DM Advice: How to Run a Horror Session This Halloween

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Setup Ideas

Dim the Lights

The scariest thing about the dark is the uneasiness of not knowing your immediate surroundings. Kill the lights and fall back on candles or a single lamp.

Ambient Music

Use ambient music to set the scene. Some people find it annoying, but I’ve found that if you keep the volume at a reasonable volume (if you can’t talk over it comfortably, it’s too loud) and avoid music with lyrics like the plague, it works very well. The only exception to the no lyrics rule is if it fits within the paradigm of your session – ghastly moaning, cultic chanting, etc. While there are dozens of choices out there from websites to iTunes playlists to YouTube soundtracks, my personal favorite is Tabletop Audio. They even have a feature called SoundBoard that lets you drop custom sounds like footsteps, screams, wind, and creaking floorboards right into your session with very minimal fuss.

Props and Set Pieces

Skulls, webs, plastic spiders, fake blood, and the like can all be used to enhance your game session. Used properly, it can set the mood before the game, and encourage wandering eyes to remain in character. Unless your session is specifically comical, avoid laughable or funny props like plastic skeletons, toy spiders with cartoon eyes, and corny witches. Keep it creepy and haunting.

Tips On Running a Game

Maps, Markers, and Miniatures

Typically, I’ll refer the players to a hand drawn layout, city/world map, or the like for locational reference out of combat, and then switch to the battle map when initiative is rolled. I’m addicted to the flare of the miniatures on the table, using them to further flavor to the descriptions. But while I’ve found what works in my game, I haven’t always had the luxury of using minis, instead resorting to coins, counters, or dice to mark the positions of PCs and NPCs alike.

That said, if the combat map isn’t your thing, using descriptive narrative, enticing dialogue, and ultimately being confident at the table rivals the other way. See what works, and do what gets the best response out of your players (or simply the best for your budget).

Specifically, in a horror game, a map and miniatures can be used to enhance the feeling of placement within this world you create, in the form of evil vampires, ghastly banshees, or incredible beasts, all appropriately sized to the PCs. However, ditching the map and minis can also do wonders, immersing the players in their own imaginations, where your descriptions, narrations, pacing, and charisma can sell the environment and make them feel like they are actually there.

Choose the Style That Best Suits You

As I implied above, choose the game style that best fits your personality. While the choice between using minis, maps, or theatre of the mind (imagination-only) is completely up to you, I would strongly advise to think through the options in depth. Ask yourself “how is the best way I can tell this story to the players?”, and always remember that you can mix and match both depending on the situation.

If you definitely do not identify with the bard in public speaking and you aren’t quite fleet of tongue with your words, I would recommend using maps to help the players stay immersed with the game. If you were given the state award for Best Actor at seven and you love being the complete, utter center of the room, you might be able to (and even more comfortable) ditching the map and going theatre of the mind.

Keep in mind that the game style between these two opposites are very different, the former focusing more on position and tactical strategy while the latter heralds to roleplaying and player intent primarily.

Tips On Running a Horror Game

Force Them to Use Only the Edge of Their Seats

From the very get go, you want to immerse them in this new style, whether it is taking characters away from their usual game setting, bringing the madness to them, or starting fresh in a new horror game. You want to mess with their minds and turn the game on it’s head. Always have them guessing and looking over their shoulders, not knowing what to do next, until you have to…

…Pull the Rug Out From Under Them

Over time, the players are bound to “get the hang of it”. They begin to get bolder. They realize that they aren’t dead yet, and with all the things they’ve done up to this point, why should they be as afraid as they once were at the beginning?

It’s time to flip the script on them and pull the rug out. Change it all up, introduce a devious plot twist, reveal a devastating secret, introduce an absolutely mind-blowing adversary and always…

…Keep Them on Their Toes

Don’t let the game become stale. Don’t get repetitive. If it does, change that. Don’t just let them fight zombies over and over and over again. Liven the place up, add some new blood (pun intended), and let your creativity flag fly. Even in D&D 5e, there is a plethora of printed options to use in your games, and a limitless amount more in other books waiting to be converted or online waiting to be found. You never have the right to use the excuse, “But I can’t come up with anything!”, simply because the entire universe is full of material to go find.

