I love horror. Ask any player in a campaign of mine and they’ll tell you that even when I try to stay light and fluffy, horror creeps in. I’m even running a survival horror campaign set in the Bioshock universe. With the release of the new Ravenloft book horror is on the mind of a lot of the ttrpg community, and so I’m leaping onto that bandwagon and am here to share some tips, ideas, and resources for using horror in your games.
1) Keep it secret, keep it safe
The drive, and fun, of horror is that it allows us to explore those dark areas of the world and our own minds in a safe way. The thrill of the adrenaline rush, the ability to detach and think about how we would survive or cope with the terror, these things can be incredibly exciting to watch or read about, but given the chance to put those thoughts in practice – have them happen not to us, but to someone who we are determining the actions and fate of, can be even more thrilling. However, with that added thrill comes an added risk of vulnerability. When we are living, even vicariously, through horrifying experiences there is always a danger of it hitting too close to home.
Because it is so much easier for us to get sucked into these dark places when role playing, the absolute most important part of running a horror campaign, or adding elements of horror to an existing one, is making sure that everyone at the table (metaphorical or not) is safe and comfortable. This also includes you as the GM. Remember that your players are not in your head (unless…are they? What was that sound? Is the call coming from inside the house!?) so it is important that you make your boundaries clear as well.
If you are starting off a fresh campaign this should happen leading up to and/or a part of your session zero, but if you are thinking of adding horror into an existing campaign you need to make sure and check in with the group and set some ground rules before jumping into those dark places where things can jump out at (and into) you. Chapter 4 of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft has some excellent tips and guidelines for making intentions, themes, and boundaries clear and Monte Cook Games has put out an incredible resource, Consent in Gaming, which is free on their site. Both of these are fantastic resources, and I highly recommend looking them over before starting any campaign, but especially if you are planning on using horror themes.
Even once you have established ground rules, remember that people can change and that things may come up that you or a player hadn’t thought of before that hit a nerve. To ensure everyone’s enjoyment at the table, we all need to be flexible and accept that boundaries can shift. Something we didn’t think would bother us may turn out to be harmful or uncomfortable and that needs to be respected no matter when it comes up. If you’re running a horror game make sure that you have safety measures in place so that you or anyone else at the table can comfortably express any concern or discomfort if that situation arises.
2) Setting the mood
As people who have listened to our podcast may know, I am canonically one of those darker queers, and one of my absolute favourite parts of using horror elements in ttrpgs is creating an atmosphere of horror.
The brilliant game Ten Candles has a mechanic where the whole game is played by candle light. As the game progresses the lights of the titular ten candles are snuffed out one by one, till the last one is snuffed out and the game comes to an end. The tension and dread that this creates adds a layer to the collective storytelling that elevates each game and keeps it fresh every time you play. Ten Candles is designed to help you create an atmosphere of despair and tension, but even if you are using a different system there are easy things you can do to amplify your game.
If you are lucky enough to be able to play in person, utilizing lighting can be an amazing way to drop your players deeper into the darker recesses of their imagination. Whether by creating a dim atmosphere with candlelight, or grabbing some coloured LEDs or stained light bulbs, adjusting the lighting can instantly drop your players further into the world.
Is your party walking into a den of vampires? Switch over to 2 or 3 red light bulbs and cut the rest of the lights. You walk into a large chamber, everything is dim but for a dull red light that suffuses the room. You hear a strange pulsing beat and you are uncertain if it is music or the dull rapid thudding of terrified hearts beating in sync. Before you are a group of impossibly attractive humanoids, but as you watch their faces pull back in terrible sneers revealing monstrous visages and empty eyes as they sink hideously long teeth into the necks of the townsfolk, sitting slack mouthed with vacant looks of rapture on their faces.
Sound is an even easier way to emphasize atmosphere. What would ALIEN be without it’s amazing score and sound design? The screeching violins of Psycho are a comedic trope these days, but the tension of that scene would have been so much less without them. Tabletop Audio is a fantastic free resource (and not just for horror) of music and sound effects to add a layer to your game, and movie or video game scores can be easily found on youtube, spotify, or – if you are like me – your personal music collection. Going for creepy? Try carnival music or children singing literally anything. Few things are as creepy as children singing slowly.
A highly important caveat to all of this is that you must take player needs into account, and that goes back to session zero. Many people have difficulty with, or sensitivity to, audio and visual stimuli. Your goal should always be to enhance the experience, not make it difficult or unenjoyable to participate in. Be respectful of your players’ needs and requirements when it comes to adjusting lighting or adding in sound.
3) Look for the light
An important, and often overlooked, aspect of horror is knowing when to ease off, or break, the tension. If you consume as much horror media as I do you might have noticed that a key component to the genre is knowing when to back away from the dark. This can be done with comedy, adding moments of levity to the story can let the next scare, tragedy, or twist hit that much harder, romance, which can lead to dramatic scenes and terrible choices, or simply returning to more traditional scenes or sessions, where everything feels normal for a while so that the creeping horror slips into the background til the players feel like everything is finally safe and you can pull the rug out from under them again.
There are a myriad of ways to break the tension in a game, and doing so serves a dual purpose. It allows you and the players some breathing room, time to regroup (especially if you’ve been riding the line of what is comfortable) and also gives you the ability to heighten the impact of the next terror you unleash upon your world.
Out of game, make sure you are checking in with your players. If your session has ended in a dark place, make sure you leave time at the end to spend some time together out of game. This doesn’t need to be long, but allow yourself and your players the space to let the session go and relax. Even if the characters are in a horrible place, don’t leave the people in that place. Give space or everyone to talk about the session so that when you all head off to the real world you aren’t dwelling in those dark places. Leave that for the recap next session.
4) Remember why you’ve chosen horror
As I said earlier, I love horror. I’m going to take a hard stance and say that horror has been an integral part of the human experience as long as we’ve been telling stories, and it can be a fantastic addition to your campaign or one shot. However, when you consider using it you must focus on the reasons why you want to use it. Don’t be cruel or unkind to your players. Remember that this is a game, and while being scared and uncomfortable can be fun for some people, there is always a limit. For some people that limit is any at all. This is a collaborative and social genre of games. Know your limits, know your players’ limits, and if you cross a line – stop. Don’t double down. There’s no need to make excuses. Just stop, adjust, and move forward in a way that ensures everyone is still having fun. We all make mistakes. We’re all human.
Well, I’m an ancient horror from beyond time and space – spawned in the darkness of a dying universe and sent here to consume the minds and happiness of mortal beings. But even I make mistakes.
So go forth. Conjure the dark. Find those quiet places where unknown things lurk, and twist the folds of reality to discover the deep places in yourself where even devils fear to tread.