Creating Awesome Characters

Wizards of the Coast

How do you go about creating a character in D&D?

Most of us follow the step-by-step approach in Chapter 1 of the Player’s Handbook. We roll stats, we choose a class, a race, and a background, and we pick out equipment and spells. We might shake up the order a bit, but I imagine this is where most of us start.

What if someone told you that none of this really mattered that much?

In praise of human fighters

In fantasy fiction, there is no character more common than a human fighter.

In A Song of Ice and Fire, Jaime Lannister is a human fighter. So is the Hound. So is Oberyn Martell. Boromir is a human fighter in The Lord of the Rings. So is Aragorn. So is Éowyn. They are all fantastic characters, but in D&D terms, they are the same class and race. Not only that, but they are probably the most ‘vanilla’ race and class in the game. Being a human fighter doesn’t have to be boring.

via Twitter (@DMEducational)

In the same vein, unusual race-class combinations don’t make your character interesting. Or rather, they don’t necessarily make your character interesting. Plenty of great fantasy characters would have had an unusual race or class if they had existed in D&D. Smaug, Treebeard, and Gollum are definitely not human fighters, and they’re great: but it’s not being a dragon, ent treant, or a skinny, grey fish-chomper that makes them memorable or special. If the only interesting thing about your barbarian is the fact that he or she is a gnome . . . well, that’s probably not going to be interesting forever.

(It’s the same reason why I’m sceptical about the ever expanding list of playable races in 5e D&D. As of writing, we now have elephant-people, lion-people, cat-people, hyena-people, snake-people, fish-people, two kinds of birdpeople, and seven kinds of elf: yeesh. Your world isn’t more interesting just because it looks like a Mos Eisley cantina. In fact, I would go even further: the less human your character is, the less real they seem, the less we empathize with them, and, ultimately, the less we care about what happens them.)

From a mechanical standpoint, race, class, equipment, spells etc can all make a character interesting to play. But from a roleplaying perspective, you need something more.

It’s the difference between character and characterization.

Choices under pressure

What’s the most important part of your character sheet? Your ability scores? Skill proficiencies? Inventory? Spell list? Hit points?

I would argue that it’s this bit, here:

It’s a section many of us don’t think about too much, tucked away in a corner of the character sheet somewhere. It’s often an afterthought: we pick a few ideas from the background tables in the Player’s Handbook or roll it randomly, but it’s not very important to us. Some players don’t even fill it in at all, and never plan to.

In D&D, I think of race, class, equipment and so on as characterization: attributes. And that’s just for starters. You could also add stuff like backstory, appearance, height and weight, age, family, friends. Don’t get me wrong: this stuff matters enormously. When you introduce someone for the first time, this is the stuff you tend to lead with in your description of them. But it’s still not character.

Robert McKee is an author and lecturer. His students include Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo), Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby), and Peter Jackson (yes, that one). He calls character this: the choices we make under pressure. Fiction is driven by conflict, and it’s when we push our characters into difficult situations that we really start to know who they are. What motivates them? What are their values? What are their dreams? What are they most afraid of? What will they kill for? Who will they die for? Without these internal conflicts, our characters are a detailed description, but flat, hollow. It is not until we reveal their deepest internal conflicts that we start to breathe life into our characters.

This is something that Fate Core really appreciates. In Fate, when you make a character, you define their ‘high concept’ first and their ‘trouble’ second, and your trouble should be something that complicates your character’s existence in a significant, meaningful way: a dark impulse, a problematic relationship, a temptation, a personal struggle. To some extent, the ‘trouble’ in D&D is externalized (‘whatever the DM throws at us’) or randomized (‘my low Dexterity makes me clumsy and slow’), but is that enough on its own? If you want your character to be engaging, convincing, developed, and unique, start with the internal conflict.

This article is already getting a bit long, so I will keep the next bit short.