Constantly throw new situations, people, monsters, environments, and more at them to keep them coming back again and again. Even if it is a one-shot (and all the more reason to), keep things moving, different, interesting, and fun to play. Change it up. Become the unexpected. Whenever they think that they’ve got an idea of what is going on, flip it. Stay in control and stay one step ahead of them.

Build the Tension

There are two forms of tension the occur throughout a game, the long-term tension and the short-term tension. The long-term tension, as I call it, is the big picture. Take Lord of the Rings, for instance. Frodo realizes in the beginning that the Ring must be destroyed, and that sets the tension for his journey from the Shire. As the story goes on, the stakes become higher and higher as more factions and players become involved, increasing the long-term, story-spanning tension.

The short-term tension is the little stuff and little conflicts, each dissecting the story into smaller arcs or mini episodes. Frodo leaves the Shire, but has a run in with Ringwraiths, which leads into an extended chase all the way to Bree. There is a small lull in the tension where they catch their breath in Bree, but then it begins to build again when the Ringwraiths catch their trail once more, leading to the eventual lull under Weathertop before the tension climax and battle at the top. The tension never quite drops until they reach Rivendell, but it goes up and down all the way there, and so forth. Employ the same methods in your adventure to make the epic encounters seem much more fantastic, and allow for the lulls for everyone to catch their breath before everything gets fast again.

Think of a dollar coaster. If you don’t have the downs to compliment the ups, it would be flat and everyone would get used to it, no matter how far from the ground it is.

Take Their Hero Cards Away

When you drop monsters into the scene normally, everyone usually assesses the situation but ultimately decides that if they are sticking around for the fight they can definitely win. Everyone knows that this is a game and that they are the center-of-the-universe heroes that will win in the end, and whether they metagame this fact or not, players will have their characters end up doing things that they definitely wouldn’t do if the roles were reversed. Make encounters scarier, deadlier, and hauntingly more dangerous in a controlled fashion. You don’t want to wipe them all out on the first encounter by any means, you just want to put the fear of God in them. Make them actually fear that their character is not guaranteed to survive: pick opportune combats to fight relentlessly and maybe even knock one of them down to 0 hit points (don’t overuse this unless everyone agrees to play that kind of game, else it may seem like survival is impossible and the game will go from being amazingly challenging to incredibly depressing). Use wave-based encounters: when they look excited about potentially clearing this encounter, roll in another one immediately and force them into a back to back double feature.

This is a fine line. Real life is boring, the game world is fantastical. To be truly scary, however, you need to find the happy medium between depressingly realistic and magically high fantasy. Allow room for death, stop babying your players, and don’t be afraid to crit roll from time to time. Scare them. Let them know that they are far from invincible and that this game can and potentially will chew them up and spit them out, but yet…

Leave Room For a Light At the End of the Tunnel, No Matter How Small

Game of Thrones is a fun show to watch (and over which to hate yourself for watching), but unless if all of the players are gung ho about playing in a world so dark and dreary, it can make for an incredibly terrible game experience. Dungeons & Dragons, and most roleplaying games as a whole, has always been about the heroes. Sure, the early editions were dangerous, magically lethal, and at times horrifically difficult. Also, even to this day, that shines through in some aspects of each newer edition. However, Dungeons & Dragons has always been about the heroes rising up to stare down the threatening evil and taking up sword and spell to go do something about it.

Leave a light at the end of the tunnel. No matter how dark, dreary, depressing, survivalist, or lethal the game may become, always tease the players with that potential of survival and the reason to hope. That reminds me…

Don’t Be a Tease

The last thing you want to do is to be that DM who slaughters everyone with an unfair advantage and laughs in their faces. Or that guy who makes it feel like no matter what the players do they will always lose. Don’t leave a shred of hope for them to go after just to rip it up when they get there. Don’t kill off players who didn’t do anything to deserve the death. In other words, if they had a fair opportunity to potentially survive, but they still walked down the hall without checking for traps, engaged with an enemy they knew they shouldn’t screw with, or acted recklessly just for the hell of it… they deserve what may come to them. But if they play well, check their backs, and are putting in the effort to survive, you might want to consider cutting them some slack and dishing out some damage warnings instead of outright killing them.


 

Hopefully this information helps you in some way. Remember to always have fun and never forget why you do what you do! Now get out there and have an epic game this Halloween!

|| Matthew