How to Terrify Your Players (And Make Them Love It!)
Updated: Aug 7, 2018
Since the dawn of time, humans have been attracted in some way to that which terrifies them.
Why do we seek out such a primeval feeling? Perhaps it is for the simple novelty of it, the adrenaline and blood pumping, or perhaps it is a trial, of which we willingly undergo, in hopes that it will better increase our understanding of the dark and dangerous world in which we inhabit. Whatever the reason: dread, suspense and mystery can add an element to your game that your players will never forget!
Tabletop games may seem the least likely place for an adrenaline packed heart racing journey into the lands of terror. But, with the right preparation by the game master and commitment by the players, it will be an experience your players won’t soon forget!
Step 1: Understand What IS Scary – and What is NOT
Part of you, dear reader, may come to the conclusion that fear is a single, simple emotion, that can be triggered simply. However, that is simply not the truth, fear is a complex combination of reactions and curiosities, both biological and mental.
The first rule to making something scary is to figure out exactly who you are trying to scare. Take a look at the following scenarios, and, placing yourself in the players' perspective, decide which one you think would be the most interesting:
The party steps onto the broken raft and begins to ford the river, as they draw closer to the side, the unmistakeable sound of a woman weeping can be heard, getting closer… and closer…. Roll perception!
Lightning flashes in the distance, rain pours down outside, as your group looks around the castle. Approaching a room, which looks similar to many you have encountered before, you look inside, to see a small horde of zombies inside. Roll initiative!
As you open the door, you find a room, deserted of all things, except for a small music box in the middle, with an unmistakeable magic aura coming from it. As you approach the music box, all doors slam shut, and a faint white light permeates down from a crack on the ceiling, illuminating the box. As you approach it and select to play it, the Dungeon Master plays a short track on his phone or computer of a distinct creepy tune, one that sends shivers down your spine. He cautions to remember the tune, because – it may or may not be important later.
Most likely, you choose the 3rd option as the one that you would find the most interesting – and most likely you choose this option, not because it is truly the “scariest scenario” but because it actually invokes some connection and immersion to the player. While encountering a banshee or a horde of zombies in real life might be much scarier than finding a creepy music box, the experience of finding the music box and actually hearing the audio contained on it can create an immersion and connection that will stay with your players for a long time.
The bottom line is: Scare your players, not their characters.
Now that you know who you are trying to scare – remember the following quote from H.P. Lovecraft, and allow it to guide you in your creation of a terrifying game for your players:
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."
In order to best utilize the fear of the unknown, remember – less is more. Create spooky scenarios and step back and allow your players to fill in the blanks.
Step 2: Understand Different Types of Fear
For our purposes, we have broken down the different “Types” of fear that can be invoked by an effective medium (be it a novel, short story, video game, movie or TV show).
For many, this is the main type of fear they are used to. Google defines it literally as: “a state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen.”
We experience suspense often in our day to day lives, perhaps it is simply the suspense of whether or not we will catch the bus in time to make it to work, or perhaps it is the suspense of wondering whether or not we got the promotion we have been vying for. Either way, suspense, is an inherently neutral emotion, and most RPGs evoke this is naturally, simply by relying on the inherent uncertainty of the dice for the majority of “checks” to see if a character is capable of an action.
We often seek out “safe” suspense in our day to day lives, because the delayed gratification and cathartic release it provides. Baseball is a great example of one of the ways people seek this out, as it is a sport, which millions of people watch in anticipation, waiting for the cathartic experience of finding out the result – which typically has little to no practical effect on their real lives.
The following video is a good example of suspense:
Notice how, empirically, nothing “bad” really happens in this clip – however, the whole time, we are on edge, anticipating what may happen, for good or for ill. Therefore, this is a great example of suspense.
Because people are, perhaps subconsciously, willing to allow themselves to experience this emotion in a variety of ways, it should be one which the game master can tap into – be advised, the half life on this, because of the relative “unimportance” of the game to players general lives, is small – so, a seasoned game master should take care not to over use raw suspense, and simply use it as either an addition of flavor to an otherwise straight forward campaign, or to introduce the player into one of the following emotional states.
Dread is the sick, twisted sister of good ol’ fashioned suspense. The main difference between dread and suspense is that dread is anticipation of something terrible to happen – with a near certainty that is going to occur.
