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How to start a horror campaign

Written by Expy - Published on July 26, 2007

I was browsing the D&D forums recently and someone was looking for hints on how to start a horror campaign.

How I would plan for the first game of a horror campaign

I guess the point of running a horror campaign is to scare the players. The atmosphere – where you play in RL, and the descriptions of the scenes in the game – and the kind of creatures they face will have an efffect on the success of the campaign.

This article could come in handy: How to run a successful first D&D game.

Create a bond between player and character

But what are the players scared of? Nothing – at least when you start the game they fear nothing. So what do you want them to be afraid of? You want them to fear for their characters well-being. But for them to feel and fear for their characters, they need to love them first.

So the first part of the plan is to make them love their characters. Dungeons & Dragons is all about the characters – especially the PCs, not the NPCs. To scare the players and their characters I’d introduce the setting and the mood smoothly and throw in encounters that are tailor-made to make the PCs feel powerful. I’d plan the encounter so they get to see the full potential of their new characters. Maybe you can have one or 2 more of these perfect for the PCs encounters so they really see how great they are and they might even start planning long-term for the character.

Unleash your arsenal

And then you hit them. You hit them with something more than the possibility of just seeing their PC die. You introduce an X factor in the game – a undead sickness that would maul a character’s body and crush his soul, or flesh-eating monsters that could maim a character with one bite. Make sure they understand that they are not safe, that they understimated the opposition, that they are stuck in hell, and that the price for any mistake or letdown will be to see their character wither slowly before dying painfully.

Easier said than done. Anyhow. That would be my plan. Hope that helps someone out there.

Have you ever run a horror campaign?

If you’ve played in one let me know what worked for you or what you liked about it.

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Written by Expy

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Expy is the mascot for DungeonMastering.com and the real mastermind behind Expy Games. He likes to hoard treasure, terrorize neighbors, burn down villages, and tell white dragon jokes..

No matter how fearful the legends claim dragons are, they always end up being defeated in 5 rounds by adventuring parties they encounter. That’s what dragons are – experience points for the heroes in your Dungeons & Dragon party. And this mascot is no different, hence the name Expy.

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18 Responses to “How to start a horror campaign”
  1. Pé0 says:

    Killing PC is never fun. You think of all the time that it took to create the character sheet and all those rolls of dice and you just want to kill one.

    From my point of view you should never kill PC unless they are trying to get themselves killed ex: taking on a bulette when you are lvl 3. Other than that if the dice are rolling badly for the players and the DM is rolling crits all the time then if anybody die you should have a way to get that character back to live. The loss of a level will already be bad enough for the players.

    But I really would like a full horror campaign. Torture and everything. No more pg13 game where no one ever goes to the bathroom and shit in full plate.

    I know that Wizards had a book called heroes of horror that had a couple of rules in it to create an horror campaign.

  2. Yax says:

    I learned the hard way that killing PCs is not fun for anyone. The players are bummed and lose interest in the game which makes the DM bummed. I guess the DM’s role is to educate and help so that the players understand that the characters are not immortal and act accordingly.

    I love giving characters a good beating though.

  3. Phil Smith says:

    The devil of course is in the details. The trick is to get the right balance of mechanics to atmosphere. Poison and disease are all well and good, but unless you can describe the effects in vivid detail they’re just ability score damage and not much else. The Call of Cthulhu rulebook is particularly helpful, since it’s all about atmosphere. It spends more time describing the source of poisons and its effects than actually looking at its game-mechanical potency — something from which D&D could benefit. Burnt othur fumes, for example. What the Hell’s an othur? How do you burn one? Why should you not? What’s so bad about it that it can kill a person with its secondary damage?

    What else can you do? Obviously wholesale slaughter isn’t an option, but there are plenty of other things. Commit the information about abilities and conditions to memory. Learn about sickening, nausea, fear (especially fear!). If you have fiends, let them really wreak havoc by possessing people rather than just wading through armies with venom-dripping fangs and claws. Make sure menace lurks in every shadow? If you’re feeling particularly manipulative, you might also try to find out what scares the players and work that into the game.

  4. Yax says:

    The Call of Chtulhu book is a great idea. Reading novels by Lovecraft should also improve one’s horrifying descriptions skills.

  5. Phil Smith says:

    Provided your descriptions don’t get too longwinded. HPL did like to fill up his pages. When he wasn’t resorting to referring to stuff as indescribable.

    Quick writing exercise for anyone who cares to read this: look at one of your more vivid monster descriptions. Now cut it in half. The longer the DM spends reading stuff out, the more likely the players are to fall asleep.

  6. Yax says:

    I hate reading stuff to the players. I don’t think I’ve done this in the last 5 years. I’m over it. I’d rather forget details than read them to the party.

  7. Stûnibu says:

    haha, when i first looked at this i thought it said “horrable campains” not “horror campains”
    i thought, why on earth would anyone want to make a horrable campain??

    then when i was reading the artical i thought, this dont sound horrable! Just making it painful for PC’s to see there charactors in such hard situations… then i reread it :P

    anyway, i think you got to make that bond from player to charactor no matter what you throw at them! but making them attached to an NPC and then throwing a disease or something at them is even worce.

    expecaly if the NPC isnt worried about the disease and so wont flee the area or they get it and turm mutent (or something) and the PC is faced with killing the NPC that they loved or finding the cure before it takes an unrevercable hold on the NPC (or it coudl be another PC)

  8. Zeir says:

    You needn’t focus on damage or cruelty to pc’s/npc’s. Describe something horrible or demented in the Pc’s dreams, or when they look out the window they see a face but when they blink it dissapears.

    You need to make it feel like it’s happening in real life. Like their the ones looking through the window. It also helps to have some horror music going in the background, for atmosphere.

