Posted by: Opinicus | May 3, 2010

Horror Games: Atmosphere

The tomb was deathly quiet, the cobwebs grew thick with the ever present mist and felt like curtains as you went onward through the corridor. Through the ceiling, roots poked through and reached out like grasping claws.  Occasionally a few bricks were missing and the light of the moon shone into the dank ruin.  Always just out of sight, you swear something moved, a patch of darker shadow that did not want to be seen quite yet.  At the end of the hall, a large set of double doors stands before you, heavily rotted with mildew and mold. Despite this you can tell that in the past something had tried to get in by the nail marks clawed into it’s surface. whatever had barred the door had long ago rotted away and you enter with the groaning creak of crumbling oak.  Inside is a circular chamber, the walls covered in handprints done in ancient dried blood. In the middle is a pedestal made from a mummified man. Upon his withered back back is a leather and steel bound tome, titled “The Words of Opinicus.”

To be honest, this was originally going to be a response to AHT’s earlier post on the Horror movie incorporated into D&D (or Roleplaying in general). But I soon realized that my response was going to be way too long, so I decided to embellish it and make it into it’s own post. Not trying to steal your thunder AHT, but you know my love of running horror.

I feel that the key to a horror game is about the atmosphere.  Without the mood, and detail in the setting, you’re just fighting zombies, wraiths, howlers, a berserk golem, what-have-you.  But throw in the right descriptions and setting, suddenly the players are getting antsy.  It’s not, “You see four zombies, they groan, get up, and lurch towards you.” it’s “When you open the door, the foul stench of rotting corpses assails you.  As your eyes adjust to the darkness, you hear a shuffling noise, and what sounds like wheezing.  Then, on the ground, you see a woman, her cloths in tatters.  She appears to be hurt and is slowly pulling herself towards you.  Before you can get closer, you see it, her abdomen is gone.  She looks up at you, her eyes missing from their sockets, her mouth a rictus grin of blood stained teeth. As she pulls herself to her feet, three more  groaning forms lurch forth from the shadows, all equally dead, all equally hungry.”

You can even take monsters that typically you won’t find in a horror game and still get a desired effect. Obviously some monsters just don’t fit by their very nature, but if you try, that list is VERY small, usually the monsters that are actually benevolent, like angels, too common in modern society (we’ve all seen videos of rhinos to not be that scared of them, in the horror sense, they are scary in the “I’m going to get gored!” sense), or are harmless, like flumphs.  Play up certain aspects of them, either make them more human, or (if they are already human-ish) much less “human.”  Let’s try goblins.  They’re hard, as you usually kill them round lvs 1-2, and they have that almost comically cowardly feel. But what would you think if you came across this: “As you get deeper and deeper into the overgrown forrest, the canopy starts blocking more and more of the light.  Soon, it almost feels like night.  Your feet sinking into soggy moss and lichen. Eventually you then spot signs of habitation, crude markers, broken bits of tools.  Eventually the signs start becoming more and more grisly.  Shrunken skulls hanging from branches, macabre totems, made from human ribcages, fetishes made from fingers. Suddenly you hear the sound of a man screaming in pain and fear. Hurrying closer, you see three small figures around a fourth that is tied to a stake.  You realize that the one tied to the stake is a man covered in blood, clothed only in anguish.  The three others carry jagged stone knives. You gag as you see them hop about, cutting quivering bits of flesh from the man and stuff them into their eager, over-large maws. Suddenly they turn to you, their grotesque faces filled with rotted teeth underneath large bloodshot eyes.  They let out a gleeful screech and disappear into the underbrush.  Then you hear, in a childlike voice, “Hee hee hee… more meats! More toys!”  I tried (as tired as I am right now) to first play up how inhuman they were, eating the flesh of a man while still alive, then instead of screeching like little devils, throw the players for a twist, make them speak in unnervingly cute voices.