Whereas suspense is a gamble, dread is almost a certainty, a building fear that something terrible is bound to occur within the imminent future. However, the variable nature of the fear or the fact it has never been experienced is what makes it so potent. In our real lives, uncertainty and dread typically circulate events such as deaths in the family or break-ups, things which we may have never experienced before and be anticipating to be so terrible that we are more afraid of them in theory than they end up being in reality. However, for dread to be really, truly dread, there must be a component of hope, combatting it, keeping us engaged, for the sheer chance that perhaps the terrible consequence will not truly happen in our life.
In order to truly engage this in the game, the Game Master must have consequences that the player perceives as terrible enough to fear – but more than simply having terrible potential consequences, the Game Master must present them in such a way as to invoke and build this dread, so that, in an ideal world, the creatures and consequences that exist in the players head far outweigh that of the Game Masters actual devices.
Take a look at the following clip from Jaws (1975) – noting how we as the audience know what danger the character is in, and how that creates dread…
Revulsion is the natural, disturbing response we have to something strange – something outside of our basic understanding of the world. It is the reason we scream when we are startled or look away from that which we see as gross or disgusting.
It is the cheapest and easiest thing for most movies or tv shows to appeal to, because of their ability to use make up and special effects to generate it. The simple act of changing the lighting to make a face look dead, disfigured or like a predator can be used to invoke in us an immediate discomfort.
But, revulsion has the shortest half life of any of the above mentioned fears. If someone spends any degree of time looking at something that really scares them, over the course of a few minutes, their mind will justify it and it will lose it’s terrifying effect on them. Furthermore – with a tabletop game, it has the least effect, since, at best, the terrifying creature is just a miniature on the board with a picture next to it.
Therefore, revulsion must be used incredibly sparingly, and only enough that the group feels adequately spooked – and ready to be spooked more. One does not need to reinvent the wheel on creating a “monster,” but we shall talk later in this article how to create “monsters” that actually make your parties skin crawl.
The following clip from the Twilight Zone reveals a “revolting” reveal which brings the audience face to face with some unpleasant thoughts on beauty standards.
Psychological Fear (Terror)
All fear is, of course psychological. That being said, the three fears described above are far simple to truly define and manipulate – psychological fear is simply this – getting in your players heads.
If you can get your players second guessing doors and one another, looking closely or rushing through different rooms because of their own overactive imaginations, you have succeeded. Once the dungeon, house or the entire campaign is treated with higher caution and suspicion because of the players personal fear or when your players gasp, learning more startling clues about a mystery they are willingly chasing, and nervously proceed through the dungeon is when you shall know you have succeeded.
True psychological fear and terror succeeds when the player is experiencing the majority of the aforementioned things are occurring. The following is a short clip from Dr. Who, which should make you feel a bit more comfortable…
I lied – hopefully you are now on edge and awake. In my experiences, the winning formula for an effectively terrifying table top game involves carefully administering different stimulus to best create a truly frightening game experience!
Step 3: Prepare Your Game
PPPPPP- Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance! A good GM knows this, and has therefore a good idea of what he or she is going to do as they prepare for the group to begin an encounter – but, we propose the following questions to ask yourself and know the answers to the following questions inside and out.
What/who is THE monster?
A monster is not necessarily a singular creature or even a specific creature, but it is an essential component of any horror setting. The monster can be anything from Jason Bateman, to the Blob, and so long as it is the primary adversary who menaces the group, and the target of the game. In some cases, the house or dungeon itself may be the monster.
When designing your monster, remember, you do not need to reinvent the wheel, the trick to making a monster as believable as possible is knowing every facet of it’s behavior and being able to relate that to the players in a manner which scares them. It’s not what hides under your bed, but what you think hides under there.
That being said, having a set of “rules” for your monster is huge – because it prevents your creature from simply being a list of all your random scary ideas that come to your mind, and will engage your party better. The unknown is terrifying, but one must have a slight hope that they might actually “figure it all out” in order to be properly terrified by the gravity of the monster.
Here are some archetypes for horror monsters which have been used, and can be used again:
The Eldritch Monstrosity
Some days you have to just shrug, sigh, and remember that Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.
