The hungry dead crash into the run-down cottage like a ghoulish tide. The adventurers within fight desperately to keep them out as they pound at the door and walls, which are starting to show signs of giving out.
Elsewhere and elsewhen, a frail old man rocks from side to side, facing a corner and hugging himself as he croons a nursery rhyme while sobbing. He’s getting agitated, and the house alongside him. Creaking, groaning, cracking. He lets out a piercing wail. All the lights flicker out. The adventurers are trapped with him in magical darkness and his pained moans.
The horror genre covers a broad spectrum of scenarios. What unites them are the feelings of mounting dread and powerlessness. Though D&D 5e is ultimately about acquiring power and beating the odds, you can still achieve a riveting horror experience through narrative and careful tweaking.
In this article, you’ll learn how to do just that as we cover the fundamentals of horror, then the 5e specific stuff. Let’s go, as Jack The Ripper would say, by parts.
The Elephant in The Room: “But There Are Better Games/Systems for Horror!”
“Entire systems built for horror! Why not play those instead of the godforsaken dragon game?” is a question you might have read when researching the topic at hand. To nip this in the bud: there absolutely are other tabletop RPGs that are better suited to horror than D&D. Games built from the ground up to provide a horror experience. I myself am a big fan of Rats in the Walls.
More often than not, the thing is: when someone sets out to figure out how to make horror work in D&D, it’s not the result of their ignorance regarding the existence of other games.
Maybe it’s a Dungeon Master (DM) who wants to throw a curveball at their players and, for a session or two, make them feel small and scared. A long-running campaign can fit a lot of different genres and themes within.
Or maybe a group of friends wants to play a Halloween one-shot without having to get and learn another system. (If that’s you, then we have a treat)
And, hell, first-person shooters are also not exactly built for horror, but F.E.A.R. still slaps. The Witcher 3 is an action game about a badass superhuman monster hunter, yet it packs some damn good scares!
Similarly, D&D is ostensibly about heroic adventure and wargame-like combat, but this doesn’t mean you can’t pull off all manner of cool tricks with it. Unlikely mixes, done right, make for powerful experiences.
By all means, play other games if you prefer, but don’t let them stop you from shaping D&D into whatever you want it to be when the fancy strikes. Likewise, if you ever manage to make something genuinely scary in Shadowrun, please @ me.
How to Build Tension: Less Combat, More Build-up
When you look at the fundamentals, it’s a little shocking how alike horror and comedy are. Much humor boils down to subverting expectations, and that feeling of “wrongness” we get from horror comes from the same source.
Both genres are built upon a foundation of ratcheting up the tension, then providing relief with some sort of bombastic stimulus and resetting this loop.
- Horror: atmosphere and subtle cues push you to the edge of your seat → something shocking happens, like a jumpscare or a terrible revelation.
- Comedy: you’re aware there’s something atypical on the way, which builds anticipation → the tension is resolved humorously by a punchline, clever turn of phrase, unexpected reversal, etc.
The timing of these resolutions makes a big difference, and it’s one of the key factors determining whether a punchline or scare falls flat.
Horror that relies too much on jump scares and strong imagery feels lazy because of the mismatch between build-up and payoff. As storytellers, we must earn our scares (and bombastic set-pieces).
In D&D, that also means combat should be sparse and often considered a fail-state. Combat encounters release the characteristic tension of horror, letting players settle into the comfortable rhythms of f****ing sh*t up with their arsenal of options.
Keep combat minimal, and make it hard enough that players don’t want to rush into fights. This is a hell of a lot easier to do when playing in the lower tiers, especially tier one.
Not only are lower-level Player Characters (PCs) easier to challenge, but there’s also much less mechanical complexity to handle at this stage. Crunch gets in the way of horror.
Instill a Sense of Disempowerment
One of the key ways to generate tension and unease is by having the protagonist(s) be ill-prepared to deal with what the story throws at them.
It’s easier to get in the horror headspace when experiencing the story through someone for whom the threat seems insurmountable. Let’s contrast the first two Alien movies for an example (spoilers below for decades-old movies):
- Alien: A bunch of space truckers locked in an enclosed space with an indestructible predator and few accessible weapons.
- Aliens: Hardened space marines mowing down hordes of aliens with high-cal machine guns, eventually being overcome by their sheer numbers.
The two are very different movies, both good, but the first one is definitely more of a white knuckle, brown pants experience than the second. The second shares too much DNA with action movies to elicit these same feelings.
