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Ask a Dungeon Master – How do I make my campaigns scarier?

Written by Darkwarren - Published on October 7, 2013

This might take a while so don’t be scared. We’ll split this up over several articles and ask a variety of DM’s this October.

As DM’s we always love to entertain ourselves and our players, and one of the best ways to entertain is through fear and horror. I’m not talking about fearing the DM (hopefully that should never happen in the collaborative DM’ing we try to encourage here at DungeonMastering.com). No, I’m talking about the players being afraid and anxious for their characters. Good players will appreciate a good scare. They play to roleplay danger and excitement – and it doesn’t get more dangerous and exciting than in the middle of a horror story. There are many ways to do this, so let’s start with one of the classics: the Unknown.

As the master H.P. Lovecraft himself once wrote in Supernatural Horror in Literature, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” (DM’s note: the whole book is available in the public domain.)

Whether it is an ancient alien evil from the farthest reaches of the cosmos or the very fact that we do not know what might be hiding in our very own closet (hopefully not an ancient alien evil from the farthest reaches of the cosmos), human beings are always afraid of the unknown. We all seek understanding and if it is unknown it cannot be understood. You want to scare your players? Throw something at them that they don’t know. Better yet, throw them into an encounter that they only think they know…

Personally I like to set my players up with something they think they know, and then twist them all up when they realize the danger they face was not what they thought it was. There are a good amount of classic creatures and dangers that your average rpg’er will be familiar with. Throw one of them at the party – then make a dramatic change to it. This seems to maximize the tension and the fear that comes afterwards.

What’s that? Goblins up ahead? We’ve fought goblins before and as a player I know their strengths, weaknesses, and their tactics. In the first round build the suspense a little by having the goblins act slightly strange: they all seem to move as one, not as chaotic as goblins typically do. Second round, show them a little more, but not exactly tipping your hand: the goblins seem to know tactics because they’ve made a shield wall awaiting the party’s attack. By the third round the players might be totally confused because these aren’t goblins (at least, not as they know them): the party moves to advance on the goblins when the goblins drop their shields and spew spores on the party collapsing in pile of withered husks and leaving the party in a roiling, noxious cloud of black oily smoke. Everyone rolls saving throws.

Now watch the players squirm. “What the F*** just happened?” they’ll ask.

And it is all predicated on the players having assumptions that lull them into complacency, which you shatter with a terrifying encounter that leaves the players scrambling for their dice and a healer’s kit. Perhaps it’s mold, a necrotic disease, a foul curse, or my favorite: an ancient alien evil from the farthest reaches of the cosmos.

Next, we’ll look at personalizing the horror towards specific characters. But before we go there… what are some specific ways that you have used the unknown to really get your players scared?

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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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