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Elements of Fear: Horrific Ideas for your Campaign

Written by Janna - Published on October 28, 2008

Janna discovered D&D at the age of 16, and she's been rolling the dice for 16 years. (You do the math.) She is fond of intelligent villains, drow society, and campaigns that explore the Dark Side.

Fear is fun. If fear was a real bummer, there wouldn’t be such a demand for scary movies and horror fiction. The same goes for role-playing games. Though horror-genre RPGs haven’t gained the widespread acclaim that their sword-and-sorcery counterparts have enjoyed, they do have droves of dedicated followers.

As a DM, you have the opportunity to inject elements of horror into your game. What follows is a small collection of ideas that you can develop and use in your own campaign, regardless of the setting. I’ve also included tips for getting the PCs involved in your sinister plots. Enjoy!

Horror Scenario 1: The Unknown

“I’ve never seen anything like it before!”

Fear of the unknown is a potent form of fear. It’s arguably the source of all fears. If you want to creep out your PCs, you have to disrupt their sense of familiarity and challenge their understanding of the way the world works. That can be a hard job for a DM; there’s always that one know-it-all player who’s memorized every monster ever published, along with its vulnerabilities and what it likes for breakfast. Nothing shocks them anymore.

Unless you bring in a totally new threat. Design a nasty monster, plague, or alien entity that threatens the party’s well-being. The threat could be a local one, or it could span the entire region. The PCs must figure out how to defeat it, because it’s something the world has never seen before.

If you opt for a monster, it could be a native creature that hasn’t been seen in many generations, or something entirely new to the world. A plague could have horrific symptoms such as turning its victims into mindless gelatinous monstrosities or compelling them to destroy themselves and everyone around them. Alien entities could come from another planet or another plane of existence. For fear-of-the-unknown inspiration, revisit 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Raymond Feist’s Magician: Apprentice.

And never underestimate the power of darkness. Remember the video game Silent Hill? It proved that creepy crawling flesh monsters are even creepier when you can’t see them coming. Obscure your party’s surroundings with dense fog or supernatural darkness to keep them on their toes.

Motivating the PCs:
The threat of extinction at the hands of a nasty monster or disease is enough to motivate PCs of any alignment.

Horror Scenario 2: The Ultimate Evil

“When the stars are right, something’s horribly wrong.”

It’s an old stand-by, but it’s also fun: An ancient evil has awakened, and it’s up to the PCs to put it back to sleep. This type of plot is very flexible. The antagonist, who we’ll call Big Baddy, can wake up and cause direct havoc by crushing the world beneath his heel (ala the Tarrasque). Or his awakening can be prophesied for sometime in the near future, and the PCs can run amok gathering items and ancient texts to keep that from happening. Depending on the party’s level, the bad guy could be a demon, a powerful outsider, the avatar of a tyrannical god, or something of your own devising. For inspiration, thumb through some of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories.

Motivating the PCs:
If you’re running a good and heroic campaign, the PCs will feel compelled to save the world. Up the ante by giving them a time limit. Can they stop the creature in time? Play up the world-changing nature of the antagonist’s awakening. Will the world ever be the same again? Will his arrival bring other cataclysmic events?

Evil parties might try to find a way to team up with Big Baddy; maybe they could start a cult dedicated to the creature, or even find a way to enslave Big Baddy and put him to work for them.

Horror Scenario 3: Paranoia

“Wh-what was that noise?”

And now we move from horror on a grand scale to a study in personal fear. A paranoia plot can take many forms. In its simplest form, it can involve an NPC who has long been a trusted ally to the party. But now his loyalty has changed, and he’s feeding information to the very group the party is trying to defeat.

On a grander scale, you could create a vast conspiracy that spans whole regions, factions, and religions. The PCs’ actions have offended a power base with far-reaching influence, and now a network of spies is watching their every move. Anyone, anywhere, could be an agent of this evil organization. Whichever depth you take it to, the result of this plot is the same: the PCs come to realize that their actions are on display.

They learn of this treachery in a variety of ways: their enemies are mysteriously prepared for any and all surprise attacks; people who talk to the party end up dead or missing; and even their loved ones back home have been threatened or killed. For inspiration, think of the Illuminati-esque council from the X-Files, or the network of darkfriends from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Motivating the PCs:
The motivation is pretty much the same for groups of any alignment. Good or evil, having a sinister network plotting your downfall will seriously cramp your style. Figure out what your PCs hold most dear – honor, power, riches, magic – and have the dark organization strip it away bit by bit.

