How do you do horror when running D&D?

Rechan

Adventurer
This isn’t how to run a spooky game but how to do so with the D20 system itself.

Edit: I do not need tips on how to run a horror game, I am struggling with the rules getting in the way.

I want to run a horror campaign, and I feel like D&D is my only Real option because finding players for any other system is Tough. And horror is a small genre so I need all the chances I can.

But I feel that D&D is a poor system for horror because characters are so powerful. Even 1st level PCs have a lot of strength on their side, with spells and damage that can put a hurt on what they’re dealing with. Part of horror is feeling like you are at incredible risk, that you don’t have much of a chance of survival, but characters are hard to kill, and I think I’d be. To kill someone to demonstrate that fighting is risky as hell. It is the difference between dropping Joe Schmo into a horror movie vs trained soldiers. And then there s magic. Undead are just no as scary if you have a cleric, etc.

Also some mechanics feel clunky. The grapple rules for instance.
 
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I think it depends on the genre of horror. Gothic horror and Body horror are definitely possible, for instance.

The only horror genre I think is terribly ill-suited to D&D is Cosmic horror, just because the genre assumptions (humans as inconsequential) are at odds with the zero-to-hero of D&D.

It sounds like for you a horror game should inspire an enjoyable sense of anxiety in the players that their PCs are going to die. In that case, I think your move is easy: Design really hard asymmetric encounters & use nasty monsters like shadows which circumvent HP or boneclaws which lurk in the darkness and can kill on an ambush.

EDIT: Just remembered, I once incorporated a version of the Jenga tower (as used in the Dread RPG) in a one-shot 5e Halloween game, and it worked great to build suspense. Basically any time a player said "I open" or "I check it out" or "I explore", and so forth, I had them draw from the tower. If they drew without incident, then they found a clue. If the tower wobbled but stayed intact, I introduced ominous foreshadowing. And if the tower collapsed, then I sprung the monster on them.
 
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iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I agree that D&D 5e isn't good for horror. The PCs are too heroic and the implied setting too gonzo. I'd look to other systems for this.

Now if you want to do a B-horror movie kind of game that doesn't take itself too seriously, D&D 5e works great. I've run Ravenloft in that style before and it's great fun.
 

MonkeezOnFire

Adventurer
Since PCs in D&D are supposed to be empowered, I find that horror works best as a sprinkling in and not the main attraction or for only short bits at a time. I'll include body horror elements into the descriptions of custom monsters, or have NPCs describe monster attacks as horror stories. But I don't try to go all the way to make the players feel helpless. At least not on purpose anyway...
 

Nebulous

Hero
This isn’t how to run a spooky game but how to do so with the D20 system itself.

I want to run a horror campaign, and I feel like D&D is my only Real option because finding players for any other system is Tough. And horror is a small genre so I need all the chances I can.

But I feel that D&D is a poor system for horror because characters are so powerful. Even 1st level PCs have a lot of strength on their side, with spells and damage that can put a hurt on what they’re dealing with. Part of horror is feeling like you are at incredible risk, that you don’t have much of a chance of survival, but characters are hard to kill, and I think I’d be. To kill someone to demonstrate that fighting is risky as hell. It is the difference between dropping Joe Schmo into a horror movie vs trained soldiers. And then there s magic. Undead are just no as scary if you have a cleric, etc.

Also some mechanics feel clunky. The grapple rules for instance.
Have you looked at Call of Cthulhu? It's probably the second most popular RPG out there, second only to D&D, and it handles horror pretty damn perfectly. It's not d20 but in many ways it is better than d20, especially when it comes to the skill system, which frankly, i think is botched in 5e.

Or were you looking specifically for d20 FANTASY horror? Shadow of the Demon Lord is a game of dark fantasy that might do that.
 