Tips and tricks

  • Work with your DM. Tie your character’s story to the game world.
  • Move away from the random tables in the Player’s Handbook, brilliant though they are. See what you can come up with yourself.
  • Your flaw should be an actual problem. This isnt like the platitudes we spout in job interviews (‘I work too hard! I’m just too kind!’). Every character has a darkness in their soul, so what’s yours?
  • Turn off the gamist part of your brain for a moment and think about your character as a living, breathing human being (yes, even if they are kenku sorcerer or what have you). Whether they’re aliens, robots, dragons, or talking animals, we interpret all characters through a human lens.
  • If you’re stuck, start with alignment and ask this: ‘if this is my character 90 percent of the time, what would tempt them away from it?’ Is your Lawful Good paladin tempted by ambition (Macbeth)? Will your Neutral Evil queen do anything to protect her children (Cersei Lannister)?
  • There is no shame in stealing ideas from film, TV, books, and video games. I particularly like Game of Thrones for this, as it has a huge cast of rich, complex characters.
  • None of this means anything if you see it as a finished product. A good character will grow and change: a bad character will stay the same.
  • Despite everything above: maybe you don’t care that much about the story of the game. That’s OK. But if so, think about your role in the team. If you see D&D as a game first and a story second, maybe you should play a character who is tactically interesting but won’t hog the spotlight as the leader or party face.

What really matters

At the start of this article, I suggested that race, class, background and so forth don’t really matter that much. It was meant provocatively, of course. D&D is a fantasy roleplaying game, and from a gamist perspective, these decisions matter a great deal. However: if you’re interested not just in playing a great game but in telling great stories, then characters matter, and great characters are more than a cool race-class combination.

Planning a Campaign Story

Wizards of the Coast

When planning a game of Dungeons & Dragons, a DM has to consider the short term, the mid term, and the long term.

In our context, ‘short term’ means encounters: short scenes based around combat, exploration, or social interaction. ‘Mid term’ would be an adventure: a series of encounters linked together. ‘Long term’, then, depending on your scope, is either a story arc or a campaign.

Planning a campaign from 1st level to 20th is not an easy undertaking. Tellingly, since 5th edition began, Wizards of the Coast have only published one complete adventure of this length, and that’s the Tyranny of Dragons storyline. (I suppose you could make a case for Dragon Heist and Mad Mage, too, but they don’t really form a connected ‘arc’ in the same way.) Mapping out a whole storyline over 100+ hours of play is a challenge. Before we move on, it’s worth considering why this is, and whether we should approach roleplaying games differently to other forms of storytelling.

Roleplaying games as a form

Roleplaying games are not just a ‘genre’ of fiction: they are a distinct form. And if we reflect on what makes this form unique, we start to appreciate why it is so difficult to plan a roleplaying game over the long term.

Two things make roleplaying games unusual.

Firstly, they are collaborative. A DM doesn’t play the game on their own: the players create the narrative, too. It is a shared story.

Secondly, they are unpredictable. No other form of storytelling relies on dice rolls and random chance to determine where it is going next.

The problem with planning a D&D campaign over the long term is that it overlooks these two fundamentals. Collaboration and unpredictability make RPGs fun. Without collaboration and unpredictability, you essentially have a railroad, with the DM pushing the players through their own pre-written narrative. That might be fun for some people, but it rather misses the point of what a roleplaying game sets out to do. It owes more to novel-writing than shared storytelling, and ultimately robs the players of their freedom to choose, which isn’t very fun.

At the same time, a series of disconnected adventures can start to feel a bit purposeless. If you care at all about the story of your game (and some players don’t, and that’s cool), then you probably want to see causality: ‘this happened because this happened.’ You probably want to see change, conflict. You want to see character growth. How does that happen in a game of D&D if there’s no long-term plan?

‘Don’t prep plots’

Wizards of the Coast

One of the best essay series I have read about RPGs is ‘Don’t Prep Plots’ by Justin Alexander. Sly Flourish has recently written a similar post on ‘Building Situations in D&D’ and the idea of letting go of defined encounters. Both posts are well worth reading in their entirety, but the central thrust is this: a D&D game is better off with a looser approach to planning.

To play D&D is to improvise, and if you’re the DM, you are probably going to do a good deal more improvisation than the players. Embrace this: don’t try to curtail it. If you go into a session thinking ‘the characters are going to do this, then this, then this’ then you are essentially going in with the intention of removing player agency. Stop. Much better to use the lazy approach from Sly Flourish: start strong, come up with a few key scenes and secrets, jot down a few encounter ideas and treasure parcels, then see where the players take you. It can be nerve-wracking at first, but the more you adapt to this approach, the more fun it is for the players and you.

However, this only really covers short- and mid-term planning. We’ve said that we want to see causality, conflict, change, character development. If we only plan one session at a time, how does that happen?

Emergent narratives

Even if you don’t plot a whole campaign, a story will emerge over time.