Remember: the most effective way to scare the PCs is to keep things personal. Endanger their well-being and the things they care about, and you’ll have no problem getting them to engage with your horrific antagonists and their shadowy agendas.

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Written by Janna

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Janna discovered D&D at the age of 16, and she's been rolling the dice for 16 years. (You do the math.) She is fond of intelligent villains, drow society, and campaigns that explore the Dark Side.

 

 Comments

4 Responses to “Elements of Fear: Horrific Ideas for your Campaign”
  1. Steve-o says:

    I loved GMing the Ravenloft setting for my players. They also had a really good feel for Gothic horror, so it worked great. Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green are the best of what a good RPG can do in this genre, IMO. I tried running WoD for people, but it didn’t work out too well.

    Stalking the Night Fantastic and Chill were also good games too.

    Given a GM and players who understand the genre, you can have a most excellent scare on any given game night. I have found it harder to do for D&D, but it does work. I find that my players take the horror more seriously when I break out CoC.

  2. Yax says:

    Yeah, Ravenloft was great. Since Ravenloft is all about mood and not about stat blocks it’s one of those settings you can easily use in 4e

  3. Ian Winterbottom says:

    This idea I love. Horror, or the Players’ fear, is one t[-of the best motivations for player involvement! You can play on their paranoia in lots of unobtrusive ways – like the one you mention where people who talk to them keep going missing, brilliant! Something that becomes associated with the nameless threat (The Unknown, the greatest fear of all!) is good, a sound – say music? One of the most frightening nights I ever spent (Roleplaying nights that is!) was in a dismal, Dungeon corridor where there was a faint, cold draught from somewhere unknown, and a faint, just-audible whistling. Absolutely nothing happened, but we were all really nervous, the Players, not the Characters! Or footsteps, perhaps with a limp, in a room overhead that proves to be empty? Or a creaking door? (Darth Vader’s hissing breath, IMO, is one of his great assets as a villain!) A scent, incongruous like gardenias or more immediately threatening like the smell of blood?! Writing on the wall? Someone can be threatening too if the players can ALMOST recognise him/her – what about the hooded old man with one eye and two pet ravens – nah, couldn’t be!
    Another good thing about Cthulhu is the comparative weakness of the characters, even their SAN is always under threat, and the terrifying power ind invulnerability of the monsters, it is easy to be a hero when you have a huge gun, but not so easy when you can’t run around the streets packing a Thompson!Never played Ravenloft, though I would love to try it from the sound!
    I’ve often thought Steampunk would be a good Horror setting, all those dark, dismal mean streets? And the gaslit shadows?
    Ian

  4. JMOxx75 says:

    I never got into the ravenloft stuff mainly because, well, the players knew what to expect because the entire campaign was horror. I preferred to surprise them with a horror moment in a normal campaign. I also had a player that memorized every monster ever printed on paper but I was able to throw him off with my own ingenuity. He didn’t agree with me of course but later he admitted it made the game funner.

    They arrived at a small farming village early mid day to a gruesome scene of death, bloodshed and utter silence. There were signs of combat everywhere, in one of the barns there was evidence that many of the residents made a last stand but the barriers they set up to keep whatever it was that did this out were still intact. Mixed in the battle scene with human blood was dark liquid stains, almost like ink. The players realized this might be blood but they had never seen black blood before.

    The suspense of not knowing what did this stirred them into a very deep roleplaying session. Before we knew it an hour went by and all I had to do was remind them that the sun was setting. The investigated everything and it wasn’t until just before sunset they noticed the well was boarded up. In the beginning I described the farmland and the surrounding land as an area under the effects of a long drought. It occurred to them at that moment that what ever it was must of come from the well when the water level fell. With night upon them they literally panicked and decided to go to the barn and take their chances like the farmers before them.

    When the first sign of the creatures came within site they recognized them for what they were; shadows. Nothing extravagant but the scene I laid before them built up the suspense to a climatic battle in the end. It didn’t matter what they were fighting it was the suspense of finding out.

    My one know it all player’s argument is that shadows are undead so they don’t bleed. Well maybe but who knows if they do or not.

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