Aebir-Toril

Is lukewarm on the Forgotten Realms
Have you looked at Call of Cthulhu? It's probably the second most popular RPG out there, second only to D&D, and it handles horror pretty damn perfectly. It's not d20 but in many ways it is better than d20, especially when it comes to the skill system, which frankly, i think is botched in 5e.

Or were you looking specifically for d20 FANTASY horror? Shadow of the Demon Lord is a game of dark fantasy that might do that.
Isn't Pathfinder 1E the second most popular?
 

Aebir-Toril

Is lukewarm on the Forgotten Realms
Hard to say exactly, but I think I saw on Roll20 statistics that Cthulhu was higher than Pathfinder as far as online games.
That makes sense to me, as far as game distribution.

I have found that games which are less played in person, especially more niche games, do much better on Roll20. D&D is the exception.

If you look at raw player numbers, I suspect that Pathfinder 1E was a bit higher.
 

Nebulous

Hero
If you look at raw player numbers, I suspect that Pathfinder 1E was a bit higher.
All I can find is this 2019 Q3 specs:


As for actual PnP games, who knows, I don't think that can be accurately measured.
 

Aebir-Toril

Is lukewarm on the Forgotten Realms
All I can find is this 2019 Q3 specs:


As for actual PnP games, who knows, I don't think that can be accurately measured.
Yes, of course, the PnP games can't really be measured.

Actually, I'm elated to learn that an original system ranked higher than a game which began as a 3.5 clone.
 

dave2008

Legend
This isn’t how to run a spooky game but how to do so with the D20 system itself.

I want to run a horror campaign, and I feel like D&D is my only Real option because finding players for any other system is Tough. And horror is a small genre so I need all the chances I can.

But I feel that D&D is a poor system for horror because characters are so powerful. Even 1st level PCs have a lot of strength on their side, with spells and damage that can put a hurt on what they’re dealing with. Part of horror is feeling like you are at incredible risk, that you don’t have much of a chance of survival, but characters are hard to kill, and I think I’d be. To kill someone to demonstrate that fighting is risky as hell. It is the difference between dropping Joe Schmo into a horror movie vs trained soldiers. And then there s magic. Undead are just no as scary if you have a cleric, etc.

Also some mechanics feel clunky. The grapple rules for instance.
If the path to horror is the fear of dying, there a several ways to amp that up in 5e. Here are some options (select one or more):
  1. Old school HP. Above 10th level limit HP per HD as follows: 1(d6), 2(d8), 3 (d10), 4 (d12)
    • Reduce HP after first level: no con bonus or divide HP gained by 2
  2. Use monsters of much higher CR (5-10 above party level)
  3. Use the slow healing variants in the DMG (or some other version)
  4. Use the linger injuries variants in the DMG (or some other version)
  5. Use max monster HP (or hp x2)
  6. Use max monster damage (or damage x2)
  7. Increase monster AC 1 per tier.
  8. Add prof. bonus to monster damage.
  9. Revise the death & dying rules:
    • Die at 0
    • Die at -10
    • Each death save inflicts a level of exhaustion
    • Death save DC 15
  10. Ban resurrection magic (or make it very rare)
  11. Use the madness rules in the DMG (or some other version)
 

Nebulous

Hero
This isn’t how to run a spooky game but how to do so with the D20 system itself.

I want to run a horror campaign, and I feel like D&D is my only Real option because finding players for any other system is Tough. And horror is a small genre so I need all the chances I can.

But I feel that D&D is a poor system for horror because characters are so powerful. Even 1st level PCs have a lot of strength on their side, with spells and damage that can put a hurt on what they’re dealing with. Part of horror is feeling like you are at incredible risk, that you don’t have much of a chance of survival, but characters are hard to kill, and I think I’d be. To kill someone to demonstrate that fighting is risky as hell. It is the difference between dropping Joe Schmo into a horror movie vs trained soldiers. And then there s magic. Undead are just no as scary if you have a cleric, etc.