How you tweak these things is up to personal preference. Horror is a continuum, not an on-off switch.
The aforementioned F.E.A.R. games solved this, in a way, decades down the line by making the scary parts a form of threat that you can’t shoot down.
Or maybe you can shoot at the scary thing, and it just won’t make a dent. Again, it’s a spectrum; the constant threat of Nemesis in Resident Evil 3, or the lurking creature(s) in Amnesia and Alien: Isolation. While Resident Evil allows you to better equip yourself, Amnesia and A:I both keep you fairly feckless for a good while. This locks in the feeling of powerlessness, even after you can attack the threat head-on and survive.
What’s more, a situation can still be a combat encounter without the PCs’ goal being unconditional victory. The goal may simply be getting the hell away from something awful that’s trying to claw their eyeballs out.
Ivan van Norman has a terrific example from a campaign he played in, which he tells in the Adventuring Academy episode that’s all about horror:
“The party had to investigate an abandoned orphanage. They don’t fight a single thing for three sessions but slowly unravel the mystery of what happened there: someone had made flesh golems out of all the children. When said flesh golems were upon the party, there was no way the low-level PCs could possibly kill them. ‘The only way to get out of this encounter was to distract them with toys.’”
Naturally, disempowerment doesn’t necessarily boil down to a difference in power level between creatures. Another way to enforce a feeling of helplessness is by making it clear that whatever the players have been told, their information is incomplete, maybe even unreliable, or that they are dealing with things beyond their awareness.
Knowledge is power; ignorance is a form of disempowerment.
This is why horror campaigns benefit from being short. You have to be exceptionally good to keep a long-term campaign scary: the longer it continues, the more the players think they understand, which leads to more comfort. Might as well throw the fear out the window. Such was my Curse of Strahd campaign, which didn’t stay scary for long after its solid start.
One-shots and short campaigns are the sweet spots. Have a look at our very own spooky adventure Weeping Walls if you want to get started with a ready-made, easily-insertable horror module.
And finally, to conclude this section: often in horror, by the end of the story, the protagonist dies, or their victory feels hollow, incomplete.
No glorious feeling of a job well done, only scars and trauma to show. Even if there are riches and acclaim on the other side, a good horror adventure will leave the characters wondering if the reward was worth it.
Remember: the players are not the characters. Do your session zero right, work out all the safety stuff (more on this later), and you can inflict a lot of misery on PCs guilt-free while the players lap it up.
5e Horror: How to Build Immersion
I wrote a whole article on the topic of immersion that you can enjoy here, but I also get that our lives are short, and we don’t need to read all the available resources before we hunker down and do the work. Here’s a redux:
A DM monologue with occasional interruptions by the players is not scary or compelling. You must be economical and leverage evocative language to pack your descriptions full of experiential depth while keeping them reasonably short.
To do this, you need to know the answers to the following questions very well beforehand:
- What key bits of information will the players need to play? When should these be introduced?
- What tone do you want to convey?
- What themes do you want to weave into this narrative?
Armed with these answers, you can be intentional with your word choices, metaphors, and phrasings.
It pays to have bits written down or keep pertinent lists of hand-picked descriptors within reach. These should deal with the sensory and emotional aspects of what you describe. These two dimensions affect each other.
A little off-the-cuff example:
“The whole family had been hanged with iron chains. Iron to ward off or entrap evil. Suspended three feet above the red clay mud, their ragged bodies sway in the twisted autumn twilight as if dancing with the bitter winds that come to wither the crops. Celebrating their vengeance, perhaps.”
Additionally, a good soundscape and occasional sound effects can do wonders to reinforce the atmosphere. The internet is chock-full of free resources, and you can also go for paid resources like Syrinscape and Tabletop Audio.
Don’t be afraid to growl, shriek, or cry out either when DMing horror, too. It’s fun and catches most players off-guard. Also, there are some decent voice mods that can work for online play, such as MorphVox (Mac and Windows).
Horror is a genre predicated on pushing people’s buttons, but some buttons are better left alone.
We all have our triggers, phobias, or touchy topics that we’d rather didn’t come to haunt us when we’re trying to have a good time with our friends. I GM for two arachnophobes, so no giant spiders in my games, for instance.
To avoid the unfun, harmful types of discomfort and distress, we can implement safety tools. I talk about it in the session zero article. The main points are:
- Establish what things will never be featured in the game. These are hard limits; lines in the sand. Common things to put behind such a line are sexual violence, torture, and suicide.
