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.