Ask a Dungeon Master: How can I make my games scarier? – Suspense via the Senses
Last time we talked about using the ‘unknown’ as the fear to make your D&D games scarier.Â This article we’ll look at using the 5 senses to convey horror because the time between anticipation and action can be anxious for people. Your players are no different. I find that a good DM knows how to really work tension until it becomes unbearable and therefore horrifying.
On closer reflection Iâ€™m not sure if there is a perfect equation or model to determine when the perfect time is to build such tension in an adventure. I believe that, like comedy, such tension requires a certain level of natural timing in the DM. But thatâ€™s not to say there arenâ€™t some fundamentals or patters that can help us be better at it.
Get a feel for your group, if they are at ease, make them uneasy. Adventurers in a world of necromancy and mythical creatures should never be at ease. Make them roll Perception checks, keep them on edge. Anticipating the unknown is an easy way to keep them on their toes.
Change the rhythm of your speaking. Take the time to offer slow intricate descriptions of rooms and areas. Give them hints and clues to what they might be facing in the near (or far) future. When you finally spring combat on them, donâ€™t give them the lengthy descriptions, keep it quick. Trying to balance the flash-in-the-pan nature of a surprise round with the slow burn of a multi-layered epic plot can be difficult at times but to incorporate both in your campaigns can lead to greater effect â€“ and greater horror.
Hang â€˜em high. From a cliff. Cliffhangers are a classic way to build tension between sessions. Especially if the night is getting long and theyâ€™re about to enter the inner sanctum of the BBEG, it would be acceptable to stop right before combat begins. Give them a taste of what theyâ€™ll be facing next session and let the players stew over it. This might backfire if your group does not meet regularly and every once in a while I find that itâ€™s a good thing to use e-mail or other electronic communication like Obsidian Portal to Â build the tension between sessions.
As the players strategize over a session, or the week (and the party in game-time) describe what they see, hear, smell, and feel in front of those inner sanctum doors. Engaging their imaginations using a variety of sensual descriptions helps them better envision the environment and thus increases the tension. Hereâ€™s a table to get the ball rolling to ramp up the sensual tension (yeah, you read that rightâ€¦ sensual tension).
- Darkness and shadow pool in the archway
- Smoke or mist roils from underneath
- The doors seem to slowly heave and retreat like some gargantuan heart valve
- Bright light intermittingly flashes through the seams of the doorway
- Blood seeps from underneath the door
- There is no visual change to the door
- Your hair stands on end
- Your molars begin to buzz
- Your skin begins to feel slicked with oil
- All the moisture wicks away and your throat feels dry
- A dull ache begins in your joints and extremities
- Heat/cold seems to pulsate from the door in waves
- Stark silence
- Rhythmic booming
- Rich loam
- Rotting flesh
Thanks for reading this installment of Ask a Dungeon Master.Â Next time we’ll look at how ‘empathy’ can make your games scarier.