Sometimes scaring your players is a lot of fun. Pulling it off successfully isn’t as easy. Here are a few tips on how to make a horror setting for your tabletop campaign.
As a DM/GM, I always like to give my players new experiences. These experiences are always within their comfort zones. For one of my groups of players, I wanted to take their perceived understanding of the world and turn it upside down. That campaign features a lot of Lovecraftian horror and mythos that I’ve spun into my own thing.
It keeps my players guessing as to what is coming next and compels them to think carefully about their character, their strengths, and most importantly, their weaknesses.
If you’re interested in creating a horror setting for your own campaign, then here are five tips you can use.
1. Establish Player Interest for a Horror Setting
Running a horror campaign means you need to know the limits of your players. Are they even interested in horror elements? If not, then nothing you do will encourage them to get into the game. They won’t be interested. They’ll sabotage your attempts either knowingly or unknowingly.
Once you’re sure that your players are interested in a horror setting, then you need to know their limits. What’s going too far for them? For example, are they okay coming across dead or maimed children? What about zombie dogs? Does the presence of nooses trigger them?
You need to avoid these triggers and limits to keep your players engaged in the setting and story. Going too far can make a player never return to your table. It also helps you figure out what’s okay to add to your stories.
2. Establish Ambience and Limit Distractions
Setting the mood is essential for a horror game. Lights should be dimmed. Can’t see the board? Use candlelight. Playing during the day and have too much light coming in through the windows? Either close the curtains or hang a blanket over them. You want it to be dark.
The next important way to establish the right ambiance is to use sound. This includes sound effects and music. You can find tons of horrorscapes on Youtube, Spotify, and on sites like Freesound. Adding these audio cues can increase the tension, especially if your players have a small amount of time to make a decision.
Distractions also need to be limited. For this particular session, you shouldn’t encourage snacks. You want your players focused. Phones should be prohibited as well. Because it requires a lot of focus and attention, you’ll likely want to keep your story concise. At most, the session should last only 2 hours.
Anything longer than that can make players lose focus.
3. Remove Control
Players feel safe when they have control. You need to remove control from them. The best way to do this is to determine what makes them feel safe. Is it a safe haven? Burn it down. Destroy it. Have the villain infiltrate it. Without a safe place to lay their head, the fear starts to grow.
Is the party particularly strong at this point? Then consider making your horror story about a creature that infiltrates people. They may never know if a fellow party member is truly themselves or the monster. This sense of uncertainty can cause strife among the party. Because every member is strong, they’ve essentially become their own worse enemy.
Perhaps they overly rely on certain weapons, spells, or abilities. While you shouldn’t remove all of them, you should find unique ways to limit their capabilities. If they feel as though they have to fight for their life, then you’re on the right track.
Another great way to establish a loss of control is to kill off a powerful NPC that the party knows well. If the monster or villain kills the NPC with seeming ease, then your party will get the idea that this entity is powerful and caution needs to be considered.
4. Limit Physical Visuals
While the use of terrain and minis has become standard for many tabletop campaigns, a horror campaign is actually one where you don’t want to use many physical props. To truly frighten your players, you have to engage their imagination.
One method you can use if you’re determined to use terrain is to only reveal tiles as your players cross them. Keep the lighting extremely low. The darkness should consume light. By not knowing what’s ahead of them, it can quickly increase the tension in the room.
Your monsters don’t always need minis either. Once your players see the mini of the monster they’re encountering, then that sense of mystery is gone. Keep the image of the monster in their heads to keep it terrifying.
5. Be DESCRIPTIVE
Nothing will make your horror campaign succeed or fail more than your ability to describe. You need to be able to craft a sensory experience for them. They don’t need to just know what a room looks like. What does it sound like? What does the air taste like? Is the atmosphere oppressive? Ancient? How does it smell?
All of these details can set your players’ hearts beating. If details aren’t your strong suit, then I certainly suggest creating a template for yourself and a script. The template should include the five senses. Write down what the player perceives with those senses when encountering a room, person, or monster.
Then have those cue cards ready when your players encounter them. You can also encourage your players to ask you questions. It may help you come up with a detail that you missed originally.
Craft Your Horror Story
Running a horror campaign can be a lot of fun when done successfully. It’s a complete change from the standard fantasy tabletop campaigns, although you can easily run them parallel to one another. If you found these tips helpful, then let me know in the comments. Or if you have tips of your own, then let me and the others know in the comments as well! I’d love to hear what story elements and methods you use in your storytelling!