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General Unpopular Opinion?: D&D is a terrible venue for horror

Reynard

Legend
Spinning off one of the Rime of the Frostmaiden threads, I feel like it is worth discussing: I think that D&D is an absolutely terrible game for trying to create a sense of horror in play. The only time it is even remotely possible is at low levels where PC competence and survivability are very low (the cutoff depends on the edition), and even then it is a specific "I'm going to get killed" sort of tension rather than actual horror. Mechanically, the only way to induce horror in D&D is to break the standard rules (instant death instead of HP loss, for example, or something like domination that represents a loss of control). Ultimately, PCs are too competent and the mechanics too codified for real fear to creep in. And, on a different horror scale, D&D characters generally don't have enough to lose, emotionally, for personal horror to mean much.

Now, I think D&D makes great use of horrific elements -- gross monsters with scary abilities and frightening imagery. But those things don't make D&D horror any more than they made Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies horror.
 

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6ENow!

The Smurfiest Wizard Ever!
Horror in D&D is best at tier 1 and even 2, but I agree that due to the power PCs obtain in tiers 3 and 4 it is much harder to pull off. There are things in the later part of the game that can really mess with PCs, but that being said, it's possible, but really the bigger part IME is DM narrative.

FWIW, I am going to run Frostmaiden for our group at one of the player's request (he bought the book and loaned it to me to run). Honestly, I found very little in the adventure that is really horror of any sort. So, it looks like a lot of added stuff to bring the adventure up to par. :)
 

I agree, or at least I agree with your premice that D&D players are too much in control of their character to cause a genuine feeling of dread.

Obviously, good DMs can make any genre work by their own gaming and narrative style but naturally, horror isn’t what D&D does best.

a few house rules and variant rules go a long way toward making a better horror for D&D. But then again, a few house rules and variant rules can enhance any type of game.
 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Spinning off one of the Rime of the Frostmaiden threads, I feel like it is worth discussing: I think that D&D is an absolutely terrible game for trying to create a sense of horror in play. The only time it is even remotely possible is at low levels where PC competence and survivability are very low (the cutoff depends on the edition), and even then it is a specific "I'm going to get killed" sort of tension rather than actual horror. Mechanically, the only way to induce horror in D&D is to break the standard rules (instant death instead of HP loss, for example, or something like domination that represents a loss of control). Ultimately, PCs are too competent and the mechanics too codified for real fear to creep in. And, on a different horror scale, D&D characters generally don't have enough to lose, emotionally, for personal horror to mean much.

Now, I think D&D makes great use of horrific elements -- gross monsters with scary abilities and frightening imagery. But those things don't make D&D horror any more than they made Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies horror.

I think "D&D" generally is incorrect, but 5e is certainly correct (and in that manner, I agree with your post).

Generally, I've been able to run "horror scenarios" in D&D. There are two primary ways to do this:

1. Narration. Just like telling a good ghost story, the ability to narrate and place certain emphasis and pacing while describing things can heighten dread and tension. This can help you create that "horror" feeling you are looking for. But while the atmospherics can be wonderful, the issue that you run into is that mechanics don't support it. If everything is just a bag of hit point, then who cares how spoooooooky that bag of hit points might be? The divide between mechanics and atmosphere is difficult to overcome.

2. Mechanics. If you use older editions, there are mechanics (such as aging, level drain, insta-death, and so on) that are legitimately terrifying; these mechanics, or even the thread of these mechanics, can make the game much scarier.

In other words, I agree with you on modern D&D, but it is possible to have a spooky game with older editions if you're looking for it. Put another way, there's a difference between old-school undead and their neutered modern forms.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I'm not at all convinced that the presence or enhancement of horror derives very much from mechanics - certainly not in a general sense. Sanity rules and character fragility in Call of Cthulhu don't necessarily enhance horror as experienced by a player. They make the character more fragile in a number of ways compared to D&D, but that wouldn't necessarily translate to horror, per se. You need the horror tropes, settings, and other descriptive and narrative elements to be horror - and I'm pretty sure D&D's mechanics wouldn't immunize a player from horror if used well by a DM armed with the right setting, creatures with which to populate it, and other elements that put a horrific spin on D&D's mechanics.
 

Stalker0

Legend
Horror is a part of Dnd... low level dnd. I could easily create horror for 1-2 level characters, and if I was running a horror campaign, I would definitely start at 1st level.

