Halloween may be behind us now, but the much more dreaded and terrifying Christmas Season is almost upon us. Before you know it, the store shelves will be clogged with Christmas decorations, Christmas songs will shriek from every speaker, as if all radios have been tuned to the frequency of Hell itself, and the unholy visage of Rudolf will descend on us all from his realm of eternal horror beyond the sky.
I may not be a Christmas person.
The eldritch terrors of a season dedicated to showing people how much you care for them with a finite price tag aside, it’s still close enough to Halloween to talk about the scary, spooky, and bizarre in a fun way. Before the Claus comes to devour our dreams.
Today, I want to talk about ways you can bring a touch of horror into your Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Or maybe just toss your players into a swirling whirlpool of red and green lit nightmares from which there is no escape save the sweet embrace of oblivion.
Definitely not a Christmas person.
Yesterday, when talking about Skull Man, I mentioned that horror blends well with any genre, and fantasy is no different. While the realms of D&D may already be populated with werewolves, ghosts, vampires, and zombies, there are other ways to scare up some new ways to mess with your players heads.
Here are my tips for making sure your party never sleeps with the lights off again.
Prey On Their Weakness
Everybody is afraid of something. Me, I’m terrified of spiders. It’s pretty much the only thing that causes me to have an actual panic attack. Just having one near me is enough to make me start hyperventilating. One time, a big wolf spider reared back at me and I instantly began vomiting due to my stomach clenched too tightly. Spiders just freak me out, for reasons even I can’t name.
Because everybody is afraid of something, this is one of the best ways to really mess with your players heads. Learn what they are afraid of, and have it appear in the game. An evil foe dispatches an array of clown themed assassins to take them out. Snake people take control of their home base. Giant spiders descend on where they live and start eating everyone.
Whatever it is that scares a member of your gaming group, just have it randomly show up and attack them.
Of course, that’s just a tease, a way of making them uncomfortable. To really make it a horror fest, you need to go a bit bigger, by making it all part of a story arc.
Here’s a good example. As the party returns to their home base after a successful adventure, they start to notice that things are off. The closer they get, the more nightmarish things become. The landscape is twisted in a surreal manner. The farming communities on the outskirts of the city have become aggressive, cannibalistic, or mutated into terrible monstrosities.
Soon, they learn that a rift to the plane of dreams has opened in the city, and it is warping the fabric of reality into a new nightmare plane. The only way to save the world is to dive into it and close the rift. Along the way, they must face all their own worst nightmares, and hang on to their sanity as the world around them turns into a Hellraiser movie.
Is a member of your group afraid of clowns? Have the party encounter horrific clowns, with giant razor teeth along the way. As they kill these monsters, the corpses turn back into residents of the city, making the nightmare scenario even worse. Spiders, snakes, whatever their fear is, use it against them as you turn the terrain into a mobius strip, making reaching the location of the rift ever harder as they progress, forcing them to return to those corpses again and again.
The moment the players show fear or dread, have them begin making Wisdom saves against an ever increasing difficulty to hang on to their sanity, and not become the very thing they fear. Force the other party members to accept they may have to kill one of their own to survive this. Let them dwell on that as they progress ever deeper into the warped world their home has become.
Even if they succeed, the players, and their characters, will be so shaken by the experience, that any time they see a clown, they’ll run away as fast as they can.
Effin Zombies, Man
Another fun way to mess with your players using horror is zombies. In D&D, zombies are the least threatening of the undead. Little more than reanimated corpses, they are barely a challenge even for low level players.
What if that wasn’t the case? Beef up your zombies by increasing their stats, particularly Intelligence. Make them smarter, faster, and stronger. Give them character classes and watch as your players try to figure out how to deal with a zombie wizard.
You can also go full zombie apocalypse. A Necromancers attempt to raise dead has gone horribly wrong, and now a horde of zombies are on the lose. They have a high level of regeneration, and even dropping them to zero HP doesn’t stop them. Chop them up, and they skill keep trying to come at you. Even worse, if they bite you, you actually begin to become a zombie yourself, making ever more difficult Constitution saves to hold on to your self.
