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Ask a Dungeon Master: How can I make my games scarier? – Suspense via the Senses

Written by Darkwarren - Published on October 21, 2013

Last time we talked about using the ‘unknown’ as the fear to make your D&D games scarier.  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 I’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 that’s not to say there aren’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, don’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 – and greater horror.

Hang ‘em high. From a cliff. Cliffhangers are a classic way to build tension between sessions. Especially if the night is getting long and they’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 they’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 it’s a good thing to use e-mail or other electronic communication like Obsidian Portal to  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. Here’s a table to get the ball rolling to ramp up the sensual tension (yeah, you read that right… sensual tension).


  1. Darkness and shadow pool in the archway
  2. Smoke or mist roils from underneath
  3. The doors seem to slowly heave and retreat like some gargantuan heart valve
  4. Bright light intermittingly flashes through the seams of the doorway
  5. Blood seeps from underneath the door
  6. There is no visual change to the door


  1. Your hair stands on end
  2. Your molars begin to buzz
  3. Your skin begins to feel slicked with oil
  4. All the moisture wicks away and your throat feels dry
  5. A dull ache begins in your joints and extremities
  6. Heat/cold seems to pulsate from the door in waves


  1. Stark silence
  2. Wailing
  3. Laughing
  4. Rhythmic booming
  5. Whispering
  6. Chanting


  1. Musk
  2. Mold
  3. Rich loam
  4. Metal
  5. Rotting flesh
  6. Ozone
  7. Blood
  8. Flowers
  9. Ash
  10. Spice


Thanks for reading this installment of Ask a Dungeon Master.  Next time we’ll look at how ’empathy’ can make your games scarier.

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Written by Darkwarren

Matt W., aka Darkwarren, has been roleplaying ever since his older brother introduced him to the red box set when he was 7 years old. Since then he has game-mastered SSDC’s Battleords of the Twenty-third Century, WEG’s Shadowrun and Star Wars, and of course Dungeons & Dragons in a variety of forms. At thirty-four years old he takes turns on both sides of the screen with the group that he helped found in 2000 when 3.0 hit the stands and has met every week fairly regularly ever since. Currently they have been running a variety of the Paizo Adventure Path scenarios, so that’s his wheelhouse. He was almost famous when two of his adventures were green-lighted for possible publication right before Paizo relinquished the rights to publish Dungeon magazine.

Matt also has years if experience in improvisational comedy, fiction, and non-fiction writing. He is currently working and studying to attain a master’s degree in theology, to enhance his career as a religious studies teacher. Lastly, his greatest passion is his family, especially the three sons and dog that he shares with his wife in upstate New York.

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  1. […] be a scary thing as it involves life or death decisions.  Plus the monsters are real. And while I’ve written a previous column on making your games scarier via the 5 senses, there’s another technique. […]

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