When you think about it, this is how stories work in real life (that is, in non-fiction). History isn’t plotted, but by looking at the past, we can trace how a series of interconnected triggers can lead to massive change. In fact, it is one of the great lessons of history that a seemingly random and unpredictable event can change everything that happens next, just like a fluky die roll in D&D. How many of us would have predicted in 2010 that, a decade later, Donald Trump would be US president, the UK would be leaving the EU, and a deadly coronavirus would be sending the whole planet into lockdown? These stories weren’t plotted: they emerged. And in 100 years time, they will be part of our human story, just like World War I and the industrial revolution and other complex historical events.

You don’t need a plotted narrative to have a fantastic D&D campaign. But there is one more trick I would recommend if you are looking for an overarching narrative in your games.

20 levels of story beats

Wizards of the Coast

I have written before about the concept of story beats: originally a concept in filmmaking but now increasingly relevant in RPGs, largely thanks to Robin D Laws. Beats are the transition points or building blocks of a narrative, and while you can’t necessarily plan a plot for your campaign, you can certainly think about its beats. In 5th edition D&D, story beats overlap fairly neatly with the transitions between tiers of play (DMG 36).

What follows is adapted from Blake Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat!’ beat sheet, but adjusted for D&D using the guidelines in the DMG for session-based advancement (p 261). That is to say, I am working on the basis that a typical group gets through the first few levels of play quite quickly, and thereafter spends two to three sessions between levels. Your mileage may vary.

Two disclaimers. Firstly, you might be tempted to use this as a fairly rigid structure. In doing so, you run the risk of railroading and all the problems that come with it. Forecast, don’t plan. Secondly, most campaigns don’t hit level 20, and that’s fine. In fact, many campaigns don’t get much past Tier 1. You could adjust this structure for a shorter campaign and it would work just as well.

So, here goes: a 20-level guide to planning a long-term campaign.

The beat sheet

1. Think of the game in terms of three acts: setup, rising action, climax. These correspond roughly to Tier 1, Tiers 2 and 3, and Tier 4.

2. The game begins at 1st level, but don’t feel pressured to start the story immediately. For the first few levels, let the players learn about each other’s characters: show them what the world is like before their adventures begin.

3. At some point towards the end of Tier 1 – I would suggest 4th level – introduce some kind of catalyst or inciting incident. Think of this as your ‘no going back’ moment: a call to adventure. Here again, take your time. Give your players a chance to ask: ‘now what?’ and mull over the next steps.

4. Think of ‘Act 2’ as starting around 6th level. This is where you can really start to expand your world and introduce new allies, enemies, and mentors. Most characters receive a significant power boost around this time, progressing from ‘local heroes’ to ‘heroes of the realm’. Try to end Tier 2 with some kind of midpoint. A false victory works well here: the players think things are going great, but they are actually about to get a whole lot worse.  

5. From Tier 3 onwards, the players are over half-way through the story. This is where the bad guys close in and the world starts to unravel. If there’s going to be a moment when the heroes hit rock bottom, save it for the end of Tier 3. As with the inciting incident in Tier 1, give the players a chance to react to this: a ‘dark night of the soul’, where all seems lost.    

6. Tier 4 is your finale. The heroes realize what they need to do and face their foes once and for all. The last four levels of the game focus entirely on the drama of the heroes’ final plan and the showdown with the antagonists.

In summary:

  • forecast, don’t plan;
  • embrace improvisation;
  • let the players lead you.

If nothing else, allow the narrative to emerge naturally. Like a good wine, a narrative needs to breathe, so let things take their time.

Pros and cons of online play

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many of us will have moved our D&D games online recently. Others have been playing online for a while, though, either because our friends have moved away or because modern life just makes online play easier than getting a group together in person.

Online play is not without its challenges, of course. That said, it can also bring with it certain advantages, and, done properly, it can be almost as fun as live play. In this article, I’m going to suggest some ways of making online play enjoyable and offer some reflections on the opportunities it brings.

Pros: technology

For some players, online play is the only way of making D&D happen. Over the last four years, I have played and DMed online with a group of ten other people (not all at once, of course), and it is only since January that we have all been playing regularly in the same time zone. (I think the record may have been six players in three different countries.)