The absolute embodiment of the unknown, darkness and all associated with insanity, Eldritch monsters serve as the villians in the majority of horror associated with H.P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulu.
Why are they scary? The sheer grotesqueness of the creatures is a part of their terrifying nature, but the greater sense is what they represent – their own personal complete indifference to the existence or the world around them.
How to use them in your adventure? Have a cult and don’t know who the cult worships? Pick and Eldritch monstrosity. In fact – here is a list from Wikipedia of a bunch of Old Gods for inspiration.
Immersion Idea: Remember, less is more – the mere mention of the Old Gods should evoke a will save for the player who says it, with a consequence if they fail.
This creature is from the darkness, and therefore operates outside of you humans and your petty “morality.” Demons can be a great tool when looking for a terrifying villain, and because of their “supernatural” existence you can use them in a variety of terrifying ways.
Why are they scary? Demons are scary for a variety of reasons. For some, they are terrifying because of religious beliefs and we highly recommend checking to make sure your players haven’t reported any sort of experience with demons in real life before you incorporate them in your horror – whether or not they truly have, you don’t want to evoke any problems for your players accidentally.
But, for the majority of the world (believers and non believers), demons are scary because of what they represent and the fact they are typically associated with pure evil. Because of their associations, everyone immediately assumes that a demon is BAD – use this to your advantage and build up some suspense with them.
How to use them in your adventure? It may be tempting to simply have a “big scary demon” that the party fights, and while there is nothing wrong with that, one of the scariest things about demons is the way that they could theoretically get into characters heads and play into fears. Try having them possess otherwise “innocent” objects like baby dolls to make your players truly squirm.
Immersion Idea: Find one aspect of the demon, be the way it speaks, the way it smells and find a way to mimic that in the game room. If you really want to spook the players, have it possess something “innocent” and have a similar thing in the room your players are playing in.
The Worst A Human Can Become
From the Joker to Patrick Bateman to some more depressing real life examples, humanity has a dark side – and often times that dark side can be just as terrifying as any existential demon.
Why are they scary? These sort of “monsters” are scary for two main reasons. Number one – they really exist. We have documented cases of terrifying serial killers and despots – making them one of the most believable “monsters.” Secondly – they represent what we could become if we decided to walk on the darker side of the path for a bit…
How to use them in your adventure? Even if your “big bad” isn’t a human, add a few of these in – it’s always nice for the characters to interact with someone who was at least a bit like them.
Immersion Idea: Really perfect the way this character talks. Make it either disarmingly cheerful or depressingly pessimistic, and stick with it. It will unnerve your players to noF end if the character just won’t shut up and continues mocking and taunting them.
The Misguided Murderer
It’s for your own good! You all must die! You’ll see it’s for the best – I’m really just saving you from yourselves! This sort of murderer might be a full fledged psychopath, or a relatable character (perhaps a squishy NPC friend of the parties) who has gone completely nuts and either become part of the villians army or is in fact the ultimate evil.
Why are they scary? You really don’t feel like killing them – but they REALLY feel like killing you. The moral decisions in dealing with these sort of villians evokes worst case scenarios for your players to contemplate.
How to use them in your adventures? Not every NPC must go crazy and murder everyone – but the occasional one makes for a roarin’ good time! Possession is a good way to set this off, and give your characters a decision to truly make with consequences.
Immersion Idea: Flesh out these characters motivations and make them as relateable as possible. Leave clues to why they are doing what they are doing and encourage the party to role play with them.
If you need still more creature ideas – check out this great list by Geek & Sundry.
What is the setting?
In horror, the setting is one of the key elements to truly terrify your players. Think of the the Hotel in the Shining, or the Haunted House level in Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines – in each of these, the setting was more important than even the terrible curse or creature that lurked within.
In order to successfully scare your players, you must KNOW your setting – and then only let on a little about it as you continue and allow them to truly investigate and explore and learn more about the terrifying nature.
The truth is that ANYWHERE can serve as a good setting for a horror campaign – but the trick is setting it up that it has a distinct element to it – if the setting is too otherworldly, you will lose the players connection, but if it is too plain, they may not find it engaging in the least.
