Horror in D&D

Dan and I have been trying to get in the habit of teasing the next week’s topic in each episode of Wandering DMs, but in this past episode we got so into talking about Gaming Gear that we forgot. Whoops! We did choose a topic though. With the Halloween season looming and my recent efforts around updating Insanity Cards, we thought an episode on horror gaming felt appropriate.

This got me thinking — most of my horror games are set in modern-ish real world settings, though I certainly plug the ability to use Insanity Cards in any RPG, including D&D. Dan has said that he feels like most of his D&D games these days always seem to end up becoming horror games, but I can only think of one time I actually tried to weave horror into a regular D&D game. This was at last year’s HelgaCon, where I ran Citadel of the Severed Hand and tried to lightly incorporate Insanity Cards.

In my post-con notes, I mentioned how the game was kind of dominated by some pretty rowdy players, and I mostly just went with where they wanted to take the game. It’s a decision I don’t regret in the least. Regardless of what my plans may be, I think the game is always going to be better if you let the players steer a little more. My notes tell me that eventually the players “played the game to a satisfying end, though part of me wonders if it wouldn’t have been more fun to push the gas on the insanity cards and force the players into driving the game right off the cliff.

Now I think I do want to try that. Rather than trying to find an interesting slow-roll meld of D&D and horror, which I do think would be fun for a campaign but is perhaps too slow a progression for a single 4-hour convention game, what if I ran a straight D&D module but ran it like I was running one of my horror games? My goal would be the same goal I state at the start of every horror game I run – to make every player go insane and/or die horribly by the end. That might actually be kind of fun.

As Dan points out, there’s a lot in D&D that if taken seriously is in fact quite horrific. This is why I originally adapted Citadel of the Severed Hand — besides being just about the right size for a convention game, it has some pretty creepy horror elements in it. But of course there are plenty of D&D modules that are written intentionally to be even more on the horror scale, from spooky old school modules like Tegel Manor or House on Hangman’s Hill to pretty much all the splatter-fest modules coming out of Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

In fact, maybe I’ll add that to my list of things to run at TotalCon, since I’m still trying to figure out what to do for that and the deadline for event submission is rapidly approaching. I ran Citadel of the Severed there two years ago, but I have several other horror themed modules I’ve run at other cons:

Well, sometimes blog writing is totally what I need to inspire me and marshal my thoughts. I now have way too many ideas of what to run at TotalCon! If anyone else knows of some good horror-themed modules I should consider please do share. I think I may use my day off today to start submitting stuff to TotalCon.

3 thoughts on “Horror in D&D

  1. Old school D&D is survival horror. At least at lower levels. Going underground to face indescribable horrors who could… digest you, eat you, maim you, turn you into a undead guy… and traps that can kill you in 100 ways… even simple pits into freezing cold water… all for gold and glory.

    And all you get is 1 sword and shield or 1 spell?

    That’s horror!

  2. Yeah, I’m inclined to think that quite a bit of “straight D&D” is in the horror category. Not only does the undead fit squarely in the genre there’s plenty of other “movie monsters” (werewolves, doppelgängers, etc.) that are horror staples. And, yes, as Scott points out: copious amounts of blood and death.

    Thing is, most veteran players are pretty blasé about the supernatural horror elements rather than being terrified…I mean, I know *I* generally approach the game (as a player) from a very clinical, tactical point of view (‘Hmm, a mummy. Do we have the fire we need to burn it? Who has the best save versus fear?’). As a DM, I purposefully play to stress the players out (which I’m sure plenty of other DMs do), by ramping up challenge and ambiance (“narrative description”) in good amounts, but any fear I manage to instill is generally limited to the death of a player’s character…which is VERY different from the horror fiction genre.

    After all, when we watch a scary movie or read a scary story late at night, we can see that the frightening stuff is happening to the characters in the fiction, NOT to ourselves…and yet it is the hair on the back of OUR necks that is being raised by watching/reading the story. In playing D&D, though, the best I think we can hope to achieve (at least on a CONSISTENT basis) is “anxiety:” the fear/nervousness that some resource will run out (torches, arrows, hit points, spells, etc.) at an inopportune time, leaving our PC helpless against the DM’s machinations.

    It’s relatively easy to make players squeamish and/or uncomfortable (hence the development of the “X” card). But actual horror or terror? Despite the inherent horror genre tropes in D&D, I’m not sure it’s possible. I can’t recall having observed it.

  3. It is a fair point that much of old school D&D lends itself well to horror, at least thematically. Perhaps this is why Delta says all his games devolve into horror regardless of his intentions. I would say that certain modules attempt to emphasize this more than others, and pretty much everything coming out of Lamentations of the Flame Princess tuns it up to 11.

    I would also say that experiencing real fear at a roleplaying game pretty much never happens. When I run horror I’m not out to scare my players, not really. Maybe instill a sense of spookiness or creepiness in them, but real fear strikes me as pretty much impossible to provoke in this medium. I did once have a player get freaked out about having to answer a phone, but I suspect that was more about social anxiety around talking to an unknown/unseen person than actual fear instilled by the content of the game itself.

    All that aside, I think roleplayers do bring a certain mindset to the table when they know they’re sitting down to a horror game. I try to be as direct about this myself right out of the gate – I tell my players my intention in this game is to have each and every one of them die and/or go insane by the end of the session. I think this is pretty different than our expectations when sitting down to straight D&D. Yes, we may expect to encounter some spooky, creepy, or even scary elements, but we also expect there to be high adventure, and for us to overcome any obstacle as a group. Maybe we don’t always (or even often) hit that mark, but that’s our expectation when we sit down to the table.

    Thus, I do think it will be interesting to sit down to a D&D game to run it as written, but in that mindset. I’m actually really looking forward to running some of these modules in that way. If the players bought into the idea that there’s no way they’re going to survive I think we’ll see some very interesting play as a result.

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