Virtual tabletops (VTTs) have come on leaps and bounds in recent years. After an initial learning curve, we are now very happy with Fantasy Grounds as our platform of choice, although some of us have branched out to Roll20 on occasion and found it fairly intuitive. Fantasy Ground has the edge in terms of its ‘effects’ coding (more on this in a moment), but Roll20 benefits from built-in support for audio and video. Some of my friends have switched to Foundry, and I’ve also heard good things about Astral. Similarly, though, I have also played some really fun games with nothing but Skype, Discord, or Google Hangouts.

Once you know your way around Fantasy Grounds, you start to appreciate how much of the game can be automated. From Tier 2 onwards, D&D has the potential to become increasingly ‘tactically rich’ – ie, complicated – and even experienced players can start to overlook things. With a good VTT, more and more of the game can be left to run in the background. Conditions, spells, class features, magic item effects: with a bit of know-how, you can set these up to run in perpetuity, or even code in ‘triggers’ based on if-statements. It’s also nice to manage big dice rolls with a single click: no more waiting for the wizard to add up the eight d6s for fireball.

When I ran the finale of Tomb of Annihilation at the end of October – and if you haven’t been lucky enough to play it yet, let’s just say it happens around 10th level and there is a lot going on – two of the players joined me to play the session in person, and the other three joined us online. But here’s the thing: all six of us continued playing with Fantasy Grounds because it’s just such a useful tool at higher levels. The Avrae bot for Discord offers similar functionality, although, having started with Fantasy Grounds, we haven’t really needed to switch to something new (yet).

Playing online can also give you easy access to other technologies like virtual character sheets, searchable rulebooks, and evocative background music. Many of these tools can be employed equally effectively at the game table, of course, and you see many DMs doing exactly this in their liveplay videos on Twitch and YouTube.

Cons: technology

Make sure your IT is up to scratch

If technology is a boon, it can also be a curse. Connection difficulties, poor sound quality, slow internet speeds, unintuitive interfaces: these things can rapidly sap the fun out of online D&D, and need to be addressed preemptively, if possible.

I’m not knowledgeable enough about computer technology to start recommending webcams, microphones, ISPs, and so on. Every participant needs to test out their equipment ahead of time and find what works for them. It’s worth agreeing beforehand how you plan to handle connection issues: do you play on, pause for a few minutes, or ‘bubble’ the character until they return? It’s also worth pointing out that some players will have more luck with their phone camera than they will with their laptop’s built-in webcam. So, experiment: find the solutions that work for you. For example, we have one player in our group who cannot use Discord without his audio going haywire, for some reason. Hangouts and Roll20 work fine for him, though, so we just use that.

Playing online is also perilous because you are constantly surrounded by distractions. It can be hard to resist the temptation of emails, social media, and online shopping while you are waiting for your turn to come round. There are a number of ways to minimize this, however, as I explain below.

Tricks of the trade

For all the technological benefits a VTT can provide, online play can be slow. Really slow. It can take a while for players to click through their character sheets to the right section, and if you are playing with a grid, dragging tokens around on a map will never be as fast or as satistfying as moving miniatures across a table.

One solution: streamline the game. Yes, some players will balk at this, but at the end of the day, rule zero of D&D is having fun, and for some players, there comes a point where it’s worth sacrificing tactical depth for speed of play. Some suggestions, then:

  • Keep the group small (maybe three or four players);
  • Let players roll physical dice;
  • Switch to group initiative;
  • Tell players the AC of the enemies after one or two rounds;
  • Use static monster damage;
  • Abstract large encounters with the DMG mob rules;
  • Run more combat in theatre of the mind;
  • Fudge hit points where it satisfies the narrative;
  • Rule in the players’ favour where possible.

‘Theatre of the mind’ might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but in 5th edition, playing with a grid is technically optional. I recommend theatre of the mind for online play. Gridded combat has its place, particularly with complex boss battles, but it can definitely be dispensed with for most fights when playing online. Whether it’s more enjoyable to play without a grid is something for you and your group to discuss and decide upon.

Final thoughts

Wizards of the Coast

In this article, I’ve largely focused on the issues that are unique to online play. Many of the issues that affect online D&D are just as much of a problem offline, but they do tend to be amplified when playing over the internet. In closing, then, a few words of caution for players and DMs who want to move their game online:

Players: be ready on your turn. Learn how your character’s class features work. Save rules disputes until after the session. Listen to the DM. Try not to talk over other players. Don’t hog the spotlight (and if you don’t know who the spotlight hog is in your group: could it be you?).