  9. Seth says:

    a horror campaign must be personal. The PCs personal connections can be very useful in sealing a sense of dread. Let them know that there is much more at risk than death. Friends, family, and their own will are at risk. Much scarier than threatening a paladin with imminent demise is finding himself stranded from his divine spark just when he feels he needs it most. The trick to a horror campaign is letting the characters know that nothing is certain, then luring them back into something that seems almost so.

  10. Yax says:

    I agree. Inner horror is more effective than outer horror.

  11. Scott says:

    Horror is tough.

    You really need to have a focused group to pull something like that off. A GM can spend a goodly amount of time setting up and the first person to crack a joke or do a movie quote can completely spoil the mood.

  12. Vagrant says:

    I ran a horror campaign once, that actually affected my players on psychological level. I tried the same thing with another group sometime later, and used the same trick.

    To really connect your players to their characters, it helps if you know something about their own personal history. You take those details and reinterpret them into the backstory for the characters – not in a really obvious way. It’s a tricky thing but for instance one of my players had a sick father. So her character had a brother who was part of the catalyst for the ‘hook’ – “Why do the characters absolutely have to be involved in the adventure in the first place?” – he was the victim of a cult worshipping a plague deity. Build up those connections however you want – a little opening dialogue helps I find, have the npc or whatever be involved somehow in such a way that the relationship between the character or the place comes in to play somehow, then over the first chapter somehow blight that connection. Gets ’em every time.

    Of course to do that you need to know something about the players, and with the first group I played this game on I already knew them. With the second group I had some planning time, and had a third party have a few casual talks. He turned out to be one of the players as well, which leads to another trick in the horror campaign arsenal – or for that matter any game – which is to have a plant. Secretly discuss a specific role with one of the players to play the betrayer part, and have that player’s character gain the trust and loyalty of the others. Then have that character twist those relationships, or even lead the characters into making disturbing decisions. I had this player lead the characters to sacrifice a family of people in a most horrible manner – sacrifice as in allow to be taken for horrible purposes – to save a village. Then, I gave them the chance to ‘make it better’ later, when they saved the family, who then begged to die.

    Hit ’em where it hurts. Give psychologically disturbing situations and decisions – the monsters, the traps, even diseases and poisons and whatnot, that’s never going to really hit them hard; they’re just characters, and it’s just a game, after all. To mess with their minds on a deeper level you have to make the players, through the characters, be forced to do things that would mess them up in real life, and justify it to themselves somehow. Just a few of these in the midst of an awful situation will make that situation seem more real by association.


  13. Onimaru says:

    Horror is nifty. The best this to do to get someone to love their character. Give their character something to love. If you can, make the object of love something they can relate to.

  14. blake says:

    “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
    – H.P. Lovecraft
    I just started a horror campaign yesterday (my first campaign ever) and alot of it is based on the mythos. the way to get to them is mentally, not phisicaly. mess with their minds, create an ambiance. let the slow feeing of dread creep over them as the chips begin to stack and they realize the worst is yet to come. Remember, in the dugeon no one can hear you scream ;P

  15. MisterHavoc says:

    The first campaign I ran, I aimed for a horror campaign. I wanted to add elements that avoided a straightforward dungeon-crawl or “roll-play” game. I wanted characters with character for ROLEplaying. It started off well enough. A couple of festivals to make things interesting and get the PCs used to combat, and then slowly introducing the master plot line.

    Horror can also come up when something leaves the PCs shocked and stunned, especially when they’re the ones at fault (Leaving themselves open because they never would’ve expected danger from that source). I’m personally a fan of betrayal as a theme for that as well…

    To make a long story short, the sweet, innocent halfling the paladin PC married… Turned out to be a Lich, ultimately using the party to further her own goals (A modified version of Dahlia Thistledown for those who have the Libris Mortis).

  16. Takaiteishu says:

    I’ve never DMed a horror campaign, but one of my original DMs was incredibly fond of that kind of campaign, and was good at it too. One of my favorite memories of that campaign involved a special kind of golem, one made from oozes. The magical immunity of golems combined with the multiplying ability of oozes, and we had only one bludgeoning weapon in the entire group. Later in that same campaign my half-orc character was sneak attacked by a half-elf rogue with a special dagger.

    It turns out that half-elf was actually a werewolf and coated that dagger with the saliva of her hybrid form, none of us realized it until my character changed for the first time three weeks later.

  17. Captin Koro says:

    While I have added elements of horror in my campaigns before, I have never really succeeded in keeping my players from quoting or making jokes that killed the mood. However, one of my friends who has taken up the mantle of DM recently has almost mastered the craft of making horror. One thing he does is put us in places where there is not escape (rocks fall and NPC’s die, dungeon entrance mysteriously is a wall, ect. ect.), and if we somehow do escape (via fighter’s adamantine sword or nystrul’s magic pigments) he plays the, “you can run but you can’t run far enough” and have the campaign change because we ran away. Also, another thing he is a fan of is using the taint mechanic found in oriental adventures or heroes of horror. It is terrifying to a character when they find themselves in an area that is tainted and they don’t know it, and suddenly start having skin sough off or green, oily boils bursting across your body, and worse when they start going insane.

  18. Lars says:

    It seems that you have no clue what horror is about. It has nothing to do with the fear of “loosing your character” at all; its about the tentious build up ( normally with few or no encounters at all) where various elements cast a creepy yet subtile shadow. the pcs should never see what they are up against and they should be separated from sure safety (trapped in an old manor to use a clicè). Then as the mood reaches its climax, the players would not be scared to loose their characters but scared to find out what they have been searching for. Google the phenomenon of “Horror” and you should find various essays on the subject…

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