I love stealing ideas, themes, genres, and more from other sources and incorporating them into table top RPGs. The first D&D campaign I played started as a bland good versus evil adventure. We had to search for a powerful longbow that was prophesied to end the life of an evil Sauron-esque villain. The DM, however, lured us into the belief that we were going to vanquish evil. We found this weapon of evil’s bane only to be surrounded by mists. We had entered Ravenloft and the real part of the campaign. I really enjoyed this campaign but it felt like a slog at times because the party never got to savor its victories. While I enjoy making my players sweat I think an entire horror campaign can harm the overall morale of the players. Unless of course everyone is interested in playing a horror game from the start.
In my experience, dropping genre-based adventures into a campaign can be an excellent way to turn your players heads without forcing them to endure a brutal campaign of bloodshed, fear, and little reward. This is also a great way to recharge your creative batteries as a GM when a campaign starts to get a bit boring, or when you start to burnout.
The Thing that Creeps
I don’t run horror themed campaigns but horror is my go to tool for mixing things up in my game. I’ve used it in D&D plenty of times and I’ve always gotten great reactions from my players when it comes up. I plan to use it in future games and even non fantasy rpgs like Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. Horror, unfortunately, is a difficult genre to use because it is a more psychological exercise in adventure design than it is a practical one.
Horror vs. Death
The Ravenloft supplements suggest that a low body count is integral to building horror not a high one. It’s a simple concept: dead PCs can’t experience fear. Killing off player characters doesn’t make them scared it pisses them off and is therefore counterproductive. This is where table top RPG players and GMs have to disentangle themselves from the idea that the numbers and mechanics of the system is the whole of the game. A monster with high strength and damage, although scary in terms of numbers, is not a real source of fear when creating a horror adventure. Most players detach themselves from the concept of hit points equating to well being. Every player associates low hit points to being near death but it doesn’t have the same psychological impact as looking down at your own hands and seeing blood. The mechanics of an RPG and how players view those mechanics operate at cross purposes with a GM creating a horror game. We have to create an adventure that gets the players to forget the weapons training, the feats, the hit points, and all of those things. We have to create an unknown antagonist that ALMOST defies the rules of the game they are playing to teach them that they can’t rely on big modifiers and damage dice. If we use a monster with big stats it will be a challenging fight, even a high kill count, but it will not be horrific.
Fear of the Unknown
This leads us to the next big point. High attributes on monsters are a tangible concept we can grasp. We understand what a beast with 18 strength means. It won’t be pleasant for a character to fight but it’s not scary because it is a known quantity. It is the unknown that scares us. Every time I run horror adventures I look for obscure creatures to use. I don’t rely on the standard zombie unless I modify them or they are paired with an unknown creature to back them up. As a general rule I don’t name these creatures. Of all the adventures I write, horror requires the most flavour text. My monsters get more description, my environments have more text describing the lighting and smells, and I always use music in the background.
In some ways horror is a lot like the mystery genre. There are crucial pieces of information missing from the PCs knowledge that prevents them from overcoming the creature or from escaping it. The distinction between these genres is that in mystery the discovery of the missing knowledge leads to the arrest of the criminal, in horror the knowledge may lead to the defeat of the monster but that doesn’t mean the evil can’t linger. We know a headshot can kill a zombie but does that knowledge prevent the virus from spreading?
A GM has to show the players they are in a dangerous situation by showing them examples. Your biggest asset in running a horror game is through story telling and NPCs. As they explore the town, the mansion, or whatever environment they’re in, you should show what has happened to the inhabitants. Bloody writings on the walls, videos (in modern/future settings), human remains, and more can help in this regard. Showing off the suffering and deaths of others plants the seeds of suffering and death in the minds of your players. You don’t do it by choosing a wildly inappropriate monster that can one shot the party.