You could also throw in some custom rest rules like "you cannot rest until you find a place that is extremely safe". That means no resting until you have gotten away from the horror....and of course in real horror they will never let you leave:)
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I agree. The core conceit of D&D is that the PCs are heroes (there are certain modes of play that break away from this conceit, but in general that’s the baseline assumption). Heroes don’t really fit well into the horror genre. You can have heroic games with horror trappings. You can even have games where the heroes must endure horrific things, and these can be made pretty scary, with a skilled narrator. But at the end of the day, D&D’s core assumptions put it at odds with the underlying themes of the horror genre. You can probably force that square peg through the round hole if you mash it hard enough, but at a certain point you would probably be better off just using a different system.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
There are many aspects to horror so I'm going to be contrarian and say it works fine. At higher levels it takes more work and attrition, but I've been reasonably successful at it in my sort-of-annual Halloween sessions.

Good story, set up paranoia between players not knowing who they can trust, throw more at them than they can possibly handle, up the ante to something other than just dying. High level PCs are not fragile, nor are they invulnerable.

EDIT: but like I said, there are many genres of horror so it depends on what you're trying to achieve.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
There are many aspects to horror so I'm going to be contrarian and say it works fine. At higher levels it takes more work and attrition, but I've been reasonably successful at it in my sort-of-annual Halloween sessions.

Good story, set up paranoia between players not knowing who they can trust, throw more at them than they can possibly handle, up the ante to something other than just dying. High level PCs are not fragile, nor are they invulnerable.
This still sounds more like adventure than horror to me. Harrowing adventure, sure, but the best adventures are. There’s more to horror than disempowerment and survival.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Horror has almost nothing to do with level in D&D, unless your horror is making players scared their characters may die. Move the stakes to something else -- where the fear isn't your death -- any the level/resource issue is moot. This does mean D&D is terrible at Alien style horror.

That said, I think D&D is terrible at horror because it lacks the kind of mechanics that enable the kind of narrative structure that works best for horror. The pass/fail resolution mechanic combined with the entire ability check system being aimed at resolving concrete, small actions means that you're far to granular in resolution to deal with many horror tropes. D&D is great for exploring a dungeon, but not so good at existential or body horror tropes.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
The two main problems are:
1) Too many winnable combat encounters.
2) The PCs (and players) know too much about the monsters.

To horror-ise D&D there should be only one monster per adventure. It should be very mysterious and the PCs must believe they have no or very little chance of defeating it in a confrontation.
 

Sabathius42

Bree-Yark
I've always thought that its hard for D&D games to be "horror" because a majority of the player character buttons and switches are involved with finding monsters and killing them. Even when faced with certain death in a session, there is always the thought in the players heads that "I'll come back to this later and kill it when i'm more powerful.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
This still sounds more like adventure than horror to me. Harrowing adventure, sure, but the best adventures are. There’s more to horror than disempowerment and survival.

Well, defining horror is a bit tricky isn't it? Just look at the genres of movies that fall under the horror umbrella. It's a really big category, so I'm not sure there is an answer. Some games focus on horror exclusively, but can't do anything else. I'm not saying D&D is the best fit (and maybe not for long running horror theme).

What specific aspects can't D&D do?
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
Now, I think D&D makes great use of horrific elements -- gross monsters with scary abilities and frightening imagery. But those things don't make D&D horror any more than they made Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies horror.
There is at least one horror scene in Jackson's LotR movies. It's no coincidence that it involves only the weakest protagonists - the hobbits, the undead-like Nazgul, and no combat.

 
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Reynard

Legend
There is at least one horror scene in Jackson's LotR movies. It's no coincidence that it involves only the weakest protagonists - the hobbits - and the undead-like Nazgul.

Exactly my point: LotR were not horror movies, but they used some horror elements in them. D&D does that fine, too, but it isn't horror.
 

Istbor

Dances with Gnolls
Is D&D made for horror like other games which are more focused? No.

Can a DM or an adventure create a sense of horror for the characters/players as a theme? Yes.

I think you can do so through storytelling and world crafting. I also think this can be done with minimal house rules. You can certainly beef up or modify creatures if you choose, but I think even just enhancing fluff or altering how creatures behave is enough.

Very few things enjoy being eaten for instance. If instead of making sure the battleground is clear of enemies, a DM runs and shows monsters will drag away prey or begin to feast mid-battle can really up the tension. This can even be done for various undead depending on how your world's lore or laws work.

It certainly takes practice to get better at it, but the same can be said for getting the pacing and flow in a regular D&D game right.
 
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Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
It's funny that Alien was brought up as a horror movie because I think of it more as a creature feature.

But anyway, was Aliens a horror movie? I mean, everybody but Ripley sent to the planet (well and token idiot management guy) were trained soldiers at least theoretically well suited to the task.

I think it just upped the ante by showing that even the well trained marines were chewed up by the enemy. It took more enemies than in the first movie, but the result was the same.
 


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