With the release of the Curse of Strahd, I have recently turned my thoughts to how I would go about running a gothic horror based campaign. Prior to getting into tabletop RPG’s, I was a big fan of video game RPG’s (weren’t we all) and the Warhammer Fantasy setting. What defined the best games, and the best accompanying fiction to go with them was the emotions they evoked. Heroism, victory, self-righteousness these emotions are ten-a-penny in most games, but the ones that really stuck with me were the ones with genuine moments of horror and pathos. I’m not talking about fear, isometric RPGs are the wrong medium for jump scares and in most games the player is too far removed from his character to feel genuine fear.
No, I’m taking horror, that gut deep despair and disgust at the scene in front of you, un-tempered by a rush of adrenaline. Cast your mind back to Baldur’s Gate 2, the moment when you found Khalid’s brutalized corpse and heard Jaheira’s gut clenching reaction to the murder of her husband. Those of us who had played through Baldur’s Gate with those two had formed bonds with them, just as we had with Minsk, and Khalid’s death genuinely upset me. The same applies to some of my favourite films like the Pianist, Shindler’s List or the Boy in the Striped Pajama’s, there are few to no jump scares, or gore, or obvious monsters, just the sickening horror associated with events so inhuman and so grotesque that they seem almost inconceivable.
So how do we evoke that kind of reaction in a D&D game? Well, and some might disagree with me on this, I say you can’t scare your players. There is too much disconnect between your players and their characters. I put it to you that you cannot scare people for whom popping off for a pee and to brew more tea is an option. And that’s fine, fear is a cheap emotion if you want to scare your players you could always jump out from behind a door with a clown mask on. What we’re going for here is an element of darkness and despair that really draws them into the game. Now that I’ve scuppered your clown mask plan what do I have in mind? Well, I’ve had a few thoughts.
I was lucky enough to have a twitter conversation with Mike Mearls on twitter recently (@1d4damage. Follow me, all the cool kids are doing it, and there are cookies) I asked him if he had any advice on scaring players during a D&D and his advice was basically “take stuff from them, stuff they want”. Levels, magic items, stats, they are all fair game. Players love advancement, better weapons, better powers, more sculpted abs and it’s conceivable that threatening these might genuinely put the wind up them. But that rather depends on your group doesn’t it, what if they are scrappers, motivated by the win rather than the loot? Well, there are other routes.
With all of these suggestions, there is a fine line between atmospheric and camp. There is nothing wrong with a black velvet table cloth, low lights and red candles (make sure everyone can see their character sheet though and use LED candles, less of a fire hazard). However, emerging from another room in a full Dracula costume saved from last Halloween is campy, and the fangs make it hard to talk. But playing on your guests subconscious is no bad things, employ the tricks of stage and scene, there’s plenty of atmospheric horror movie soundtracks to be had, try to avoid the screeching strings ala Psycho and look for something that steadily builds tension. An element of costume is not entirely unwelcome, perhaps your players would consent to dress on a theme, something a little more gothic than they would normally wear. As a rule, us role-players love to dress up, so give them free reign.
Normally I’m not a huge fan of props, the imagination has a budget that this lowly student can’t match, but given the limited number of magic items on offer in Strahd, you could probably stretch to acquiring them. The Amulet of Raven kind or the hilt of the Sun Sword are both easy to replicate after a few minutes on Etsy and make a nice little addition to the game, they players holding them have a physical object to carry around and adds add to the theming. As always a light touch is best, decking your living room out like Dracula’s shag pad will illicit more humor then dread.
With the real world taken care of its time it set the scene in game and this by far the more important part. Steven King once said that the trick to writing horror was to establish the norm, introduce the horrific and pay close attention to the transition. In a standard D&D game we don’t start in a dungeon and open the first door to find a dragon, so slapping a hand full of zombies on to your players five seconds in to your campaign is probably a bit on the nose. Don’t be afraid to start with a rather mundane setting and slowly ratchet up the weirdness: strange noises, movement in people’s peripheral vision, odd smells, sudden weird events that change how players view day to day objects. A slower pace and less combat might lead you to believe that the players would get bored. Well there are two answer to this. Firstly, trust your players, if they wanted wall to wall combat they have an XBox, they are also here for the story. Secondly work on your description, tell a story with your environments, introduce little vignettes that aren’t combat based but add to the mood or the story. Try to interrupt your players “safe time”, in most adventures the players retreat victories to the local tavern to drink ale and sing songs of glory, perhaps as the dwarven warrior raises his ale a flood of cockroaches pours into his mouth and beard, perhaps the beautiful elven bard sees a different reflection every time she looks in a mirror; her as a withered old crone, her covered in bloody razor cuts, her screaming, wreathed in flames, her slowly being skinned alive, until she hates her own reflection. This diminishes the player’s perception that their characters can be safe at any point and keeps the pressure on them.
Well, there are two answers to this. Firstly, trust your players, if they wanted wall-to-wall combat they be on their XBox, they are also here for the story.
Secondly work on your description, tell a story with your environments, introduce little vignettes that aren’t combat based but add to the mood or the story. Try to interrupt your players “safe time”, in most adventures the players retreat victories to the local tavern to drink ale and sing songs of glory, perhaps as the dwarven warrior raises his ale a flood of cockroaches pours into his mouth and beard, perhaps the beautiful elven bard sees a different reflection every time she looks in a mirror; her as a withered old crone, her covered in bloody razor cuts, her screaming, wreathed in flames, her slowly being skinned alive, until she hates her own reflection. This diminishes the player’s perception that their characters can be safe at any point and keeps the pressure on them.
Even when you introduce the big bad don’t just go in with “This is Gustav Von Flappycloak, he is a vampire” perhaps its dark, your players are fighting something with claws and teeth but what doesn’t have claws and teeth these days. Several things that go bump in the dark can shapeshift, the big bad flickering through several forms during combat could keep the players guessing. The trick is to keep the players off balance. It only takes a campaign or two for most players to become fairly familiar with most of the monsters from the MM, so play around with them. You are the DM, the world is you oyster, don’t be afraid to switch thing up. Change monster vulnerabilities, fiddle with the stats, play on the surroundings to give your monsters a new edge.
To round up, D&D is a game that can quickly feel familiar, and the essence of something truly scary is that it transports you totally out of your comfort zone. So to truly convay a feeling of horror, or even the in game illusion of it, the DM has to be prepared to shake things up, try new approaches and tactics……or just jump out from behind the fridge.