The Island Of Dr. Flail

I’ve been in a weird mood lately. We’ve gotten a little more political and serious and intense in our campaign lately, but by and large our tone is usually light and there are usually smiles around the table and jokes being tossed. Don’t get me wrong — I love that. A good night of that can reverse the effects of a terrible week. If someone held me at gunpoint and said “play an exciting game where everyone’s happy and excited every week until you die or else,” I would give them a hug.

The Thirst

I think I’m in the mood for some scary stuff. Though our group didn’t care much for Director’s Cut: Survival Horror in our last session, changing genres for a session or two sounds like fun. The problem is, despite a deep love for campy gore-filled B-movies as a teenager, I don’t particularly like any of the following:

  • being scared
  • scaring others
  • watching other people be afraid but not being afraid myself

You can see how, given this data, playing a horror-themed game might not be the best fit. After some thought, I think the reason I want to run a horror game has nothing to do with wanting to scare my players. After seeing how they reacted under pressure in our last session of D&D, I want to see what other emotional stimuli will do.

Just writing that sentence makes me feel like I need to don a white lab coat and start referring to my friends that come over every Thursday night as “Test Subjects 1 through 5”. That’s not really it. I don’t want them to dance like puppets at the end of my roleplay strings. It’s that I feel like I have a new toy to play with to get them emotionally engaged, and doing that always winds up with a cool story and a successful night of gaming.

It seems, these days, I can’t even be evil without being a story-hugging roleplay hippie.

Mundane Murder Mondays

All that being said, having a distaste for scaring people means I am unpracticed at it. I’m not sure how to do it in a roleplay setting.

Physical intimidation in D&D is likely to wind up in either a tactical analysis of the numbers or in vagueness and DM fiat. Besides which, a lot of players go into a battle in D&D expecting a degree of balanced combat. As we found out in Director’s Cut, a lot of players aren’t wired to value their PC’s life as they do their own. We’d never have charged store-brand Jason Voorhees if we did. You’ve got to have a lot of trust and a general consensus to keep things serious to pull that off. I don’t know that this is a good fit for the kind of game I run. Then again, combat sometimes isn’t a good fit for the kind of game I run.

Director’s Cut tried something I hadn’t seen before in giving gruesome, detailed descriptions of death and injuries. It did horrify several of our players, but not in a fun way. It was more like a “I want to quit playing this” way. I can’t see this kind of thing being an effective driving force behind a horror game, at least with our group. It was too frequent to have any impact. People were grossed out and revolted at first, and later it got boring. If I was ever to resort to physically describing gore to engage my players, I’d want it to be a grisly punctuation mark on a sentence written in pure terror — not a text message written in ALL BLOOD CAPS.

Operation: Mindcrime

Psychological horror seems like it’d be more up my alley. Again, I think we’re talking about trust and seriousness here if there’s any hope of it working. I’ve played in some Call of Cthulhu games where this wasn’t present, and it didn’t work at all. (By that, I mean I’ve contributed to the utter destruction of the mood of almost every Call of Cthulhu game I’ve ever played in. There’s just something about playing a psychic rugby player who yells “OY” that detracts from the magic, but I can’t put my finger on it.)

The question is, how do I get under the players’ skins? In our current campaign, I’ve had the time to get to know the PCs and what makes them tick. I can push their buttons a little. In a one-shot night of gaming where the PCs are all new to me, that might be a little different. All I usually have at the beginning is what the players have written on their character sheets, and it’s not much to go on. If I ask them beforehand to tell me their character’s worst fears (which I did back in our last campaign when they were fighting the Boogeyman), they’re expecting me to touch on those fears. It’s more like a nod of acknowledgement than violating a vulnerable, secret area of their mind.

This leads me to believe a more generalized fear would work better. Vague, threatening descriptions of an evil that strikes at things most people hold dear. If I can’t make the PCs fear for themselves, maybe their loved ones? Even if physical violence wasn’t involved, the simple act of a villain telling skillful lies to destroy the relationships a character has with their loved ones and colleagues freaks me out a bit. There are plenty of terrifying things that could happen to a character’s body that don’t involve death or dismemberment. I could even go after their sanity. The tools I’d have to do this with depend on what kind of setting we’re using, and I suspect the less specific I am about those, the scarier things will be.

Maybe If I Wear A William Shatner Mask

This is all well and good (OK, maybe not good), but I am still worried about how to run a group through something like this in an emotionally engaging way. I’m also wondering, frankly, if this will be something enjoyable for either myself or my group. It certainly doesn’t sound like our usual fun. If it works, I think it’ll be really memorable and a cool experience to look back on. I’m perfectly OK with no smiles at the tables if everyone recounts stories from the adventure a months or years down the road. If it doesn’t work, it’s not the end of the world. Exciting, completely non-horrifying high fantasy is a pretty good default in my book.

I’m definitely looking for some guidance on this front, so if anybody feels like casting their nefarious shadow in the comments, I’d be darkly appreciative. Until next time…..

