Five ways to add horror into your adventure.
Horror doesn’t always work in gaming especially on the large scale. The more you try to make an entire campaign of Lovecraftian or Ashcroft style horror the more you will typically lose your players. Why is this? The main reason you’ll lose players is because the horrible and inhuman become the norm, the average. Look at most Zombie books and films that take place years (or even months) after the outbreak … no more fear, just the grim reality that this is the world now.
The same goes for games … true there are games like Call of Cthulhu but even there the horror isn’t ever present and the investigation and journey into the madness of it all is what makes the game. As such horror is something that is most effective … in my opinion at least … when it comes out of the blue and is unexpected. Do I mean jump scares? No … although that does serve a purpose in many genres. No, what I mean is that horror shouldn’t be the norm, not every dark corner need be haunted or every ancient tower cursed.
In a fantasy game this could mean something as simple as Hill House or a Cabin in the Woods. One place that the players go to for one reason … and yet are stuck for a different one.
Let us work through this together using the Tower of the Raven.
The players are hired by a merchant guild to drive off a band of bandits who have been harassing the guild’s caravans. After weeks of tracking a few skirmishes with bandit camps and a side trek into the caves of the Ogre Queen the players finally find the bandit’s home base; an ancient crumbling tower in the middle of the forest.
1. The horror should never be known: The players plan their attack on the bandits, watching the base for days and getting to know the routines of the camp. Nothing amiss, seems like any other living area in a lot of ways. The bandits drink and laugh and live their lives … what the players and the bandits don’t know is that the tower holds a gateway to the Outside and an alignment of stars is approaching that will open that gate … and it just so happens to be the night the players decide to attack.
2. Horror should be slow to build: The players attack at sunset, just hours before the alignment is opens the gate. There are clues as the players scour the ancient tower. Candle lights turn strange colors, small localized earth tremors and a storm that seems not of this world pummels the land around the tower. Yet, the players don’t really notice this as they loot and kill the bandits. Things get a little stranger and a little stranger … but nothing just HITS!
3. Horror should hit Hard … and softly: When the gate opens it opens with an explosion of power. The player mage is rocked backed (failing his save) his mind filled with images so brutal and horrible he barely keeps his sanity. Screams of others (anyone with any magical talent-even latent) fill the tower and then … go silent. The storm breaks and dies … no sound, no wind, even the sound of breathing and walking seem to have been muted.
Any non-magical light goes out and magical light seems only half effective. The players wonder for a while and see something flitting ahead of them. Something moves from a side room and … bandits come rushing out screaming … not to attack but in fear, drawn to light like moths (jump scares, remember have their place and it is to break and grow tension at the same time). A truce is brought and just as the combined party goes to move forward one of the bandits is pulled into the darkness and something warm and wet splatters across everyone. Investigation shows only a wall where the bandit had been pulled.
4. Fear the imagination: Is something moving in the darkness? Did anyone hear that sound … Using the player’s imaginations against them is hardest in a table top game. There are no visuals that may or may not be something still vague descriptions, darkness and random encounters with enemies help to build a good proxy for visuals helping the imagination … The party moves through the tower, no longer caring about sides but just wanting to get out. One of the bandits trips on a lose flag stone and falls hard. But did he? Did something try to grab him like the other one? Something pulls at the cleric’s chainmail … only a torch holder. The fighter feels cool breath on his cheek only the win … a vapor thing specter of a dead woman floats to his side, icy claws extended to his throat … horror lurks in the shadows, taunting players but never truly showing itself. Remember the player’s greatest enemy is themselves.
5. Horror should never win … but it shouldn’t lose either: Somehow the party makes it out of the tower just as day breaks. Behind them the tower groans as the first light of day hits it and crumbles to the ground. A few moments pass, the players and the surviving bandits eyeing one another, wondering if the other will attack. Finally the two groups break and head their separate ways. As the bandits disappear into the forest, one of them looks back at the players, eyes as black as night … but then normal. A half hour later the players hear a scream in the distant forest. Investigating they find two of the bandits dead. Ripped apart as if by some beast.
Again these recommendations are only my opinion and there are tons more out in the wilds of the internet. However, in my experience it is the out of the blue horror, the kind that isn’t normal in the world that throws the players … and makes them remember.