- Establish what can be mentioned or indirectly affect the story, but never be featured “onscreen” or playable at all. Things that can be featured behind a veil of vagueness.
- Find a simple, easy-to-enact way to stop the game if someone is uncomfortable. Things like tapping the X card to skip content or more cinematic alternatives like: “Hey, DM, that was f***ed up, and I feel awful about it being a thing in the story. Can we rewind and resolve it differently?“
- All of the above require ongoing, open communication, trust, and everyone’s understanding that the most sensitive person draws the lines.
Flavors & Subgenres of Horror
There’s a plethora of horror subgenres and flavors to explore in your game.
When deciding how you’ll do it, you may want to consider what media you enjoy that you’d like to emulate to an extent and what horror subgenre they’re in. Some examples:
- Survival horror with scarce resources, disgusting monsters, and overwhelming odds.
- Folk Horror where the local and ancestral elements of the setting—tradition, folklore, the very land—are the menace.
- Psychological horror in the vein of Silent Hill and popular Japanese horror films that focus on the mental and emotional unease caused by the events.
The list goes on.
If subgenre considerations are not your style, you may want to think about the source of the fear more directly. There’s a great podcast audiodrama series (already finished) called The Magnus Archives (MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD) that grapples with this in a rather direct way that I believe provides a useful set of fear categories we can rely on as Dungeon Masters.
I REPEAT: MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD.
You’ve been warned. So, in the show, all different kinds of fear are divided as domains of the following Dread Powers:
- The Buried: Claustrophobia, suffocation, drowning, being restrained, entrapment (including metaphorically, like by financial issues or addiction).
- The Corruption: Rot, filth, disease, disgust, revulsion, insects, trypophobia. Once again, think metaphorically about these, too.
- The Dark: The primal fear of the dark and what it could hide.
- The Desolation: Senseless destruction, pain, burning, and loss.
- The End: The fear of death and its inevitability.
- The Eye: Being exposed, losing privacy, being watched.
- The Flesh: Deformity, body horror, the nasty reality of being a sack of meat and bones.
- The Hunt: The primal fear of being chased or hunted down; fear of being eaten.
- The Lonely: Isolation, loneliness, abandonment,
- The Slaughter: Senseless violence, sudden pain.
- The Spiral: Lies, deception, distortions of reality, madness, not being able to trust one’s senses and judgment.
- The Stranger: The uncanny valley, strange things insinuating themselves into your life, a creeping sense that something is off.
- The Vast: Agoraphobia, falling, being insignificant.
- The Web: Being controlled by external forces (especially without your knowledge), lack of free will, being manipulated.
There is some domain crossover, naturally. The point of this list is to get you thinking about which flavor of fear is the most interesting for you. There are certainly other ways to look at the topic; this just happens to be one I like.
And the carcass has been stripped clean. Well done. Let’s make a quick inventory of the bones, shall we?
- The main elements of horror are a sense of mounting dread and powerlessness. This lack of power can include ignorance and confusion.
- Some other games are built for horror and make achieving a good horror experience easier, but you can still make D&D whatever you want it to be, with some limitations. I don’t recommend horror with a bunch of level 20 demigods as the party.
- The gameplay loop of horror is about building up that sense of dread, then resolving the tension (momentarily) with horrifying stimulus: awful revelation, jump scare, tough fight, unsettling discoveries.
- The best tier to play horror in is the first. Weaker characters are easier to outmatch, and the limited PC arsenal keeps things moving.
- Horror tends to fizzle out over time as ignorance clears. Therefore, short campaigns and one-shots are best/easiest. This isn’t necessarily the case, just generally true. If you’re a master of building & maintaining suspense and the horror’s ambiance, then it could grow stronger over time.
- To run good horror, keep combat minimal, dangerous, and deadly.
- Beyond how easy it is to die, the sense of disempowerment can come from a feeling of not knowing the full picture and how the narrative affects the characters.
- When DMing horror, be intentional with your descriptions. They must always serve the tone and themes or deliver relevant information.
- Use evocative language, focusing on the experiential depth of the descriptions.
- Avoid silly or light words (e.g., departed, injured); seek emotionally heavy words (e.g., murdered, stabbed).
- Soundtracks and sound effects are powerful horror mood enhancers.
- Use safety tools to make sure the discomfort people experience at your game is not the harmful kind. Lines, Veils, X cards.
- There are many genres and subjects of horror to choose from. Dive into horror media in search of what works for you.