Some of my favorite adventures have been horror themed sessions. Whether it was tracking down and finding ourselves at the whim of a murderous hag, or investigating a case of fishing town disappearances only to come across the abominations of a crazed inn keeper, some of my favorite moments in my RPG history have been during a horror session. In my opinion, horror adventures have the potential to bring out the best in Tabletop RPGs.
From funny moments of panic or comedy in the face of fear, genuine role-playing as characters come to terms with what’s really going on, to some of the most interesting fights where the players must come up with a plan to take out the threat, horror sessions have something for everyone. Even though horror adventures have a lot to offer, they’re definitely a niche aspect of Tabletop RPGs and can go awry or flop if not properly planned. Now while full horror campaigns are different case, If you’ve ever been interested in running a horror adventure/session, here are a few tips to keep in mind and get you going.
Keep it simple:
When it comes to the plot of the adventure and the enemy you choose to be the source of the horror, it’s better to keep things simple. If your monster’s plan is too complex or you decide to put too many plot points or twists and turns in the adventure, the horror and suspense of your adventure might get lost on the players as they focus too much on the plot than the setting and situation they find themselves in.
Think of some of the classic horror movies like Alien. The 1979 film is a classic science fiction horror that people love and have expanded on, but at its core, the horror of the movie is simple; a crew trapped on their ship as an unknown threat skulks through the ship as the crew fights for their lives. When considering your session’s plot, if you can’t describe the adventure and what the core aspect of the horror is in a sentence or two, then there’s a chance that your players might not fully comprehend and appreciate it while they’re playing.
There are no heroes, just survivors in the dark:
When writing the plot of your adventure, patience is the name of the game. Revealing your monster too early or letting your party immediately take the fight to the monster can ruin all of the horror and suspense you’ve tried to build. The monsters and your players shouldn’t strictly have a cat and mouse relationship, but one where the players have to take their time as they aren’t sure if they are the hunters or the hunted.
Slowly reveal the plot and the monster step by step so the players are always left in the partially in the dark. Up until their final confrontation, your players should never have the upper-hand; heroes don’t make for scary stories. If your party is always a step behind the monster or at a disadvantage, taking real action becomes dangerous and the players will fear that they may not be up to the task. Finally, when it comes to the end of the adventure, resolve the conflict but be sure to keep things on a bittersweet note.
Even if the players manage to kill the monster, their victory should not be heroic but a reminder of what they’ve lost. For example, in our recent D&D campaign, we had an adventure where we were tracking down a series of disappearances which we later discovered to be the work of a hag. Even though we managed to defeat her, at the end of the fight all we were left with was a dead hag and a cave full of devoured corpses. While we had won, no one in the party felt proud as what remained was to inform the town of the loss of their loved ones and the baby we were too late to save. By having a bittersweet ending where the party aren’t heroes from their victory, but survivors, you can make the horror of your adventure sink in and remain even after the battle is done.
Give them downtime:
The downtime during a horror adventure is just as important as the scary parts and the action. Players need time to let them understand their situation and let the horror sink in. If the party is always on the case or if the GM is constantly throwing things at them, there isn’t any room for the suspense that makes horror adventures so fun.
Giving the players some downtime will them to give them a chance to try to figure out a plan to take out your monster and fit in meaningful role-playing as the player characters struggle to come to terms with the threat how to possibly tackle it. Downtime is also a good way to expand on the mundane horror of the situation and raise their fear. For example, in our D&D hag adventure, after we learned that it was a hag kidnapping those who had good fortune, the hag made sure to leave trails of severed ears, bloody runes, and whispers in the wind wherever we went, and specifically when we retired to the inn for the night. Even when we weren’t doing anything, the hag was always watching and toying with us.
By having the threat and horror always there, but knowing to keep it in the background, our GM always kept our party scared and on edge, waiting and fearing for when the hag would quit playing and strike.
Make it personal but not critical:
While movies and novels often have a “fight for your life” as a key aspect of horror, every genre of RPG has combat or a risk to a party member’s life. In the case of RPGs, your monster needs to be more threatening than just a threat to the party members. One of the best ways to do this is to hit the characters where it hurts, right in the backstory. If possible, try to find a common theme shared in your party’s backstory (if your party backstories are all over the place, then settle for at least find a theme shared by two characters).
Try to shake your players to their core by having the monster target their insecurities. But like we said before, the name of the game is patience and restraint. Don’t tear down the characters too much to the point where they find themselves in a critical position. Keep your players invested in their hate of the monster and the corruption of what they hold dear, but not too scared to decide to either immediately go in for the kill or abandon the other NPC victims to their fate.
If you’re interested in running a horror adventure in your campaign, or even a horror one-off, I encourage you to try to keep a couple of these tips in mind when considering your plot and monster. Just like all TTRPGs, learning how to GM a proper horror genre takes a bit of time as you learn how to best implement and maintain the suspense and horror in your game. Keep with it though and I hope you get to see just what I love about horror games and all the fun the party can have getting their asses scared off.