DMs: relax. Be generous. Listen to the players. Try not to talk over other players. Don’t hog the spotlight. And read the room! This is so much hardler online, so consider an occasional survey to gauge how you’re getting on (I plan to do an entire article on this at some point).

The issues that come with online play are largely preventable, and, handled properly, a VTT can even enhance your game. Give it a try!

Diablo D&D

Blizzard Entertainment

Last Monday marked the 20th anniversary of Diablo II. What a game!

Back when it was released in 2000, it was the fastest selling computer game ever. It is still highly regarded and has appeared on numerous ‘best of’ lists, including Time’s ‘50 Best Video Games of All Time’ list in 2016.

Diablo has a very distinctive (and fun) playstyle, which could definitely work well in 5th edition D&D. However, it requires a few tweaks to pull off.

Tone and flavour

The original Diablo takes place entirely within the town of Tristram. The player has to hack their way through 16 levels of dungeons beneath the cathedral until they face off with the Lord of Terror himself, Diablo.

Diablo II expands the world of Sanctuary considerably. Act II takes place in a desert city, Lut Gholein, and Act III goes to Kurast, a corrupted city on the edge of a jungle. The expansion, Lord of Destruction, adds a fifth act set in the icy wastes and caves of Mount Arreat.

Despite this changing scenery, however, the game never loses its dark and gothic atmosphere, so any D&D adaptation needs to keep this front and centre. Whatever the setting, there needs to be a constant sense of gloom and dread. I wrote recently about some of the ways DMs can achieve this, but for our purposes we would be most interested in description and choice of monsters. Feel free to reskin here. Goblins could become fallen, for example, and gnolls could become goatmen.

Fast play

Wizards of the Coast

When Diablo II was released in 2000, Wizards of the Coast partnered with Blizzard Entertainment to produce a number of D&D tie-ins. Bill Slavicsek and Jeff Grubb produced a ‘Diablo II Fast-Play Game’ based on the rules for 2nd-edition AD&D (3rd edition was released later that year).

The name here is telling. Hack and slash play needs to be fast to be fun, and for a tabletop game to be fast, it also needs to be streamlined (ie, simplified). But here’s the rub: a Diablo-style game also has the potential to become more complex because it adds things like skill trees, loot, and mobs of enemies, so a D&D Diablo game is going to need a few tricks.

In terms of skill trees, there’s no need to change much about D&D as written. Feats and subclasses are specialization enough. But in regard to making your game play faster, I highly recommend some of the tips from Sly Flourish. If you want to run a Diablo-style adventure, give the following articles read:

Grid-based combat has its place. So, too, does rolling initiative and rolling monster damage. For many groups, they are habits formed after many years of playing different editions of D&D. However: if you want to give your players the feeling that they can mow through hordes of enemies with gusto, consider a grid-free approach.

Fast play does not have to mean fast progression, of course. Diablo has an absurdly high level cap compared to D&D, so there’s no need to gun through all 20 levels at once. If you’re used to milestone levelling, I would suggest going back to traditional XP for this style of game. It’s a better way of tracking the scale of the slaughter.

Loot, loot, and more loot

Blizzard Entertainment

The designers of 5th edition deliberately moved away from the magic item economics of 4th edition and 3.5. Magic items are now meant to be more meaningful: unique, special. But in Diablo, magic items are everywhere.

It’s easy to overthink magic items. In reality, if adding too many magic items makes the game ‘unbalanced’, it’s easy enough to ‘rebalance’ things by fielding harder encounters. In a Diablo-style game, most encounters will be large mobs of individually easy opponents, so it is relatively painless for a DM to keep adding enemies to the fight until the players start to feel the pinch.

So: go with what feels right. If you want to start giving out a few magic items at 1st level, try it out. If it makes them too powerful, throw more enemies at them. Rinse and repeat. That said, the number of magic items is not as important as their rarity. If you give out ‘very rare’ magic items in Tier 1, other magic items are going to feel less interesting as a result, so take care.

However, one important part of Diablo loot is its randomness. To that end, consider using random magic item tables like the ones in Chapter 7 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, or online versions like this great tool from Donjon. I would suggest rolling at least 50 percent more often than in a regular D&D campaign. Consider rolling hoards in advance, also, to save time.

