take a few bog standard zombies, and then have them crawl towards the players along the walls and ceiling. It's just window dressing, but it'll unnerve the players who have the Monster Manual memorized.

03-14-2010, 05:00 AM
In my experience, writing a good horror advanture for DnD all depends on the group of players just as much as the skills of the GM himself.

If the group of players are born and bred rules-lawyer-hacknslashers you're in for a rough time, these players will all to sudden resort to various Spot/Listen checks to be able to detect anything around them, as well as extreme use of whichever Knowledge (xxx) is applicable in the given situation. Not to forget the use of Spells and magical items. And last, but not least; their player knowledge. They will get bored and frustrated if you enforce a strict policy during said horror session of "Yes, you might know, but your character doesn't" and blank results for 30+ skill checks. They will feel cheated that all their time investment in their characters won't pay off.

Now if you got a group of freshies/rookies OR players who are into the roleplaying part.... then you have it easy.... rip off elements from random scary movies and you've got yourself a great adventure.

But I guess you'd like some tips:
* use monsters with damage reduction
* pull monsters from something else than MM1
* pour on the flavour text
* restrict their ability to use Teleport, Dimension Door and such
* make Summon spells summon monsters that are hostile to the summoner
* don't give them any room to rest to regain spells / HP

03-14-2010, 08:58 AM
The easy way to do this is to kill one of them and sacrifice the corpse on some foul god who consumes souls in game. That's a bit mean, but a serious fight that leaves them beaten and bruised, followed by another serious fight that leaves them even more beaten and bruised starts to get the message across: Rushing headlong into things is dumb.

I have some good players. If I was to establish the setting as dangerous in this fashion I would start by giving them a pre-gen.

"OK Ron, I need a favor for the game. Start with this character, not the one you wrote up. I am going to horrifically kill this guy. As you have never lost a PC in the game that should shake things up but good. Then you pull out the character you meant to run. As a helpful local."

Ron would do it and the attitude would be set.

Soft Serve
10-11-2010, 10:44 AM
Love unorthodox games.

I modernized Eberron, Steampunked Shadowrun, and added Gatestorms to EVERYTHING.

Don't let those nay-sayers bring down Horror D&D (which I'm actually currently running in the modernized Eberron.) It's fun stuff.

(Also created an aztec island, added Oriental Adv....I'm crazy with mash-ups.)

10-14-2010, 09:39 AM
Hrmmm horror....

Kinda running a horror mysterie game at the moment set in 4th ed setting of my design (not specificaly a horror setting)

Tricks I use:

Rely on knowledge checks: I love it when players role knowledge checks; I actually rely on it to give them the small tid bits of info that make the game even more mysterious and eluding. The idea that you may know it but your characters don't is good both ways. I think about what the results of the dice may be and then split it for various information. The informations are sorted by 5's (I.E. 5 the guy was riped to shreds, 10 the body seems to have been mangled by something with large claws, 15 the corpse was attacked by a creature with five digits each ending in a razor sharp claw no smaller than a dagger ect. ect.)

There are no clear lines of battle: In a classic horror movie the main creature badie or monster(s) seem to pop up behind the heros any time they go on the offensive, use this, as the players start investigating trouble have some one (an npc) die in a place they thought where safe.

True False assumptions: Work to cultivate these if half way through the adventure the church as been the place to go to to get away from the dark shadow sucking life force out of people then it gets even more disturbing when the priest turns up desiccated on the alter. it also allows you to feed the false hoods into certain checks for those die heavy pcs. Just remember the rules for this one are "just the facts" and truth through a players eyes. When they make the die roll to figure out a pattern give them just the facts this house this house and this alley where hit the the nobles house is such and such distance .... it will allow them to have the data without any hints making it easy for them to get their own assumptions, to begin focusing those assumptions use writers tricks to stick things in there heads. In the previous example you could begin by giving the church distance and an addition piece of info: the church, a place many think of for safety, is about 400 yards away. The palace is 300 yards in the opposite direction....

Close encounters: This is done in several fashions. Randomly having the players give you perception checks (spot and listen) only to reveal that a shadow moved out of the corner of their eye or a cricket just stopped chirping, or even just letting them know they feel as if they are being watched. While they are looking at stuff if one is by themselves interupt what they are saying with a sound (Player: ok I'll begin checking the drawers and then look at the wall for a... DM: Tink tink tink tink. Player: what was that?) you have a few options if the pc dose not respond right away first you could just wait and give them a spot check as they are leaving then letting them know something was disturbed, secondly you can make another sound different from the first, or you could repet the sound (the last two really depend on the sound and environment). If they do respond you can then infuse the perception that they are not alone (DM: as you turn around to see what caused the sound you feel a cool breeze on your face from a, NOW, open window. a goblet lays on the floor still rolling yet to settle after its fall).

Red shirts: Send Npcs with the party let them all spread out then kill one of the npcs when their alone(alowing the pcs to hear the dying screams) as the pcs rush to investigate have another npc disapear (wait til they notice the absence) if any npc freaks out and runs off... the pcs find there mangaled body or evidence of their death a few beats later.

Turn based non-combat: When in a building that something may happen or that something did happen the pcs are investigating, use turns well before combat begins. this has two out comes: 1 The players are in a state of readiness but will not be aware of when an actual surprise attack is about to occur. 2. their is more orderly control over player actions during the investigation/movement phase. In non-combat allow the player to make one skill check as a standard action (unless otherwise stated in the rules under the skills)

Over load the PCs: Give them alot more to think about than just the hack and slash of some bady. the priest of the town could be the first one killed this would limit resurrections (if the party dyes thats it no coming back) cause general panic and strife with the commoners (their spiritual leader just died, if their is a priest in the party guess who is going to get bugged to death by distraught commoners).

Set the tone: This encompases some of the ideas before its all about the moment remember the players have to imagine things they have to creat all five sinces in their heads. any help you can give them will go along way. Speak softly for most of the game (not a whisper but to where they'll need to lean forward and shut up to hear you); play some odd sounds in the back ground at low levels (just enough to get in their heads) find some incense that ether smell like a forest floor or like a crisp winters day (no pine, no pine, no pine) the smells of winter and the forest are great for a feeling of being all alone in a big world.

K thats all I got right now with out repeating advice from others (all of it good advice except the D&D and horror don't go together)

10-27-2010, 01:28 PM
Halloween coming up. Anyone have horrific games planned?

I'm still having nightmares about TAROT's ceiling-crawling zombies...