For beginner Horror GMs, we highly recommend you either choose a setting that is either already designed and create your monster specifically, or choose an existing creepy monster and focus heavily on the design of the setting.
For more advanced dungeon masters, consider designing the two together in some sense – for example, if your villain is “The Worst a Human Can Become,” perhaps you start with an asylum and design it to be filled of traps designed by the nut case who took over the asylum and is waiting to kill anyone who enters.
There are hundreds of great horror settings, but the trick is this – choose one that may or may not have been used before – and change just one or two things, and watch as the party explores and discovers the discrepancy.
How will you keep the players engaged in the setting?
This may come as shock to you, dear reader, but occasionally, Dungeons and Dragons players do not take the game very seriously. If the players do not care, than they will mostly likely not be engaged in enough in the setting or story that you are hoping to weave.
The majority of strategies for keeping people interested will come into play here – and here is a great post by Dungeons Master on the matter. Once your players have committed to playing in the setting and experiencing it – they have opened themselves up to the disbelief, the excitement and the immersion – it is your job to provide it for them.
Here are some tips for keeping your players engaged in your horror setting:
Make it about THEM. Whenever possible, make the story about their characters. Whenever possible, prod them into exploring their own backstories and roleplay characters with NPC questions.
Make them actually THINK. Throw in a few real puzzles and a few real riddles.
Let them know in advance that their characters could actually die – and follow through! If the experience doesn’t have any danger, it feels hollow, and will fall apart.
Add Immersion Gimmicks wherever possible – if the bard is playing a lute, play a lute on your speakers. If a door creaks, make the noise with a soundboard or your own effects.
The bottom line is this – GIVE YOUR PLAYERS A CHANCE TO GET REALLY ATTACHED TO THEIR CHARACTERS – AND THEN PUT THEIR CHARACTERS IN DANGER.
How will you build suspense and dread?
Suspense, as previously mentioned, is the feeling of anticipation or tension. A group may feel suspense during any sort of battle, because something good or terrible might come. For your horror game, add some skill perception checks – give your players good things when they roll well, and some terrible stuff when they role poorly.
If you truly want to add dread, try incorporating the following gimmick (Stolen from the Horror RPG dread) – get a set of Jenga blocks – stack them up – and tell the players that they are carrying these blocks and they have been cursed so that whoever knocks them over will DIE in game – and every time they attempt an action outside of their characters comfort zone – they must take a block and put it on the top.
How will you revolt the players?
Dread will only really increase if players feel that there can be revolting, terrifying consequences for their characters or them which may or may not happen. These can take the form of curses, injuries or kidnappings of non player characters. You may also “revolt” the players with startling reveals, noises and the like – but anything to obviously directed at the players runs the risk of decreasing, rather than increasing their immersion and engagement.
Here are some possible non player death consequences which players tend to care about:
Loss of or curse on magical item: i.e. your +1 shield keeps its bonus, but now rather than having the sign of a good aligned god, it depicts a horrible scene of a child being eaten alive by Asmodeus. The player must now choose.
Permanent Voices in Your Head: i.e. because of a failed will save, your character now receives secret voices in his or her head, and must roll to avoid following the commands in his head.
Kidnapping or Death of a Character from a PC’s Back Story: i.e. Thurbion the Paladin became a Paladin to create a better world for his little sister. Now she has been kidnapped and is going to be transformed into an undead if he does not stop it!
Disfigurement: i.e. the whole party, after escaping the dungeon, realizes they all have a huge glowing wart in the middle of their heads – clearly they must return to the dungeon to fix this, or forever deal with this disgusting ailment.
Horror in tabletop games only works if the players have agreed and are interested in a horror type experience. Remember the following rules, and you will doubtlessly have a good experience:
Less is more – the Unknown is the scariest thing there is, so only tell your party just enough to get them engaged and get them asking questions.
Set the ambience – play in a place which it makes sense to be scared – just like you wouldn’t tell scary stories in a loud, brightly lit room, don’t play a horror game in one.
Make it about the player characters! – Your players are the stars of the show – the more you get your players to commit to their characters and care about one another, the easier it will be to frighten them.
And most of all, remember D&D is meant to be fun – and if your players consent to a horror game, it is because they find being scared fun – so SCARE THEM!
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Originally published by Ed