<evil laughter>


<evil photo credit>



  1. Alphastream says:

    What if you go more for suspense than horror? Anticipation, time pressure, and plenty of worry, but not gore/slasher/etc.? I’m not a fan of gore, but I love how X-Files had me on the edge of my seat (and yes, afraid), but with a few exceptions it wasn’t due to objectionable stuff.

    You might check out the Last Stand at Camp Starfall I wrote for May of the Dead on the Going Last site. I liked how it played with big pressure/terror at first, but isn’t at all repulsive. It becomes sci-fi/campy toward the end. Plus, Flumphs.

  2. @Alphastream: Yeah, I think suspense may be a better fit. Worrying and waiting and never quite relaxing for fear of what MIGHT be coming seems like it’d be right up my alley. Also — you had me at “flumphs”.

  3. David Lundy says:

    In my opinion, the easiest (and best) way to elicit fear, discomfort, and general uneasyness in people is threefold:

    #1 – Undermine their assumptions of what’s “normal”.
    #2 – Constantly change what they assume to be “correct”.
    #3 – Hide the threats in plain sight.

    These were especially hammered home to me while I was a little kid watching The Muppet Show (I think). Not scary, right? What if you’re 5-6 years old and watching a cheery puppet walking around a room and suddenly the furniture all comes to life and starts trying to eat him? Scared the bejeezus out of me.

    This situation utilizes all three methods. #1 – The viewers assume that furniture isn’t going to animate and grow a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. #2 – They believe that a table just can’t do that. #3 – The threat is RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF THEM.

    In an RPG, you could use a similar method of changing the environment the longer that the players are in it. Example: The players are investigating some woods for something. They see brightly colored birds flitting here and there, butterflies landing on flowers, bunnies hopping around. The next time they’re out there, the grass and small bushes are longer and darker, there aren’t as many birds and one player swears he just saw a flower EAT a butterfly! The next time, they notice a hummingbird latch onto a bunny and begin drinking its blood like a giant mosquito. A nearby stump grows a mouth and bites at a PC.

    #1 – Flowers don’t eat butterflies. Not “normal”.
    #2 – Hummingbirds drink nectar, not blood! That’s not “correct”.
    #3 – That stump just tried to eat me! It’s been right here all along!!!

    The general idea is that fear is inherently about a loss of control. We fear the dark because we don’t know what’s in it; there’s no control (knowing what’s there). We fear swarms of insects because there’s no controlling a million biting bugs. We fear Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers not because they’ll chop us up, but because they can’t be controlled. Well, and because they’ll chop us up.

    Use the above ideas and you’re taking away very basic, deep-rooted control: the concept that everything they thought was true suddenly isn’t. I can’t think of anything more terrifying.

    P.S. The old N64 game “Sanity’s Requiem” also did this really well. If you have a chance to play it, do so!

  4. What if the box of Franken-Berry is from 85′ and you serve it to somebody? That could be scary.

    I enjoyed this blog. I am a fan of both horror and D&D, and I would rate Call of Cthulhu my next fave RPG. I think you are basically asking some unanswerable philosophic questions. It is hard to understand why some people are drawn to horror in the first place. I never really bought into a lot of explanations, even from acclaimed horror directors. I think it can be very difficult to do suspenseful, psychological horror well (especially when playing a game with friends that may not really be into that kind of play), but it can be done.

    Personally, my advice would be to run a Halloween one-shot or two-shot. It doesn’t hurt to let the players know in advance that it will be horror game, and it might be more fun for them to have new PCs. You might get better role play that way. In your case, I really think you should embrace the stuff that you actually like: “campy gore-filled B-movies”. Maybe set at like a Mage school that is a lot like a high school? Or at a beach?

  5. Personally, I don’t understand the slasher/gore horror stories; they just disgust me and make me feel queasy. The type of horror I enjoy is more Lovecraftian and closer to what David Lundy describes above: a mix of the creepy, surreal, and changing expectations.

    For example, I recently had the idea of running a game with the goal of rescuing a kidnapped child. As I thought through it, I somehow got onto a horror kick and soon was contemplating how I might be able to get the players to rescue the child and then leave it in the care of an NPC while they pursued the kidnappers. Only to return and find the NPC missing and the child playing alone like nothing is wrong, saying the NPC went off to take care of something, is just on the toilet, or similar. The reality, of course, being the child is an otherworldly horror who has somehow disposed of the NPC while the players are gone.

    But, then, maybe the NPC returns and confirms the child’s story? Only now, the NPC is a slave/flesh-suit/replacement in league with the child? Maybe the party catches up to the kidnappers only to find them confused and uncertain who they are or where they’ve been; essentially making the child the kidnapper. Maybe they only find the left-over skin of the “kidnappers” after the resident horrors left. Maybe they catch up to the kidnappers before returning to the child and finding the NPC missing. And so on.

