Ask a Dungeon Master: How can I make my games scarier? – Empathy

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Well, to be fair I didn't have my helmet on.
Well, to be fair I didn’t have my helmet on.

During this Halloween season, inject fear into D&D.  After all, going into a dungeon should 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. Empathy.

I find that players roleplay more effectively if they can actually empathize with their characters. With that in mind, it is important to know your player’s actual fears. I have one that has a gamer-fear of double doors. “The BBEG is always behind big double doors,” as he is fond of warning OOC. So to confront that ‘fact’ every so often I give them a dungeon that has many sets of double doors. And not one of them leads to the BBEG.  Of course every now and again those forbidding double doors DO actually lead to a big baddie, just to keep him guessing.

But perhaps that formula is too meta. One storytelling strategy is to find your player’s real fears and occasionally incorporate them into an encounter. A player genuinely has arachnophobia? Then send giant spiders after the party, or drow, or those unsettling drow/spider hybrids (are driders open license? Can I say driders?) Or maybe something as simple as swarms of spiders. Heck, even merely describing cobwebs in the background could give chills to the right person.

But using a person’s actual fears might hit too close to home for a night of fun or it could even have the opposite effect of what you intended.  In that case, before the campaign starts during character creation, challenge everyone to include fears and phobias for their adventurers. This will provide a built-in list of in game source material to draw upon.  Whether for you yourself to use during modules to create suspense or for enemy NPCs to cull ideas from as part of nefarious plans.

Or these terrors might come naturally during the dangers that happen during the hazardous occupation that is adventuring. We have a rogue in our current campaign who seemed to fumble critically anytime he got into melee combat. Then one night he picked a card from Paizo’s Critical Fumble deck that said he ‘fainted at the sight of blood.’ Now he uses ranged attacks almost exclusively. Sneak attacks and DPR be damned, it makes sense for the character. This can now lead to the possibility of him eventually overcoming this ill-gotten fear, the attempted resolution of which can make for yet another role-playing opportunity.

Finally, there is no greater emotion than attachment and your players should have characters with attachments.  Force them to make hard choices by having a friendly face get taken down by the monsters. Then later on, somewhere in those monsters will be that familiar face. Which if done right will make even hardened gamers squirm in their seats. The stronger the attachment, the stronger the horror.  Again, dipping into background makes stories more captivating. But don’t overuse this tactic – it can lead to fatigue. Moreover they’ll just have their character stop engaging with anyone else as a strategy.

The ranger returns quickly, a look of obvious disgust on his ashen face. “We should turn back. Now,” he whispers.  He seems particularly concerned about the fighter. But the fighter, never one to back down from a challenge, sets into a defensive stance. As the new enemy comes into view, it’s chitnous legs clack lightly on the marble floor of the antechamber.  Too late, the fighter realizes he should have listened. Stalking in from the shadows, his wife’s legs, now multiplied a dozenfold and segmented at impossible angles, tense to leap…

6 thoughts on “Ask a Dungeon Master: How can I make my games scarier? – Empathy”

  1. [chuckling] “I’m sorry. I cannot divulge information about your best player’s secret, paralyzing, fear.”
    [Closes browser]

    “Oh, crap, I shouldn’t have said I was that player. Oh, CRAP, I shouldn’t have said it was a secret. OH CRAP! I certainly shouldn’t have said it was paralyzing! [sighs resignedly] Oh, it’s too cold today.”

  2. I’m actually cool with spiders (we have reached an understanding) but silverfish?
    F those things with fire.

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