Also some mechanics feel clunky. The grapple rules for instance.
But back to the OP - I don't know if he wants D&D horror or modern horror or just anything horror, as long as it's a system that can handle it. There's lots of games that do horror really well, and D&D can do it, but I think you would need to keep it low level. But D&D would absolutely not be my first choice for really trying to evoke fear through mechanics. There are some alternate Horror and Sanity rules out there though, such as bundled with Sandy Peterson's 5e Mythos book.

Oh! Yeah, that's a 5th edition Cthulhu/D&D hybrid, that might work for the OP. That book is Bad. Ass.
 

toucanbuzz

Adventurer
You're presuming horror has to come from combat when you talk player power. Horror can be twofold.

1. It's the realization that something you believed normal is abnormal, abhorrent, and for an added dash, you somewhat understand why it is that way. In the Curse of Strahd, the Abbott was making Strahd a stitched-together bride to undo his curse. Originally, in my game, he saw Ireena as competition and kindly asked the party to drown her. Because he was OF the Land, one of its favorite playthings, I treated him as undying (though they never attacked him). When the party talked him out of his madness, he said he'd seen the light from his god. The next time they met, Ireena didn't have a face. The Abbott sent his minions to take it from her, then healed her. The party had helped him see the light, that Ireena shouldn't die, and he solved the problem. Strahd was infatuated with Ireena, so he would give Strahd Ireena.

2. It's realization that you didn't have the control you thought you did. It's finding out the children you saved and returned to the Widow Flannigan went into her pastries. It's watching people do mad things no matter how hard you try.
 

jayoungr

Adventurer
Part of horror is feeling like you are at incredible risk, that you don’t have much of a chance of survival, but characters are hard to kill, and I think I’d be. To kill someone to demonstrate that fighting is risky as hell.
I caution you against relying too heavily on that notion. I subscribed to the same idea a couple of years ago when I ran Death House for my players, who love horror. At the end, the house is actively trying to kill the PCs by exuding smoke and whirring blades in the doorways. The players wanted to try some things to neutralize the hazards--putting cloths over their faces, jamming shields in the blades to stop them from working. I said those measures didn't work because I mistakenly thought that taking away the danger would kill the horror and suspense. All it did was make the players angry because I was shutting down their ideas. We had a long talk about it afterward, and I learned a lesson about running horror games in D&D.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I have horror aspects and arcs in my campaign all the time. I don't know why people think it's so difficult.

Being raised from the dead is either difficult or impossible in my campaign. To raise someone you literally have to retrieve their souls and track them down in the Shadowfell. There are things there that will be drawn to your life force like moths to a flame, so good luck.

Many demons and undead can be pretty horrific. Draining max HP, etc. I use the alternate rest rules so a short rest is overnight and a long rest is several days. You aren't going to get that long rest if you're trapped in a haunted house.

Throw in environmental factors that obscure vision or have a chance of making people sick (either exhaustion or poison). Magical darkness with creatures that have blindsight is always fun.

Don't be afraid to throw deadly encounters. If a party isn't properly challenged, just throw another wave of monsters. Have the penalty for losing an encounter be something other than death whether that's semi-permanent disability or some other ongoing penalty.

Replace a PC with a doppleganger and have the doppleganger played by the same person. Or, just for fun, take someone out of the room, asking them to bring their character sheet and a D20. Let them know absolutely nothing is wrong, but occasionally ask them to roll a D20 when you get back to the game table.

Borrow ideas from other games. D&D is incredibly easy to modify so if you don't like the grapple rules make something you do like.

I also tweak monsters a lot to fit the role, even visual changes can cause a visceral reaction. Ghoul like creatures have slime covered tongues that reach out and restrain the target, dragging them in closer. Add tentacles or bile or whatever you think of. Don't throw orcs, throw Orc Nurtured One of Yurtrus from Volo's guide.