    That sort of creepy, you’re-never-sure-what’s-real scenario is where I find horror enjoyable and the sorts of horror scenarios I like running and playing. And it can be done without (on-screen) blood and combat. It does take finesse and can take a great deal of improvisation if the players keep guessing at the truth (they need to be kept at some level of suspicion).

    On a similar note, I’ve never managed to figure out how to run the mind-game sort of horror that figures in “The Rats in the Walls”, which is something I’d love to do. It may just be that our typical group is too large to pull off that sort of personal delusion.

  6. Haven’t read the responses really… but knowing you the way I do… There’s no way you can pull off a successful CoC type run. It’s not in you.

    The GM has to play the straight man. Period. There might be moments of levity, but if the GM doesn’t believe what he’s telling the players and play it straight, then the players aren’t going to buy it either. One misplaced joke/giggle/whatever when you are trying to build suspense and fear and the whole house of cards crumbles. The whole IDEA of that genre of an rpg is atmosphere and if you break that atmosphere it just becomes a series of puzzles and encounters without any real substance.

    But when you tell your players that they just heard something in the other room shuffling about… sounded like feet… but they are supposed to be the only people in the building. And the lights start flickering slightly. Did they just…… hear a little girl crying in the distance??? And you can keep their eyes on YOU. And they aren’t shuffling papers or chatting with someone next to them. They are hooked. You’ve placed them in that situation in their heads and they are yours. But blow it just once. That’s all it takes. And you might as well end the game right there.

    Call of Cthulhu is an art. D&D is a game.

  7. Body dismorphia is something that deeply unsettles a lot of people. I think it’s the reversal of nature, of things that break the natural laws they know. Children who are supposed to be innocent instead being dangerous murderers. Bodies that are broken and dead still twitching with life and coming towards them.

    I hear that people usually fear the unknown, so if you start taking things they think they know and twist them around, it could work. Corridors that should be going straight instead turn in a circle, having an obvious exit door be filled in with brick.

    Lack of control also bothers a lot of people. When things don’t make sense, it takes a lot of control away from players; they can’t make things work the way they’re supposed to. The 4e Tomb of Horrors book has a few ideas, I’m running my players through one of its dungeons now. There’s a lack of healing, a mist that keeps growing so they have to move faster, some real spooky stuff.

    You might also keep an eye out for things that scare you. I freaked out at the evil clowns in P!NK’s Funhouse video, so I reskinned some monsters and described them instead; the players did everything they could to avoid that fight. Moderation is also key; a flash of something bad is usually more effective than a focus on it. The players fill in their own details.

    Of course, if you’re just looking for Halloween games you could go the opposite direction. Rattling dancing skeletons and sheet-with-holes ghosts shouting “Boo!”, really over the top stuff, could make for a really fun game.

    Let us know what happens, it’s something I think a lot of us could use more experience with too. Good luck.

  8. One of the most disturbing D&D encounters I came across was an old Ravenloft adventure called “The Created”. I will now insert text from a description I found online.

    “The story opens up with the adventurers arriving in a peaceful town where a festival is going on, the town map itself is not very large but this gives for an area that new players will find it fun to explore. Depending on the DM, the real action starts when the baker is found murdered in his apartment above his shop, after the players investigate they soon find that everyone in the town has disappeared and soon they are being attacked by the evil Carrionette (demonic puppets).

    The real fun starts after the players are defeated by being stabbed by magic pins which actually allow the carrionettes to switch bodies with the players, just think of that your first time playing in a Ravenloft setting and you have to play half the camp. as a puppet. The rest of the adventure consist of you escaping the Toy Shop (as a puppet), finding some magic pins so you may swap bodies with your former selves, and learning that the lead Carrionette Malgino has imprisoned all the children in the theater and you must find the last remaining adult in town to help defeat this realms dark lord. This person turns out the be Malgino’s creator, Giuseppe, the toy maker. but the creator is not so willing to allow you to destroy his favorite creation, and this tends to make your adventure more difficult…”

    This game was so disturbing to me, it has remained the gauge that I use for any game involving horror I am invited into. It may be an adventure you want to track down and look through. It might help you with ideas. It is a 2nd ed game module, but the concept can be reskinned.

    Placing your players into a situation where it seems they are helpless (but they are not) can feel scary to some people. Fear is a reaction to not understanding the situation, but the situation feeling, or seeming, wrong in the current setting. The group wanders into a normal little town into the early afternoon and decide to stay the night… and creepy stuff starts happening. The thing about fear is, an enemy, a direct situation, the characters can easily confront and deal with… How do you confront the shadows of things happening? You glimpse the monster out of the corner of your eye… and when you turn your head there is nothing there… the tree limb that looks like a giant hand reaching for you in the night…. These things are scary… until you know what you are facing. It can be fun running that kind of game, because it could just end up being a direct fight and everything is done, or it could end up being extra creepy at the end… maybe they never fully believe (for whatever reason) that the monster was laid to rest, despite having killed him.