One more suggestion: don’t use gems and art objects. Don’t use copper, silver, electrum, etc. Stick to gold. In a hack-and-slash game, gold is fine.

Other variant rules

There are more than 90 optional rules in the core rulebooks. These variants are ‘dials’ you can turn to fine-tune the game to your specifications. So, which rules work well for a Diablo-style game?

  • Healing Surges (p 266). This was standard for all characters in 4th edition and will help your characters live longer. You could even let characters use healing surges as a bonus action if you want to make players feel truly invincible.
  • Rest Variants: Epic Heroism (p 267). Who rests in Diablo? No one, that’s who! If resting is faster, you can throw even more baddies at your party.
  • Cleaving through Creatures (p 272). Fun, fast, full of flavour.
  • Spell Points (p 288). Controversial, this one. It may be a bit less balanced. However, if you want to recreate the feel of ‘mana’, this is certainly one way to do it.

If you have access to Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, you might also want to give players the option of crafting, buying, and selling magic items (pp 128, 126, and 133 respectively). For many players, this is a huge part of Diablo, and it gives them something to do in town and a way to spend their gold.

Tying it all together

Blizzard Entertainment

Whether you want to run a Diablo-style one-shot or a 20-level campaign, it’s worth thinking how to bring this all together.

  • Encounters. In Diablo, solo opponents are rare: usually very powerful bosses. Large mobs with waves and waves of opponents are the norm. Use Donjon’s Encounter Size Calculator to get a sense of what your party can cope with. If in doubt, go with many easy opponents over fewer, more challenging ones.
  • Adventures. Keep the focus simple. The first quest of Diablo II is literally ‘kill all the enemies in a cave’. In fact, most quests in the game can be boiled down to ‘kill enemy x’ or ‘retrieve enemy y’. The players aren’t looking for deep immersion roleplaying here. Consider rolling random dungeons from the appendices of the DMG. Pick a cool setting and run with it (caves, ruins, hell).
  • Campaigns. Whether or not you set your game in the world of Sanctuary is up to you. Other than a few settlements (Tristram, Lut Gholein, Kurast, Caldeum) most of the map is unexplored, so you still have creative freedom here. Given the more casual nature of a hack-and-slash campaign, you may want to adopt a more sandboxy West Marches model where players can drop in and out as they like.

Destruction awaits

If D&D to you is mainly about immersive roleplaying, rich backstories, political intrigue, and layered world-building . . . this maybe isn’t for you. But if it’s all about the ‘mayhem’ and the ‘sick loot’, give Diablo-style D&D a try!

Horror in D&D

Wizards of the Coast

Last month, the D&D team revealed that the next hardcover adventure would be Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, a tale of dark terror set in the far north of the Forgotten Realms. Chris Perkins is back in the driving seat as lead designer, having played a key role in both Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihilation, two of the most popular adventures in 5th edition. With John Carpenter’s The Thing being given as one of the primary influences, expectations are – understandably – running high.

What makes a great horror adventure? How can DMs pull of a fantastic horror campaign?

Why we love horror

Horror is a broad genre with ancient origins. Frankenstein was greatly influenced by the myth of Hippolytus, for example. There are stories about ghosts, demons, witches, and shapeshifters to be found all over the world. Horror taps into something primal. H P Lovecraft famously wrote that ‘the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear’, and ultimately, this is what we seek out in horror: a ‘controlled thrill’ like we might get from a rollercoaster, a catharsis that reminds us that we are alive.

Horror comes in different flavours, of course:

Gothic horror is probably the oldest subgenre of horror. It is preoccupied with atmosphere and strange settings, especially those that are menacing or mysterious. The gothic world is a place of isolation or imprisonment where the present is haunted by the past. Curse of Strahd is gothic, drawing as it does from the original Ravenloft module, which itself is heavily inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Wizards of the Coast

Cosmic horror, codified by H P Lovecraft, is probably its spiritual successor: an intensely pessimistic, almost nihilistic subgenre which revolves around humanity’s insignificance and powerlessness in the face of a vast, indifferent, indescribable, and unstoppable alien threat. In D&D, we see hints of this with monsters like aboleths, chuuls, and mind flayers.

Rime of the Frostmaiden sounds like it might be drawing on elements of psychological horror by introducing an intriguing new ‘secrets’ mechanic to sow paranoia and distrust among the players. Many of Stephen King’s novels are psychological horrors.