Even better, if the zombies even touch you, the mystical nature of the zombie curse is spread. Put your players up against a horde of nigh unstoppable zombies they can’t even get close to, and watch them freak out as they try to find some way to stop the apocalypse without dying themselves.
All they have to do is cross to the Necromancers stronghold, through the tide of undead, and destroy the artifact he used to set this off to save the day, but literally anything and everything is affected by the curse. Zombie Giants, zombie Goblins, even zombie rats and dogs. Unleash hell on earth, and watch the panic induced fun unfold.
Actually, I’m working on a novel where that happens, but go ahead and feel free to do it anyway. It’s just too much fun not to.
This one is a little harder to build an entire story arc around, but it’s a fun idea to introduce at some point. Mostly just for the paranoia it brings.
While walking through a town they are visiting, have a local see them, react in terror, jab in a finger in their general direction, and scream, “You’re dead! We buried you! WE BURIED YOU!” Then flee.
If they give chase, have the local meet an unfortunate end, by way of getting trampled by a horse, accidentally impaling himself from not watching where he was going, or some other unusual, but gruesome end. His last words to the party should be, “It’s returned. It will eat all your souls.” Then die.
Make it clear the local is referring to someone in the party, but don’t make it clear which one. Now that you’ve planted the seed, let it sit for a while, be it weeks, or even months, before having it happen again in a totally different town, only this time, the accusing local just suddenly dies of a heart attack or other seemingly natural causes.
After that, any trust the party had in each other will be destroyed, as they constantly question which of them is not who, or what, they seem. You don’t really even have to do anything at that point. Just let them run wild with it, if they choose. If they don’t it was still fun to just mess with their heads.
Unless, of course, you have a party member willing to sacrifice their character for the sake of a good story, then they could turn out to have killed the real party member long ago, and actually be a terrible Pit Fiend, or even an evil God, disguised as the party member, just biding their time until the party encounters an ancient relic that allows them to retake their true form and eat their souls.
That is also fun.
The Labyrinth of Doom
This is, by far, the most diabolical thing you can do to a party. It’s cruel and unusual, really, and while it’s fun, it is a bit mean spirited. Bear that in mind before you use it.
The party finds themselves snatched from their home and deposited in a strange environment. It could be a room, or a location like a forest, but they cannot leave a certain area. They are then informed by a disembodied voice or words appearing in the air that to escape the labyrinth, they must pass the trials.
The trials seem simple at first. Riddles and word problems will do. Then, they find themselves in a location that an only be exited by sacrificing one of their own. Yes, that’s right. Make the players choose which of them they will kill to escape. Put a timer on it, or they all die. It can be any sort of twisted thing you want to use, too. To open the door, they must fill a large chalice in the center of the room with fresh human blood, as it will accept nothing else. Whatever sort of horrible thing you can imagine.
The tests get more deadly after that, until they are again forced to sacrifice one of their own. Keep repeating this until only one remains, and allow that one to escape the labyrinth.
Once they do, they find their party members alive and well, with no memory of what transpired. That one player character alone is left with the horrible knowledge of what they did to survive, and must carry it forever.
From time to time, have the other party members experience horrible nightmares where they relive their death in the labyrinth, keeping it fresh in the survivors mind, the awful things they did to their own friends.
There is no greater goal here, and they never learn who or what did this to them. It’s just something evil, that happened, for no reason, and left one of them damaged in a way they won’t ever really get over.
If you are stuck for ideas on challenges and traps, there’s a ton of resources out there to chose from. Movies like Cube and the Saw films are great, as is the manga Alice in Borderland. Whatever you decide to do, make it terrible, gruesome, and hopeless at every turn. Destroy the party with mad glee, then leave a single character to remember it all.
There is little more horrific than that.
You can also go pick up the all new and evil Ravenloft campaign setting, as well. For D&D horror, that one is hard to beat.
Oh, and don’t tell your players to blame me for any of this. You decided to use these ideas. I just put them out into the world. Totally not my fault after that.
If nothing else works, you can just raise one of the Eldrich Abominations.