Primarily though I find it being more about attitude and story than mechanics. Take a look at chasme demons for example. Have the party stumble across a bloated body (preferably an NPC they've dealt with before). The body starts to shift and move, only to rip open with the smell of rotting meat as large fly-like creatures crawl out. As they fly or crawl away they grow with sickening pops and crackles and grow the face of the individual they just hatched from.

Whether or not any of this works really comes down to how well you can set the stage, but also the players. Honestly, if they aren't into it no amount of skill or even a different game system will make a difference.

Good luck!
 

dave2008

Legend
You're presuming horror has to come from combat when you talk player power. Horror can be twofold.

1. It's the realization that something you believed normal is abnormal, abhorrent, and for an added dash, you somewhat understand why it is that way. In the Curse of Strahd, the Abbott was making Strahd a stitched-together bride to undo his curse. Originally, in my game, he saw Ireena as competition and kindly asked the party to drown her. Because he was OF the Land, one of its favorite playthings, I treated him as undying (though they never attacked him). When the party talked him out of his madness, he said he'd seen the light from his god. The next time they met, Ireena didn't have a face. The Abbott sent his minions to take it from her, then healed her. The party had helped him see the light, that Ireena shouldn't die, and he solved the problem. Strahd was infatuated with Ireena, so he would give Strahd Ireena.

2. It's realization that you didn't have the control you thought you did. It's finding out the children you saved and returned to the Widow Flannigan went into her pastries. It's watching people do mad things no matter how hard you try.
Agreed, but the OP specifically mentioned the fact that his PCs are too heroic and don't fear for their lives. He/she wasn't asking about the broader menu of horror, but simply the fear of death.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
Horror has been a part of D&D for a long time. Ravenloft is gothic horror campaign setting that is very popular.

Building tension is the key to a good horror game (and really, an action game too for that matter but to different effect).

Pacing in a horror game should be dependent on each session. At the beginning of each session the players aren't going to be scared. A DM has that time to ratchet up the horror.

The fear of the unknown is the greatest fear possible. So, don't show the monster(s) too early.

Players shouldn't feel like the game is "fair". Sandbox campaigns are perfect for this. Let the players know that threats are not engineered to their level.

Horror is not heroic. Provide circumstances where the players must choose between their PCs and innocents. Maybe they witness hags kidnapping a child into her lair, but do they dare approach? They know that the hag is much more powerful than they are. Maybe they approach with a plan in mind, but then there are 3 hags inside and they need to make the hard choice. Horror doesn't feel good.

(acts of heroism can occur in a horror game, they just come with dire consequences, thus the heroism. In standard D&D the expectation is that the PCs succeed at their 'daring' deeds routinely)

The goal in a horror game is often mere survival as well, rather than a heroic goal. In D&D the players could start with a noble goal only to have things turn and have survival be the primary one after they are in over their heads.

Ravenloft spoilers:

5e's Ravenloft adventure works because Strahd doesn't play fair. He knows the PCs, their capabilities, and where they are. He can walk through the walls of his castle, strike, and then walk away before they can react. He can do this over and over again. The only hope they have is to find the area of the castle where the final battle is destined to take place so that he cannot escape.

Play around with different pacing models too.

Here are a couple examples (The classic rising tension culminating in a final big threat common to D&D works in horror too):

The Vice: Threat level starts low and slowly continues, never stopping so that characters are worn down over time. They must fight against time to survive. Zombies are the classic example.

The Pit: Similar to The Vice only the party faces a huge threat that leaves them battered. They must then get to safety before their resources are fully depleted.


Finally, some house rules can be applied. Most common removing some spells. Ravenloft has done this over the editions. It is a demiplane without teleportation powers so that the PCs are trapped for example. Removing resting spells like Leomund's Hut would be a good idea.
 

Krachek

Adventurer
Trying to throw deadly monsters to pc to achieve horror is a dead end.
you should try to aim the characters rather than the players.
a willing player may emulate horror and even amplify it,
 

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