That’s another thing, children in the roles of the horror monster, HOLY CANNIBALISTIC HALFLINGS BATMAN! THAT’S TERRIFYING! (At least for me)

Now, notice how much longer each of these scenes were. Horror games are not conductive to hack and slash, high combat games. They’re thinking games, you might get only one combat per session if any, where as in a regular game you could get 2-3, and a combat oriented game 3-4.  If you throw in that much detail into a setting, the players will forget most of it by the time combat’s done. Secondly, if it is a hack and slash dungeon crawl, if you go that in depth with everything, the players will start to get impatient. Plan your horror sections accordingly.

Another important factor is the unknown. You don’t know what’s out there. It could be a goblin, it could be a demon, hell! It could be just a chicken!  All you need to do is give a sense of danger, but without letting the players know what it is exactly, and let their imaginations build it up for them.  If you watch horror movies, rarely do you actually see what is killing all the sorority chicks until later in the movie.  You know something nasty is going around, but what or where? You have no clue! The nameless horror is always scarier than the named one.  As soon as you’ve given it a name, especially if the name is a type of monster, you lose at least half, if not more, of the fear. Look at a Call of Cthulhu adventure, the unnamed monster that is killing random people that enter a certain stretch of the subway is suddenly a lot less scary as soon as you find out it’s a Shoggoth.  As soon as you identify it, you now have a point of reference to it. You know where you stand with it. It may still be able to end you with a flick of a greasy tendril and the mere sight of it can shatter your sanity, but you can now say “Oh, it’s a shoggoth! Okay.”  The only exception to this are names that don’t really explain the horror. Instead of shoggoth, if you called it “The Writhing Darkness that Hungers” you’ve given it a name, but it is still unknown to you, still scary,  especially if you learned the name from a bunch of superstitious hobos that had to move out of that part of the underground, who where almost too scared to even whisper the name they gave it while out under the sun.

One example is from an experimental game I was running for AHT and a few others. Nightmares has bled into reality and nightmare beasts roamed the now warped streets of New York. The party had to enter a hospital, to gather some medical supplies. While in there, they kept seeing signs of something that had gone through there, slaughtering the patients and staff.  Every so often, they would hear something moving in the hospital with them. They would hear the garbled gibbering of what sounded like people driven mad, but then find no one in the room it was coming from.  I built up the horror so well that near the end of the adventure, where they could finally see it and fight it, and probably kill it, the party just ended up saying, “Screw that!  I think we have enough medical supplies, let’s go.” They then hot-wired an ambulance and drove away as fast as they could.

I often find that running a horror game for new players is easier than with experienced ones. New players don’t know what the hell any of the monsters are , save a few well known ones like werewolves, vampires, maybe orcs.  Experienced players can guess what you’re throwing at them just with a brief description. Recently I tried a horror bit, and AHT spent the whole time trying to guess what monster it was (It wasn’t in the books, I just made it up, but the party still named some monster that actually resembled what I had described, and I didn’t even know what it was)  So yeah, if you know your players have read every entry in the monster manual(s), don’t throw a pre-generated monster, make one up. Oh, there was the other time when they ran into a cult of Thoon, and AHT (she got her pen name from this adventure) immediately called out mindflayers before any evidence of them came up other than a cultist calling out “My life for Thoon!” as he charged. I scrapped all aspects of horror from that session. I was going to slowly build up tension, then finally the awful revelation, but no, spoiled, wasted. On a note to players, if you’ve guessed what the monster is, and the GM is obviously trying to keep it hidden or is building up the tension, don’t yell it out. I was ready to double the number of illithids they had to fight, right then and there, and watch the party die, that’s how pissed I was.

Of course, the best way to scare your PC’s is to scare your players. If your descriptions are dry, the won’t be into it. If you don’t give enough descriptions, they’ll picture themselves in a normal setting. Give too many, and you’ve slowed the game down. It is a balancing act, and don’t think the players can just sit back and cruse through. They have to participate in it as well.  Humans are social animals, if just one player acts scared, all the others will start getting scared too. Of course, the opposite is true as well, if one player isn’t scared, or plays his character as if he’s completely calm, it’ll ruin the mood.  I had a player in my games, who I will refer to as J, who would do this, and I could never get a horror setting off, even when I was running CoC. Everyone’s a little creeped out, they’re a little antsy, “I kick down the next door, anything for me to loot?” Me:”Huh?”