There are plenty of other horror subgenres that have never quite made it into mainstream D&D, such as survival horror (Resident Evil, Darkest Dungeon), religious horror (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist), and even slashers or splatter horror (John Carpenter’s Halloween, Friday the 13th). There’s no reason why they wouldn’t work, though, either as one-off adventures or as full-length campaigns.  

Session zero

If you want to run a horror adventure in D&D, or even a horror campaign, the first rule is this: run a session zero.

More than any other play style, horror needs agreed expectations and clear boundaries. Horror runs the gamut from silly pastiche to real terror, and people have different thresholds for what they enjoy. Talk about books, games, and films you like, the characters you want to play.

Similarly, horror can touch on issues that make people very uncomfortable. Curse of Strahd, for example, includes stereotypical (and arguably ableist) depictions of madness, women who are imprisoned and predated upon, and a mini-adventure, ‘Death House’, where there are references to both dead children and stillbirth. D&D is meant to be fun, and your table needs to be a safe place. Mistakes can still happen, of course, but talking things through in advance is definitely helpful.  

A session zero is also important because it helps you gauge buy-in. Creating a great atmosphere is as much the players’ responsibility as it is the DM’s, and if some people in your group aren’t really into it, that can make the game less fun for everyone else. You’re going to end up in trouble when one player wants to be an edgy Van Helsing–style undead hunter and another wants to play a Treehouse of Horror–inspired Dracula parody. As with any adventure, see what people want to play and try to find a compromise.

Horror at the table

How, then, do we make a horror adventure awesome? There are three things to think about: description, gameplay, and – for want of a better word – window dressing.

Describing horror

The introduction of Curse of Strahd features a really nice section called ‘Marks of Horror’ (page 7) which summarizes how to pull off a gothic atmosphere. In essence, it means drawing on established gothic tropes: the uncanny, the unknown, the sublime, the unnatural. Horror is often more unsettling if you hint at it and build up to it instead of describing it outright, so focus on sensory details. Less is more.

Another useful concept here is the idea of ‘story beats’, originally a concept from filmmaking but now equally relevant in game design and adventure writing. In Hamlet’s Hit Points, Robin D Laws uses this concept to track how stories move back and forth between hope and fear, using examples like Casablanca and Dr No to show how it works. Think about story beats in a horror adventure. Relentless, inescapable dread is ultimately unsustainable: you need hope, levity, and even humour in a horror story to balance out the bits that are most frightening. (Choose your moments, though. Curse of Strahd offers a fantastic climax in the catacombs of Castle Ravenloft, but the comedy names on the epitaphs – ‘Sir Klutz Tripalotsky’ the clumsy and the treacherous ‘Stahbal Indi-Bhak’, for example – somewhat undermine the atmosphere.)   

Lastly, it goes without saying, but draw as many ideas as you can from books, films, and video games. It’s not cheating: it’s inspiration.      

Game mechanics

If description is ‘fluff’, this is the ‘crunch’. Depending on the kind of horror you’re going for, the standard D&D rules might not work for you. Perhaps you want a low-magic campaign. Perhaps you want healing to be harder to come by, or you want to introduce lingering injuries. Perhaps you want to include rules for morale. Perhaps you need to include a Sanity score alongside the other six ability scores if madness is going to be a key theme of the campaign. Fortunately, the rules for all of these things can be found in Chapter Nine of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Think of them as ‘dials’ that you can tinker with in setting up your game.

Take care, though: some of these variant rules can have a very significant effect on the game. Talk them over with your group. Good description is often all you need to create a horror atmosphere.

The table

Horror is all about atmosphere, so the further you feel from the events of the game, the less scared you’re going to be. It’s pretty hard to take Strahd seriously when someone has just cracked open a can of Coke and sent a funny meme around on their phone, for example.

A good horror adventure doesn’t necessarily require everyone to dress up – that’s probably the boundary between D&D and LARPing – but it’s worth thinking a bit about what it feels like to play at the table. Is there music playing? What’s the lighting like? Could you light some candles or put up some pictures somewhere? Do you have any cool handouts? Are phones allowed? It all depends on your group of course, but for some players, these bits of window-dressing can really help immerse them in the game.

Horror: not just for Halloween

Horror isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, and it certainly doesn’t need to form the basis of a whole campaign. However, done well, it can be a fun change of pace from a more vanilla D&D setting.