Speaking of J, one time he ran a game and tried to make it horror.  We ran from the monster, but it was faster than us, so we fought it, and it was much, much stronger than us, no way in hell to kill it. We lost the sense of fear when it could out run us, and lost the sense of enjoyment in the game when we couldn’t kill it.  Turns out it was a dream… Lame sauce. If you want the monster to chase the party, make it move slower than the party, but for inexplicable reasons always be just a corner away, or still in earshot. If you throw an unkillable monster at the party, at least let them run from it.

Ultimately though, a horror game is about hope. If you rob the party of all hope, it’s not fear the PCs feel, it’s despondency and resignation, or even anger.  You need to make it seem like there is nothing they can do, save for that pinpoint of light. They will strive for it, if they reach it, they live, if no, they get added to the growing casualty list.  Give them a sense that if they could fight the monster head on, they will win… if only they could fight it head on. Or while it is invincible now, if you find and break this heirloom, it will die.  Or, by all respects they should be dead, but if they survive till sunrise, they win, etc… Always give the PC’s a chance, but obscure it form them just enough so they don’t immediately know how to seize that chance. Give them uncertainty.

The last thing that Pandora pulled out of her box was Hope.  Some say that it is the shining ray of light amid all the evils trapped away. Others say that since each subsequent thing that was pulled out got worse and worse, Hope was the worst of the lot, giving us a reason to endure all the other evils. All I say is, is that it’s great for getting a party motivated to go through a horror game.

I’m Opinicus, and you stay classy San Diego!



  1. For the record, I believe this is how the Thoon incident went:

    Me: Dude! I know what it is!

    Opinicus: What?

    Me: Thoon, that’s an Illithid thing,right?

    Opinicus: No. . . (Several minutes later) yes. . .

    I do believe you asked me what I thought it was on that one, so it wasn’t like the Paladine Incident.

    Your point about describing but not naming the monster is a good one though.

    Also, I think that after a certain level, horror just becomes nearly impossible. Even if something is much more powerful than the party, being high level and well equipped gives you a confidence that just doesn’t mesh with the sense of helplessness that horror should evoke.

    At low levels, your characters are still naive and afraid of the dark. When low level monsters and animals still stand a chance at killing the party, walking through the woods at night can be a harrowing ordeal. Add onto that the fact that the characters would have no idea what most monsters are and you’ve got a great point to work from.

    At higher levels, a party has seen plenty of things that are probably scarier than most scenery elements will ever be. You got darkness? Someone casts Daylight. Wolves howling? I’ve got six attacks a round, I can kill wolves until the cows come home.

    Take the last adventure you ran the party through (which was awesome, so no hate here). We had to fight the champion of the evil god atop the totally metal ziggurat of skulls. That should have been scary as hell, but we had just finished killing a demi-god while in Hell. Not much is scary after Hell.

  2. Magical Hell Changes a Man.

  3. My recollection of the Thoon incident was:
    “Hey, Thoon…That’s with illithids right?”


    “I think Thoon is an Illithid god, are we fighting Illithids?”


    few minutes later

    “Guys, I think we’re fighting mindflayers. It’d explain every thing.”

    other players “you’re right, I think it’s mind flayers.”

    “Stop that!”


    “I’m pretty sure Thoon is an illithid god.”

    “GOD DAMNIT! OK OK! You got me IT IS MINDFLAYERS! GOD! you are such a nerd!”

  4. Either way, wanting to kill the party does seem a little dramatic.

    That’s beside my point though. Assuming I don’t out nerd you and foil your plans again though, I would like to see legit horror played through at the party’s level, or at least how you would go about it because I’m still not sure how well it would work (nothing against your DMing, I think the whole concept just falls apart after a certain level).

    Yes, you can scare us with double the illithids and all their minions, but that’s more of a ‘we’re outclassed and the party might die’ fear than the horror sense of dread.

    • What I meant by doubling the illithids wasn’t to scare you, but as punishment for foiling me, but remember, I am a kind, caring God…GM… That’s why I didn’t.

  5. It’s horror theory week on the internet:

    Nice article, definitely love the bit about the goblins.

  6. Children scare me.

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